Well, here we are again. Roma threw away a 2-0 lead against 9 men with 6 minutes to go and had her soft underbelly laid bare in Sardinia. We’ve avoided looking at it many times before, often even papering over it, long before Pallotta came to the club.
A quick firing of the coach here, a ridiculously over-hyped and underwhelming star-signing of Fabio Junior there. But there are no Sensis to play up to the dysfunctional Italian family stereotype of doting parents gifting you candy today, just to tax while you’re adulting through the inevitable pain of tomorrow. There are no Dino Violas to cast out legendary Roma captains as if they were estranged sons (if we want to talk about a ‘betrayal’ of Totti, let’s at least put it in the perspective of Di Bartolomei).
Instead, you get the creeping feeling that - in James Pallotta and one stone-faced Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo Monchi - Roma have run out of shortcuts with which the face the music. Hell, their worst crime in many a romantic’s eye is that they may not even want any shortcuts.
The romance is gone. The jig has stopped. There is just merciless surgery into the very heart of this club’s character that has been papered over for decades. The only question remains: Can that surgery be more clinical? And are Monchi and EDF the men to perform that clinic?
This season, Roma may actually have to grin and bear short-term pains in going without.
A Gift Horse Without A Mouth
The talk before yesterday’s game, for Cagliari fans online, was to be wary of referee Paolo Mazzoleni. Cagliari had picked up just 1 win in the last 17 games Mazzoleni had officiated for them.
Mazzoleni did his reputation in Sardinia no favours by getting red card-happy with Cagliari players in the 89th minute of the game for dissent.
A double sending off for nine-men Cagliari meant Roma had everything they needed to see out a 2-1 victory with only extra time to play. Roma refused to oblige.
Talent Without Confidence - Kluivert and Schick
This team’s confidence was evident in the performances of both Justin Kluivert and Patrik Schick against Cagliari.
Just seven minutes elapsed in the game before EDF felt to shout at Kluivert that he has to take on his man. The answer? Kluivert completed 0 successful dribbles in the Dutchman’s 75 minutes on the pitch. This was despite Roma choosing to exploit Kolarov and Kluivert’s greater technical ability on the ball to build up an overwhelming 43% of Roma’s attacks down the left wing.
Was Kluivert necessarily wrong in his own interpretation of the game? After all, the kid popped up in the middle of the box to get on the end of Florenzi’s pass and lay it off to Cristante for the opening goal. It’s worth noting Roma were the first team to put Cagliari behind at home in Serie A all season so far, even if the strongest team Cagliari faced at home before yesterday was AC Milan.
Kluivert is exactly the talent that EDF could ask for in his attacking lineup: comfortable swapping positions on all three trequarti, able to create opportunities for teammates as long as they can keep up with Kluivert’s intellect.
Kluivert is also smart enough to look on the opposing wing and see Cengiz who, frankly, does what he wants and still manages to be decisive in key moments of the game. All this almost in spite of EDF’s one-year-and-a-bit tutelage of the Turk. In this area, you’d have to put the lion’s share of responsibility down to EDF’s failings as a man-manager.
Meanwhile, Patrik Schick took 29 touches of the ball for his 83 minutes on the pitch. It’s no giant deviation from an average Edin Dzeko performance under EDF but it was far outshadowed by Schick’s contemporary - 22 year-old Alberto Cerri - getting stuck in for Cagliari at the other end.
Cerri’s 50 touches of the ball yesterday helped the Sardinians to push Roma all the way in the battle for aerial domination. It was the closest battle Roma had fought in the air all season (just 54% aerial duel success for Roma all game) on an initially-windy Sardinian evening that feeds into our later point about the gaping hole between Roma’s midfield and defence.
Unlike Cerri, Schick wasn’t short of chances to score with his feet. He had five shots inside the box all game, and only one of them was a header. The easiest chance for Schick was also the earliest, and the fact he fluffed a clear-cut opening (x0.61) in the 28th minute probably coloured the rest of his evening in front of goal. Schick let the frustration at his own game get the better of him, when the Czech would (justifiably) lose his rag at Nicolò Zaniolo for ignoring the opportunity to put Schick through on goal at 2-0 up and instead selfishly take a shot at goal that was never on.
As far as Roma’s frontline went yesterday, Kluivert was simply afraid of the Cagliari defence when he was on the ball. He only drew 1 foul the entire game, where Kolarov, Florenzi and Ünder combined would draw 8 fouls between them. Schick has the luxury of knowing he still has time to get over his own fears without immediately getting dropped to the bench. Unless EDF has more plans for Javier Pastore at false 9.
No Man’s Land With No Anchor - The De Rossi-Shaped Hole
Without De Rossi, no one (besides Fazio) shows the will to be that link up man between Roma’s defence and midfield.
There are positives to mention from Cristante lately, but there’s still a hole in Roma’s heatmap where Olsen’s kicking has to paper over it.
Cristante is growing into a flat-track bully in this midfield. In the last three games, the interceptions (just 1 all game yesterday) have now been replaced with tackles (4) and fouls (3). Only a yellow card early in the second half tempered Cristante’s game, and the Italo-Canadian showed the maturity to not get himself sent off - especially in the 53rd minute where Cristante’s solid positioning stopped a Rossoblu onslaught on the counter by himself, followed up with a ball-winning tackle in the very same action.
His midfield partner, Steven Nzonzi, is no deep-lying playmaker. By all accounts, or at least one account at Ultimo Uomo, this was the same problem Sampaoli ran into a Sevilla. Nzonzi’s least preferred task is to come back and collect the ball between the defenders in a 4-man backline.
Only when Sampaoli switched to a 3-man defence would Nzonzi be more free to focus on what he prefers: defending aggressively up the pitch and looking to be the free man that can slide passing through to the frontline from well into the opposition half. From then on, Nzonzi’s monstrous forward passing stats dominated the European scene and the rest was history.
EDF is still switching to a 3-man backline in the middle of games to compensate for that ‘no man’s land’ between defence and midfield where De Rossi would usually be on the ball.
Yesterday that change to a 3-man backline did no favours when Olsen hoofed the ball up the middle of the pitch in stoppage time. We all saw what happened next.
Olsen’s choice to launch his goal kick into the middle of the field, and not the wings, was called “inexplicable” by Di Francesco in the post-game interview to Sky. But is it really? At this point it really just looks like muscle memory kicking in for the Swede from an overused tactic.
After all, Olsen spent the week being praised for one particular statistic:
58.3% - Robin Olsen is the goalkeeper with the highest long pass accuracy in Serie A current season: 58.3% (min. 3 games played). Careful. pic.twitter.com/CidSYA7OHl— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) December 3, 2018
Experience Without Leadership - Roma’s Backline
Roma’s backline is both the only area where the club haven’t changed from their starting lineup last season (Olsen aside) and the area where the experience is unquestionably coming up short. The excuse that the kids are is costing games - an excuse that Kostas Manolas played up himself just a fortnight ago - is running thin.
Only Luca Pellegrini, Nicolò Zaniolo, Cengiz Ünder and - at a stretch - Bryan Cristante can be considered the ‘young guns’ of a side that capitaluted to Cagliari at the death of yesterday’s match.
The entire backline and half midfield/attack were title-winners, former captains, and some second-generation footballers to international hero fathers.
These experienced names have pedigree and Roma as a club, more than just Di Francesco as a coach, is soul-searching to see it it can really keep its promise to make good on that pedigree.
The latest word is that, once again for the second time this season, the Roma squad has been called into a ritiro.