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Despite Some Solid Performers, Roma's Defense Regressed

Federico Fazio remains Roma’s best defender despite unrelenting pressure on the backline in 2018/19.

AS Roma v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Twelve months ago, the Giallorossi finished with a respectable 38.46 xGA (expected goals allowed) while actually conceding 38 goals. The defence put them on a par with the likes of Atalanta, Inter and AC Milan in an exclusive club of ‘very good but can do better’ for the next year.

But instead of closing the gap to Juventus and Napoli’s rearguard, Roma’s xGA rose to 52.79 (48 league actual goals conceded) this season. The Lupi defence drifted among the likes of SPAL, Genoa, Bologna and Sampdoria’s performance. There’ll be a few ‘I told you so’s’ from the cynics all summer-long.

Roma used last summer’s transfer window to swap out midfield enforcers, searching for more technical prowess on the ball. The gamble meant less protection for the backline, killing Eusebio Di Francesco’s ‘blocca squadra’ identity that worked well in 2017/18. Gone was the most coordinated team pressing brought to Rome in decades. And the technical prowess on the ball never came to bear fruit either.

Roma’s unease in possession meant the Lupi defenders failed to adapt to opponents’ high press. At least 7 times out of 10, the backline players panicked and passed back to the keeper. That left Robin Olsen carrying the emotional weight of the team like an albatross around his goal area. Olsen didn’t help himself with his gaffes that led to goals, but I see him largely as a victim of circumstance. You can be sure Antonio Mirante - a keeper as conservation as Olsen - would have suffered a similar fate had the Italian played more under EDF.

The Possession Problem

Bringing down the rate at which Roma’s defence conceeded possession was one of the few changes Ranieri could train into the team, during his precious few weeks at Trigoria. And what of the famous ‘high line issue’? It had less to do with Roma’s problems than made out to be.

From EDF’s last game in charge to Ranieri’s farewell in May, Roma’s defensive line only dropped back from 51.65m up the field to 51.29m on average. A negligible difference of 0.36 metres. The real key was timing when to drop back in recognising match phases where you need to invite less pressure on your team. In that respect, Claudio Ranieri brought an improvement to Roma’s game-management, even if it won’t deter Roma from pursuing the same long-term ‘footballing identity’ this summer.

Managerial targets like Fonseca, De Zerbi or the long-shot Maurizio Sarri are what’s left on the job market. These men are tactical variations on the same DiFranceschiano football that goes all the way back to the ideas of Arrigo Sacchi. Di Francesco’s variation on Sacchianismo had a lot to do borrowing ideas from Zdenek Zeman for playing the ball out of defence. These Zeman-inspired tactics were the one set of instructions that Ranieri put an end to.

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

Instead of Di Francesco/Zeman’s ‘playmaker fullbacks’ dictating where the midfielders ran ahead to receive the ball from Florenzi/Karsdorp/Kolarov/Santon, Ranieri brought safety in numbers at the back. Claudio made a unit of five or six defensive players sit deeper through delicate phases of the match. This far simpler ragnatela of support bought more time for Ranieri’s biggest change: not conceeding shots on goal inside Roma’s six yard box.

With more time to recover and protect against the ball, Roma managed to finish the season defending their six-yard box like their lives depended on it. Though they were happy to conceed shots around and beyond the 18-yard area, it made for a veritable Fort Knox around Mirante.

Ranieri’s influence was close enough to still finish among that pack of European hopefuls - Atalanta, Inter and AC Milan - from last season’s European race. But it wasn’t enough for Top 4. Why?

In Ranieri’s own observation, profligacy still lives on in Roma’s attack. But that’s a topic for the end-of-season attack review with Jimmy later this week.

For now, it’s enough to say that the old adage of ‘good defence is crucial to Italian football’ isn’t as true as it once was. At least not when it comes to Roma’s aim of top 4 finishes.

Good Offense Is Good Defence

Since the league has expanded to 4 Champions league places, Serie A teams can afford to give away more goals in the quest for European qualification. No one has ever finished inside the top 4 while conceeding 50 goals or more since Serie A become a 20-team league. But that ceiling is gradually eroding.

Lazio pushed the barrier last season by finishing joint-4th with 49 goals conceeded, losing out on Champions League football only because of head-to-head results on the final day. Atalanta bagged 3rd place this season with 46 goals conceeded. Even in a 2018/19 season where the Roma defence looked a ‘disaster’, they’d conceeded 48 goals by the time it was said and done. So I wouldn’t expect wholesale changes at the back for Roma this summer, unless they’re insistent on fixing the possession problem. And who knows if the new coach will even care for playing the ball out of the back?

If the next man in the hotseat is Paulo Fonseca, he may have a reputation for possession-based football, but he doesn’t have a dying need for visionary defenders on the ball.

Fonseca has shown he’s open to two midfielders dropping deep to collect the ball and work it up the pitch together if needed; this is a ragnatela closer to the style of Nils Liedholm’s Roma (back in the budget-slashing 1970s moreso than Falcao-inspired 1980s version). So ball-playing defenders - although ideal - will be less of an issue than the last two seasons.

That said, let’s rattle out the defender scorecards for 2018/19.

Alessandro Florenzi

Genoa CFC v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

Appearances: 29 | Dribbles Conceded Per Game: 0.7 | Key Passes Per Game: 1.4

Fun fact: Florenzi was still officially registered as a Roma midfielder with the Lega this year. Perhaps that reveals the club’s (ultimately doomed) confidence in Rick Karsdorp kicking off his Roma career last summer.

One notable improvement in Florenzi’s game is his dribble concession. In a season where you’d expect all individual defensive actions to go up per player (considering the sheer pressure the backline was under) Florenzi actually brought down the rate at which he is dribbled past, from last year (0.9 dribbles conceded per game in 17/18).

That’s a better performance than notable fullbacks like Juve’s Cancelo and Napoli’s Hysaj in this category.

Final Grade: B-

With an average of 0.817 kms per game sprinted, Florenzi did the 5th-most very high intensity running (VHIR) in the entire squad. He can make the same time and space on the ball for himself as Hysaj or Alex Sandro at that rate, but this also highlights Flo’s glaring shortcoming: he still doesn’t create enough offensively from those assets.

However, Ale’s defensive read of the game is maturing. He’ll never completely avoid being targeted by opposition teams in the air, but he’s a different player to when he first started at right-back.

Anytime Florenzi played up front this year, he was guilty of receiving the ball in the hole but taking the easy option to pass it out wide. It’s almost as if he’s forgotten what to do up front until his beautiful goal against Juve, and yet the club are rumoured to be considering pushing him upfield next season.

Prediction for Next Year: He’s now Roma’s captain and a guaranteed starter all over the wing. He’ll want to create more on the ball for a guy who’s at his physical peak.

Davide Santon

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

Appearances: 17 | Dribbles Conceded Per Game: 0.2 | Key Passes Per Game: 0.8

Santon made only 11 starts this season, making it hard to draw anything meaningful from his performance. His hunger to never let an opponent get past him was rock solid, most notably in Ranieri’s first game hosting Empoli.

Santon also made the second-most dribbles out of the Roma backline behind only Kolarov. Davide was one of the few fullbacks to try cutting inside to dribble between the half-spaces in the opposition half - something rarely seen in EDF’s entire stay at the club until Santon came along.

The biggest weakness in Santon’s game is pace. In another lifetime, he could have been a good centre-back.

Final Grade: C

It could have been intriguing had Santon played often, but he was a spare part.

Prediction for Next Year: Remains the 12th man off the bench to help defend leads.

Rick Karsdorp

FC Porto v AS Roma - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Appearances: 11 | Dribbles Conceded Per Game: 0.5 | Key Passes Per Game: 0.4

Karsdorp was tailor-made for EDF’s team on paper. On paper. On paper.

In reality he made 7 starts all year. It’s a real shame as Karsdorp’s class on the ball is exactly what’s needed to raise Roma’s quality in possession. But any good from Rick’s laser-guided passing was cancelled out by him getting caught completely out of position on the defensive end.

Individual errors away to Porto live long in the mind, as well as his awkward lack of confidence challenging for headers in the air. For such a tall guy, it just looks painful when he ducks underneath the ball.

Final Grade: D

Impossible to give any other grade. Rick gave away more goals than he contributed.

Prediction for Next Year: Rick is probably the hardest to call. No one knows if he can stay fit or if he’ll wind up a Dutch Bruno Peres, farmed out on endless try-before-you-buy deals elsewhere.

Aleksandar Kolarov

US Sassuolo v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Appearances: 33 | Dribbles Conceded Per Game: 0.4 | Key Passes Per Game: 1.8

Kolarov’s problem is the same as ever: He runs full throttle and has never found the discipline to pace himself over 90 minutes - even at 33 years of age and experience. The famous Bane line comes to mind: ‘You fight like a younger man. Admirable, but mistaken.’

Kolarov’s 1.113 kms sprinted per game is the most very-high intensity running (VHIR) performed in the entire Roma squad this season. There is no one in the team that has spent more time running at high speed than the Serbian. Despite the fact he’s still got the explosiveness, he chose to change his game from dribbling past opponents to more cross-field balls this year.

That lead to accusations that he’s “lost it” and can’t beat his man like he once did, but I believe it was more of a conscious tactical decision as the data shows Kolarov is more than capable of going back to his old ways when he wants. Instead, the Serb’s long-rage linkup play with Justin Kluivert probably created more team goals than the already impressive 8 goals and 2 assists that Kolarov posted on his lonesome in 2018/19. It was a decent way to bring Kluivert into the fold.

Kolarov saw more of the ball in the opposition half than Florenzi, yet the Serb was also often seen as the last man in defence. You’d think that lead to more offsides won, but it was just another symptom of how Kolarov spreads himself up and down the field too much. It just occured to me that as much as I like Kolarov, we’re back to talking about hero-ball here.

The legendary left-back failed to win as many offsides as he should have, while he runs out the batteries in his legs in the middle of matches, to the point that opponent teams only need to pick their moments to leave Kolarov for dead.

Final Grade: B

Kolarov played through broken bones, made history in the Roma derby with that free-kick, and equalled long-time idol Sinisa Mihajlovic’s scoring record for a Serie A defender set back in 98/99.

But individual glory did not bring team glory, and it’s an emotional weakness of the squad to rely on Kolarov’s influence so much. His contribution to Roma’s goal tally - whether as the first or second-assist man in the passing chain - cannot be understated. Nor can his willingness to clear the danger as the last man, with 2.1 clearances per game.

His own individual problems on the pitch all stem from his lack of discipline. That’s nothing new.

Prediction for Next Year: It’s looking unlikely that Kolarov stays. If he does, he’ll need to see more of the bench. Speaking of...

Luca Pellegrini

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

Appearances: 4 | Dribbles Conceded Per Game: 0.3 | Key Passes Per Game: 0.3

Luca Pellegrini was out of his depth in a Roma shirt this season. In a bad situation, he was the guy you threw on the pitch to make it even worse. A few nice touches at home to Plzen weren’t enough to look past the red card in the reverse fixture, or the bookings or penalty conceeded to Empoli.

For a kid accused of complacency inside Trigoria, Pellegrini wins an extraordinary amount of headers in Serie A given his height. He may just have to curb his enthusiasm, though having Kolarov for a mentor won’t help Luca to find discipline.

Final Grade: D

See above.

Prediction for Next Year: Luca’s performances, both since going on loan to Cagliari and at the U-20 World Cup, make him the top prospect we want him to be for Roma.

Ivan Marcano

FC Porto v AS Roma - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Appearances: 10 | Clearances Per Game: 4.1 | Blocks: 0.6 | Passes Per Game: 52.1

Back when Franco Sensi was his own sporting director in the late 90s, he signed Cesar Gomez for Zeman’s first Roma. Gomez’s performances were so baffling that rumours live on to this day of mistaken identity. Zeman reportedly had asked for a different defender to be signed from Tenerife in Roma’s scouting reports, but ended up with Gomez instead.

The modern day version of this story could well be Ivan Marcano, who’s lucky not to be nicknamed “Tour de France” with how often he was spotted running alongside his opponent, as if ready to hand them bottled water on the way to strikers scoring past Olsen.

But it’s not been all bad. Marcano was signed for his leadership, and he’s easily been the most active on the ball from the backline. The only man more open to receiving possession than Marcano this season was Steven Nzonzi.

From that, Marcano launched 3.9 long balls per game from the Spaniard’s left foot, but paradoxically couldn’t come up with any through balls or assists for teammates further up field. The centre-back’s famous prowess in the air also let him down, coming up with zero goals inside the opponents box. As if to compound his bad season, Marcano often just looked out of sync with what was expected of his positioning on the pitch.

Nevertheless, Ivan Marcano had the best interception rate out of any Roma defender this year.

Final Grade: C-

There’s a player in there somewhere, but what good Marcano brought to the pitch was largely ineffective for the team. Only his clearance and interception-rate lived up to the billing, while everything else was subpar.

Prediction for Next Year: Hey, even Cesar Gomez survived to show up in Roma’s 2000/01 Scudetto-winning team photo.

Juan Jesus

US Sassuolo v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

Appearances: 20 | Clearances Per Game: 1.9| Blocks: 0.6 | Passes Per Game: 41.1

JJ’s attitude and self-imposed humility off the pitch remain impeccable; he even went as far as to praise Juan as the ‘real Juan’ on the former Roma defender’s retirement day. But Juan Jesus’s flaws on the pitch are the same old story.

He lacks aggression in the air and simply cannot read danger before it reaches his box. And though JJ finally nicked a goal for the first time in his Roma career, he cancelled that out by being the only Roma player to score an own goal this season.

JJ’s clearance and block-rate is brought down by the fact he comes off the bench late in games, making 5 sub appearances this year. Squawka doesn’t work, so I couldn’t find a fairer ‘per 90 minutes’ comparison. One sub appearance was fatal in JJ’s individual failure to cut out the danger away to Napoli.

JJ is only decent when he plays alongside Fazio, and Fazio cannot play every game.

Final Grade: D

Every single defensive stat of JJ’s has regressed from last season - especially interceptions - which is a shame for a guy who’s a top locker-room presence.

Prediction Next Year: No matter how much I like him for the dressing room, the club should move on from JJ this summer.

Kostas Manolas

AS Roma v FC Porto - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 27 | Clearances Per Game: 4.3| Blocks: 0.9 | Passes Per Game: 38.4

The Greek stopper has put in a near identical individual performance from last season, in terms of blocks and clearance-rate, but grows more timid on the ball.

Manolas’ pass-rate and long-ball rate have fallen despite the fact opponents tried (particularly in the first half of the season before Roma adjusted) to force the Lupi into handing Manolas possession of the ball. Meanwhile, Kostas sprinted less than Fazio and Marcano, while running even less than Juan Jesus.

Some of that is owed to his good positioning as the last line of cover, but physically he looks like he’s been struggling for fitness all season. For a guy whose role is limited to man-marking his opponent and nothing else, he remains the odd man out for the style of football Roma has been trying to play over the last two years.

Final Grade: C

In a different Roma with a different style of football, Manolas could recover his career. But he’s been mismanaged badly since he turned down a move 2 summers ago. Few will forget Manolas slide-tackling thin air to give away 2 league points against a 9-man Cagliari.

Prediction Next Year: His limitations in possession are less of an issue under Fonseca than EDF. The club keeping him depends on whether a better-suited defender is available for cheaper on the market.

Federico Fazio

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Appearances: 34 | Clearances Per Game: 4.9| Blocks: 1 | Passes Per Game: 41.4

One theme has followed Fazio through his career: Fail to give him adequate cover in defensive midfield and you just don’t get the same player. Just ask Tottenham Hotspur.

That’s exactly the mistake Monchi made in a season where Daniele De Rossi was limited to just 15 starts, while Fazio played 2805 league minutes - second only to Kolarov for gametime this season.

The yards opening up in front of Fazio meant that the big Argentine’s read of the game was off from his usual standards. That creeping uncertainty led to fatal gaffes like giving the ball away to Gareth Bale, or assisting Ciro Immobile in the Derby.

Il Comandante makes up for his trademark lack of pace by simply muscling players off their stride before they hit full speed, in a way that I can’t believe has stayed within the rules all this time. You know you’ve been Fazio’d when he stops it from becoming a footrace in the first place. It’s all about timing, and we can’t deny Fazio’s timing was often either a step too early or late this season.

Coming under extra pressure and marking off the ball, his influence in possession fell off sharply from last season with a decline in average pass rate. His reaction - to the disbelief of many - was to push up-field even more aggressively searching for action inside the opposition half.

Final Grade: B

Even at Fazio’s worst, he’s the best of the centre backs here. There isn’t a Roma defender who came up bigger in overall defensive numbers for the season.

If you say you like your defenders to rack up defensive actions, then Captain Caveman is that guy. His dominance in the air pushed his clearance-rate even higher than last season, while he’s the only defender to average a solid 1 block per game.

He’s also the only man who can make a defensive partnership work with either Manolas, JJ or Marcano; while Fazio also popped up with 5 goals at the other end of the field.

Prediction Next Year: It’s a big ‘if’ for Fazio staying. He never had pace to begin with, so he will age well. He’s going to be one of the few with European and big game experience in the squad. But on 4.5 million euros (gross) a year, that wage could go to someone younger. Overall, he is an intelligent leader in a backline bereft of big characters. So the club will need to sign someone with character to replace or give him more bench time. Fazio cannot keep playing as much as he has this year.