For a manager some of us (incorrectly) assumed was tactically rigid, Paulo Fonseca has sure had to flex his...uh...flexibility muscles through the first 15 rounds of play. Fonseca successfully survived the Great Trigora Turf Plague of 2019, using every ounce of depth at his disposal to paper over some massive cracks in midfield, and just when it seemed like Roma were at full-strength, he was dealt some last minute blows ahead of Roma's trip to the San Siro to face first place Inter Milan.
With Justin Kluivert and Pau Lopez late scratches, and with Edin Dzeko forced to bench duty thanks to a lingering illness, Fonseca had to reach deep into his bag of tricks once again. Antonio Mirante saw his first action of the season in Lopez's place but the absence of Dzeko, Kluivert, and his apparent lack of faith in Nikola Kalinic saw Fonseca make arguably his biggest personnel shift of the season—putting Nicolo Zaniolo in at forward/false nine, supported by Lorenzo Pellegrini, Diego Perotti and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
And through much of the first half, it worked like gangbusters. After a nervy ten minutes to start the match, Roma really seized the initiative for the bulk of the half, with Zaniolo and Pellegrini roaming all over the attacking third, Roma's attack had a steady, fluid pace, though most of the chances created came from Perotti on the wing, who delivered multiple accurate crosses towards the middle of the pitch. The problem was simply that no one was there to meet them.
Roma's best chance in the half came from Zaniolo in the 19th minute, as The Kid muscled off Diego Godin to get off a one-time shot, which unfortunately went straight at Samir Handanovic. But it was an encouraging sign; Inter had no answer for Zaniolo's size and strength, and one got the feeling if Pellegrini could just find him in a pocket of space, Zaniolo would burst through the defensive line to break this open.
On the other end, Roma's midfield and defense did well to deny Inter any real chances, except the ones they nearly created for them. Between a lazy Jordan Veretout pass that forced Antonio Mirante into a reflex save, and later a clearance Mirante played right to Romelu Lukaku, Roma very nearly dug their own grave in the first half.
The second half would see the balance of power swing the other way, as Inter seemed more organized and decisive than Roma, testing Mirante a few times throughout the second half. Fonseca would counter by bringing on Edin Dzeko for Diego Perotti, giving Roma a focal point they were lacking in the first half, but it was really just for show as Dzeko wasn't terribly involved—and really, Roma didn’t generate much offense at all in the second half, as their final passes/moves weren't up to snuff.
Ultimately this was a defensive showcase, as neither side was really able to breakdown the other in the final third. Inter did have more chances, that's true, but the best of those stemmed from ghastly Roma errors.
Still, despite those almost blunders, you had to be happy with Roma's efforts on the road against the league leaders. They showed no hesitation to play their football, winning the possession and position battle for much of the first half and showing impressive organization, offside-trapping and a couple of really excellent last man tackles to keep this match scoreless.
I'm not a fan of moral victories, but I'll take this one given the context and the late injuries.
Random Thoughts & Observations
- Amadou Diawara showed his true worth today. He was everywhere he needed to be at precisely the right moment, busting up attacks and closing passing lanes in the defensive end and recycling possession and winning loose balls in the attacking third. He was relentless tonight.
- Ditto for Gianluca Mancini, who saved the game late in the second half with his excellent block on Lautaro Martinez, who had Mancini beat by a step and Mirante dead in his sites. He caught a bogus yellow in the end meaning he'll miss SPAL next week, but he looks every bit the future of this defense.
- Roma has a dire...dire...problem at right back. Davide Santon for some reason got the start again, only to pull up limp early in the first half. His sub, Leonardo Spinazzola, while solid in defense, grinded many Roma attacks to a halt with his passive backwards passes and horrendous crosses.
- Nearly gifting Lukaku a goal aside, tremendous spot performance from Mirante today, who made two or three game-saving stops. As far as backups go, I'm not sure you can do much better.
- If we have time, we'll dig into Zaniolo's first foray as a forward, but suffice it to say it was incomplete. You could tell he knew what to do and put himself in the right positions, but he just didn't really have much help out there.
- He did, however, bully the hell out of Inter’s defense—he definitely has what it takes to cause havoc as a forward of some sort. They'll figure it out.
- Has anyone seen Cengiz Ünder? I never imagined he'd fall out of favor like this.
- Everything considered, this was a solid result.
Home vs Wolfsberger in the Europa League on December 12th.
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