During the match preview, we discussed Roma’s penchant to come out flat after the international break. In a certain sense, it’s to be expected; taking two weeks off can only unsettle club chemistry and halt any positive momentum they were accruing to that point, and by a twist of fate Roma has opened each post-break period this season against relatively weaker sides, a/k/a trap matches. With their pattern of playing down to their opponents, shaking off two weeks of rust against the likes of Benevento, SPAL and now Udinese is, in some ways, the worst case scenario for this club.
Making matters worse for Roma, they were down several key players today, forcing Eusebio Di Francesco to tinker with his lineup. For a variety of reasons, gone were Daniele De Rossi, Kostas Manolas, Alessandro Florenzi, Edin Dzeko, Robin Olsen and Kostas Manolas. While EDF kept the same formation, the inclusion of Justin Kluivert, Patrik Schick and Davide Santon meant Roma were working with a bit of a patchwork lineup; talented still, but not necessarily a set of 11 men that were familiar with one another. And on top of that, 35-year-old Antonio Mirante was suddenly pressed into action for the first time this season.
Of course, all those problems and all that unfamiliarity came smack up against an incredibly compact Udinese side. With no fewer than eight men behind the ball, the Zebras were really testing Roma’s patience in the first half. Ceding possession to the Giallorossi, Udinese’s defense was about as compact as the sport allows, and while they weren’t necessarily stifling Roma’s attack—the ball still moved forward with ease and Stephan El Shaarawy found a few seams in the defense—they did enough to deny Roma any genuine chances. Outside of an early SES attempt and a missed header from Schick, Roma were really just window shopping in the first half.
So, with 15 minutes in the locker room to figure it out, and with a bevy of subs at their disposal, would Roma turn the tide in the second half?
Well, in a word, no.
By and large the second half was a carbon copy of the first: Roma held possession and had a free pass for 4/5ths of the pitch, but were met with a solid wall of black and white once they approached the 18 yard box. With as many as ten men behind the ball in the second half, Udinese were simply too compact and too well organized for Roma to break down, which necessarily yielded hasty and unusual chances—we’re talking about Steven Nzonzi and Aleksandar Kolarov attempts from 20+ yards out. Things were that bleak.
While that was frustrating, and in many ways a replay of the same EDF malaise we’ve seen for two years now, if nothing else it looked like Roma would play to a frustrating scoreless draw, and a point on the road coming off an international break wouldn’t have been the worst case scenario all things considered.
But, yeah, that flew out the window in the 54th minute thanks to Rodrigo de Paul, who scored a sensational goal to turn this match on its ear.
de Paul made pretty light work of Roma’s defense here, carving them up like, well, like a Thanksgiving turkey. RdP was the man of the match by far, and you can rest assured he won’t be with Udinese for much longer, presumably trading up his black and white stripes at some point this summer.
Roma would continue to press on, relying heavily on the right flank, trying desperately to conjure some magic between Lorenzo Pellegrini, Stephan El Shaarawy and Patrik Schick, who seems to have lost all confidence in himself, and really, with the type of service he gets from the midfield, it’s hard to blame him; Schick has a ton of natural talent, but I’m starting to get the feeling it’ll never blossom in Rome. Given the lack of production from that trio, it wasn’t surprising to see two-thirds of them swapped off in the second half.
But I digress—despite the dominance in possession and the constant surges forward, Roma simply couldn’t crack the Zebra’s defense and nearly went down 2-0 but were fortunate enough to have the goal disallowed by VAR, which was completely ignored when Pellegrini was taken down in the first half; leave it to Serie A to subjectively apply an otherwise perfectly objective tool.
Listen, we can piss and moan all day about Roma’s inability to crack a compact defense, and there are certainly legitimate tactical gripes to be made about that, but is it really Di Francesco’s fault that Nzonzi, Shick and Federico Fazio each missed clear headers? Did he instruct El Shaarawy to shoot the ball directly at the keeper’s feet or to crank his shots up to a 10 when they really only needed a 7?
Holistically there is blame to place at EDF’s feet—he’s the architect of this whole thing after all, and certainly should take the blame for broad stroke mistakes and the subtle psychology that seems to plague this team—but at the end of the day, the players have to produce, and today they simply didn’t. From missed headers to poorly executed shots to Antonio Mirante’s hesitance, there was a clear and present lack of production from the eleven men wearing red tonight.
So, where they go from here is anyone’s guess. Given their pattern under Di Francesco, a positive, if not overwhelming, result against Real Madrid in the Champions League on the 27th certainly wouldn’t be a shock, nor would following that up with a crushing defeat to Inter Milan on December 2nd, but it’s precisely that chaotic pattern that could damn Roma for next season. If they can’t cobble together more consistency in the league, then their only recourse for next season’s Champions League is to win the damn thing in May.
With so much at stake and so little to rely on from Roma, expect a full week of Di Francesco sacking rumors. Sports are seldom fair, but at this point, it seems like Roma have gone as far as their former midfielder can take them.