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Roma Treading Water Through Pallotta’s Mistakes

Pallotta’s era takes credit for growing the club, but the actual men’s football team itself? Change the record.

SPAL v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images

This is one of the last deep-analyses of the men’s team for this season, as most of the story will inevitably revolve around what’s done off the pitch from now till the summer. Already Ranieri is getting bashed in the press this morning, predictably so in a city lost for answers on who to blame next.

We’ve given credit to James Pallotta’s management where credit is due. We cover the Roma women’s team and Primavera team, both thanks to the club’s expansion as a whole. Giada Greggi and Elisa Bartoli are two of the biggest stories coming out of Roma this summer, hopefully both on the same senior Italy team if the stars really align.

That aside, Pallotta’s stumbles with the men’s team have failed to stand out beyond the painfully average.

Firing Garcia, Spalletti, Di Francesco

If we’re looking for a piece of data to sum up the last four seasons shoved onto Ranieri’s plate, the biggest change is found in Roma’s Passes Allowed per Defensive Action (PPDA) index. It’s not a stat I know off hand, I forgot it even existed. But it’s certainly been making the rounds among the few Italy-based opinions who care to comb through these things.

To sum up it, PPDA looks at the number of passes conceded to the opponent per defensive action from your own team. In plain English: How effective is your side is at pressing? Do you organize yourself well? Or do you spend too much time aimlessly running as you watch the ball go right by you?

The lower your PPDA, the better. A high PPDA is a sign it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Sites will vary (as they always do) on what they’re willing to count as ‘defensive actions’. The mainstream thought has generally settled on four elements: tackles, attempted (or failed) tackles, interceptions and fouls.

Looking at Roma’s pressing over the last four seasons, and it’s hard not to notice the wild variations ever since losing possession-masters Miralem Pjanic and Seydou Keita. It’s even harder to not notice the wild variation over this ‘18-’19 season alone.

Valerio Albensi @ValeAlb -

In 2015-16, Roma’s PPDA was stable 7.71. Rudi Garcia’s ragnatela worked. It wasn’t amazingly exciting to bait the opposition into coming onto Pjanic, Keita and Totti to then release Gervinho into space, but there were no wild peaks and valleys. And, as Totti would reveal later, the two-dimensional route Roma took to success wasn’t a sign of Garcia’s tactical rigidity. Far from form following function, Roma’s up-and-downs follow on from who does and does not have the character under Olimpico’s glare.

Roma’s rebuilt side, under Garcia, continually looked towards 3 men to lead the way (four if you count the all-action Medhi Benatia in Garcia’s first season).

AS Roma v Udinese Calcio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

For all the times Garcia had been derided as a man devoid of tactical ideas in Rome, there was little difference between Garcia’s beliefs and those of Roma’s most successful coach of all time, Nils Liedholm. Both believed the more you held onto the ball, the less your opponent could hurt you with it.

Garcia immediately won Totti’s backing in 2013; Roma’s legendary captain openly hoping Garcia would “one day enter the hall of fame” at his club. Well, you would say that when a coach gives you a rebirth, making who you the heart and soul of his team on the pitch. But Totti later explained Garcia’s demise in equally unequivocal terms, once the captain penned his autobiography released last year.

In Totti’s eyes, it was that home game against Bayern - the team to which Roma had just sold their star Benatia - as the watershed moment.

“The match that made our season,” Totti wrote, “and turned Garcia’s experience negative, was the third group game. Guardiola’s Bayern were coming to the Olimpico, and the city took fever pitch from all our games won till that point. They were all convinced we would do it. The Germans were level on points with us, winning the competition two years ago when they weren’t even coached by the great Pep at the time, and many considered them favourites to win this time. But there wasn’t a Roma fan outside the gates of Trigoria that wouldn’t give you the hand-sign for victory, and there wasn’t a friend of mine not asking for a ticket to the game because they felt ‘it would be a historic night.’”

Totti didn’t exaggerate the occasion itself: Roma drew 62,292 spectators to that home game against Bayern, taking in as much as 3.3 million euros in gate receipts on the night. This was easily a Roma club-record for a Champions League game, until a memorable European quarter-final just under 4 years later. As we know now, the Bayern game turned out to be a memorable night for all the wrong reasons; it was enough for Roma players to watch the life drain out of Garcia.

AS Roma v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

“The 7-1 final score was the biggest regret of my entire life,” Totti wrote. “It was the worst because it happened at the Olimpico, where all the other European beatings happened on the road. I was taken off at 5-0 going into half-time, and it was so bad that the people couldn’t even be bothered to whistle us. At the end of the game, Guardiola came to find me and told me he was sorry for humiliating us, but that it was the Champions League and you never give up and I knew he was right.”

“The Bayern thrashing was the definitive moment of ‘before’ and ‘after’ for Garcia’s experience in Rome,” Totti continued in his book. “It depressed him to the point of losing a lot of his self-assuredness. Instead of letting the loss go, he dwelled on it for months after, sowing in so much confusion into a tactically-organised side where he’d once found balance. Garcia isn’t a coach who forces tactics onto you, leaving the right amount of freedom to his players, creating duels in the game from which you can choose many options. Where he went the extra mile was in the calm he transmitted. But if he himself was the first person to lose it, then it becomes complicated to follow him.”

AS Roma v FC Bayern Muenchen - UEFA Champions League Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

Garcia had lost the dressing room, and from there comes the thinking that Roma had waited too long to pull the trigger on the Frenchman’s time on the Roma bench. Walter Sabatini resisted Garcia’s firing, insisting his coach would turn it around, but the sporting director was eventually overruled by James Pallotta’s clandestine meeting with Luciano Spalletti in Miami. It would be the second time Pallotta’s Roma would go back to the future for answers, following the hiring and firing of Zdenek Zeman some years earlier.

For his part, Spalletti’s second spell started off with wise moves. The Tuscan coach saw no need to make giant changes to Garcia’s Roma, essentially lifting the Frenchman’s tactics but replacing Totti with Diego Perotti at false nine and benching Dzeko entirely. Everything changed for Spalletti once he knew he was losing his possession-based midfielders in the summer of 2016.

It was bad enough Spalletti was tasked with being the man to phase Totti out of his Roma playing career, but now the coach had to make do without Pjanic and Keita too.

ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images,

The next two seasons relied on more aggressive defending rather than holding onto the ball, and the PPDA rose to 8.3% to 8.41 (16’-17’) and a further 1.4% to 8.53 last season (17’-18’). Not a bad thing in itself without context. A rise in PPDA can be explained in a number of ways.

Maybe Spalletti’s 16’-’17 side would bait opposition sides into passing the ball back to their defenders, before Nainggolan took his cue to press. It was the beginning of Roma sides willing to give up the ball, in order to punish opponents for their mistakes on it.

With Mohamed Salah in the side ready to make the most of counter-attacks, and Edin Dzeko living off the most basic of instructions (“just play off the shoulder of Salah”), Roma finished the season with the second-most prolific attack behind Napoli, and Roma had the highest expected goals count in the 2016-17 Serie A campaign - 76 goals scored from an expected goals count of 83.00. But then followed Salah’s sale and the rancour around Totti’s retirement; Spalletti decided he was out of there, leaving Di Francesco to step in and handle that PPDA rising incrementally in 2017-18.

FC Crotone v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

Eusebio Di Francesco: The Most Resourceful Romanista

Di Francesco is my first Roma idol that I can carry around with me in my adult life. Totti was different. Back then, I was a kid and his Italian-ness was everything I couldn’t see myself as. He had the alice-band hair, the tan and chiselled jaw, and not to mention the fantasista skills on the ball. Meanwhile, I was eating beans on toast in London trying to figure out how to even handle the attention of girls.

Totti’s Roma was an escape. With DiFra, I could bring his Roma into my everyday reality.

Having to make do with the losses of Salah and Rüdiger to the Premier League last season, Di Francesco put together the most organised three and four-man presses I’ve ever seen from a Roma side. His organization of the team led to a decreased but respectable 65.63 expected goals. The third-highest in the league behind Napoli (xG 70.45) and Lazio (xG 66.51).

All the while, Di Francesco tightened Roma’s balance. On paper, the risk Roma was giving up compared to Spalletti’s side was negligible. DiFra’s Roma gave up 38.46 expected goals against (xGA) in Serie A. Not a massive improvement over Spalletti’s side on paper (xGA 41.08), but an improvement all the same. That’s on paper. Put into practice it was even better.

DiFra’s first Roma, blessed with Alisson as the 11th man on the pitch, realistically conceded only 28 goals. They were the second best defense in Serie A in 2017-18, conceding 10 goals less than the previous Roma side. DiFra’s blocca squadra team defense was well-reasoned given the men at his disposal last season, and more effective than Spalletti pushing up Florenzi from a ‘three-and-a-half’ man defense into trapping the ball in midfield during the Tuscan’s second stay at the club.

DiFra’s defensive reasoning was sound, sometimes reaching heights of perfection. He organised his 4-1-4-1 shape off the ball so that conceding low-percentages chances was just a part of the game. It was a minor source of stress to absorb on the way to victory, not a perennial dance between heroics and tragedy of previous Roma teams. And perfection is barely an exaggeration here.

I’ve read people package away last season’s Roma Champions League campaign as “lucky”. If you really believe that, let’s support Roma another 20 years and you tell me how much luck Roma enjoys in Europe, as a team with barely any Champions League history. Di Francesco coached Roma to play on in the biggest games, despite the non-penalty calls for Dzeko away in the Nou Camp. Despite the Trent Alexander-Arnold handballing for Liverpool in the semi-final at the Olimpico, when Roma had them on the ropes.

I am not calling conspiracy on UEFA, but pointing out bias for the biggest teams with the most history in a competition is not only natural but actively catered to in football. It’s built into the market pool distribution of the game. They’ve even started to sow in the number of times a team has won the trophy, as little patches won on Champions League team’s kits. The natural tendency to Pareto distribution is blatant.

Crvena Zvezda v Liverpool - UEFA Champions League Group C Photo by Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

Consider the equivalent from which Roma often benefits in Serie A against smaller sides. Next time you watch a media drama made over Roma or Inter not getting a VAR call go their way in Serie A, and what an awful conspiracy that’s meant to be, try supporting Chievo or Frosinone for a season. Live through the crappy refereeing calls against your side every single game, week in week out. Roma live through the Champions League equivalent often enough, and yet Di Francesco put in a strategy to overcome it all the same.

Even this season’s dysfunctionally fluid side delivered a masterful home 4-1-4-1 performance against former Champions-League winners Porto. But Roma’s best European performances under Di Francesco will arguably always be the home games against Shakhtar and Barcelona.

Against Barca, Alisson only had to pull out 2 saves at home. Against Shakhtar at home, Alisson could have pulled out a deck chair and had himself a picnic over 90 minutes. It wouldn’t have made a bit of a difference to the scoreline. With Perotti defending like an animal at the front, and Roma’s ten men ahead of Alisson all having each other’s backs, the Brazilian keeper didn’t face a single shot on target all game.

Up until Di Francesco, I’d gotten used to seeing 70 minutes of individual brilliance carrying Roma into the inevitable 20 minutes of psychological trauma when it mattered most. I was used to seeing 2-3 star players being overworked by 8 ‘also-ran’ players who the previous coach had trained to be nothing more than pass-the-buck artists. Di Francesco was more in the mold of Rudi Garcia when it came to giving players options from which to draw their own confidence in the middle of games, just even more so.

AS Roma v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

DiFra delivered the best season anyone has pulled out of El Shaarawy in a Roma shirt this year, telling the Italian forward to put himself into duels if he ever needed a fall-back from which to reset his mind in the middle of a game. The belief that ‘a great attack springs from organised defending’ was the tool to bring some long-awaited consistency in El Shaarawy, but not limited to him. It also worked for 20 year-old Cengiz Under last season. It worked for 19-year old Nicolo Zaniolo, and both 22-year olds Lorenzo Pellegrini and Patrik Schick this season.

Add in 19-year old Justin Kluivert’s difficulties this season in the absence of injured Diego Perotti, and Di Francesco had put a strategy in place to rotate high-intensity performances among a frontline of kids, across three competitions. That’s to say nothing of him turning Fazio into the second-coming of Franco Baresi.

Many people will remember Baresi for winning a Ballon D’Or. Few will remember how Baresi was derided for a lack of pace and athleticism, before Sacchi turned that into a non-issue. Baresi went from zero to hero nearly overnight, as the backline general of European Cup-winning Milan sides. All because the coach protected his weaknesses enough to make the most of his great read of the game from defense.

AS Roma v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Di Francesco worked similar wonders with Fazio and the boys last season. And his use of Edin Dzeko was far more accomplished than the Bosnian’s days under Luciano Spalletti.

If there is one Achilles’ heel following Dzeko throughout his entire career, it’s his flagrancy from short-range. That has been the subject of Maicon gifs and memes, but it was also brought into stark focus during Ultimo Uomo’s 2018 feature on the football’s most lethal marksmen since 2006.

That feature racks up over a decade of football where Edin Dzeko came out in the top ten of several scoring categories... and yet Dzeko didn’t even make the top 20 final overall ranking when it was all said and done. Why?

His conversation rate from within the 6-yard and penalty box was just that bad. In many ways, meeting a coach like Di Francesco was the right time, right place for Dzeko to age like fine wine. Asked to be a more complete footballer, and pulled away from goal in the process, the rest was history.

Di Francesco was the most resourceful coach Roma had enjoyed for the last 15 years. Handed kids as replacements for top-class players, he left the club with the joint-record performance of any Roma coach in Champions League history. He tied with Liedholm (1.6 points per game) having coached twice as many games as Liedholm, with a far less accomplished side that the 1983 team.

He was a #433 #rotations #tacticalbeast. And that’s the end of the story. Or so I wish.

Guilty of Their Own Success

DiFra’s emphasis on finding security off the ball eventually backfired, leaving the coach open to valid criticism. This season saw him stood pitchside laughing nervously into oblivion, watching Roma walk right back into the very defects that DiFra was meant to avoid. An over-reliance on Fazio, Kolarov, De Rossi and Dzeko’s form couldn’t make up for the other players turning into also-rans. Something that look very hypocritical for a Monchi-EDF ethos preaching all players as equals. The reality was far from their ideals, in fact.

Letting the opponent have the ball, in an attempt to steal it off them, finally backfired on Roma to resounding effect once more. A 7-1 cup loss never came under Di Francesco in Europe, but it sure did come on a disaster night in Florence. DiFra often spoke of “mental lapses”, echoing the view of Spalletti before him and mirroring the curtain call of Rudi Garcia. That is where you can make a big argument for mastering the ball and taking control of possession, so as to never let the opponent build momentum or get the jump on you in any phase of the game.

If there were ever a more valid call to that action, consider that Roma’s PPDA jumped up by 18% this season alone, to 10.53 passes conceded per defensive actions.

Udinese v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Does that mean this season’s midfield is full of mercenaries who aren’t worth the shirt?

All signs point to the contrary. And even if they are “mercenaries”, that’s the right kind of motivation you want in your side as a starting point. As Ranieri said this past week: “I don’t believe the players feel as though they’re just passing through but, even if they did, then they should give even more. Because other teams will look to buy them if they do well. If they do badly, no one will come. So it all comes back to the desire to perform well all the same.”

For all their nightmares as a duo, Bryan Cristante and Steven Nzonzi regularly rack up the most distance covered and top average running (HIR) speed, game after game. Even in the last defeat away to SPAL, that never stops being true. If you believe they’re unmotivated, you must be that morning person who can go for a jog with no plan, and still keep going all the same.

Running when you’re not even sure what you’re accomplishing is not easy, let alone doing it more than 8 other outfield teammates. These are self-motivated players. Their worst crime is being ineffective, aimlessly running when intuition would serve better.

Nzonzi has been backhandedly described as a ‘system-based’ player on the web, whatever that means. I imagine it means the guy simply lacks instincts for what his team needs, when they need it. Which I’d agree with. Even in Ranieri’s first game in change, Nzonzi and Cristante inexplicably spent a lot of the first half hiding behind Empoli’s midfielders; themselves stood between the Roma midfield duo and backline on the ball. The second half was better, but it damn sure took a long time for them to adjust.

The search for effective use of the ball is wherein came the logic of Ranieri. How we do from here till the end of the season is anyone’s guess, but the method isn’t too promising.

What Is Ranieri Trying To Change?

“The team can’t do what I want them to,” Ranieri accepted this week, “so I have to help in another way.”

Ranieri’s logic is sound enough from the outset, with what little time has been given to him. If you can’t work through a problem, work over it. In this case, if you can’t train a team to be better at winning back the ball, just hold onto the ball instead. What we saw in Ranieri’s opening win against Empoli was effectively Roma working in two separate departments, agreeing to mail each other long-distance for the entire match.

Benedetto Greco Video Analyst

Thanks to Benedetto Greco’s analysis on Facebook, you can see Roma’s idea on Ranieri’s first game back. Marcano, JJ, Nzonzi and Cristante held onto the ball alongside captain Alessandro Florenzi. For all the criticism thrown at the vice-captain, Florenzi was the guy tasked with lauching the ball forward to the Patrik Shick on the frontline. Schick won no less than 6 headers last Monday against Empoli, one of them leading to the winning goal.

It was 5 men at the back, 5 men up front on the ball. All were instructed to stand off their men, when Roma weren’t in possession, except for the two wide midfielders allowed to press.

That brings us to the performances of Kluivert and Santon, and the workload asked on the wide men is where Ranieri’s short-term focus starts to open more potential problems than solutions. Roma were essentially outnumbered in attack all night. When Roma were on the ball, it was left to Santon and Kluivert’s extra movement to make up the numbers. We know by now that SES wasn’t going to do anything out of his own comfort zone.

Empoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

While Santon didn’t come in the top five of overall kms run by Roma players against Empoli, he put in the fourth-highest average sprints of the side, as far as very high-intensity running (VHIR) goes. Santon’s average sprint speed was recorded at 29.8 kmh over the course of the entire game, left for most of the game to link defense and attack alone on Roma’s left flank. For perspective, you’re usually considered to be doing intense work if you’re breaking anywhere beyond 19 kmh.

For Santon to break into those kind of spells and play the full 90 minutes, after not having played regular football for a while, explains why he was kept on the bench just five days later against SPAL; though that decision would backfire for Ranieri in Ferrara. It’s evident why the old coach preferred to play Perotti in big games on the left wing, when you have three games a week to plan ahead for.

Unless you’ve got a guy on the wing willing to carry the ball and defend between the lines (neither of which SES likes to do nor does effectively), you’ll end up having to rotate in other positions through the week more than you want to. This problem would go away if people just started playing SES up front.

Chievo Verona v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

The data from this season shows Perotti is as fast as SES at full fitness. In the last game against SPAL, Perotti logged an average sprint speed (VHIR) of 32.39 km/h; a shade behind SES at 32.74 km/h. There’s no real sign of big physical decline from Perotti, just a man looking to recover his fitness.

Both Perotti and SES are willing players, and speed merchants. Perotti is a baller between the lines, SES is not. SES is a finisher in the penalty box, Perotti is not.

Meanwhile, against Empoli, Justin Kluivert was asked to take on his man constantly. We’re short one man in attack kid, and it’s up to you to take them out on the ball. It was a big show of belief in Kluivert’s individual ability, but a big ask too. Kluivert tried 5 dribbles all game against Empoli, and completed just 2. Show me a 19-year old who will play well in back-to-back games within the same week, and I’ll charge you 180 million euros for Kylian Mbappé.

Ranieri obviously feels he can afford to put a great workload on the kids, now there’s one game a week left for the season’s end. It’s a different challenge to the one Di Francesco had to strategize for over three competitions. The task now is just to survive. The potential for Ranieri’s football to go wrong is far greater than the few ways it can go right.

A good game under Ranieri involves:

  • Your backline holding onto the ball
  • Your wingers having an awesome day at the office, becoming the league-voted Player of the Year among fellow professionals as they help you win the 2014 Premier League title

And that’s really it.

This plan already came apart when SPAL refused to give up any second balls to Roma’s hoofball tactics. It killed Roma’s game before it even got off the ground, and you just had to watch Kluivert lose confidence from having to find his own cues in the match at that point.

That’s before we even get to whatever happened with Edin Dzeko, who delivered a moment where the FOX Sports commentator literally called it on the spot: “Roma fans will be making a GIF of that in the morning.”

Duly obliged...

Roma’s attack was stripped of their foothold into the game (second balls), and outflanked by SPAL (holding an average width of 40,71m in possession and easily outflanking Roma’s average width of 30,95m off the ball).

Roma getting outflanked, above anything, was down to Ranieri’s fatal decisions on the left wing. Juan Jesus at left-back, behind Stephan El Shaarawy made for something that didn’t even look anywhere near a 4-4-2.

The gap between JJ and SES on the ball was not something JJ could handle, while SES’s average position - as shown by the Lega graphics - was up front in line with Dzeko at the very tip of Roma’s attack through the middle. Not where you want a “wide midfielder” to be in Ranieri’s formation.

Ranieri moved to fix this in the second half, with Zaniolo and Perotti coming on to bring balance behind Schick and Dzeko. From 70 minutes on, Roma took the initiative by winning balls all over the pitch. But it was too little, too late for a demoralised team.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If we’ve learnt anything from Ranieri’s press conferences, it’s the outright acceptance that Roma players are dead-scared of playing in front of their own fans. We already knew that when Spalletti’s Roma set a club record for league points... in a season where the Curva Sud stayed away from the Olimpico for the entire year.

Keep this in mind: We’ve just outlined why unlikely hero Davide Santon could be the key to Roma finishing the season on a relative high under this current coach, just like Ivan Marcano’s resurgence in defence. Be wary of the players being derided as ‘crap’ or ‘not good enough’ today, when they could just as easily turn to leading the team to results tomorrow.

Chievo Verona v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

Up front, Patrik Schick’s most threatening individual moments, failing any support from teammates passing it into him, come when Schick’s moving in from out wide onto his left foot. That’s not news. It’s what he enjoys doing when left to do it himself. The last coach knew it, the new coach knows it.

The more things change, the more we run out of names for James Pallotta to blame. I’m not sure anyone can seriously look Zaniolo, SES or others in the eye and tell them a contract extension is to be signed with their long-term future at the club in mind.

Already Ranieri himself is being derided by Roma press. It’s a thankless job. The few opinions inside of Rome that claimed the team were playing “without heart” under the previous coach, are now 4 days later claiming “heart and sentiment isn’t enough”. No sh*t.

Nzonzi and Cristante manage to extract more grinta out of themselves than anyone on the roster this season, but without applying it in the right time and place, what difference does that make?

A top competitor needs time and support; using that to build the character needed in taking on each phase of the game as it comes, seeing when your opponent is getting the jump on your team, putting a stop to it, showing belief in your team’s ability to impose itself on the final score. Without that character-building environment, you’ll always be getting jumped by the Cagliaris and SPALs in winter and spring.

I have vouched for looking at Pallotta’s era in the wider view of Roma’s history. So had Alessandro Austini, one of Pallotta’s biggest advocates.

Austini himself said this morning: “Ranieri talks about how some players will be forced to find a change of scenery this summer, but I’m sure many of them can’t wait for some fresh air elsewhere. It’s time to understand what a football club is. There’s an infrastructure there, but no football club. That is overwhemingly Pallotta’s fault.”