For the first time in a long time, Roma had a gameplan carried out, both patiently and indecipherably, over the entire 90 minutes. The Giallorossi had each other’s backs through each phase of the game, masking one another’s flaws and helping Daniele De Rossi take centre stage.
While the Roma captain’s return allowed DiFra to bring back the 4-1-4-1 defensive shape that made last season’s Giallorossi side so cagey, Roma’s attack was anything but. The 4-3-3 wasn’t the recognisable 4-3-3 of old, more varied this time around. This was Roma unpredictability by design, rather than chaos.
By full time, the only thing more that could be asked of this team was that elusive winning goal.
The Opening Phase - Kickoff to 25 Mins
Roma were doing the baiting for the majority of this game, sitting back deeper from kickoff and happy to let both Andrea Romagnoli and Mateo Musacchio see the ball 35 yards from Milan’s goal between them. Roma planned two-man - sometimes three-man - hunts to catch Milan cold in possession. This was the most organised that Roma’s midfield had looked all season.
When Nicolò Zaniolo pressed, Lorenzo Pellegrini backed him up and vice versa; both mezzale backed up Edin Dzeko. Meanwhile, Alessandro Florenzi and Patrik Schick made things hard for Milan to find that cross-field ball Gattuso’s team likes so much. Ricardo Rodriguez usually hits 3.3 long balls per game with most of them cross-field to Suso (and Rodriguez still came up 7 long passes last night) but he couldn’t find Suso yesterday with Roma screening off that ball, and so the Rossoneri were forced into predictable, easy-to-cut-out straight balls over the top. Roma’s backline had all day to cut out these passes.
Thank god for that, too, because every single one of Roma’s backline looked nervous (maybe the “have some respect” Curva Sud banner had something to do with that) on the ball with the exception of Rick Karsdorp. Even by the time the opening phase of the game was over - with Roma’s confidence on the ball visibly lost from going 1-0 down - it was Karsdorp threading a beautiful ball down the right to Dzeko that forced the momentum to swing back Roma’s way.
Milan’s Christmas Tree of Old - 25 Mins to Halftime
Just doing this 4-1-4-1 defence wouldn’t be enough in itself. We all remember last season’s attack left a lot to be desired, and Roma had to find a goal after going down 1-0 twenty five minutes into the game.
Yes, Milan capitalized on a Pellegrini mistake and Krzysztof Piatek beat Federico Fazio to the punch, but the Diavolo’s goal didn’t do much to change the nature of the match; it just meant Milan sitting back even deeper from there on in.
Gennaro Gattuso rolled back the years to have his team defend in Ancelotti’s old Christmas Tree formation off the ball. A bit of a weird one, that. In the post-match, even Gattuso himself unreservedly said “Roma deserved to take home all 3 points”. A large part of that was Roma’s attack, and no man was more symbolic of Roma’s variation on the ball than Daniele De Rossi.
It’s an understatement to say De Rossi lasting 90 minutes was a surprise but, looking back, that was possible thanks to the fight for midfield space from his teammates. 18 minutes into the game, Roma had already committed 7 fouls to Milan’s 2. Franck Kessié got a knock on his knee for his troubles that may have explained the Ivorian’s night to forget. Tiémoué Bakayoko was guilty of losing possession more than anyone (besides Piatek stranded up front), and Roma generally did a thorough and relentless job of destroying Milan’s confidence on the ball. All of this meant De Rossi found more time and space to pull the strings.
If DDR wasn’t trying vertical balls through the right side half spaces, he’d swivel and spray a ball out wide left to Aleksandar Kolarov. Then DDR would try a ball over the top to put Schick behind Milan’s backline. Schick and Pellegrini also worked together to feed each other behind Milan’s backline themselves, and De Rossi was doing his best to find Florenzi in the hole. By half time, Roma had made no less than five good chances inside Milan’s box.
Only a double save from Gianluigi Donnarumma kept out Patrik Schick’s bullet header across the goal, and a subsequent Edin Dzeko shot kept out with the help of Andrea Romagnoli’s boot.
Second Half - Roma Knock Milan Cold
We all saw the goal from Zaniolo. Fazio sends a nice pass out wide to Karsdorp, who takes some time to put it in the box (if there’s one criticism of Karsdorp throughout this game it’s that he kept labouring the cross whenever it was begging to be hit into the box first-time) but finds Shick’s backheel flick anyway.
From that moment, Musacchio decides he’d quite like to ruin Donnarumma’s day with a near-own-goal. Zaniolo capitalizes amid the moment of chaos to bury the rebound. 1-1. Game on straight out the gate from second half kickoff.
Roma then dropped deep and eased off. Frustrating? Maybe. But it could easily be argued as the very game management that Roma have been struggling to exercise over opponents. For the next 15 or so minutes, Roma set out to physically intimidate Milan. Both Manolas and Schick were on beast mode.
Let’s envy Milan for spending over 70 million euros on Piatek and Lucas Paqueta this past January but, outside of them linking up for Milan’s goal, both players were... not good, to put it mildly.
Piatek was left isolated up front and did nothing but either get muscled out the game by Manolas or cut out from any service by Karsdorp, while Paqueta was just plain bullied. The two Milan signings gave away 12 ... twelve... turnovers of possession between them over 90 minutes. Paqueta nearly talked himself into a red card from the frustration.
There was only a glimmer of hope for Milan, on 64 minutes, where Manolas was caught at the mercy of Paqueta and Piatek through on goal. But both men’s confidence were shattered to the point of squandering the 2-on-1 opportunity. If two major Roma signings had put in that kind of performance at Milan’s end over 90 minutes, we’d be worried.
By no coincidence, this chance came in the middle of a ten-minute phase where Roma started to tire, and EDF responded by subbing off Florenzi for SES to get some fresh impetus in midfield. Suso was forced to drop back into midfield to collect the ball by the hour, and Roma needed to make sure they wouldn’t get outfoxed by a 5-man midfield crowd that keeps derailing the league campaign.
If EDF’s subs wouldn’t completely tame Milan on the hour, there was always the anger of Lorenzo Pellegrini (who looked unimpressed with the world for the entire game) to get the job well and truly done on Paqueta in a moment that left De Rossi proud, looking at Lorenzo like his only Roman son that made it.
The only backlash from Pellegrini’s sweep of the leg was the referee blatantly sparing Roma’s #7 from a second yellow card in the dying moments of the game. The accusation that the referee also spared Roma from conceeding a penalty earlier in the 53rd minute, however, wasn’t the case.
On that occassion, Kessié chested the ball to an offside Suso and the referee correctly restarted the game with a Roma free kick. If Kessié had just not touched the ball and let it go through directly to Suso (who was onside on the first action but offside by the time Kessié intervened), then Kolarov and Roma would have been in trouble.
70 Mins to 83 Mins - Roma Reassume Control
I liked this phase of the game a lot. Here Roma deliberately stepped up a gear, having softened up Milan all game leading up to this point. They can and should have buried a winner during these 13 minutes, but Donnarumma had his tail up from a fine all-round performance in between the sticks.
There was a Pellegrini free-kick. Followed by a Pellegrini corner. He found Dzeko free in the box for yet another bullet header saved by Donnarumma. A few minutes after, Karsdorp won the ball up high, threading a pass through the middle then ran into the box himself to wait for a Roma cross that never came. Instead of getting frustrated, Karsdorp raised his arms to the crowd to gee up the Curva Sud.
It made no impression on the scoreline by full time, but the fact both Karsdorp (who again passed up the opportunity to cross first-time on 83 minutes and looked visibly fatigued by that point) and Patrik Schick left the pitch to strong applause on both their substitutions said it all about Roma’s determination through this match.
Only a Diego Laxalt chance - where he twisted substitute Davide Santon inside and out before forcing a 1-on-1 save from Robin Olsen - provided a last moment of threat from Milan at the other end. But make no mistake, there was only really one team with the knife between their teeth last night.
I’m skeptical of how Understat weighs chances for a while now, but they make it that Milan were reduced to an xG of 0.78 for the entire game - 0.54 of that total coming from Piatek’s clear-cut goal in the first half alone.
After that, Milan had only 7 shots on goal - 5 of them from outside of the box until two late, late attempts came inside the box in the final 2 minutes of a stretched end phase of the game.
Roma, meanwhile, had 17 attempts on goal and an overall xG of 1.75. Not outstanding or overbearing on paper when it comes to expected goals, but 11 of those attempts came from both open play and inside the box; 2 came from inside Milan’s six yard area. It was a dominant counter-attacking performance capped off with creativity in the areas of the pitch where it truly mattered.
This was the best of last season’s Roma mixed in with the growing strengths of this year’s Lupi. Both Fazio and Manolas’ interception and clearance rates were on fleek. There was a costly error in the first half to undo them, but generally Manolas was left to focus on what Manolas does best in sweeping from behind, while Fazio was the second-best passer in the team behind only DDR.
All of the newest Roma members of defence and midfield grew into the side with the determination to impose themselves, bringing out the best in the senior players in kind. We’re reasonably on track during DiFra’s second season in charge.
The only question from this performance is: Do you risk Daniele De Rossi in the Champions League? Or do save him purely for Serie A games and the fight for a top 4 finish? Do you dare to do both in one week?