Fonseca promised he’d adjust his tactics game by game in this league, and it was none more evident than this half. Roma started the game in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation but switched to 3 at the back within a quarter of an hour, often relying on Kolarov to play the ball out the back as the Serbian switched to playing centre-half in the back three and Spinazzola moved to left wing-back. But renaissance man Spinazzola wasn’t done shapeshifting his way up the pitch.
Spinazzola was everywhere, at one point even inadvertently making a 15-yard pass down the wing to himself before running the length of the pitch to put a ball into the box that came to nothing. But it was Spinazzola’s play as Roma’s trequartista, half an hour into the game, that would deliver Roma’s one true chance in open play this half. Leonardo found Dzeko with a slide-rule ball and Dzeko looked to bend a right-foot curler around Gollini.
But Atalanta’s keeper had completely read Dzeko’s body language to make an instinctive point-blank save. Chance gone. Roma’s only other chance in the half came from a set piece just minutes before this. Lorenzo Pellegrini put in an inswinging corner from the left that found Chris Smalling with an open goal at the far post, but Roma’s debutant defender misjudged where the goal was and headed wide. Goal-chances aside, Roma’s approach this half was to try and confuse Atalanta’s man-marking as much as possible.
It was like a five-a-side game with how often players were changing positions all over the pitch. Nicolo Zaniolo and Edin Dzeko spent just as much time picking up the ball in Roma’s half as Leonardo Spinazzola spent waiting to receive the ball in Atalanta’s own. And Kolarov as ball-playing centre back? Pau Lopez picking up cramp within the first ten minutes of the game? That was the frenetic state of play.
It made for little chances and very little fluidity in possession. Roma looked to play the ball up front as quick as possible, but often failed to find the intended teammate. Yet for all the commentator’s criticism of Roma’s failure to use the ball, Atalanta’s passing was only marginally better. It was a game for the defenders and something would have to change at half-time if this game wasn’t going to end in deadlock or be decided by some fluke set-piece.
The second half started with bad news. Roma’s most dangerous man Spinazzola showed signs of a hamstring problem inside the first ten minutes, and was promptly subbed off for Juan Jesus. It looked like a precautionary change more than anything but, in the context of this game, it was the last setback Roma’s faltering attack could absorb.
Moments later, Zaniolo was released into space down the right flank from a first-time Lorenzo Pellegrini pass. Zaniolo left a slide-tackling defender for dead, before cutting into the box and dropping his shoulder to flummox Gollini as the keeper rushed out. However, Zaniolo took just that tenth of a second too long to get his shot off and the chance was lost. It was good inventiveness from Zaniolo nonetheless, who had left Toloi for dead in similar fashion during the first half when Zaniolo was marauding Roma’s left flank.
Roma would switch off a few minutes later, however, as they let Papu Gomez receive a ball free on the edge of Roma’s area. The Atalanta playmaker promptly found Remo Freuler free in the box, but the midfielder couldn’t get his head over the ball and ballooned it over Lopez’s bar. It was a reminder that this game could still go either way. Perhaps sensing Roma’s need to keep a foot in this game, Fonseca chose this moment to bring on Mkhitaryan for Zaniolo. A harsh sub on Zaniolo, but the Italian was already on a booking from the first half.
Nearly 70 minutes into the game, Atalanta’s hitman striker Duvan Zapata came off the bench and would get Smalling isolated in a one-on-one but Roma’s defender came out on top to clear it for a corner. From the resulting corner, Papu Gomez again danced himself free into space on the edge of Roma’s box to deliver a ball to Palomino. The Italian missed his chance, but the flashing-red warnings signs were there for Roma. Bad things happen when you let Papu Gomez find space at will all over the pitch. And, sure enough, Roma would pay the price in the subsequent action.
70th Minute: Roma 0-1 Atalanta (Zapata)
Duvan Zapata comes off the bench and hammers one home to give Atalanta the lead at the Stadio Olimpico!— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) September 25, 2019
⚽ Atalanta now on the verge of a great away win against Roma pic.twitter.com/cNhIGn2PGX
A Giallorosso mistake in possession meant Atalanta wasted no time feeding the ball to creator-in-chief Papu Gomez again, and the #10 found Freuler on the edge of Roma’s area. This time, Freuler would keep his cool to lay the ball off to Zapata peeling a run ahead of him. It left Zapata with an easy point-blank finish past Pau Lopez for Atalanta to grab the lead with less than 20 minutes left in this game. As things stood, Atalanta were moving above Roma in the table on the night and looking like the more threatening side.
Roma’s attack faded the moment Spinazzola left the pitch and subbing Zaniolo out for Mkhitaryan didn’t come across like the inspired move Fonseca wanted it to be, either. With less than a quarter of an hour left to preserve his undefeated record as Roma coach, Fonseca’s final substitution was to bring on Nikola Kalinic for Federico Fazio in the hope Edin Dzeko would be less isolated up front.
That wish looked like being fulfilled in an instant, as Roma floated a ball into the box in the 79th minute straight to Edin Dzeko while Kalinic dragged a defender ahead of play. Dzeko chose to feed a short pass through to Kalinic as the Croatian evaded Atalanta’s last-minute offside trap gone wrong. But Gollini was equal to Kalinic’s effort on goal and Roma swallowed their chance to equalize. However, all the play was now shifted to Atalanta’s final defensive third and Roma had the momentum. Minutes later, Atalanta had to scramble to put a Jordan Veretout shot out for a Roma corner that came to nothing.
Despite the Roma pressure, Atalanta weren’t ready to completely shut up shop as they found momentary chances at the other end. First, Gomez flashed a chance over on the edge of Roma’s box before Zapata could have finished off the game. Instead, Atalanta’s top scorer hit the post with his cross-goal effort and Roma had less than five minutes of normal time to get the focus on play back into Atalanta’s half. But Roma would fail to do that.
90th Minute: Roma 0-2 Atalanta (De Roon)
⚽ De Roon adds a second and seals the points for Atalanta!— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) September 25, 2019
⚫ A 2-0 win against Roma for Gasperini's team may well see them finish the night in the top 4 in the table pic.twitter.com/xO4Ox13Xhs
In the last minute of normal time, Atalanta won a free kick on Roma’s right flank. The defending from Roma on this set piece was lax. There is no other way to put it. The Giallorossi had a couple of chances to clear this ball, but instead would flap at it until it landed to De Roon at the far side. Atalanta’s midfielder would cook Roma’s goose for them. 2-0. Game over.
So Paulo Fonseca tastes his first defeat on the Roma bench. While Fonseca did deliver the most insightful, lucid and introspective pre-match press conference I’ve ever heard from a Roma manager since... I don’t know... probably since I started following the club in 2000, it’s always easy to love a coach when results are going his way.
When you’re winning, they call those kind of pre-match pressers intelligent. But once results go against you, it looks more like naval-gazing while your detractors accuse you of indecision. And Roma certainly looked anything but decisive in all their formation changes against Atalanta tonight. The play looked frenetic, if not confused and outright imbalanced.
We’ll see if Roma can immediately bounce back at the weekend against Lecce or whether the knives will come out and accuse Fonseca’s football of living off the creative genius of Aleksander Kolarov alone, should Roma keep stumbling. There’s a long season ahead.
And it only gets longer if you’re forced to listen to Don Hutchinson’s self-enforced negativity in football commentary. I usually like Hutchinson but, when he talks himself into criticising a team, he really goes all out to try and convince himself he’s making a point. Often it’s better to put a cork in it and move on.