The Nicolo Zaniolo Affair
Was Zaniolo a case of talented rewarded? Or was it a game knowingly treated as a loss before it had even kicked off?
On Tuesday afternoon, Di Francesco replied to Spanish questions over the ‘demise’ of national Italian football. The words were telling about his mindset in calling up Zaniolo just 24 hours later.
“The fact that less Italian players play in our league is clearly a factor,” EDF told El Pais well before the game, “but it’s come about from a general culture in our country where young players aren’t given time to grow nor make mistakes. Character isn’t bought but won by playing with continuity, living through disappointments and making mistakes.”
No better place to make mistakes than on your senior debut against the European champions, then.
“The coach told me to stay in position,” Zaniolo told Roma TV post-match, “don’t give away spaces and make runs off their deepest lying midfielder. I knew I was being called up this morning after the team meeting. The coach told me not to worry. Everyone helped me, above all De Rossi helped me.”
If we’re calling this an experimental game - Zaniolo, Under and the Lorenzo Pellegrini and Shick substitutions aside - this Roma side wasn’t lacking experience. The backline was unchanged, the midfield held down through DDR-Nzonzi and the frontline was recognisable from the tailend of last year. Which led to a familiar story from EDF after the game...
‘The Last Third of the Pitch’, Rinse, Repeat
EDF repetitively pointed out the ‘lack of quality’ in the last third of the pitch after the game. So why start with a front three of SES-Dzeko-Under? Was Zaniolo feeding them the ammo really meant to transform them into something they didn’t show last year?
Justin Kluivert was left in the stands with only an explanation of “hoping he gets angry enough to find the desire to hurt opponents” from EDF. Perotti was coming back from an injury, and so was Schick.
So, ok, the matchday team might have been conditioned somewhat by outside factors - but then please don’t roll out the same old statements when you call up the same names together that give you the same results in the box. It’s coming off less like being detail-oriented and more like a broken record.
System v. Maggica - The Fight For Identity
Make no mistake, in every key stat of the match, Roma came second best. There’s no ignoring that. The only stats they bettered Real at were dribbles and, less surprisingly, aerial duels.
But there were no blackouts.
Roma grew into the game (at least on the ball) last night, even if the most optimistic fan would have to admit their ‘team shape’ showed itself only academically, rather than coming with any real teeth or will-to-win attached.
The system Roma played within, last night, supported them against mental collapses we’d all seen in the Maggica days of past. How many old Roma sides would have thrown the white flag and mentally blacked out Real’s second goal last night? Roma finally risked pushing the entire team into Real’s half for a few minutes (something EDF had promised before the game but was conspiscuously absent from Roma’s first half performance) and the Modric+Bale combo immediately punished the Lupi for taking the chance.
That gap in quality on display - the sheer range of options Real had in which to both see Roma’s bet and raise - would have been greeted by ‘learned helplessness’ and 7-1 meltdowns back in the day. It’d lead to the Roma team looking around to their talismen and leaders to protect them from further hurt, and fail miserably at it too when it turned out Totti couldn’t protect them with just his presence alone. Now there are no longer talismen like Strootman at the club either, and its opened up another round of examining Roma’s ‘head problems’ and ‘winning mentality’ for yet another season.
But the foundation for teamplay is there. At 2-0 down last night, Roma still passed the ball out across the entire backline and up the field despite Real’s pressure. It was a mix of Roma players keeping their head up to look for a pass, and their teammates being exactly where they were drilled to be for the out-ball to keep a foothold in the game.
The passing lanes in possession are coming to the fore for Roma after many months of drilling and waiting - unfortunately the ‘systemic’ problems of the last year are rearing their ugly heads again, too.
Robin Olsen Is Looking Better Than Good
Perhaps worst of all in Roma’s identity right now, is their knack for making their goalkeeper the best performer in the side each week. It doesn’t matter if he’s a Brazilian or a Swede - apparently the guy in the sticks is going to be called on to make top quality saves on the regular.
You’ll hear a lot about how Real took 30 shots on Roma’s goal and, yes, part of the team philosophy is to willingly give up non-threatening shots outside the box each game. But still, 15 shots inside Roma’s 18 yard area is higher than usual. It meant Robin Olsen was left to shut out Asensio, Isco and others in several one-on-one situations that kept Roma in the game.
Right now the 8 million + 4 million bonuses spent on Olsen doesn’t look too bad, but it’s probably really not the “best signing of the summer mercato” indignity that Monchi was expecting in late-September.
Roma Have Plan B - But Should There Be Plan C?
After the game, EDF outright confirmed that Roma weren’t bluffing this summer when talking about signing players to give them many options. He specifically named the two formations he was working on, from match to match, as moving between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 when necessary.
The callup of Zaniolo more or less confirms that EDF is looking to use a trequartista in either him, Pastore, Coric - and hopefully Lorenzo Pellegrini - when the opposition calls for that kind of creator to do his thing in the hole.
But watching Daniele De Rossi’s performance last night - as the only Roma man besides Olsen who left the game with any individual credit - should Roma be considering a 3-5-2 also?
De Rossi is basically a match-saving defender right now. Yet he remains slow to see the pass to threaten on the ball. Of course, you need the runs from teammates to look good on the ball. But there was no better example of this than Pellegrini laying it off to De Rossi and making a run to open up space RIGHT in front of DDR yesterday, only for the captain to miss the opportunity to pass it wide open to the frontline because he was too busy trying to get the ball under his control.
At this point, would fielding DDR as a libero defender really be any different than what he offers from midfield?
Frankly, right now any plan that delivers a win to turn the page would be welcome.