By now you’ve no doubt seen and/or heard about Roma’s 2-0 victory over Udinese this afternoon, and if not we’ve got highlights coming later, but like any match—win, lose or draw—there were certain elements and/or developments that made the match what it was; certain things we can takeaway from the match. Let’s call them takeaways and see it catches on.
While Cengiz Ünder’s performance drew the headlines, and rightfully so, there were several less glamorous factors present in today’s victory; three facets of Roma’s game plan that enabled Ünder to play as well as he did.
#1: Radja’s Advanced Role and Passing
Much has been made of the contrasting ways in which Eusebio Di Francesco and Luciano Spalletti utilized Radja Nainggolan. While Radja entered the league as your standard bruising box-to-box midfielder, Spalletti’s tinkering with Radja’s role was transformative. While he didn’t profile as a typical attacking midfielder, Nainggolan’s advanced role was crucial to Roma’s record breaking campaign last season.
Much like he did with Francesco Totti a decade before—using Totti as a false nine because all Roma’s strikers were hurt—necessity was the mother of invention in Spalletti’s utilization of Nainggolan. With no true number ten/attacking midfielder/whatever term you prefer, Spalletti slotted Nainggolan into that role with great success, where his athleticism, strength on the ball and combativeness more than makes up for his lack of traditional creativity. Nainggolan was using his strength and balance to retain possession in the final third, while his headlong runs resulted in their fair share of goals to boot. He wasn’t an ideal attacker, but he proved to be remarkably well suited to the role.
While Nainggolan gave his usual effort after the managerial change, he was effectively blunted by EDF’s 4-3-3. However, much like Spalletti before him, EDF’s hand was forced by injuries and/or suspensions, and the return to the 4-2-3-1 has since yielded three straight victories.
Part and parcel of that success has been Nainggolan, who was instrumental in today’s victory, particularly in the passing game. In 90 minutes, Nainggolan took 68 touches and managed the following:
- Completed 88% of his passs
- Completed 50% of his crosses
- Completed 86% of his long balls
- Completed 7 key passes
Throw in four dribbles and two shots and it’s not hard to see: Nainggolan was the total package today, completely controlling the attacking third with his work rate and passing. These sort of performances had disappeared in the fall, but if Radja’s time in Rome has shown us anything it’s that he’s best in an advanced role, where his unique set of skills gives Roma a strange advantage.
#2: Juan Jesus is Actually a Decent Player
We’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: we were certainly among those audibly groaning when Roma foked over €10 million for Juan Jesus in the summer of 2016. What initially seemed like retribution from Inter Milan for Roma foisting Dodo upon them for roughly the same price has now been rewarded (to an extent).
Rrruan will never be mistaken for a top player, but despite all the jokes thrown his way, he has proven himself to be a valuable member of this squad, not only for his flexibility between center and left back, but (astonishingly) his actual performance.
JJ went the full 90 today and was a pivotal piece in Roma’s clean sheet this afternoon. Jesus paced Roma today with four interceptions and four tackles, teaming up with Federico Fazio to completely erase Udinese’s right flank. Jesus had Silvan Widmer, arguably Udinese’s best player, under lock and key throughout the entire match, helping to limit the Swiss wingback to 57 touches and a pitiful 61% passing. Widmer had one shot and one key pass, but was otherwise rendered useless by Jesus.
Every successful team needs players like Juan Jesus, guys you can plop into the starting lineup after they’ve been mired on the bench for months and still not miss much of a beat, and today Rrruan was precisely that; he was every bit as good as Fazio and Kostas Manolas out there.
#3: Roma Still Lacks Balance
Take this point with not only a grain but a healthy dose of salt. Cengiz Ünder has been astounding the past few weeks, but much like they did in the fall, Roma risks becoming too one dimensional. In today’s match, Roma’s attack rank down the right flank through Alessandro Florenzi and Ünder 42% of the time, with the two accounting for 159 touches, and when you throw in Kostas Manolas’ action on the ball, that number climbs to over 200. Indeed, Manolas to Florenzi and Florenzi to Ünder were the two busiest passing networks of the match.
In the short run, this isn’t an issue, but once the book is out on Ünder, things may not work so smoothly down that flank. And while Jesus was, as we just mentioned, solid defensively, attacking isn’t his forte. So without Kolarov in there, and with El Shaarawy running cold, Roma risks become too reliant on the Manolas-Florenzi-Ünder highway.
It’s a small point of contention, but it’s a pattern worth keeping an eye one.
So those are our three takeaways from today’s match, what are yours?