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Margin Call Mancini: A Closer Look at Roma’s Fourth Summer Signing

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Gianluca Mancini shows fearless man-marking and forward passing, but he has 3 obstacles to overcome this season.

TIM Cup Media Day - Atalanta Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

They’ve finally landed him. Gianluca Mancini wearing Roma colours was in the air since January, but only made reality six months later. Mancini himself confirmed there was no more than “a suggestion” sent his way last winter transfer window, compared to the decidedly different pace of transfer talks on his phone this July.

The timing of the deal makes sense as, while Mancini was well-protected in a 3-man backline by the mammoth workrate of Marten de Roon and Remo Freuler in front of him at Atalanta last season, Roma’s midfield were busy doing this:

Roma’s midfield pressed up too late and far too erratically in 2018/19, leaving their defence high and dry

That’s our best rendition of both Cristante and Nzonzi pressing up too late, too uncoordinated, and too aggressive to be true. Except it was true. Over and over again. And I think we’re being generous with how small we made the gap between the defensive lines above.

At this level, when you’re that split second too late in cutting off your opponent (the opposition #6 on the ball in the example above), what escapes out the other end is that lethal ball through your midfield’s defensive line at the last second, leaving 4 more opponents free to outnumber your three men left in defence. Combine that with the further problem of Robin Olsen’s hesitance to leave his area and you had yourself a hotbed of miscommunication, decision-overload and lack of unity.

Centre backs Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio were not only left with deciding when to run back as the ball became open (in this case it wouldn’t be visible to the centre back’s eye - or “open” - until the very last possible second when passed through Cristante and Nzonzi, themselves both covering Manolas and Fazio’s field of view) but the leading backline defender (usually Fazio) was left with the added decision of which of the attackers to push up on and cut off before the danger developed.

It wasn’t always Fazio left with the double-task of zonal defending. It goes without saying that Manolas was expected to push up and lead the line whenever the opponent worked the ball up their left side of the pitch. But, all things being even in the middle of the field, it’s often Fazio who relishes the task—somewhat paradoxically given his lack of pace—of “pushing up as much as possible” (the Argentine’s very own words in his pre-season interview this summer as Fazio looks forward to Fonseca-ball).

While the ball was still covered from sight, Fazio had to decide how best to cover the circa-25-yards free space in front of him (the smaller of the two box zones above). But once the ball was squeezed past Cristante-Nzonzi’s failed pressing, it became a palla scoperta under which the backline instructions are usually very simple: run back as fast as you can. This is where Manolas excelled.

In the art of high-line defending, pace and athleticism is always handy. And owing to his physical prowess, Manolas’ job was often to be Roma’s covering man-marker, tasked with trying to make sure the opposition #9 never gets a free one-on-one shot on Olsen’s goal. Run back to goal into the 40-yard-gulf of space behind you (the larger yellow zone above) and just hope your midfield tracks back with you. Hope your goalkeeper comes out of his area to help narrow the space, too.

The comfort of knowing that - let’s say 8 times out of 10 - Kostas Manolas could run back and man-mark the last attacker out the game was a plus. No one is ever going to say otherwise. But what’s truly essential to high-line defending is a compact team shape. Reading the game, anticipation and positioning yourself to cut off the danger before it ever gathers momentum - these are all individual areas where Federico Fazio’s greater intellect excels. It’s what Claudio Ranieri brought back to a Roma team in the last few months of the season. And collectively, it’s all the stuff you’ve heard of in Al Pacino’s Any Given Sunday speech.

It’s that game of inches. It’s keeping the space as short as possible between you and your teammate. Or as Manolas himself rightly pointed out last winter, it’s defending as eleven men and not four. Always thinking of your teammate first. Having his back to protect his flaws, as he uses his strengths in turn to cover for yo—

Err... right. Nevermind then.


The Art of Beating Your Man to the Ball

Unlike the images of Roma conceeding against Sassuolo above, the instruction manual for beating your man to the ball rarely (if ever) asks you to try and cover 7 yards of space in less than a second. We’re just looking for football, not fireworks.

The best way we quantify the art into a science is to rack up the 4 actions by which any defender performs: interceptions, tackles, failed tackles and fouls.

We’ll also take into account the fact Fazio saw the most game time (2981 minutes) over our other contestants Manolas (2454 minutes) and Mancini (2367 minutes). We’ll level that out by comparing their work-rate and success per 90 minutes.

2018/19 Season - Defending

- Fazio Manolas Mancini
- Fazio Manolas Mancini
Successful Defensive Actions/90 9.39 8.36 8.17
Defensive Duels/90 4.32 5.9 9.43
% Defensive Duels Won 29.37 31.06 32.66
Aerial Duels/90 5.37 4.07 5.13
% Aerial Duels Won 70.22 63.96 56.3
Shots Blocked/90 0.85 0.59 0.27
Interceptions/90 7.94 6.27 5.02
Fouls/90 0.85 1.06 1.41

What we see in the Wyscout data above—courtesy of Rudi News’ Valerio Albensi—is that, in all but two categories last season, Fazio comes out as the most successful defender. As Roma fan and journalist Albensi himself wrote last season: “The Argentine is incredibly strong in aerial duels, and comes out first in blocking shots and intercepting passes thanks to his top sense of positioning.”

In short, Federico Fazio was Chiesa Di Totti’s best defender of 2018/19 for, well... more than one reason. Several, actually. But as for the best man in the remaining two categories? That was Gianluca Mancini.

Lazio v Atalanta - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As the utility man in Atalanta’s defence, Mancini comfortably led in defensive duels over both Manolas and Fazio in Rome. That’s partly to be expected, given that Atalanta coach Gianpiero Gasperini instructs his Atalanta players to individually man-mark for all 11 roles off the ball.

Whoever Mancini was tasked the defend against, the young Italian was tactically drilled to aggressively stay on his opponent for all 90 minutes of the game. Gasperini’s pre-season training methods for figuring out whether a player is up to this task are notorious, but even he wouldn’t have been prepared for Gianluca Mancini’s success. The Italian defender only became a last-minute fixture in Atalanta’s 2018/19 first team after an injury nightmare struck Atalanta’s favoured talent Marco Varnier. Nevertheless, when it’s time to step up to the plate, Gianluca Mancini has shown himself up to the task of fearless defending at Serie A level.

A sidenote to last season: Mancini came up a shaky in racking up 1.41 fouls per 90 minutes, well ahead of Manolas’ 1.06 fouls per 90 and Fazio’s 0.85 fouls per 90. The young Italian has some margin to improve his positioning and smooth out his defending.

Nonetheless, Gasperini threw the kid in at the deep end tactically, and Mancini never backed down from his opponent; often coming out successful against that same opponent no matter how fast, big or elusive they tried to be against Mancini on the day.

And that’s good to know when you’re buying a €15 million (potentially rising to €23 million) euro defender.

That Mancini fearlessness proved vital in Atalanta clinching a 3rd-place finish in Serie A, and that’s exactly the kind of result Roma are hoping for by nabbing Mancini off the Orobici this summer.

To do it, Roma are going to need re-discover their blocca squadra team defence; one that’s willing to keep defensive decisions to a minimum by shortening the spaces among all eleven defenders off the ball in a short, tight Roma unit.

In Eusebio Di Francesco’s time this was done in a 4-1-4-1 off-the-ball formation, while Paulo Fonseca (like Ranieri) prefers a 4-4-2 layout among his three defensive banks. More than that, Fonseca prefers his teams to excel in immediately winning the ball back as a first point of call. So, reastically, there will be less opportunity for Roma to fall back in to a block defence like the one we’ve shown below.

Nonetheless, you can’t press all the time for 90 minutes. Sometimes you need a breather and other times you just need to outright weather the storm.

Petrachi has done his best to assist Fonseca in finding solidity off the ball with new keeper Pau Lopez to shorten the distance left behind the backline, and Petrachi securing two deep-lying midfielders - Amadou Diawara and Jordan Veretout - who’ve both racked up exceptional interception numbers in different Serie A seasons over the last 4 years.

If Mancini is to take the chance of growing into a four-man backline, now looks like a better time to do it in Rome than 6 months ago.

But let’s not get too carried away, as there is a question-mark over Mancini’s compatibility with Federico Fazio in a defensive duo. Both men have shown they like to lead the line and push up field, especially when it comes to playing the ball itself.

Ball-Playing Defense: Have Roma Found the Heir to Benatia?

Gianluca Mancini’s Serie A average heat map - January 2019
Rudi.news - Wyscout

As you can see from Mancini’s average heat map spread above—taken as a snapshot in the middle of the January transfer window by that man Albensi—Mancini likes to maraud up field just like Fazio. But we’ll be hoping Mancini can time his rampages in a way reminiscent of a defender who used to be the 11th man to get on the end of goals for Roma, owing to his own sense of timing and skill in possession back in 2013/14.

UC Sampdoria v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

It’s a big ask for Mancini to step into the void left by Mehdi Benatia. And assuming Roma fail in signing a second centre-back up to the task (an assumption we have to run under for now even though we hope otherwise), it means Mancini and Fazio have to talk it out between them for who predominantly leads the line and who covers; the latter role being a foreign concept to both men.

Playing the Ball Out the Back - 2018/19

- Fazio Manolas Mancini
- Fazio Manolas Mancini
Forward Passes/90 16.67 13.75 20.49
Passing Accuracy % 79.53 88 77.37
Long Passes/90 3.96 2.9 4.45
Long Pass Accuracy % 51.91 59.49 47.86
Passes To Free Teammate/90 0.09 0.04 0.34
Passes Into The Hole/90 5.01 3.63 6.88
Passing Accuracy Into The Hole % 68.07 71.72 70.17
Passes Into Opponent's Penalty Box/90 0.51 0.22 0.99
Passing Accuracy Into Penalty Box % 29.41 50 53.85
Through Balls/90 0.24 0.15 0.23

The above stats show a mixed bag of Serie A play that, on the surface of it, looks damning for Fazio. As a footballer who’s expected to shoulder the responsibility of possession from the back, Fazio was less accurate in his play all over the field last season. We’ve got to credit Manolas as, when he was deliberately trapped into being the spare Roma man on the ball, the Greek defender was more accurate in his overall passing —whether it meant short-range passes, passing into the hole or long-range balls over the top.

Manolas was generally better at finding his teammates with the ball in the league than both Fazio and Mancini (though the 2018/19 Champions League was a different story where WhoScored shows Fazio saw more time and success on the ball against opposing teams generally more willing to stand off Roma). But there’s a flipside to this Serie A puzzle: Manolas spent the most time passing it sideways, and was the worst of the three players when it came to putting teammates in a good position to receive the ball free of pressure. Nor did Fazio do spectacularly better in this respect last season.

Though the big Argentine tried more long balls and more forward passes per game than Manolas, and technically freed up teammates with his passing at over twice-the-rate of his defensive partner, both Manolas and Fazio’s rate of good, effective passing was easily overshadowed by Gianluca Mancini’s 0.34 passes per 90 to free up his Atalanta teammates on the ball. The real executioner on the ball here is the young Italian.

UC Sampdoria v Atalanta BC - Serie A Photo by Paolo Rattini/Getty Images

We suspect part of why Roma’s defenders did so badly in this area was down their own lack of managing the pressure, but part of it was down to Roma’s midfielders hiding behind opponents when the going got tough. The unwillingless to free themselves up and receive the ball was a glimpse into what Claudio Ranieri referred to as the ‘lingering resentment’ in the Roma dressing room on his arrival; one between new signings like Nzonzi and Cristante and the lukewarm welcome they perceived from their more established Roma teammates.

We also suspect that Javier Pastore easily overshadowed everyone in this area in a Roma shirt last season.

Argentine playmaker Pastore always looks to pass the ball in a way that his fellow Roma teammate can run ahead, free into space and onto the ball all at once. Always. Pastore does this as second-nature without even thinking about it. It’s sometimes depressing how much better Pastore is in this area than the rest of the Roma squad put together, but hopefully Roma’s summer signings can bridge that technical gap in quality on the ball—not least of all Gianluca Mancini.

Atalanta BC v SS Lazio - TIM Cup Final Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images for Lega Serie A

In every single area of risk-taking on the ball, Mancini was braver and more active than last season’s Roma centre-back duo. Admittedly, Mancini was also more prone to passing the ball straight to the opposition. And it’s questionable whether Mancini’s willingness to pass it over longer range is even necessary under Paulo Fonseca.

The Portuguese tactician rarely ever asks his backline footballers to pass the ball through two lines of the opponent’s defensive block, much preferring that Roma either pass it into the hole (where, again, Mancini performs better than either Fazio or Manolas) or pass to the full-backs free out wide.

We’ve already seen a lot of this in Roma using Leonardo Spinazzola’s prowess on the ball this pre-season so far. Overall, it’ll mean Mancini tempering his instincts to hit it long and over the top, to a shorter range in Rome under Fonseca.

Unlocking the Potential to Marry Bags of Character

Gianluca Mancini’s story is one of hard work meeting opportunity to get him this far.

You won’t find any records of him being labelled a predestinato, or god-given talent, during his days as a Fiorentina youth (where he was 3 years ahead of fellow academy player Nicolò Zaniolo at the time). Instead, you’ll find the odd mention of a young defender on who Vincenzo Montella fancied taking a punt in the summer of 2015 friendlies at the very last minute. That turned out to be a good decision in a series of many since, but not one that vindicated Mancini into a first-team spot with the Viola.

Instead, Mancini was loaned out (and later signed on full-time) to Perugia. It was south of Firenze that Mancini fulfilled a dream held since childhood: meeting idol and Perugia club-legend Marco Materazzi face-to-face.

AC Perugia v Carpi FC - Preseason Friendly Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

The club were aware of Mancini’s fanaticism for the former #23 (the very same number tattooed on Mancini made it obvious enough) and conspired to put him in the same room as Materazzi just a few months on arrival. Not much is known of what was actually said between the two men of differing eras, but Mancini has some way to go if he’s to emulate Materazzi’s achievement of scoring doubles figures from defence in a single Serie A season.

Materazzi achieved that feat twice in in Serie A career, the first time being at the dawn of the new millenium in his final season with Perugia (2000-01). Materazzi himself was never spoken of in glowing terms; especially not in comparison to the most gifted defenders of his own generation. And yet, it was Materazzi who worked his way into a key—and perhaps infamous—role in Italy’s World Cup success just five summers later. That’s without mentioning the titles racked up with Inter after that summer of 2006, and the key role Materazzi played in that Inter treble-winning side of 2010.

Andrea Pirlo Farewell Match Photo by Massimiliano Ferraro/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Careers like Materazzi’s prove that you’d rather be caught in the right time, right place with the right work ethic than without it.

You can have all the generation-defining talent in the world, but it’ll fall by the wayside if not underpinned by the character to take on the game by the scruff of the neck when opportunity calls. Gianluca Mancini’s character has won trust in the modern era of football through his application to all phases of play. The young defender keeps convincing managers to throw him opportunities at each rung of the ladder.

Mancini’s best magic trick yet was convincing Gianpiero Gasperini to take a gamble this past season; Mancini finally breaking into Serie A first-team action by way of his versatility filling several roles on the pitch amid an Atalanta injury crisis. It didn’t take long for Gianluca to begin aiming at the goalscoring achievements of idol Materazzi, as Mancini racked up the first of a total 5 Serie A goals for the 2018/19 season - a figure that makes Mancini last season’s second-highest scoring league defender behind only Roma’s Alex Kolarov. That being Mancini’s first full Serie A season in his career to date.

Roma won’t expect goals from Mancini this coming season as anything other than a bonus from set pieces. But the necessities will be threefold for Mancini in a Roma shirt: he needs to adapt to a 4-man backline, needs to strike the right partnership at the heart of defence, and needs to execute Paulo Fonseca’s taste for shorter, if equally adventurous, passing on the ball.

LAPRESSE

It’s going to be fun watching him get to grips with it all. Hopefully this proves to be a defensive talent that Roma nurtures through stability and tactical coherence, as a foundation for Gianluca Mancini reaching the next level in senior career.