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The Low Point of 2018: Cagliari 0-1 Roma

The day Roma had to move on from Radja Nainggolan.

Cagliari Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

The thirties are weird so far. I’m not young, and not old either; I’m just about old enough to start appreciating undeserved wins can cost more time than a loss I had coming.

If you’ve been a Roma fan for long enough, you’ve seen some deserved losses at the Sardegna Arena time and again - hell, a couple of weeks ago comes fresh to mind. And you’d be forgiven for thinking this post is about that match.

Instead, it’s about a Roma “win” on the island last May.

I felt both pissed off and resigned at the sight of Roma leaving Cagliari with a lucky 3 points, because that match made it obvious painful changes were not just needed but inevitable.

For one, Radja Nainggolan’s time at the club was done. Barring some kind of miracle that Radja could be convinced to see his future at deep-lying midfield again, did Monchi really have the balls to confront the truth? It wouldn’t be easy, and you could see the milk spilling from a mile away.

A Talent Like No Other, A Job Like Everyone Else

It’s easy to deride talent like Nainggolan’s; whisper it through begrudging teeth when you call any facet of his game world class. While it’s true football is a team sport, I’d be ignoring half the reason I watch any football today if I just went along with the reasoning of tactics aficionados for turning down athletes like Radja. I like to see athletes that give merit to the study of kinetic intelligence - or ‘body smarts’ - beyond pseudo-science.

In short, there’s an art to not letting your mind get in the way of your body but instead complementing it. Keeping it simple. Football is a game that seduced me with the basics when I was a kid.

Cesar Minotti claimed that the moment football becomes anything more than the simplicity with which it once deceived, it loses its magic. That’s how I feel. I like watching Juan Jesus shut down a Napoli attack where lesser athletes struggle against their counter-intuitive tactics, Diego Perotti will forever be Diego Armando Perotti to me, and I once truly loved watching Radja Nainggolan go mano-a-mano for midfield battle in a Roma jersey.

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images

Even in his less glorious final season with Roma, Nainggolan won duels on the ball against every single midfielder both Serie A and Europe had to offer. Take it further back, and I remember a game where Radja brought a pass under his control out of the air with the outside of his ankle, deftly spinning the ball down into his path without ever breaking stride at full pace - all while running through onto goal to lead a fast break counter. I’d understand why barely anyone would care to watch those moments on replay like I do.

I don’t imagine I watch a lot of football compared to fellow fans, and I promise you the few moments I do watch on replay are a sign of compulsion bordering on asinine. I haven’t seen a Premier League match in over a year, I saw my first Bundesliga match for the first time this season in a while and I only caught the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final that everyone was talking about. But I’ve seen Radja do that spinning-ankle-move on repeat more times than I’d be comfortable to admit. The game is played at unprecented levels of pace and strength, and it takes real ingenuity to make you double-take at moves that go beyond the mere mechanical.

Radja switching gears beyond the mechanical meant that he bested Khedira, Pjanic, Hamsik, Brozovic, Busquets, Rakitic... they all tried to close Radja down and he used his craft to beat past every one of them in 2017/18. It wasn’t his best season, but he still had something over the big names. This is where some Roma fans still find the club choosing Eusebio Di Francesco over Radja Nainggolan an injustice and I can see their point.

When Roma needed someone to “hotwire” the transition from defence to attack in a badly dysfunctional midfield, the tactics board didn’t solve the problem for Roma by itself. Radja Nainggolan pushing the ball into space behind enemy lines, as Roma’s link-up man, did.

The trade off was Radja becoming motivated by the wrong stuff, and Roma’s chief “link-up” man of 17/18 no longer knew how to play for the team. There’s no better example than the game at Cagliari.

Out of Touch, Out of Time

Roma’s trip to Sardegna last May was all about the backline before kick-off. EDF’s squad was hit by injuries and end-of-season tiredness. The highs of the Champions League had been lived out; physical and mental climb down from the squad was to be expected and managed.

It needed to be managed well, because Roma was still in need of every Serie A point to finish in the top 4 at the time. True to Di Francesco form, the coach picked that moment to throw everyone a curveball by naming Serie A debutant Elio Capradossi in the back four.

The questions were obvious going into kick off: Was Capradossi any good? And did he have the legs to last 90 minutes at top level?

If Capradossi himself offered a surprisingly positive answer to the former question, Nainggolan’s own nonchalant performance made sure Capradossi would fall badly under the exertions of the latter.

Cagliari Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

Two Cagliari pot-shots from distance aside, there was nothing to speak of in terms of threat on goal in the opening 15 minutes. Roma then rubbed salt in Cagliari’s wound by turning the match in the Lupi’s favour out of nothing: an Ünder snooker-shot into the far corner gave Rome a 1-0 lead on the night.

From that moment on, you’d have prayed expected Roma could defend as a team. It didn’t work out that way.

Instead of just holding his position and playing for the team, Nainggolan stayed goal-hanging for the ball to come his way. All the while a gulf of space was opening up behind him where the deeper Giallorossi midfield and backline were badly exposed.

Average position of Cagliari (orange) and Roma (blue) players over 90 minutes of that May game.

Under EDF - like most coaches who play a high-line - the Roma backline is trained to run backwards anytime they see a palla scoperta or “open ball” i.e. a Cagliari player facing Roma’s goal with the ball at his feet, unopposed by any Roma player. On a palla coperta, on the other hand, Roma’s backline has the license to either hold station or push upfield for as long as they cannot see the ball coming towards them uncontested with their naked eye. With a chasm in between the midfield lines for Cagliari to drop the ball into behind Nainggolan, the Isolani could toy with Roma’s backline all match long in Cagliari’s search for an equalizer. This wasn’t helped by Gonalons sub-par defensive performance either.

With a combination of Nainggolan standing upfield and Gonalons getting easily dribbled past by Cagliari’s star man Barella, Roma’s back four were doing more running up and down the field than your average bootcamp drill. Unsurprisingly by half time, Capradossi looked like he was running off the pure adrenaline alone - was this what winning a Serie A game was all about? - and Bruno Peres looked like he was about to lose interest in defending at any moment.

Most of the defending was left to Daniele De Rossi. Roma’s captain put in another 45 minutes acting as human shield (4 clearances inside Roma’s own penalty box in the first half alone); he was helped by a miracle point-blank save from Alisson preventing a Roma own goal. Had it not been for these interventions, Cagliari would have found their equalizer going into the break.

EDF knew Roma’s advantage was looking threadbare if he didn’t change things.

Cagliari Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Enrico Locci/Getty Images

The irony here was Gerson’s dysfunctional relationship with Nainggolan during the game. I remember the Brazilian was getting abuse on social media at half-time - though Gerson didn’t help his own cause by completely shanking a wide open chance for 2-0 in front of goal - but his main problem was having no space to run into on his wing where Nainggolan was running into his own flank up ahead of him.

During the Brazilian’s stay in Rome, Nainggolan was the man who’d thrown an arm around Gerson, talking the Brazilian through Serie A matchdays where barely anyone else in the squad had visibly tried to get along with the kid. Look at the Inter Milan or Barcelona matches of last season, and you can clearly see that Gerson not only appreciated Nainggolan’s mentorship but looked up to him for security. Yet here was the kid inadvertendly being hung out to dry in Sardegna. At half time, EDF intervened on behalf of both men.

Gerson was switched from left wing to the middle of the park, while Nainggolan was farmed out to the left wing for the second half. Bruno Peres was substituted on the hour with a thigh-strain from running so much after a long period away from first team action, and Capradossi left the game ten minutes after Peres with cramp. Meanwhile Gerson - a full on team-player by the end of last season - played his position in the middle of midfield to disciplinary perfection.

The Brazilian helped Gonalons to find safer passes in midfield and Roma to retain possession more often by full time. Gonalons’ gift (and curse) was that he was never afraid of failure on the ball. If the Frenchman had to force a risky long pass to get his teammates involved in the game, he would take that gamble every time. With better support alongside him from Gerson, Gonalons looked less reckless in the second half and Roma escaped to full time with 3 points in the bag.

The Lupi took a big step to Champions League qualification that evening, but there was the equally big temptation to turn a blind eye to how they’d survived the manner of that win.

The Ruffiani of Rome

The performance wasn’t right, and the chain of leadership within the locker room simply didn’t work; the wage structure at the club was a poor reflection of who was doing the most work and bringing home the results for the team. The club’s second-highest paid star looked like he simply didn’t care for the club over his assist and goal count anymore.

It’s not hard to understand Nainggolan’s brand of “honesty” off the pitch, because Radja’s frustration is common to Roma stars before him. Players like Cassano (still even today), Mexes and even a pre-2006 Totti went through the same ego-crash. That’s a wider issue for Roma as a whole. The club lacks the foundation to help players build their own character, even it is finally making a sustained effort in that direction.

The FIGC-wide drive to train Italian young players through “Big Data” is pinned by the belief you can support a player to teach themselves their position on the pitch but, as a club tied to your community, you should be able to do just as much to support a player in recognising their character limits (and how to work with them) too. As much as Nainggolan failed Roma in his latter days, Roma in a wider sense failed Nainggolan.

Genoa CFC v AS Roma - Serie A
Better Days - Nainggolan in 2014 for Roma
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

The WhoScored positioning map for this Cagliari game is far from the only match in 2017/18 where Nainggolan refused to look beyond one live-or-die moment to the next. What could push a player to play like every game was his last when he was only just shy of his thirties at the time?

I believe the reasons were there to be found on the pitch before anywhere else. Nainggolan was struggling to be “decisive” in games the way he’d once tasted.

He couldn’t relive the wondergoals of the 16/17 season to justify his move up the pitch, and the numbers suggest that was an impossible standard to place on himself anyway. The accumulated expected goals for Nainggolan’s 16/17 season stood at xG 6.02, in a season where he hit actual (and not expected) double figures from midfield.

One season you’re hitting over double the goals you should rightfully be scoring on paper, and the next season you’re coming back down to earth.

Unable to repeat his goalscoring feats one year on (the same feats that landed a second contract extension within 24 months), Radja knew he lacked the vision or technique to affect tight games against deep defences from further back. He frequently came undone against “small” teams sitting back refusing to give him the space to run on the counter, so Nainggolan fell to the last resort by which to convince himself (and the world) that he could make it at trequartista: goal-hanging up the pitch.

... Gerson, Peres and Capradossi be damned.

Just months after that Cagliari performance, Nainggolan was off to Inter Milan. His frustrations since then led Alessandro Austini to sum it up on Boxing Day 2018: “Radja Nainggolan is no longer a football player. Roma damaged his career. He never used to be this over-the-top, and he’s taken in the worst of this city.”

With a few different choices made on that May evening in Cagliari, the scoreline and Roma’s 2017/18 season could have turned out very differently. I’m sure - in very different ways - I’ll still go on feeling the same could have been said about Nainggolan’s career in Rome.

“Poor Brozovic was dead on his feet and his body language in the final ten minutes was one of someone who needed help from his teammates as he was fading fast.

When the attacks broke down there was a huge gap and then poor Broz on his own.

If Inter had packed the midfield and closed the game out. they would have held onto the 3 points.” - Serpents of Madonnina, after Chievo 1-1 Inter Milan

“The hard work we’re doing confronting one another will pay off. You’ve never seen football players really arguing if you think that’s what a fight between my players looks like. I’ve been a football player and I know how it is.

Maybe my players fight behind closed doors even more than you think, because they want to own up to the responsibility.

They want to show a sense of belonging that doesn’t just mean playing for Roma, but real love for the work itself. It’s another thing entirely. Otherwise we’d be no different that playing up to the ruffiani of Rome.

It’s a question of loving the club, full stop.” - Eusebio Di Francesco