Yesterday's Europa League fixture against Borussia Mönchengladbach was a strange match in many ways. While we can't quite explain it, something just didn't seem right with Roma; the ball wasn't moving quite as swiftly or efficiently as it has over the past few matches and the chances that were finding the back of the net against Napoli or Udinese suddenly went astray against MGB. The magic that accompanied them over the past few weeks up and vanished yesterday evening, leaving a trail of frustration in its wake; a matter made worse by some questionable officiating.
With two matches remaining in group play, Roma have every chance to advance and even top the group, so all is not lost, but this match definitely left a sour taste in your mouth.
With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the highs and lows of yesterday's disappointing defeat to MGB.
Federico Fazio in the 35th Minute
If you play as a center back long enough, sooner or later you're going to chip in an own goal there's really no avoiding it. And while there was some dodgy officiating that precipitated Fazio's error (more on that in second), we can't really take the stink off this one; Fazio made a critical mistake, full stop.
It's certainly easier to second guess Fazio some 24 hours later—he probably had more time than he realized—but one can't help but think this would have turned out differently if he just took another step towards goal rather than lunging at the ball.
Mistakes happen and Fazio would certainly atone for this one, but this is an own goal that should never have happened in the first place.
Primo gol del Borussia irregolare, il pallone era uscito.— Jacopo Aliprandi (@AliprandiJacopo) November 7, 2019
Il guardalinee cosa stava guardando? E il Var quando verrà inserito nei gironi di EL? #ASRoma #BorussiaRoma pic.twitter.com/rYBniMM432
That's some Windows 95/MS Paint-level of sophistication there, but those rudimentary graphics clearly show the ball being played out of bounds—with an official staring right at it!!!—before MGB forced Fazio into that own goal.
Ordinarily we'd say cut the refs some slack—the game moves so much faster in real time—but the dude in blue is just standing there, flag in hand, staring slack-jawed at Oscar Wendt as he corrals the ball over the touch line, yet play continued on unfettered.
In some ways this is far, far more egregious than a controversial penalty call. In any collision situation, there is a bit of subjectivity involved—was there enough force to knock the player down, was he diving, etc.—but the ball being out of bounds is about as black and white as it gets in this sport.
Yet here we are. Two fixtures against MGB and Roma was jobbed by the officials twice, costing the Giallorossi three points in total, three points that would see Roma atop Group J rather than mired in third.
I'm not sure what the performance review process is like for UEFA officials, but I hope they're taking a look at this one—it was a blatant error, one that could cost Roma a chance at advancing.
Federico Fazio for the Other 89 Minutes
Federico Fazio is just the third player after Bruno Viana and Gabriel Silva to score a goal and own goal in the same Europa League game this season.— Squawka Football (@Squawka) November 7, 2019
From zero to hero. pic.twitter.com/OUijwLNdK6
Yes, my friends, Federico Fazio is our first ever sinner come saint. Fazio struck back in the 64th minute, getting on the end of an Aleksandar Kolarov ball to temporarily level the match, but he earned this halo for the work he did behind the ball, which was immense.
In 90 minutes, Fazio was Roma's most active and effective defender. With three tackles, two interceptions, four clearances and two blocked shots, Fazio was a thorn in MGBs side throughout this match. And what's more, he did his best Beckenbauer impression, hitting on four of six long balls and even dribbling past one opponent.
Captain Caveman has been lost among all the Mancini and Smalling hype, and for all his athletic deficiencies, Fazio remains one of the smartest and most intuitive defenders Roma has had in quite some time. He doesn't play quite as emphatically as Roma's other center backs, but his more reserved and intellectual style of play can still be remarkably effective.
We're going to take a deeper look at what makes Veretout so effective in the near future, but we can distill his impact down to one word: energy. In any given match, Veretout covers more kilometers than nearly any player on the pitch (in terms of gross total, jogging, and hard sprinting), but rather than aimlessly running around, Veretout is a veritable bulldozer, turning opponents into rubble while also laying the ground work for Roma's attack.
In 90 minutes, Veretout took 57 touches, completed 83% of his passes, chipped in three key passes, one shot on goal, three successful dribbles, one tackle and three interceptions. Quite simply, he is the total package—Roma's midfield would be in shambles without him.
Chris Smalling, Javier Pastore, and Nicolo Zaniolo all put in solid runs yesterday, but let's shine a light on Mr. Santon. With Leonardo Spinazzola out for this match, Paulo Fonseca shocked the Romaverse when he selected Santon ahead of Alessandro Florenzi at right back; it stirred up some controversy in certain circles, but the numbers support Fonseca's decision.
Against MGB, Santon rolled back the hands of time, turning in a performance reminiscent of his days as an über prospect with Inter. In 90 minutes, Santon was a menace in defense (two tackles, four interceptions and three clearances) and was equally effective in attack (one key pass, three dribbles, three accurate crosses and hit on two of four long balls).
We discussed it last season, but this is precisely why you have someone like Santon on your roster: he may not be able to do this week in and week out, but Santon's blend of experience, versatility, and skill occasionally allows him to capture a bolt of lightning like this.
A frustrating match for sure, but many of the same qualities that enabled Roma to survive October were on display yesterday.
Do not despair.