On paper, CSKA were fast, young and horribly inexperienced at this level. You could either look at them as the side Roma were meant to dominate (we’re former Champions League semi-finalists, don’t you know?) or exactly the kind of side to exploit any lack of discipline in your midfield and defence.
EDF pinpointed Dzagoev and Vlasic as the two attacking midfield men that constantly look to stretch their opposition and exploit spaces, so a theoretically “walking dead” Roma defence shouldn’t have escaped this match with a 2-1 win.
That same Roma defence shouldn’t have gone through this stretch of Napoli-Fiorentina-Moscow by just conceeding 3 goals (including a penalty) either.
Despite the clear improvement in Roma’s team shape through this run of games, EDF was angry with side’s mentality after the CSKA game. It’s a long-running theme with Di Francesco: Is he able to get his message across to this team?
EDF’s Anger and Roma’s Lack of Aggression
We heard it last night after the game, we heard it in the pre-game conference and we even heard it as far back as the Napoli game: EDF is telling everyone his time is taking up in trying to get Roma in the opposition’s faces high up the pitch.
Every warm-up session pre-game is focused on aggression right now, especially with the torello training exercise which Manolas (who today makes UEFA’s Champions League Team of the Week) takes to with trademark enthusiasm below, at the Luzhniki.
Despite all the work, the team pressing of yesteryear is simply not there.
By EDF’s own admission last week, it’s all the more worrying that it’s not there with a trequartista starting off games, as “having one man starting further forward up the pitch in midfield can mean you start off even more aggressively trying to win the ball back high.”
And that simply hasn’t happened. Last night saw a regression further back into Roma’s defensive third of the pitch (28% of possession happened there compared to 25% of possession in CSKA’s defensive third and 47% of play in the middle of the pitch).
Robin Olsen picked up 38 touches of the ball yesterday, a marginally less conservative number than the 42 touches he racked up against Fiorentina (where he saw more of the ball then Nicolo Zaniolo in midfield).
“At times we try to manage the game,” EDF said in the post-match press conference, “but ‘managing’ the game doesn’t necessarily mean doing seven sideways passes then giving it back to the keeper. You can manage possession by playing it up the field. Something that we have to do and that we have done, but more consistently so we can really show strength.
A team that has made a Champions League semi-final and wants to take a certain path has to show strength. Not giving off signs that we’re looking to just bring home to result. Yes, in the end we brought home the result. But this was a game to try and win with more conviction even if we did win in the end. And maybe it’s me that expects too much from this side but, in any case, I expect more.”
Protecting The Youth - Justin Kluivert
One kid receiving the aggression message loud and clear was Justin Kluivert, who finished the game with joint second-highest tackles in the game (level with CSKA’s Bijol on 4, and only behind Steven Nzonzi’s 6).
Kluivert also left the pitch with the man of the match award, his dribbles (4 completed out of 5 tried - a season-high for a Roma player) provoking CSKA to commit 4 fouls on him (another season-high by a Roma player), drawing their defender into getting sent off and showing what Roma have been missing on the left wing in Diego Perotti’s absence - a baller. Going one better than Perotti, however, was Kluivert’s through-balls to put both Florenzi and Dzeko clean in on goal.
With that in mind, Daniele Lo Monaco pressed EDF over his “conservative” substitutions of Kluivert and Lorenzo Pellegrini yesterday.
“Kluivert was less sharp as the game went on,” EDF responded to Lo Monaco. “He started to make errors on a couple of passes, he’d played 70 minutes and was just coming back from an injury. On the contrary [to being conservative], I put on another attacker who had the ability to take on his man.
Conservative would have been five minutes before the end, where I brought on another defender to cut out any chance of the long ball over the top. But Under and Zaniolo were both like-for-like changes.”
The gamble to wrap Justin Kluivert back in cotton wool just about paid off last night, but surely the Dutchman had made a case for inclusion at the weekend against Sampdoria.
For his part, Justin Kluivert was respectful of Cengiz when prompted on the issue of more gametime in the mixed zone. But even the kid had to laugh at the timing of EDF walking straight past him in the middle of making his case.
Lorenzo Pellegrini and the Hunt for Winning Mentality
It’s easy to pay lip service to winning mentality and harder to explain the work put into finding it. A ton of pressers and articles on mental coaching certainly haven’t done me any good in learning about this side of football. I could have just saved time by watching the ever-maturing performances of Lorenzo Pellegrini.
While Pellegrini’s set piece deliveries are top class and his threat in between the lines is an ever-present on the pitch, the last two games have seen Lorenzo push Roma’s midfield rotation to work on his command.
10 minutes into Fiorentina game was enough for Pellegrini to adjust his position, coming deep to give his defensive line an outlet through the middle of the pitch. This forced a clear change in the passing lanes EDF had prepared for Roma before kick-off - a changed forced by the in-game reading of his own protegé.
At the weekend, Fiorentina were easily able to shut down Fazio and Jesus playing wider than usual on the ball out of defence, until Lorenzo read his backline’s struggles in the build-up play and moved to help them accordingly. Yesterday, it was more of the same from Roma’s number 7 all over the pitch.
You could put Lorenzo’s initiative down to being Roman and ‘caring about the shirt’ but, more than that, this is proof EDF and the coaching staff can support young players to mature in a demanding city, itself turning heroes to zeroes in an instant.
Not least of all, credit to Lorenzo himself for showing the mental approach to games that can serve as an example to teammates moving forward.
Double Standards In Attack - The Patrik Schick Decision
The build-up to Roma’s final game before yet another international break, at the weekend, will center around whether or not to start Patrik Schick against his former club.
EDF said he found it acceptable for Dzeko “to lose sharpness” late into games in the press room yesterday, after keeping the Bosnian striker on for another full game and revealing EDF’s double standard applied to youth (Kluivert) and experience (Dzeko) when looking for consistent threat over 90 minutes.
Whether Schick isn’t preparing well enough for games or simply paying the price of youth in competing for the prima punta position, the more important thing would be to see Schick get - as Edin Dzeko himself said in support of Schick this week - ‘that one goal that can change his season’ when his chance comes.
The best performance the Czech striker has under his belt is leading the line (and leading it well) in a 4-0 victory over Frosinone. A goal eluded Schick in that game but can he (and will he get the chance to) change the story against Sampdoria?