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Roma and Di Francesco’s Flaws Exposed at Anfield

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But yet still Dzeko proves to be a sure thing.

Liverpool v A.S. Roma - UEFA Champions League Semi Final Leg One Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

We thought we’d seen the last of these European nights for a while, but for 20 minutes at least if not more, there was the familiar Roma mental climbdown. This time it was given the big glaring spotlight of the Champions League semi-final and anyone could be forgiven for thinking at 5-0 that Roma was about to restore her reputation for conceding cricket scores in this competition.

The worse news is that another “Romantada” comeback at the Olimpico will rely on the very same gambles that backfired under the Anfield atmosphere.

So how can Roma play the same style in a week’s time and achieve a different outcome?

Playing The Infamous High Line - Just Doing It Well

In at least one way, the Roma loss yesterday was entirely predictable - the manner in which Roma’s defenders were left exposed to one-on-one duels against Liverpool faster and more agile front three was even detailed word for word by The Liverpool Offside in their preview post for the first leg.

Despite both Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman being comfortable in a holding midfield role, there is often room in the half-space between the midfield and defense, and with both centre-backs preferring to cover the space behind rather than pushing up, there is an opportunity to play balls into this danger zone.

By design this came about from a backline instruction in place all year: they are ordered to run back to goal as soon as they see opponents in possession of an “open” ball (i.e. a Liverpool player with the ball at his feet facing the Roma goal). This is exactly the same instruction Sarri gives to his backline at Napoli and, if I watched more Premier League football, I’d guess the same tactics Guardiola and Klopp give to their teams, too.

Rather than seeing the instruction as a problem, Di Francesco clearly feels the team has it in them to carry out that instruction to a higher standard. “We didn’t move well enough on the open balls,” EdF said post-match. “We were always late to run back. And these were easy situations to read their passing, where it doesn’t matter whether you’re four, five or six at the back.”

Yesterday saw Roma’s three backline defenders breaking away from the midfield four, opening a ‘no man’s land’ between the lines for Liverpool’s player to long-ball into. The outcome was there for all to see. Faced with man-for-man battles under a roaring Anfield crowd, Roma’s defenders showed all the confidence of a Liverpool fan trying to book a European away trip without whinging over the ticket prices.

At the Olimpico, EDF has to drill a way for the team - especially defence and midfield - to move together in unison as the high line will be needed to attack even more at home. It won’t be easy as he’s up against a coach who knows the team’s philosophy of positional play, and has been executing it at a higher level for a longer time, in Jurgen Klopp.

Rising to the Occasion

“We’ve found the right mentality because we’re in a Champions League semi-final,” Monchi summed up after the match. “But now we have to find consistency. After Mane’s first chance, the team shut down.”

People who want to believe in the easy, armchair fantasy of tactics deciding games will keep on offering their expertise on how a backline could have been done a dozen better ways, no doubt. But without the right attitude to manage a game under pressure - not just on the sideline but from the main men on the pitch - what is there really left to talk about?

All the banter from the Roma locker room of Manolas having a plan for Salah surely couldn’t have included letting him cut inside on his left to break open the scoring. Equally, Jesus abandoned his instincts. Instead of keeping the right body shape to shadow his opposing man like he has done to great effect against high-level teams, he decided to play a flat-footed dancing game of chicken with Salah on the ball - and was inevitably left for dead in the build up to the third goal. Even Alisson has looked human in his largely indifferent April form.

At the other end of the pitch, Cengiz Ünder has known all year that his best shot at getting a foothold in any game is to avoid physical contact with the opposing defenders at all costs but, unprepared to face the greater physique and speed of a Premier League side, the youngster’s awareness went out of the window. However the collective meltdown and loss of discipline wasn’t limited to just these players.

Drilling the team and backline into anticipating long balls over the top was one of the very first things the team spent the precious 2 weeks at the summer ritiro running. The Lupi experienced the world of difference between doing it on a hot Italian summer retreat in Pinzolo, and turning up to do it under the floodlit sound barrier of Anfield. Communication even broke down between team and bench as, in the buildup to Liverpool’s fifth goal, some Roma players were positioned on the ball as though they were playing in a 4-2-3-1 where EdF had told the team to move into the shape they’d learnt under 4-3-3. One Gonalons pressure pass and conceded corner later, and the scoreline was even more damaging at that point.

The expectations and roar at the Olimpico in a week’s time won’t be tame stuff either. They’ve already seen 3-0 wins against Chelsea and Barcelona this season, and it will be on the team to play up to the crowd’s expectations rather than wilt under them.

Overcoming Blind Faith In Your Players

It is pretty fundamental for a truly top level coach to be able to anticipate what players’ need to perform, before the players even know what they need themselves. EdF hasn’t shown signs of mastering that quality yet. He would be a hard man to argue with though - after all, he pushed Sassuolo to victories in the Europa League, and just achieved something with Roma that hadn’t been done for 34 years.

His repeated belief that he can get players to exceed their personal limits through sheer persistence is something that has paid off for him and his teams more than it has torn open the ground underneath him - so far.

But there’s still a top four finish on the line in the league, for that to change.

Four Reasons to Believe at the Olimpico

  1. Roma have - once again - only one way to approach a second leg, and that suits EDF’s outlook on football just fine. Liverpool have 7 days to overthink their options in approaching the game and Roma can capitalise on any moment of an opponent caught in two minds.
  2. Liverpool are down to the bare bones with their squad, especially in midfield.
  3. Dzeko’s textbook Champions League season continues. In the last 4 CL matches, Dzeko has had a total 149 touches of the ball in a team where Florenzi and Kolarov - as wide playmakers - regularly get well over 80 to 90 touches in just one single game. Despite Dzeko’s relationship with the ball being at a premium, he has bagged a goal each time. Dzeko is living out his prime years right now - lately he keeps going for the whole 90. You don’t even have to get him that much service and he will still put one away. This is everything I’d want from a striker at the top level.
  4. Liverpool may have a forward who sometimes plays like Maradona but Roma have a midfielder-turned-forward-not-quite-sure-what-he-is-but-I-love-him player named after Maradona. I bet the Roma team of ‘84 could have done with Diego Perotti stepping up for penalty kicks.