In the buildup to yesterday’s Champions League Round of 16 match against Shakhtar Donetsk, we warned of several external factors conspiring against Roma: The bitterly cold weather, the false confidence built from beating the dregs of Serie A and Donetsk’s two-month study session. And while those phenomenon were at play to varying extents in yesterday’s loss to Donetsk, there were three more apparent factors in Roma’s futility.
We’ll start off with the man upon whom we heaped flowery praise last week, Radja Nainggolan.
#1 Nainggolan was Nowhere
As involved and effective as Nainggolan was last week against Udinese, that’s how ineffective he was tonight. In 82 minutes of action, Radja took all of 28 touches, failing to create a scoring chance or even dribble past anyone. No big deal, right? He probably made up for it with some down and dirty defensive work, yeah? Oof, not so much. Nainggolan didn’t register a single clearance, interception or blocked shot and managed only two tackles.
To illustrate his ineffectiveness, let’s take a look at Roma’s passing network
Cycle through to the fourth image and you’ll see Nainggolan stranded in The Medium Place, adrift on a lonely island with only his tattoos and colored mohawk to keep him company. Seriously, look how disconnected he was—from the wings, from Dzeko and even from the supporting midfielders; he was just not involved at all.
EDF would shed some light on this in the post-match press conference—he moved Nainggolan to the left to cover Florenzi/Peres’ ass since they were defending with all the vigor of a toddler, so that explains the latter twenty minutes of his shift, but it’s mind boggling how far removed he was yesterday.
While some have their qualms about his role as an attacking midfielder, Roma simply cannot win when he’s so far removed from the action.
#2 The Downside of Dzeko
This naturally follows point one, but, try this on for size—Federico Fazio had as many attempts on goal as Dzeko yesterday, three apiece. While that’s a splendid showing for Fazio, it’s not exactly what we’ve come to expect from Dzeko. Making matters worse, Dzeko missed both of his shots on goal, the first was during a scrum on the goalline, so it was somewhat expected, the second was served up on a platter for him, some twenty yards out. With room to run onto it, Dzeko should have lashed that thing into the corner, but he couldn’t get enough mustard on it, turning a goal into a rather easy save.
But take another look at that Tweet above (again, fourth image) and you’ll see a completely isolated Dzeko, who was denied service not only from Nainggolan, but Diego Perotti and Cengiz Ünder as well. Unfortunately for Roma, Dzeko is a shot taker and not a shot maker, so he can’t flourish when he’s not being supplied by his teammates.
With such a focus on wing play (more on that next), Roma’s only supply line to Dzeko was via the cross, and it seemed that more often than not Donetsk’s defense collapsed on him the moment the ball was played—he just didn’t get any clean looks or headed chances, it was always a 2 or 3 vs 1 scenario. There was no play through the middle at all, making Roma rather one dimensional again.
#3 One Dimensional Wing Play
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Roma was too reliant on Aleksandar Kolarov and Diego Perotti last night. With Kolarov and Perotti teaming up for over 130 touches, it’s not shocking to see that 44% of Roma’s attacking play came down that flank.
This image, taken from the prior Tweet, shows a direct and diagonal flow from Federico Fazio to Kevin Strootman to Kolarov and then Perotti. No triangles, no switching, nothing other than a linear progression from front to back. So while it wasn’t a straight line, Roma’s attack was A) predominantly focused on the left flank, and B) confined to a rather narrow portion of one section of the pitch. Not exactly a recipe for success.
We’ve seen this several times throughout the season, and while Kolarov is having a fantastic year, it behooves Roma to mix things up a bit, to keep the defense honest. Of course, that’s easier when you have a presence on the right flank, which was woefully lacking yesterday against Donetsk—Florenzi and Peres were pitiful in attack (and defense).
While these weren’t the only takeaways from that match, they were the most apparent, and if you’ve been following the team closely this season, the most persistent. Roma will need to make better use of Nainggolan and Dzeko, as well as find some balance in attack if they hope to advance to the quarterfinals of Europe’s most prestigious club competition.