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Sinners & Saints: Roma vs. Lecce

Sir Alex Ferguson once walked into the Roma dressing room at half time. His words? “Lads... it’s Lecce.”

AS Roma v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Do you like what I did with the feature picture here? Justin Kluivert and Dzeko making #999 together? Reverse the number for 666. Yes, welcome to a more “visual” entry of Sinners & Saints. One where I explain my own inside jokes.

All seriousness aside though, I’ll try to go with a tale of the tape that deals with the match through its different phases. We’re looking at match moments that either did or could have swung the result either way.

And unfortunately only one guy falls foul on the ‘could have’ side of that list, to begin.

The Sinners

AS Roma v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Justin Kluivert

Kluivert only got one half yesterday, but his performance was a big influence on why Lecce found relief from what would have otherwise been an airtight-Roma lock from 2-0 onwards.

By that stage of the game, Roma was keeping gas saved in the tank and happy for Lecce’s back four to have the ball. An injury-hit Lecce side were shorn of any kind of creative outlet by half-time at the Olimpico - and we’ll get to why later in the Saints list - and, as a result. reduced to just five open-play chances on goal in the second half.

Justin Kluivert was directly responsible for three of those five chances conceeded, among other lapses of concentration from him, some that were made under no pressure at all.

Defending from the front is crucial for a side that plays as narrow as Fonseca’s Roma. We’ve lamented Roma’s ability to defend at the far post, but that’s an inherent risk of how we play. The straightforward (and planned) solution is to stop crosses coming in at source.

Lecce’s right-back Giulio Donati would have been as surprised as anyone to become his side’s main threat in the second half. It didn’t stop Roma from getting a cleen sheet on the day, but Kluivert’s performance was the latest example of “more work needed” on the training ground, among Roma’s young forwards, when it comes to pro-active defence.

The Saints

Jordan Veretout was at the vanguard of Roma’s counter-pressing and helped break the deadlock at 0-0

Jordan Veretout’s Beatdown of Jacopo Petriccione

I don’t believe Roma spent much time (if any) planning for Petriccione before the match - the Italian has spent the new year on Lecce’s bench - but Jordan Veretout’s mental and physical beatdown on the playmaker was how Roma ruined Lecce’s day.

Petriccione came back into the side because Riccardo Saponara couldn’t return from injury in time. That left Petriccione as Lecce’s only escape from Roma’s press. Edin Dzeko, Lorenzo Pellegrini and others were extremely vigilant about making it difficult for Lecce to get Petriccione on the ball. Then came Jordan Veretout, after Roma lost possession in Lecce’s half, forcing Petriccione to immediately give the ball back for Roma’s opener.

Watching the game live, I was giving props to Mkhitaryan above all else. And he still does deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the steal and magnificent assist. But on second viewing, Veretout’s counter-pressing is crucial to Petriccione dilly-dallying in possession, until Mkhitarayan robs him and sets up Under for the opening goal. It all starts with Veretout’s quick, reactive play.

And Veretout was like that all game. Playing at the defacto DM in the double pivot this match, allowing Cristante to play further up field, Veretout’s performance was reminiscent of a James Milner shift put in for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. Veretout took up position almost as a right-back, allowing Gianluca Mancini oversee play from the middle of the pitch, and giving Paulo Fonseca a short-term offset to the risk of playing Cengiz Under.

Under kept himself off the sinners list with a goal and the kind of threat that drew defenders to him and away from his teammates, before setting them up with key passes. But the fact remains Under has near-zero reactions when Roma lose the ball, and his willingness to track back - let alone win tackles once he finally does - leaves a lot to be desired. That was all less of a problem thanks to Veretout having him covered yesterday.

As for Petriccione himself, he never recovered. Jordan Veretout shoving a knee into his thigh at the end of the half summed up Petriccione’s day, who was promptly subbed off at half time.

Chris Smalling

AS Roma v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Where has Chris Smalling been all Roma’s life? A defender with the intelligence of Fazio, doubled-down with the athletic ability to justify playing such a high-anticipation style at the back.

At 1-0, Lecce still didn’t really come out to play. Maybe the thought Roma were bound to make mistakes that would let them back in the game. They were nearly right on two occassions.

Gianluca Mancini was caught pushing up, letting Lecce play the ball in behind him because Chris Smalling made a sliding block on the Lecce shot that followed. Then Bruno Peres gave the ball away, in a moment of lapse, that left Lecce with a chance to equalize had it not been for Smalling covering the danger with another goal-saving block.

Overall, Smalling made 9 clearances, 2 interceptions and 3 blocks all game. Ok, he may never have the vision on the ball of Gianluca Mancini does, but Smalling is every bit of the covering foil that Mancini needs.

Henrikh Mkitaryan

AS Roma v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

As Roma eased off the gas in the second half, so did Mkhitaryan. But his first half was electric, and Fonseca praised Mkhitaryan’s performance as one full of the final-third decisions that Roma have been found wanting for this season.

It’s hard to argue against that when you see Henrikh give away no intent with his perfectly-timed assist to Under for the opener. Or Mkhitaryan slotting the ball past Vigorito for Roma’s second, with absolute no hesitation behind hit shot.

The Armenian’s experience and confidence on the ball is an example of how you make the most of space on the break, with sharp execution and no second-guessing. A reference point for Roma’s younger players on the frontline.

Edin Dzeko

AS Roma v US Lecce - Serie A Photo by MB Media/Getty Images

Speaking of reference points, it doesn’t get better than Edin Dzeko’s game yesterday.

The team were eager to gather around Roma’s captain for his goal celebration, as Dzeko drew joint-level with Vincenzo Montella on the club’s all-time topscorers list. Dzeko now has 102 goals, and will surely leapfrog Pedro Manfredini and Rodolfo Volk to fourth-place by the end of this season (it would only take 107 goals to do).

Getting third-place in the list (111 goals) is probably an honour reserved for next-season. After that, Pruzzo looks beyond Dzeko’s reach in this lifetime. And Totti’s record belongs in another stratosphere altogether.

But it was more than goals. Yesterday’s game marked a season-record high for both key passes (33) and passes freeing a teammate into space (20) by Roma. You don’t have to guess which player the biggest influence behind that feat.

4 key passes completed, 0.84 xAssist danger created, 4 out of 4 headers won and 4 out of 6 dribbles completed. Edin Dzeko was imperious.