As we discussed in the match preview, Roma weren’t exactly entering this fixture on solid ground. Following their last gasp victory over Torino last weekend, one in which they were ineffective for large portions of the match, the club decided to make a major, last minute overhaul to the team, selling Kevin Strootman to Marseilles. As if it righting the ship after last week weren’t hard enough, Roma now had to make do without one of their spiritual leaders and a fixture in their midfield over the past two seasons.
With that as a backdrop, no one was exactly certain how EDF would line them up today; certainly we knew Bryan Cristante would start by default, but what about Javier Pastore? His debut as a Roma midfielder didn’t exactly go according to plan, so his inclusion in the starting eleven was far from assured.
Di Francesco managed those concerns by taking a hybrid approach; Cristante did indeed start, alongside Daniele De Rossi and Lorenzo Pellegrini in an all Italian midfield, while Pastore was shifted to the left wing, and to say it paid immediate results would be a gross understatement
Javier Pastore: 2nd Minute
YES, JAVIER PASTORE JUST SCORED THIS BACK HEEL VS ATALANTApic.twitter.com/NQFfcxyZRE— ItalianFootballTV (@IFTVofficial) August 27, 2018
Richard Whittle quite correctly described this goal as something practically stolen off the felt of a pool table. With a simple twist and flick, Pastore’s heel met Cengiz Ünder’s cross at the absolute precise angle to tuck this thing home; it was quite a memorable way to open your scoring account, that’s for sure.
With two minutes down and eighty-eight to go, it looked like Roma was priming themselves for an explosion of goals. While they ostensibly lined up in a 4-3-3, Pastore, playing up front, was given license to roam around the attacking third, seeking the best angles with which to feed Edin Dzeko. Between that and De Rossi’s ferocious play at the back, this thing looked like it was heading to a three or four goal laugher.
And it nearly did....for Atalanta. Try this stat on for size:
While the Giallorossi dominated the first 120 seconds of this match, Atalanta, playing without Papu Gomez. tore Roma to shreds through the latter stages of the first half. Playing the ball largely through the middle, Atalanta was able to find and exploit the seams behind Federico Fazio and Kostas Manolas, who were absolutely dreadful in the first half, taking poor chances, reading angles too acutely and generally looking a step slow.
By the 38th minute, Atalanta had run out to a shocking...and I mean shocking...3-1 lead. Propelled by Emiliano Rigoni and Timothy Castagne, the Goddesses looked set to score the biggest upset of the week in Serie A.
Things were bleak, my friends. Outside of De Rossi, no one in those atrocious yellow socks played worth a damn, but that would all change in the second frame.
Facing a two-goal deficit at home, EDF had to make sweeping changes to avoid such a calamitous home opener. It’s one thing to wield a wide open match against Atalanta, that happens quite often, but it’s entirely different to fall flat on your face against what is in essence the Bergamo side’s B-team.
When the starting lineups were announced, many of us were intrigued to see Cristante and Pellegrini playing alongside one another, and while they may very well find their groove one day, they were woefully ineffective in the first half.
However, rather than making a like for like change, EDF flipped the script, replacing his two young Italians with Steven Nzonzi and Justin Kluivert, respectively. In the process, EDF’s stilted 4-3-3 suddenly became a crisp passing and dynamically attacking 4-2-3-1, with Pastore sitting in the hole behind Dzeko, with Ünder and Kluivert escoring Pastore up the pitch like F-16s following Air Force One.
An ancillary benefit of this tactical switch was its impact on Alessandro Florenzi. Rather than sitting back on the fringes, Florenzi became a latter day John Arne Riise, sitting on the outside shoulder of the wide attackers, just a step behind them. In an instant, Florenzi became a factor in this match, and at the hour mark he gave Roma a glimpse of hope.
Alessandro Florenzi: 60th Minute
GOAL Florenzi!! Roma 2-3 Atalanta pic.twitter.com/b8sKjRJtsO— Serie A News (@TransfersCalcio) August 27, 2018
Nothing too technical about this one, Florenzi just seized upon the ball, drove it immediately into space and slotted it home like he’s done so many times before, and all with Italian headman Roberto Mancini watching to boot.
The impact the move to a 4-2-3-1 had was palpable. Roma was dominating the pace and location of play, pushing forward at every opportunity. Propelled by the inclusion of Nzonzi, Roma seldom lost the ball in the neutral zone, and through his touch and tenacity, dominated 50/50 balls and kept the heat on the Atalanta defense.
Di Francesco was forced into one final tactical change when Florenzi limped off the pitch, bringing on Patrik Schick in his place, morphing his side into the 3-5-2 that did so well in the Champions League last season.
Tactics aside, this match came down to set pieces, an area in which all of Roma’s new found size will surely be a boon.
Kostas Manolas: 82nd Minute
MANOLAS EQUALIZES TO MAKE IT 3-3! pic.twitter.com/Sb7c3ZsTC4— ItalianFootballTV (@IFTVofficial) August 27, 2018
Pretty simple stuff here. Pastore just teed it up from 30-some-odd yards out and somehow found Manolas in the scrum in front of the net, which then (for some reason) prompted this:
Maybe he was angry because his tactics were so, so, so wrong in the first half? Who knows, but I’m not sure we’ve seen him throw haymakers at the water jug before.
This was, in oh so many ways, a classic 21st century Roma match, one in which they were extremely lucky to save face.
Well, we sort of just mentioned it there, didn’t we? The disparity between Roma’s half to half tactical approach and the subsequent performance on the pitch was as stark as we’ve seen in recent memory. Why he’s so slavishly devoted to the 4-3-3, a setup that doesn’t seem to maximize his current squad’s strengths is beyond me, but this makes two consecutive weeks in which his preferred formation fell flat on its face.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. Can we talk about Nzonzi for a minute? The second he stepped onto the pitch, Roma transformed. Teaming Nzonzi up with De Rossi not only calmed the entire team down, but they put a stranglehold on Atalanta’s attack (for the most part) and seldom lost a 50/50 ball. Nzonzi’s size, touch and reading of the game ensured that Roma kept the pressure on Atalanta’s backline throughout the second half. Without him, I’m not sure Roma sees enough of the ball to mount this comeback.
Beyond Nzonzi, the second half gave us our first glimpse of an Ünder-Kluivert tandem, and mama mia, what a tandem! While neither kid factored on the scoreboard, they both used their speed and touch to create space and press the issue. With Ünder cutting in from the right and Kluivert cutting right to the heart of the defense, Atalanta were on the backheel quite often in the second half.
While there were ample positives to takeaway from this match, this will be one we rue come spring. I mean, Papu Gomez DID NOT EVEN PLAY and Roma fell behind 3-1 after little more than half an hour, and while we should credit EDF with having the wherewithal to make such sweeping second half changes, his reticence to make such changes sooner damned Roma once more.
With four points after two matches, Roma find themselves mired in fifth place. However, with a match on Friday against AC Milan, there’s no rest for the weary. EDF has to figure out how to bottle that second half energy and unleash it sooner.