This was a dead rubber match for Roma; a free 90 minutes at European level to figure out whether Eusebio Di Francesco’s left-leaning idea that “every player has an equal opportunity” of playing in a matchday side can really carry the Giallorossi through this season.
Accusations that Monchi has left EDF short-handed will likely take up the lion’s share of column space for the next few weeks (if not months) of football talk. 10 out of 11 players in the starting lineup were brought to Roma by Monchi, with stand-in captain Manolas as the lone exception.
Did Monchi really sign players with no balls? And what’s stopping them from growing in character? A cold night in Czechia was as good as any place to look for answers. I still miss the beer and non-processed meat I had in Prague years ago, and you would have wanted both near you to sit through this game.
Roma Beaten in the Air - Cristante and Schick Missing
Plzen were the first side this season to beat Roma in the air over 90 minutes, and Patrick Schick won only two headers himself - neither of them inside the box. Of course, Schick in the air doesn’t even begin to tell the potential of Shick’s talent, but the experiment at lone striker cannot go on expecting Dzeko-like results.
Every header inside Plzen’s box (bar a lone moment from Ivan Marcano getting forward for a Roma free kick) was entirely owned by 34-year old Plzen captain Roman Hubnik (5 headers won) and defensive partner Lukas Hedja (2 headers won).
There’ll be theses written about how to exploit Schick tactically and pass into his feet, but how do you pass to a guy who puts in minimal effort to unmark himself?
More damning of EDF’s take on the short-term aerial route to success was yesterday’s ever dysfunctional relationship between Steven Nzonzi and Bryan Cristante.
Cristante pushed up way beyond Roma’s halfway line and left Nzonzi as the lone defence man in their double pivot. The attempt to pass through the middle from Cristante may have been a good sign in itself, but it wasn’t worth the risk of depleting Nzonzi of all energy covering both flanks in the air.
On Cristante’s side of the pitch, Plzen lone forward Tomas Chory came up with a monster 8 aerial duels won, most of them on the right side of midfield where Cristante should have been and where Davide Santon looked like he was back in the San Siro letting his own mental demons get to him.
All three names contributed to the opening goal, where Chory evaded a needless attempt from both Nzonzi and Cristante to close down the same man in Plzen’s half. Chory helped to squeeze the ball out wide for a counter and Plzen somehow came out on top with a 1-0 lead thanks to Santon letting his man evade him at the back post.
More Balanced On The Ball - Little Threat To Show For It
The guy pointing the most fingers after the game was stand-in captain Manolas, and on most other days Manolas’ post-game calls for teammates to find “more calm” would have been rich coming from him. But the captaincy yesterday had a surprisingly good effect on Manolas, who finally did take on responsibility in this team despite the number of physical knocks he’s taken recently.
Most matches dictate Roma’s fullbacks will control possession in the backline, but Santon came up drastically short with only 54 touches of the ball this game. In his place, Manolas (81) Marcano (77) and Kolarov (88) saw a balanced distribution of the ball between them - though Kolarov was shifted to midfield later in the match.
Maybe some of that balance came from Manolas finally getting to pair up with his old teammate from Olympiakos days in Ivan Marcano. Or maybe the obvious asterisk to this was that it came against Viktoria Plzen, who were happy to stay back and hit Roma on the break.
No great threat to Plzen came about from Roma’s balanced use of the ball out of the back. Javier Pastore tried a sumptuous 30-yard through-ball to Kluivert 34 minutes in the game, but tried precious little else for the hour he had on the field. Cristante - to his credit on the attacking end - racked up no less than 3 key passes from the middle of the pitch within the first 37 minutes of yesterday’s game.
And then came the familiar lapse in the second half where Roma were hit on the break. When Sky asked Manolas why Roma were leaking so many goals on the break this season, the lack of unity in midfield and upfront was his biggest gripe.
“We defended as eleven [last season],” Manolas said, “not as four. And defending like this we always conceed these kind of goals. We conceed goals that only youth teams would conceed. Every move the opposition puts together is a danger to us. We have to stick together, but the goals we conceed aren’t ones that big sides let in.”
Of the 28 goals Roma have conceeded in all competitions so far, 19 of them have been conceeded in the second half.
Hierarchy Before Opportunity - No Ritiro Before Genoa
So what’s next? The simplest solution is Eusebio Di Francesco asking changes of his own ego and stop leaving the team exposed to his blind faith in players’ potential. Sure, there’s an injury crisis at hand, but the EDF-platitude that everyone should be given an equal opportunity hasn’t delivered results and - at this point - looks to be doing more harm than good in the players’ heads.
EDF himself alluded to as much in the post-match interviews, claiming “he hadn’t seen the answers he was looking for” from his players after a 1-day ritiro earlier this week. The club won’t be taking another training retreat in the lead-up to the Genoa game.
I’ll be the first to say I got exactly what I asked for, when I asked to see more of Luca Pellegrini in Aleksandar Kolarov’s place. The move backfired when Pellegrini’s arrogance got himself in even worse foul trouble against Plzen than the Italian youth managed against Empoli and SPAL.
Some key players are unavailable to EDF through injury (Dzeko, Lorenzo Pellegrini) and others haven’t been accounted for by Monchi with a like-for-like substitute (De Rossi). But that doesn’t stop EDF from managing to counter lapses in games.
Max Tonetto prompted Di Francesco weeks ago to come up with a better plan for calm and consistency over 90 minutes (“Is there no one in the team who will say ‘let’s just hold onto the ball for ten minutes?”) that would make up for the hole in between defense and midfield where De Rossi would be.
This plan hasn’t been seen on the pitch in all the weeks since. It needs to be one of EDF’s moves in the weeks ahead before the January transfer window.
As for what EDF does about a Dzeko-less attack, short of relying on set piece goals from the team, there’s always the ignominious return of Umar Sadiq to the Italian capital to save the day.