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Season Preview: The Defense

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

FC Barcelona v AS Roma - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Last year was a weird one for Roma’s defense. The defense (along with Alisson) was arguably the most effective component of Roma’s league campaign. Conceding 28 goals, we had the 2nd stingiest defense in the league. Despite this strong performance, the team finished a disappointing 18 points off of first place.

Solid defending but less than ideal results in the league.

However, the performances in Europe tell a completely different story. In the Champions League, we conceded a painful 19 goals in just 12 games, yet somehow managed to exceed the expectations of even the most optimistic fans with a magical run to the CL semi-finals. Unlike in the league, where the defense was largely the catalyst of Roma’s (relative) success, the Champions League success stemmed largely from Dzeko & co. rising to the occasion and bailing us out of the massive holes we dug for ourselves time and again.

Poor defending but great results in Europe.

So, what happened? Was it a successful year for the defense or not? What can we expect from the coming year? Let’s break it down:

The Old Guard: Manolas & Fazio

They say slow and steady wins the race, and that is especially true for our beloved Fazio. Fazio may not be quick, but he has found a way to put in solid performances over and over again for Roma. Since arriving, he has resurrected his faltering career to the surprise of Spurs fans who were glad to see him go. Indeed, after we bested Barcelona over two legs, Twitter was abound with incredulous Spurs fans, who were more than a little annoyed that their outcast played a key role in Roma’s CL campaign, making it much deeper into the competition than they did. Their loss is our gain.

But, our backline would not be complete without the perfect compliment to Fazio—the one and only Greece Lightning. Manolas has the pace to cover for Fazio, giving us a solid starting backline. More than that, Manolas has become a key player on the pitch and in the locker-room. In a touching moment during a recent interview with Pallotta, Manolas, and Kluivert, Pallotta told Manolas how proud he is of him for his transformation into a mature leader of the team. In the pre-season as well, Manolas caused a scuffle standing up for Kluivert against a rough-and-tumble Real Madrid squad, showing not only that he has grown into a strong, assertive, and dominant presence, but also that he feels protective of the new kids joining the team. The togetherness that EDF has brought to the team has been great to see, and these moments over the summer have demonstrated just how far Manolas has come in recent years.

Together, Manolas and Fazio combined for over 7000 minutes for the Giallorossi last season. That is insane. We cannot afford to rely so heavily on these two players. As Fazio gets older, his legs will struggle over the course of the season if he doesn’t get rotated more, and relying on Manolas to make up for others’ weaknesses represents a huge risk because an injury to him could expose the entire backline. The success of this season will depend on whether or not the new guys can step up and provided some much needed support for this dynamic duo.

The New Arrivals: Marcano, Bianda, & Santon

Despite a very shaky performance against Real Madrid, it is far too early to judge Marcano. Actually, it was much worse than shaky. It was a mess. In the first 15 minutes, two errors from Marcano led to two Bale-inspired goals and left Roma looking depressingly outclassed, again. It looked like another blowout was coming, but fortunately we were able to duct-tape over leaks and finish the game with a respectable 2-1 result. Well, respectable to those who didn’t watch the game, as those watching saw that it could have just as easily been 4-0. Nevertheless, that is one game, and a friendly at that. Remember Alisson’s first forays in the Roma goal during the Europa League 2016/2017 campaign? He looked in over his head...in the Europa League. Similarly, don’t forget that Fazio took his sweet time adjusting as well. Let’s hope that, despite the similarities in name, he doesn’t turn out to be Moreno 2.0. He was a well-respected member of the liga-winning Porto squad, and he needs time to adjust to the team and the league.

Santon may be a different story, unfortunately. With Inter fans wondering why in the world we would actually pay for Santon, his performances so far have still somehow been worse than expectations. After all, you’d be forgiven if you forgot he was on the pitch in his pre-season games. Santon hasn’t looked like he can be trusted even with a backup role, but, hopefully that won’t be a problem as he should be cover for the cover, meaning we shouldn’t see much of him this year.

I’m not going to lie, I’d never heard of this kid before he was linked with Roma and he hasn’t featured much in the pre-season, so maybe it’s best to let his past performances do the talking here:

From his highlights, he looks like a smart, athletic, and technical player, which would be an unbelievable trifecta. Of course, these are highlights, so it is hard to judge how he looks on average, but it should be interesting to see him develop. Don’t expect to see many minutes for him this season, but he is one to look forward to in the future.

The Old Arrivals aka The Rehabilitated aka (Only at Roma would this a legitimate category): Florenzi, Karsdorp, & Luca Pellegrini

Yea, we have a category for players who are recovering from ACL injuries. Go figure.

It has been great to see Florenzi kick on after recovering from his injury last year. Surprisingly, the former winger/attacking mid has been looking better in defense than going forward. Maybe he’s trying to hard to make magic when in attack, but he ends up being wasteful. Florenzi has been inconsistent since recovering from injury, so if Karsdorp can play well, he could earn the starting role. And, he has played very well—Karsdorp has looked hungry and strong defending and as well as going forward. Roma is in desparate need of a solid right back to finally bring balance to the forc...er...to the attack. With consistent quality on the right to match Kolarov on the left, our opponents will be spread thinner and our buildup play will be less predictable. Therefore, some legitimate competition for the starting spot should be very useful in motivating strong performances from both players.

Lu. Pelligrini has been motivated and shown flashes of magic against Latina but had some worrying performances against stronger sides. He clearly has the athleticism and skills to be a strong left back, but he needs experience and mentoring, which makes Kolarov the perfect player to have ahead of him in the depth chart. Luca should serve as a solid backup to Kolarov, giving Luca a chance to learn from the grizzled veteran while giving Kolarov’s aging legs a break.

The Not-So-Wildcards: Kolarov & Juan Jesus

This left-overs category was the most difficult to name. If it were just Juan Jesus, maybe it could be The Mildcards, but that won’t due for Kolarov, who has been a revelation and probably the best business Monchi has done in Rome. There was a lot of skepticism for this transfer because Kolarov played for Lazio once upon a time, but it is impossible to doubt his value for Roma now. He was arguably the best left back in the league last year, and the world cup and pre-season have only given us reason to believe this should be another solid year.

For as much flak as JJ gets, he actually had a decent season last year, especially in the Champions League. You can’t expect a backup player to be a world-beater, but generally held his own last year. However, his weakness may still be his inconsistency, which will inevitably lead to some glaring errors and ultimately reinforcing the narrative that he is a poor defender. Still, he is reportedly in the top 5 highest salaries for Roma players, making him far too expensive relative to his contributions on the pitch. Regardless, depending on how Marcano fits in, JJ could be either the 3rd or 4th center back in the depth chart this year, so hopefully his performances continue their slow upwards trend.

Conclusions

So, going back to the question posed above, what happened last year and what can we expect for this year? Last year we saw 28 goals conceded in 38 league games but 19 goals conceded in 12 CL games. Roma’s defense has been consistently 2nd in the league, conceeding around 30 goals a year. Therefore, it was the poor CL performances that deviated from the norm. There are a lot of reasons why Roma’s defense could underperform in the world’s most competitive club tournament. Stronger attackers. Better opposition managers. Packed schedules. But, our defense has seen it all before and performed admirably. The best explanation may not with the defense but instead with the tactics.

In the past, EDF showed a similar pattern of conceding much more in Europe than domestically, conceding 11 goals in 6 Europa League group stage games with Sassuolo but conceding only 40 goals in 38 games in the season that earned them the Europa League spot. It is hard to argue with a run to the semi-finals, so let’s not assume EDF under performs in Europe. But, last year’s run was not exactly a confident and collected campaign, so these defensive lapses could be a worrying trend. It will be interesting to see how we do this year because it could go a long way in telling us if EDF knows something the rest of us don’t about continental football or if Dzeko & co. just managed to drag us into semis despite poor tactical decision making. Either way, this year should give us more strong defending in the league and high-scoring, exciting games in Europe.