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Can Roma's Second Unit Beat Back Cluj to Top Europa League Group?

The B-Team has struggled so far, but Roma has no other choice than to let the kids learn on the job.

AS Roma v CSKA Sofia - UEFA Europa League Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

While those of us in the United States are sweating out the results of one eagerly awaited contest, if you happen to be crazy enough to double dip into the Romaverse, there's an equally important matchup on the docket tomorrow (no, not even slightly, but allow me some creative license, would ya!?): Roma's Europa League fixture against CFR Cluj, the current Group A leaders. Cluj and Roma have identical records through the first two matchdays, but the Romanian club hold a slim one goal advantage on the table.

Roma manager Paulo Fonseca was typically and politically effusive in his praise for tomorrow's opponents, citing Cluj's recent run of form in his pre-match press conference:

Cluj are a very strong side, aggressive with specific qualities. Last season they were in a group with Lazio – then they went up against Sevilla, who ultimately won the competition. They didn’t lose against Sevilla over either leg, even if they eventually went out [on away goals]. They are a team that haven’t lost for 15 matches – so it won’t be easy.

Cluj carried an 11 match unbeaten streak into their round nine fixture against Gaz Metan but came up on the wrong end of a 2-1 score-line over the weekend, so I'm afraid Fonseca was given some old information. But CFR Cluj, who make their home in Transylvania yet are known as the Railwaymen (I guess the Vampires or the Van Helsings would be a bit too on the nose, huh?), currently sit third in the sixteen-team Romanian League.

However, with three consecutive league titles and six in the past twelve years, Cluj are, for all intents and purposes, the Juventus of the Romanian League—one needn't know much about Cluj or the league itself to be impressed by that; they won't simply roll over at the site of Roma and their Halloween kits.

Roma vs. Cluj: November 5th. 18:55 CET/12:55 EST. Stadio Olimpico, Roma.

Typically, we try and find two or three key storylines in any given match preview, but given how Fonseca has decided to approach the Europa League, the only storyline that matters is his sputtering second unit; a concept that Fonseca flat-out rejects:

In my opinion it’s important that all my players get the chance to play games. That’s the same for Mayoral. I don’t have one team that plays in Serie A and another for the Europa League. Each game I make a choice. The most important thing is that Borja plays games. He needs to play, to adapt, both to his teammates and to the Italian league.

Given that there isn’t much middle ground in Roma's roster—with few exceptions, you're either on the wrong side of 30 or an U-25—Fonseca is charting the correct path here; better to let the kids cut their teeth and prove their worth against smaller European sides and save your veterans for league play. So, despite his assertion otherwise, Fonseca definitely has one team for Serie A and another for the Europa League.

As we discussed in our probable formations piece earlier today, Fonseca will have his hands tied somewhat thanks to mounting fatigue, injuries, and suspensions, so we may see more regulars in the lineup tomorrow than against Young Boys or CSKA Sofia, but the Europa League has been somewhat of a testing ground for Roma's younger charges.

While players like Borja Mayoral, Gonzalo Villar, Carles Pérez and Pau Lopez aren't necessarily failing these tests, they're not exactly acing these exams either, forcing Fonseca to turn to his regulars in the second half to wring something...anything...positive from the first two matches.

So...what gives? Why has Roma's B-Team sputtered where the A-Team has looked increasingly fluid and dangerous? Age and experience are certainly factors, as is the simple fact that this B-Team haven't played in many actual, live matches together, but what do the numbers say?

Attacking Performance: Serie A vs Europa League

Stat Serie A Europa League
Stat Serie A Europa League
xG 2.44 1.46
xA 1.59 1.27
Shots 15.17 13.5
SOT % 32 30
SCA 23.17 20.5
GCA 3.33 1.5
Possession % 49 56
Touches 596 703
Final 3rd touches 154 193
PRG Distance 1,433 1,589.00
All stats are per 90 minutes except for touches and progressive distance, which are per game.

There's a bit of a data disparity given that we're comparing six league matches versus just two in the Europa League, but even when normalized to per 90 minute figures, Roma's domestic performances shine brighter, as their shot output, accuracy, expected goals, expected assists, shot creating actions and goal creating actions are all higher in Serie A than in the Europa League.

But what's particularly telling is how these stats (SCA, GCA, xG, xA in particular) relate to their respective possession figures in each competition. In the Europa League, Roma are seeing the ball nearly 7% more, they're taking more touches per game, more touches in the attacking third per game and covering more progressive distance while carrying/dribbling, yet they've failed to turn that possession into anything useful—see the aforementioned goal and shot creating figures, as well as their xG and xA totals.

All of which points to one thing (which we conveniently discussed on our podcast yesterday): when an opponent cedes possession and collapses their defense around the 18-yard box, Roma have trouble finding attack space in the final third. And with the opponent remaining passive in all phases of the game, counter-attacking and up-tempo transition opportunities can be rare events, which then forces Roma to fire haphazard attempts at goal, which has certainly been the case in the Europa League where Roma's average attempt comes 16.8 yards away from goal.

And without the playmaking and dribbling abilities of Roma's A-Team midfielders and inside forwards, not to mention Mayoral's disappearing act as the defacto number nine, Roma haven't been able to stretch out these low block defenses.

There is a work-around, though. If Roma's B-Team can focus on quick, short passing around the edge of the area, those hard to find spaces might soon become available, but that sort of quick and succinct passing game requires an incredible amount of familiarity, chemistry and understanding between the forwards, midfielders and full-backs; something this B-Team hasn't had the time to fully cultivate...yet.

But that's the rub: given how tight the race for fourth place in Serie A figures to be, Fonseca can't risk running out his B-Team in league play, nor can he tax the legs of Edin Dzeko, Pedro or Henrikh Mkhitaryan in two competitions so soon, which actually makes the Europa League an ideal testing lab for Roma's youngest players.

So, despite the drab displays and dour statistics from the first two matches, Paulo Fonseca is managing this situation perfectly. Roma's B-Team has the talent and potential to blossom into an effective alternative to Dzeko and the boys, but they one thing they lack is the very thing they're getting, excruciating though it might be: experience.

Roma have yet to lose an actual match (on the pitch) this season and are fresh off perhaps their most convincing performance yet, and with a chance to grab first place in Group A before the return fixtures, B-Team or not, Roma can't let Cluj stand in their way.