Yesterday’s victory over Napoli was a litmus test for any well-reasoned, logical thinking Roma fan. Anyway you slice it, a two-goal victory over a league leading side is a cause for celebration, yet when you remove the veneers of that thrilling win, Roma seemed to have defied the odds and all current, conventional thinking of what constitutes winning football. Napoli held the statistical sway, won the possession battle and more often than not had numerical superiority in attack.
Yet Roma won, but how?
Glad you asked, here are our three takeaways from yesterday’s upset at the San Paolo.
#1: Roma Should Not Have Won This one
A story in images....
If we consider this average positioning map as a sort of Rorschach test, your answer may reveal your hidden, subconscious thoughts about AS Roma. Do you see a balanced, well spaced Roma, or a stretched and timid EDF attack?
Either way, the obvious takeaway is simply this: look how advanced and well shaped Napoli’s attack was (attacking left to right in this image). From Jose Callejon on the right over to Lorenzo Insigne on the left, Napoli set up a shell around the center of their attack, stretching from each edge of the 18-yard-box, effectively wrapping Milik in a cocoon of attackers. Meanwhile, Roma’s forwards, though evenly spaced, were pretty detached and seldom strayed past midfield.
Based on positioning alone, Napoli shouldn’t have even conceded four shots, let alone four goals.
Now onto the shots...
Two things to notice here: First, the sheer volume of shots—Napoli put up 26 against Roma’s 11. Second, the respective clusters—Napoli was able to get deep into the heart of the area while Roma largely settled for shots from distance, including that are you having a laugh attempt from Aleksandar Kolarov.
Add these two images together, and it sure seems like Napoli should have won this one walking away. They were better in possession, more precise with their passing, doubled Roma’s shot output and tripled their chances created, yet they lost by two!
So, what gives?
#2: Roma Was Accurate When it Mattered Most
We don’t even have to really elaborate too much on this one. Sure, Roma only took 11 shots, but six of those were on target, and a full four of them were converted into goals. Edin Dzeko was remarkably efficient yesterday, putting 75% of his shots on target, and converting 50% of those into goals.
Roma has been on the other end of this equation many times—dominating the statistics yet coming up short—so to flip the script against a side as dangerous as Napoli was truly a remarkable achievement, even if no one is really quite sure how they did it!
This isn’t a sustainable model, though. If they ran this match back in the exact same fashion, Napoli would win nine times out of ten for sure, but they didn’t. Roma got a bit lucky with the deflection on Cengiz Ünder’s goal and Diego Perotti was in the right place at the right time to seize on a Mario Rui error, but Dzeko’s goals were legitimate exhibitions of skill and execution.
And while the results sort of ran counter to the statistics, it was testament to one thing—analytics fall short in the heat of the battle. Sure, in a longitudinal world they’d end up losers 99% of the time, but in the microseconds that mattered most, they were the best team on earth.
#3: Edin Dzeko and Alessandro Florenzi Were Fantastic
Despite the statistical abnormalities, it was nice to see two of the more maligned players on this squad lead the charge against Napoli. We’ve chronicled the ups and downs of Edin Dzeko more times than I care to remember, but suffice it to say, the pendulum has swung towards his detractors lately. And while he shouldn’t shoulder all the blame—he’s a shot taker not a shot maker, and therefore his dependent on service—he hasn’t been as clinical or precise as we’ve seen in the past. Meanwhile, Florenzi’s struggles at fullback have given many Romanisti an uneasy feeling—the love for Ale will never fade, but it’s been tough to watch his inconsistencies this season, as time and time again he’s been exploited by opposing wingers.
But yesterday there was no debate—they were magnificent. As we just mentioned, Dzeko was absolutely deadly in front of goal, not only delivering a picture perfect snapped header, but turning Mario Rui’s ankles into jello, shaking the Portuguese defender with the slowest array of stepovers and feints the game has ever seen. Dzeko put 75% of his chances on target, scored two goals, won four headers, and even pulled off three dribbles.
The key to Peak Dzeko Efficiency has always been positioning and shots, and while Roma didn’t see a ton of the ball yesterday, Dzeko had 55 touches, four shots and was able to get deep into Napoli territory when it mattered.
But what about Florenzi, how did he fare yesterday?
In a word, astounding. Florenzi’s performance yesterday ran counter to all the grousing he’s received this year, and was easily one of his best turns of the 2017-2018 season. In 90 minutes, Florenzi took 67 touches (second most), hit on 50% of his crosses and 33% of his long balls and provided an absolutely sublime assist on Dzeko’s headed goal.
While that was all well and good, Florenzi’s work behind the ball was even more impressive. Florenzi had four tackles, four interceptions, one blocked shot and three clearances, one of which was literally on the goalline after Napoli’s odd direct free kick from the six yard box. What’s more, he dispossessed Lorenzo Insigne four times!
So, there you have it—three takeaways from a match Roma should not have won, but they did. Now we simply have to wait and see if this will be a springboard for Roma as they move into spring. With 11 matches remaining and, depending on the outcome of the Milan derby, only two points separating fifth through third place, Roma are in for the fight of their lives to lockdown a Champions League place next season.
If they can take that same efficiency we saw yesterday and, you know, do it more frequently, we might be in good shape. If not, we’re in for a tense couple of months.