When Paulo Fonseca was hired this summer, visions of a smoother, more sophisticated Zdenek Zeman danced through our heads. Gone were the days of frustrating and boring 1-1 matches, in which back passes flowed like wine at a wedding reception, instead replaced by thrilling four or five-goal affairs. And sure, Roma would be susceptible to counter attacks, but with Fonseca's focus on attacking football and Roma’s bevy of exciting players, they were sure to come out on top: 4-3 victories were presumed to be the norm.
While Fonseca's tenure started like that—18 total goals in their first four matches (all comps)—what we've seen in the past few weeks has been a bit disappointing, and I suppose a bit ironic considering his reputation. There has been no end-to-end, free-flowing football; Roma has struggled to mount a consistent and cohesive attack, mustering only three goals in their last four matches, including today's own goal courtesy of Luca Cepitelli.
Certainly injuries play a role in their downturn, but Roma wrapped up most of their transfer business before the end of August, so most of the squad has at least 10 weeks under Fonseca's tutelage and should be starting to ingrain his tactics by now, but you wouldn't know it based on their recent form—aggression has slowly and subtlety been replaced by apprehension, and cohesion has made way to confusion.
And with his side stripped of Lorenzo Pellegrini and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Fonseca was missing arguably his two best playmakers, forcing him to push Jordan Veretout into the number ten role, with Bryan Cristante and Amadou Diawara serving as the double pivot.
Not a nightmare scenario by any means; Veretout has the touch and endurance to make some noise in that role, while Diawara was touted as the ideal player for that role, but the constant shuffling of the starting lineup is bound to affect team chemistry.
Of course, that lack of synchronicity in the midfield was further stressed when Diawara went down midway through the first half; and I mean went down. With no clear collision immediately preceding the injury, Diawara collapsed onto the pitch, clutching his knee and needing assistance just to make his way to the sideline. In the wake of Davide Zappacosta's midweek ACL injury, your mind likely went to the darkest of places; this definitely did not look like your run of the mill muscle strain.
Mirko Antonucci would replace the now-injured Diawara, making his first league appearance of the season. Antonucci didn't rack up any stats of significance, but his agility and sheer hustle was impressive; he's gonna be a good one for sure.
Unfortunately, the bulk of this match was as ugly as Diawara's injury (and Cagliari's kits, I might add. Pea-green is a lovely look), with neither side really able to string together more than two or three passes.
Considering all that, it wasn't surprising that the matches lone goals were flukes: Cagliari were awarded a rather dubious penalty call on Gianluca Mancini, who was cited with a handball in the 26th minute, while Roma were gifted an own goal in the 31st minute thanks to Luca Cepitelli inadvertently beating Robin Olsen.
The second half opened up with a bit more promise—Zaniolo, Antonucci, and Dzeko each had half-chances—but it was ultimately more of the same from Roma: they just couldn't break down Cagliari's compact defense, and when they did manage to gain some traction on the wings, they weren't able to take advantage of Olsen's slow lateral movement, narrowly missing a few chances to beat him at the far post as he awkwardly scrambled to cover ground, a site we all remember quite well, no?
Controversy would ensue once more when second-half sub Nikola Kalinic struck what looked like a late match-winner, but the goal was disallowed as he was judged to have pushed a Cagliari defender into Olsen, creating an empty net in the process.
Roma would mount a few late rushes with Zaniolo, Dzeko and Kalinic each threatening, but their attempts were either just high or a bit wide, damning this match to a 1-1 draw—one that did not end quietly.
Incensed with the disallowed match winner, Roma stormed referee Davide Massa, hoping for some explanation as to why Kalinic's goal was called off, punctuated by Paulo Fonseca's sweeping bangs bouncing with rage as he got in Massa's face, drawing a post-whistle red card, the first I've ever seen in all my years watching football.
It was a fitting end to an ugly match and should leave an ugly taste in Roma's mouth as they enter another break.
What Went Right
Oof, not much, right? Roma managed 21 shots and held two-thirds of the possession yet couldn't score a goal of their own, so this match wasn't bursting with plaudits, at least not in attack. At the back, Roma did receive another solid 90 minutes from Chris Smalling, who took 92 touches, completed over 90% of his passes and had seven defensive actions (blocks, clearances and interceptions). And while he missed a few attempts, Nicolo Zaniolo was decent today, putting 80% of his shots on target (though, again, he should have scored) while serving up two key passes. Had he converted one of those chances, he'd be the man of the match, but if nothing else, he was heavily involved today, looking like the prime option in attack after Dzeko.
What Went Wrong
Well, let me repeat it: 67% possession, 21 shots and zero goals in the run of play. Need I say more? Whether it's the mounting injuries, fatigue or something else entirely, Paulo Fonseca has to figure out his attack; his bread has always been buttered by his attacking philosophies, but if he doesn't have that, what can he hang his hat on? They're fortunate the defense has been resolute because the attack has been wanting for the past couple of weeks.
A two-week layoff before Roma takes on Sampdoria on the 20th of October.