Facing a tough away fixture at the Dacia Arena against tenth place Udinese, Eusebio Di Francesco once again came out with an attacking 4-2-3-1, with Edin Dzeko supported once more by Cengiz Under and Stephan El Shaarawy, while Radja Nainggolan resumed his 2017 role as enforcer/trequartista. With the Champions League looming, EDF made some small rotations in the back two-thirds of the lineup, resting Kevin Strootman and Aleksandar Kolarov in favor of Daniele De Rossi and Juan Jesus, respectively.
On paper, this was probably Roma’s best lineup (minus the Jesus for Kolarov aspect), and through much of the first half it showed. Roma outshot, out dribbled, out created and out possessed Udinese, with Cengiz Under and Stephan El Shaarawy running roughshod on the flanks. SES and Under combined for seven shots and four dribbles in the first half alone, though only two of those shots were on-target.
Nevertheless, the attacking verve was there. And despite some less than stellar play from Roma’s fullbacks, Under and SES were still able to make forward runs, albeit from deeper positions than you’d like to see, but, as has been the problem for much of the season, the finishing simply wasn’t there.
Under had his way on the right flank, cutting in and making parallel runs to the endline, but his curled attempts just didn’t have enough juice on it. However, the real culprit was El Shaarawy, who had two genuine attempts to break the deadlock, the latter of which was of the clear cut variety. After Nainggolan won the ball back in the middle of the park, he was able to spring SES on the flank, putting him in a virtual one-v-one (there was one defender closely trailing), but El Shaarawy simply couldn’t turn his hips around and wound up getting too much instep on the ball, turning a genuine opportunity into an easy save.
Nevertheless, it was an impressive first half from Roma. Outside of Under and SES running wild, Nainggolan looked reborn in his advanced role, as he was frequently seen harrying Udinese defenders and midfielders as they attempted to build from the back. Nainggolan will never be confused with the game’s great number tens, but that added layer of intensity and his ability to snuff out counters before they begin, and subsequently turning them into attacking movements of their own, is a thing of beauty—his performances lately stands in stark contrast to the subdued 4-3-3 Nainggolan we saw for much of the season.
So the auxiliary parts were there in the first half, but Roma wasn’t able to pull the entire machine together, but would the second 45 be any different?
EDF opted for no changes at the half, and really, based on how the team played in the first half, you couldn’t really blame him, though El Shaarawy’s poor marksmanship stood out like a sore thumb. Nevertheless, Roma persisted with their first half approach, which is to say, give it to Cengiz.
All told Under took 62 touches on the day, making the forward reaches of the right flank his home, as he spent 80+ minutes terrorizing Samir with his forward runs and cut-ins. While Roma’s Under-reliance wasn’t quite on the same level as their Kolarov addiction from the fall, the order of the day was clear—let Under do his thing, and sweet, fancy Moses it paid off.
Cengiz Under: 70th Minute
I usually try and describe these goals, but I’m not even touching this what—it was absolutely brilliant.
Here’s a low angle view—what a hit! This angle gives you more appreciation for the technique involved here; just the absolute precise angle, trajectory and force. If any of those factors were off, he skies this thing.
Roma would press on for the remaining 20 minutes, generally dictating the play and keeping the numerical/shape advantage at the back—thanks in large part to Kostas Manolas and Juan Jesus combining for eight interceptions—but you just never know with this club. So even though Roma held serve for much of the match, you couldn’t help but be nervous that Maxi Lopez would rip Roma’s heart out once more.
Never fear, Perotti (by way of Defrel) was here...
Diego Perotti: 90th Minute
While Perotti’s name ultimately wound up on the score sheet, this thing was all Gregoire Defrel. Literally as Perotti’s shot found the back of the net, I was composing a Tweet lauding Defrel for his attempt seconds earlier—he struck a really nice low-angled ball from distance—but despite the fact he was denied his first goal in the run of play, Defrel was entirely responsible for this goal.
After nearly scoring himself, Defrel tracked back and deftly stuck himself in for the back-heeled tackle, which was so well executed that the ball fell to Nainggolan in stride. From there Nainggolan quickly assumed the ball and played it off to a wide open Diego Perotti, who cooly slotted it home, effectively ending the match.
Defrel has been chided all season long, but the guy can play, so don’t be shocked if he steals some minutes from Dzeko in the near future.
But that’s a matter for a different today. This afternoon, Roma outwitted and outlasted Udinese, securing third place and their third straight victory in the process.
Roma did the job today, winning the battle in all facets of the game and all locations on the pitch. They were by no means perfect—this could easily have been a 4-0 walkover—but the progression and signs of life continued; we’re definitely in a better spot than a month ago, and with the Champions League looming this week, the timing could not have been more perfect.
If we had to quibble with anything today, it would simply be EDF’s substitutions. I love SES perhaps more than any Roma writer, but it was clear as day, he wasn’t feeling it today, so an early change for Perotti may have put this thing to bed 15 to 20 minutes earlier—a small matter of conjecture but one they might rue against a better opponent.
Ultimately this match was all Under’s. His presence has transformed this attack. His hustle, his commitment, his willingness and ability to get forward, to challenge the defense, to put a cross in, to work parallel to the goal line, has been remarkable. None of it is revolutionary or game-changing, but he’s just so adept at finding and creating space, that he really has rescued Roma’s season. Under’s ascendance and the shift to the 4-2-3-1 have gone hand in hand, so let’s hope EDF sticks with both.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the stellar play at the other end as well. Alisson was his usual spectacular self, reading angles, charging at loose balls and making key saves, not to mention channeling his inner Cruyff again, but the backline was magnificent today. Manolas, Fazio and Jesus teamed up for nine interceptions, eight clearances (Alisson added four more of his own) and eight total tackles. They kept their shape, had numerical superiority throughout the match and were magnificent in transition, plucking the ball out of the air or sticking a foot in any time it seemed like Udinese was about to stretch them thin.
Roma’s play has steadily progressed throughout this winning streak, and it was particularly encouraging that they didn’t relent against the toughest of these three opponents. Now, if they could get Dzeko more involved and boost Florenzi’s confidence, we might be onto something.
Roma jumps back into it when they travel to Donetsk on Wednesday for their Round of 16 clash against Shakhtar, followed closely by a Sunday home fixture against AC Milan.