With his back against the wall (or maybe not, depends on who you believe), Eusebio Di Francesco pulled the mother of all Tinkerman moves to save his job, completely upending Roma’s tactics this evening. Earlier in the season, EDF abandoned his preferred 4-3-3 formation, shifting to a rather effective 4-2-3-1 but with that well running dry lately, not to mention several injuries, Di Francesco flipped the script again today, using the seldom seen 3-4-3 formation.
Without Edin Dzeko and Stephan El Shaarawy, EDF opted for a Cengiz Ünder, Justin Kluivert and Nicolo Zaniolo front line, a trio with an average age of just over 19-years-old. Front and center in that front line is the kid of the moment, Zaniolo, who has done an admirable job filling for the injured Lorenzo Pellegrini, who himself stole starters minutes from the injured Javier Pastore. Only today, Zaniolo featured as the focal point of EDF’s attack, slotting in as a false nine alongside his fellow millennials.
Formation and tactical changes aside, Roma were utter shit for much of the first half, getting completely dominated through the first 10 to 15 minutes by Genoa, who seemed hell bent on getting the ball to Krzysztof Piatek. And while Roma would deny (using that term loosely) him through the early goings, the league’s leading goalscorer would make his mark before most of the men on the pitch had broken a sweat.
Krzysztof Piatek: 17th Minute (Roma 0, Genoa 1)
Things get worse for Roma. Roma keeper Robin Olsen Olsen with a huge blunder to give Genoa the early lead. Krzysztof Piątek with the scrappy finish. #tlnsoccer #RomaGenoa #SerieA pic.twitter.com/gobCJqN4fm— TLNTV (@TLNTV) December 16, 2018
Robin Olsen has been fantastic for Roma this season, far, far better than I expected, but what can we say about this one? He absolutely wet the bed on this one, not only letting the ball slip through his legs, but giving a half-hearted effort to stop it as it trickled over the goal line. Few players in recent memory have been as lauded as Alisson, meaning any cock-up by Robin Olsen will bring a maelstrom of criticism along with it.
Roma would trudge on, not really giving up but the apathy in the crowd was certainly mirrored on the field, as few among the Giallorossi seemed to have any sense of urgency. Despite that malaise, they would strike back thanks to a well-executed set piece.
Federico Fazio: 31st Minute (Genoa 1, Roma 1)
Wow, now that is set piece. As good as Alessandro Florenzi’s initial delivery was, and as precisely struck as Fazio’s attempt was, look at that flick from Zaniolo! To show that kind of awareness and intuition at only 19-years-old is amazing; I can’t even imagine what will happen when he really puts it all together. He’s got it all: size, understanding, athleticism and creativity, and I hope to God they don’t sell him this summer. But full marks to Fazio for that goal; fantastic technique from Captain Caveman.
But, since this is Roma we’re talking about, those good feelings lasted only so long...
Oscar Hiljemark: 33rd Minute (Roma 1, Genoa 2)
I’m not sure what that says, nor do I know what language it is without looking, but I’m betting it says something along the lines of “Roma left the back post open again.” Granted, Genoa got a nice flick at the near post, but once again they were done in by a man at or near the far post, which seems to be their Achilles heel this season.
The ensuing ten minutes or so wasn’t terribly uplifting for Roma, but one of the club’s youngest would level the match with a lovely bit of skill just before the stroke of halftime.
Justin Kluivert: 45th Minute (Roma 2, Genoa 1)
Dang, another beautiful goal from Roma. It’s amazing how they can conjure up these moments of brilliance despite looking decidedly confused and uninterested the remaining 98% of the time. Cengiz Ünder's flick was so incredibly well taken, looking almost like he was about to dummy or even drag the ball with him, giving Zukanovic the slightest bit of doubt, which in turn gave him the space to flick it on to Kluivert. From there, this one was all about Kluivert’s speed and precision. He created enough space off his defender and was deft enough to unleash the only type of shot that could have possibly scored in that situation, low and away.
The first half of this match was nearly beyond belief. Roma had moments of absolute elation, where they looked unbeatable, yet for large swaths of the first 45 minutes it looked like a preseason friendly.
This team...I have no idea sometimes.
Well, it wouldn't take long for Roma to happen again. A mere 40 seconds into the second half, Ünder missed an absolute sitter that would have put Roma up 3-2. Following a poor parry from the Genoa keeper, Ünder found himself wide open in front of net, needing only to put the ball on target, but his attempt sailed over the post. It wasn't quite as bad as his miss against Real Madrid, but moments like that are where the wheat is separated from the chaff.
Minutes later, Genoa would make Robin Olsen look the fool once more, slipping another ball under his presumably lubricated gloves, giving the Grifone a 3-2 lead, However, Darko Lazovic's goal was ultimately nullified by VAR due to an offside call. Olsen should count his lucky stars because he was woeful this evening, and this slip up very nearly cost Roma three points.
But the action didn't stop there, as Roma's young guns teamed up to give the club their first lead of the evening.
Bryan Cristante: 59th Minute (Roma 3, Genoa 2)
Kluivert repaid the cosmos for Ünder's earlier flick, working a nice give and go here with Cristante to set up the goal. Cristante, of course, has Canadian citizenship through his father, and I have no idea if he's ever set foot in the great white north or watched a minute of the NHL, but he ripped this one like an Al MacInnis blue line slapshot, leaving NO DOUBT about the result. What. A. Hit.
As one would expect, Roma were juiced following that goal, making forward runs at the ready, with Cristante and Ünder nearly teaming up for a fourth goal. EDF would opt for a more defensive tenor for the final 15 minutes, though, swapping out Ünder for Davide Santon.
Patrik Schick would come on for Kluivert in the 80th minute, but wouldn't really factor in the final ten minutes of the match, though he did manage a yellow card, sooo, good on ya, Patrik! Cristante, meanwhile, very nearly doubled Roma's lead late in the second half, but was unable to get his foot unstuck when charging a rebounded attempt from Aleksandar Kolarov.
Roma would nearly toss this one away in the 88th minute or so, but were spared the ignominy of yet another late collapse thanks to a horrendous effort from Goran Pandev, who had the draw on his boot but skied it over Olsen, granting Roma yet another reprieve.
The Giallorossi tempted fate once more, and once again it involved Pandev. With the five minutes of stoppage time winding down, and with Genoa curling one into Roma's box, Florenzi saw fit to blatantly push Pandev from behind, an nearly unforgivable sin under the circumstances but were fortunate that the officials let it slide.
And that was that, an incredibly open and nerve wracking match fell Roma's way for once.
Well, as I'm writing this, the match ended about 90 seconds ago, and given how Roma looked like world beaters one minute and a pub league team the next, I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I am certain, however, that there was a sizable portion of the fanbase that felt conflicted as they watched this match, maybe not openly rooting for Roma to fail, but not necessarily getting too upset when they fell behind.
Given all the rumors and all the speculation, fueled further by Monchi's impending Boston summit, it seems like every match, every half, and hell, every minute of football is a referendum on Eusebio Di Francesco's future. And depending on how one views EDF, or the life cycle of a coach in general, this match was either vindication for Di Francesco or simply luck obscuring the truth.
EDF's switch to a 3-4-3 was instrumental in today's victory, maybe not so much from the actual shape of the team, but rather the inclusion of Ünder, Kluivert and Zaniolo in attacking roles, which I guess is attributable to the shape, but you get the point—it wasn't the formation label that mattered so much, more that this trio of attackers was allowed the time and space to play, and to create. Throw Cristante's fine performance in the mix, and you get the Roma many of us envisioned over the summer; a young, talented and athletic team allowed creative license in the final third.
EDF detractors, meanwhile, will point to the fact that, were it not for Genoa being slightly offside, this would have been yet another disappointing draw to a smaller side.
So, what did we just see: the rebirth of Di Francesco or merely another stay of execution for Roma's embattled manager?
Today's victory vaulted Roma back up to sixth place—two points behind AC Milan for fourth, though they've yet to play their Round 16 match—so I'm guessing it's the former, and if he can manage any sort of positive result against Juventus next week, Di Francesco should be safe for the remainder of the season, if he weren't already.
Despite his shortcomings, it's hard to envision Pallotta sacking Di Francesco after a victory, while falling to Juventus on the road next week is expected under the best of circumstances, so odds are EDF remains Roma's coach when the calendar turns over to 2019.
But for now, Roma are the victors, so let's enjoy that.