Viktoria Plzeň may look like mugs after last night’s game, but this is the same team that took a 2-0 lead over CSKA Moscow through danger-man Michael Krmenčík - consequently singled out by Di Francesco as the man Roma had to keep quiet.
That Krmenčík didn’t even see out the full 90 minutes in this game tells you everything you about how his night went in front of Roma’s defence. Yet there were flashpoints for Plzeň in this game at 0-0 at 1-0 in the first half.
The Czech reply in the second half was to get even more aggressive with their own high line - something that was either brave or insane - and brought out some questions over how Roma handle the ball from deep.
Roma Still In Search Of Deep-Lying Creativity
Do Roma still yet not know how to create from deep in their own half? While we did see good things from Roma’s mediani, it was mainly in terms of controlling possession.
A 15th minute touchline instruction from EDF was sent to both Cristante and Nzonzi, asking for more effort in freeing themselves from being marked. Done in tandem with Lorenzo Pellegrini coming deeper to offer a passing option for Roma’s backline, and Plzeň were soon surprised by Roma’s 3-man midfield rotation. Cristante and Nzonzi’s willingness to insert themselves into attacking spaces left by Pellegrini, whenever the opportunity arose, left EDF to praise Roma’s engine room after the game. In his own words, they never gave Plzeň “a reference point” for closing down Roma’s play.
However, Plzeň’s response in the second half was to risk even more and try to play it more on the ground (a recurring theme following on from the Lazio game) once they realised they weren’t getting much luck against this Roma side in the air.
It was left to Fazio to try and exploit the acres of space behind Plzeň’s risky backline; the big Argentine was given support from Roma’s fullbacks to try unlocking the Czech side from his own half.
Most notably, Luca Pellegrini seized the moment to bring down one Fazio 70-yard with effortless control.
Roma’s need to find an opening during this phase of play wasn’t urgent - they were sitting on a 4-0 lead. But stronger opponents in 0-0 or 1-0 games will put the magnifying glass on this Roma side again during these “control” phases of play, which could have a big say in Roma’s season.
Robin Olsen’s Holiday Nearly Gone Wrong
Robin Olsen still hesitates to come out of his goal. While his average position in this game was the furthest out its been all season, that came about largely thanks to a game of two halves for the keeper.
The first-half saw Olsen stay between his goalposts and the lack of involvement nearly witnessed him gift a goal, thanks to one lazy first touch near the end of the half from the Swede. That was the cue for EDF to shout at Olsen, on the 40 minute mark, to come out and play more with the rest of the team.
There’s still some way for Olsen to overcome conservatism engrained in his game. EDF highlighted this pre-match, commenting that Olsen had shown he’s “come from a league where their keepers are used to looking for that long-ball to the striker”.
I’d figure Olsen having time on his side to adapt, but notice Daniel Fuzato was invited as a second keeper on the bench (alongside Mirante) at the expense of putting another outfield player in the stands. In a year or so, Fuzato may use this pitchside experience to begin knocking on opportunity’s door.
Justin Kluivert’s Work In Progress
At one point in the first half, Cengiz cut into the middle from his wing and unleashed a thunderous shot that crashed onto the Plzeň crossbar. It would have been a Champions League highlight reel moment for the young Turk, but instead Eusebio Di Francesco used it as an example for what he wanted to see more of from Kluivert on the left side.
The Italian coach immediately sent out the club’s Dutch-speaking coach to Kluivert’s side of the pitch, instructing Kluivert to cut in more from the left towards the end of the first half. And the responses from Kluivert in the second half were positive.
On 70 minutes, Justin cut in onto his right foot to meet three Plzeň defenders who were actually ready for him choosing that option. Kluivert didn’t panic in the 1-on-3, instead instictively lofting a ball over the top to Dzeko on the far side, and creating a subsequent clear shot on goal for the Bosnian striker.
For his part, Kluivert claimed after the game that he needed to improve defensively but the kid’s talent is meeting the challenges put his way. And his searing pace coupled with Cengiz just made the opposition pushing up their backline look like suicide.
Deadly Performances of Pellegrini and Dzeko
Lorenzo Pellegrini summed up the conditions in which he thrives in, after the derby, by repeatedly mentioning “he didn’t have time to think” - no time to think about subbing in for Pastore mid-game, or his backheel goal in the derby.
Pellegrini thrives off instinct and isn’t ever in danger of falling in love with the ball. The less time and space you give him, inversely, the more his talent begins to shine over opponents.
However, there is also his delivery on set pieces to show he can make use of time when needed.
Lorenzo’s dead-ball acumen helped him to finish the game with 8 key passes, without even playing the full 90 minutes (though it would be Florenzi who’d finish the game with an assist from a corner and another free-kick assist incorrectly ruled out for offside).
And then there is Mr. Champions League for Roma, himself. There aren’t really the words to do justice to Dzeko’s performance. He popped up on the left, on the right... hell he was even providing between the lines. Generally his support made Kluivert and Pellegrini’s lives easier through the middle. The way he adjusted his run to get Kluivert’s through-ball under control, for the first goal of the night, was a sign of a Dzeko in his prime.
His work was rewarded by Di Francesco keeping Dzeko on the field to complete his hat-trick; the Roma coach stood in the knowledge that Schick was itching to (and eventually did) get on a field against his Czech international teammates.
Nonetheless, Dzeko didn’t stop at leading the team in his support role, turning up to punish Plzeň inside the box like he did in the corresponding Europa League fixture of 2016. Only this time, the Czech side obliged to give Edin his first ever Champions League hat-trick in a run of 8 Champions League goals in his last 7 CL appearances.
Now having scored 77 goals in 147 Roma appearances, Dzeko enters the top 10 all-time Roma scorers list. On that list, only Rodolfo Volk (0.66 goals-per-game) and Pedro Manfredini (0.63 goals-per-game) have scored at a faster rate than Dzeko has in his three-and-a-half years at the club (0.57 goals-per-game).
This was a young Roma side that fielded Nicolo Zaniolo, Luca Pellegrini, Justin Kluivert and Patrick Shick all on the pitch together - along with star turns from Lorenzo Pellegrini and Cengiz Under beforehand. This was the kind of game we’d been looking for Roma to get an early advantage in, then use that advantage as a springboard to blood in young talent, in the many years gone by. EDF did exactly this.
Encompassing all that was the relationship between EDF and his front man Dzeko; its a relationship that has always lent solidarity to the club in difficult moments.
There were also important responses from the midfield men and backline on the ball even if further questions remain. For now, the continuity found in possession is enough of a positive that EDF insisted after the game he is “now looking to change as little about Roma’s system as possible” in this era of 4-2-3-1.
Next up, Roma go away to Empoli this weekend in what will be the last matchday before yet another international football break.