With two straight league wins, and three in all competitions, Roma were primed to come out to the Stadio Castellani with guns blazing. Transformed by their recent switch to the 4-2-3-1, fresh air has filled Roma’s lungs, as Eusebio Di Francesco’s men look clinical and efficient, rolling over Frosinone, Lazio and Viktoria Plzen in successive weeks, and while Empoli are perhaps the weakest opponent they’ve faced in that stretch, the inclement weather dealt Roma’s free wheeling attack a bit of a blow.
While the actual precipitation subsided during the match, the pitch was a waterlogged mess; not the worst we’ve seen by any means but it had a noticeable impact on the pace of play, as through ball after through ball met a horrible death on the sodden soil. So slow was the run of play that both sides tallied a pitiful seven total shots in the first half, only four of which were considered on target; the collective intent was there, but the immutable laws of physics would not comply.
With the weather dampening their spirits (no pun intended), it looked like we were set for a classic low scoring Serie A affair; the kind where some sort of deflected goal or random carom off a wet boot might determine who walks away with three points.
Still, Roma were able to manipulate the Empoli defense seemingly at will, and once again it was Lorenzo Pellegrini pulling the strings. The elder of the non-related Pellegrinis has been as instrumental as anyone in Roma’s recent turn of form, looking not quite like a classic playmaker in his new number ten role, but as someone with the capability to make the position his own through his intuition and timely passes.
However, as great as he’s been at pulling the strings, Lorenzo’s real secret (his oil, if you will) may be his set piece mastery, which was on full display this evening.
Steven Nzonzi: 36th Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 1)
Full marks to Steven Nzonzi for climbing the ladder to put this one away—just perfect technique there—but this one was all Pellegrini; to play that ball on that trajectory from that angle was stupendous. We mentioned it midweek, but it bears repeating; Javier Pastore may soon be out of a job.
The remainder of the first half played on without issue as Roma were satisfied to grab the late lead.
Roma didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start when the match resumed, as Empoli made a couple of quick attacking moves to start the half, nearly capitalizing thanks to a whiff from Edin Dzeko in midfield (he was all over the pitch today). Nevertheless, Roma continued to work the ball through Lorenzo Pellegrini, hoping to find some cracks and channels in the back of Empoli’s defense, but as the minutes wore on, Roma’s legs wore out.
The match nearly turned on its head shortly before the hour mark when an Empoli set piece nearly gifted them an equalizer. With the ball swinging out from the right corner, Cengiz Ünder found himself trailing his man, who was cutting towards the near post, and in his desperate attempt to cover that gap, Ünder’s trailing arm soon came into contact with the cross, leading to a VAR-contested but approved penalty kick.
And somehow, someway Francesco Caputo completely flubbed his attempt, as his shot sailed well over the crossbar. Roma were granted a bit of a reprieve from above it seemed.
EDF would soon make his first change of the match, swapping out Luca Pellegrini for Alessandro Florenzi, pushing Davide Santon to the left flank in the process. It was an impressive hour or so for Luca, who looked strong on the ball, determined in tackles and aggressive in attack; he’s got a chance to be something special, no doubt.
With the match approaching the three-quarter hour mark, Roma’s legs began to drag, as Empoli found space at the back several times, nearly levelling affairs when Caputo found some free real estate down the right flank, before skying yet another attempt over Robin Olsen. Caputo would “strike” once more, blasting one into the side net mere seconds after I finished the prior sentence. If this were baseball, Caputo would have yanked three homeruns to the wrong side of the foul pole.
Considering all that, EDF quite rightly made some defensive/lockdown swaps, pulling off Lorenzo Pellegrini for Bryan Cristante and Ünder for Juan Jesus, shifting to a three man back line for the remaining 15 minutes. with Florenzi and Santon serving as the wingbacks ahead of Jesus, Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio.
The midstream tactical change did little to curb Empoli’s appetite, as neither Cristante nor Jesus were particularly effective in the final quarter hour, far from it in fact. Roma were able to catch Empoli offside several times down the stretch, but by and large they looked gassed; sloppy passing, poor spacing and a general lack of precision when they were able to maintain possession.
However, in testament to how drastically their luck has changed over the past few weeks, Robin Olsen would channel his inner Alisson, orchestrating a scoring move from his own box.
Edin Dzeko: 85th Minute (Empoli 0, Roma 2)
With Empoli pressing up high, Manolas had no choice but to play a ball back to Robin Olsen who, to his supreme credit, dropped a dime to Edin Dzeko just past midfield. From there, Dzeko flipped a header to El Shaarawy, who took a few paces before stalling, giving Dzeko a chance to advance, getting on the end of a lovely little pocket pass from SES, which Dzeko blasted just under the crossbar.
2-0, Game over.
Well, this certainly wasn’t the best performance we’ve seen from Roma during their now four game winning streak, but the streak remains just that. After stumbling early in the season, Roma have taken advantage of a bit of a soft spot in their schedule—though Empoli arguably played them tougher than any of Frosinone, Lazio and certainly Plzen—to right the ship.
And whether it was the lingering effects of that midweek match, the fact they were on the road or perhaps the soggy pitch, Roma were well, well off the mark in the second half, looking a step behind their northern neighbors for pretty much the entirety of the second half. And again, were it not for Caputo’s poor form, they may have dropped two points, or completely lost this one altogether.
While this wasn’t the most convincing of Roma’s four straight wins, there were several positives that should carry them through another god damn international break: Nzonzi and De Rossi continue to be a match made in heaven, Lorenzo Pellegrini was once again the tie that binds Roma’s attack, providing four key passes and setting up the game’s first goal from a set piece. Luca Pellegrini, meanwhile, looks like a legitimate option to spell Aleksandar Kolarov throughout the season, perhaps even stealing a few more starts along the way.
At the back, Santon, Manolas and Fazio were solid enough, doing the job in the air, blocking five shots and intercepting seven more combined, while Olsen was virtually untested all night thanks to Caputo’s off night.
Roma jump back into the fray against SPAL 2013 on the 20th of October, but we’ll have coverage of the Women’s team (can we call them the she-wolves yet?) as they travel to Verona on the 14th.