Roma will travel to Genoa, this Sunday, knowing they’ll be stepping onto the pitch with a man who I thought had achieved the impossible and changed football forever last season. It was in a 2019/20 Serie A league game, between Roma and Udinese, where referee Massimiliano Irrati decided to give Roma defender Federico Fazio a straight red card for a last-man bodycheck on Udinese striker Okaka. Could it be that the rules of the game were no longer finding a grey area for Fazio’s brand of defending?
Not so, however.
Irrati left the aftermath of that game with demotion to Serie B and a serving a one-game suspension of his own, while Federico Fazio’s card was formally repealed quicker than you can sue a state for mailed-in votes. And so Fazio’s legend retained its aura, its unquestionable authority presiding over this reborn Roma defense; a unit that plays high when needed, to create density in numbers wherever the ball is and crowd out the opponent from getting to Roma’s goal.
I’m writing this because there wasn’t enough time or space for Fazio to make our Sinners & Saints list this morning, but when I’ve seen him playing against either CSKA Sofia or CFR Cluj, I see a dude who makes sure Roma have an extra man advantage in defense, in midfield and even inside the opposition box, as and when the game calls for it. Whenever I see Kumbulla, Ibanez or Mancini play the kind of game they do, I thank my lucky stars that Federico Fazio was the genesis of this new golden age.
And then there were ten other Roma players, besides Big Daddy Fazio, on the pitch yesterday. They all did rather well against a demoralized CFR Cluj side, with clouds gathering over the away team after coach (and former Chelsea stalwart) Dan Petrescu’s pre-match threats to quit.
With his first two goals for his new club, and a sharp secondary-assist for Roma’s last goal on the night to boot, we couldn’t not give top billing to Borja Mayoral (even though we didn’t really since Fazio is the best) this morning. Sky Italia said it best about Mayoral’s performance mid-game in the second half: “There hasn’t been a moment in the game where his team have needed him to join in and he hasn’t been there.”
Mayoral did everything you’d want a striker at the tip of the spear to do, including attacking the middle of the penalty box AND the subsequent near-post for Mayoral’s first goal yesterday. How long has it been since we’ve seen a striker with those instincts on display in the Eternal City? But it didn’t end there.
Mayoral’s speed of thought, touch and turn to link up with Roma debutant Tommaso Milanese for Roma’s fifth goal was beautiful stuff, showing that Borja can be more than just a fox in the box, striking up the right kind of team chemistry to create goal-chances for others outside of the area, too. What a stark contrast from Roma’s first two goals on the night, where Borja No-Mates was basically the only player not joining in the Roma goal-celebration huddles.
Nothing speaks more fluent in football than scoring goals and winning games, so Mayoral just found some common ground by which to stake his place at this club.
He will never be the flashiest Giallorosso player, but Roma’s Capitano Europa was crucial for the manner of Roma’s win last night, and giving the team the security it needed to dominate the match from start to finish.
Paulo Fonseca was insistent, in the post-match interviews, that Roma’s temporary switch to a 3-5-2 (or 3-1-4-2) formation yesterday wasn’t tied to any concerns over Mayoral up front, but defensive concerns in the midfield department. Fonseca wanted to guard against Cluj’s long-ball threat over the top, and have his Roma players cut out that potential danger ahead of time. Bryan Cristante’s presence on the pitch, just in itself, is often the perfect weapon to that end.
Cristante carried out the coach’s orders to the tune of 2 interceptions (one of them aerial), 2 clearances inside the Roma box (one of them aerial), and 3 contested headers where Cristante won all 3 of them. All the while, Cristante committed to no fouls and, though WhoScored if officially claiming Cristante made a key error leading the a Cluj attempt on goal in the 19th minute of the game, that was down to a casual Villar pass on the edge of Roma’s box that put Cristante in a no-win position from the start.
But it doesn’t stop there with Cristante. You want dominance on the ball? A game-high 102 touches of the ball and 91 passes yesterday evening (the most of all 22 players on the pitch) meant Bryan was the lynchpin of everything giallo e rosso.
For everything said about Cristante above, you could almost copy-and-paste it for Kumbulla’s performance. If you see no Kumbulla pictured above, that’s because there was no actual shots of Kumbulla in last night’s game on the Getty Images database; a quirk that typifies Marash’s performances by now.
The Roma defender is naturally dominant to the point where opponents look like they never fancy trying their luck down Kumbulla’s side of the pitch. It’s only at full-time that you ask yourself: Why didn’t I see a lot happening down that left flank this game?
And then you cut to the final scene of The Usual Suspects, where Kumbulla emerges like Keyser Soze; the potential world’s best defender-in-the-making working hard to convince you he’s just a mild-mannered player who doesn’t exist.
What has Bruno actually done wrong, since February of this year all the way to this winter? All he did was contract Covid-19, that knocked him off his red-hot redemption streak over the summer. But that’s about it.
Peres delivered a very balanced performance on the flanks, joining in both the attacking and defensive phases of the game in equal measure. The only blip on his performance was a game-high 6 losses of possession, which is never pleasing to the eye on the stats-sheet, but it’s also a hazard of the job when you play out wide. On the other hand, Peres racked up 1 clearance, 1 block, 1 aerial duel (which he won), and 2 interceptions on the defensive end.
In attack, Peres completed both of his dribbles, while his 83 touches on the night gave a hint as to how much he tried to help Roma dominate the half-space on his side of the pitch, often showing sharp, quick, link-up play within Roma’s five-man midfield unit that brought the best out of younger players like Villar and Milanese whenever possible.
Remember when we asked if his Roma teammates could trust Lorenzo Pellegrini with the ball? I think those doubts were answered last night, when Pellegrini took 72 touches of the ball and made 60 passes from deep midfield against Cluj. Which is extraordinary when you remember that Lorenzo Pellegrini only stepped onto the pitch at half-time.
By then, Pellegrini’s role was made much easier for him by Cluj already having been shell-shocked into staying off pressing Roma inside the home side’s half, and teammates doing their part to create time and space for Lorenzo on the ball; two things that the Roma number 7 loves to have in order to shine, and that he often struggles with when those two elements are taken away from him by opponents.
But for everything Pellegrini’s teammates gave him on the night, Pellegrini gave back in equal measure. The sight of him driving up the pitch with the ball with the captain’s armband was regal in itself, let alone starting off the sequence of play that led to Roma’s beautifully collective fifth goal. For the second game in a row, we can say Pellegrini was the man who refused to let Roma rest on a one or two-goal lead, and spurred on his team to get the kind of scorelines that Roma’s collective play deserves.
Last but definitely not least, our final Saints slot goes to man on the sidelines. When you see how relatively easy it is for new-guy Tommaso Milanese to make a mark on the senior team on his very first appearance, that’s exactly why you want the brand of football that a trainer like Paulo Fonseca brings to Roma.
Compact team, density around the ball, the players all working to limit the distance between themselves and the ball to string short passes between teammates. No one’s role is ever easy, easy but it’s certainly never made complicated or harder than need be.
Fonseca has also been vindicated with his use of the Europa League to share minutes around the squad, truly making use of every player at the club so far. And his daily training drills of one-touch passing look like they are beginning to become second-nature in Roma’s matchday play, with the Giallorossi often getting themselves out of Cluj’s early-game pressure by instinctively creating passing triangles all over the pitch.
We’ll look to see if that kind of play still comes to Roma so instinctively against stronger opposition but, yeah, this is pretty much why you stick with a coach (or at least a footballing blueprint) for longer than 12 months. How long has it been since Roma actually lost a game on the pitch again?