There’s no denying that Roma’s start to the 2020 calendar year has been nothing short of dismal. Saturday’s defeat in Emilia-Romagna at the hands of Sassuolo— which sits bottom third of the table— highlighted some of Roma’s issues. Yet, despite their struggles in the new decade, the Giallorossi still find themselves firmly entrenched in a two team battle in the race for fourth.
As the weeks continue to roll by, the race for a Champions League spot looks more and more like a head-to-head battle with Atalanta. Luckily for Roma, Atalanta has been similarly inconsistent. Recently, the Nerazzurri sandwiched a resounding 7-0 win over Torino between a home loss to SPAL and a home draw to Genoa— two relegation battling sides.
Roma will head to Bergamo in two weeks time and that match could go a long way in the race for fourth. A win on Friday against Bologna would guarantee that the Giallorossi enter that critical affair no worse than level on points with Gasperini’s side. However, in order for that to happen, Paulo Fonseca will have to solve some of Roma’s biggest issues that have reared their ugly heads since the calendar flipped to 2020.
In most 2020 matches, even the losses, Roma has out-shot and out-chanced its opponents. Yet, in most matches, the Giallorossi have been very poor finishing their chances. In the match that began the downward spiral, against Torino at the Olimpico, Roma took an astounding 31 shots. Yet, the Giallorossi only put seven of those shots on target and none found the back of the net. Eventually, Andrea Belotti taught Roma how to finish chances and the Giallorossi fell 2-0 despite an xG of 1.94.
It was a similar story the following week. Roma spotted Juventus two goals in the first ten minutes. After that, Fonseca’s side unleashed 22 shots (6 on target). The underlying stats favored Roma when all was said and done with an xG of 2.58 to Juve’s 2.34. Yet, Roma lost the match 2-1.
However, the match that may have best highlighted Roma’s scoring woes was the derby. The match may have finished 1-1, but the Giallorossi played one of their best matches under Fonseca. They seemed to do everything right; except score. The Giallorossi controlled 67% of possession, yet they rarely challenged Thomas Strakosha’s goal with just 3 of 22 shots on target. Again, the underlying stats favored Roma xG 2.10 to 1.06. Yet, Roma only found the net once.
Then this weekend, Roma was again wasteful in attack. The Giallorossi matched Sassuolo pretty much shot for shot. Each team had 18 total shots with Sassuolo totaling just one more shot on target than Roma (10:9). Defensive errors aside, the finishing made the difference. Sassuolo took its chances while Roma didn’t. Believe it or not, the xG actually favored Roma 2.84 to 2.34 in the 4-2 loss.
Da inizio Gennaio l’#ASRoma, ad eccezione della partita contro il Genoa, segna costantemente meno di quanto creato— AS Roma Data (@ASRomaData) February 2, 2020
Roma-Torino 0 G 2.26 xG
Roma-Juventus 1 G 2.84 xG
Genoa-Roma 3 G 1.84 xG
Roma-Lazio 1 G 2.04 xG
Sassuolo-Roma 2 G 2.82 xG
Underlying stats don’t tell the whole story, but they do tell a part of it. And in Roma’s case, perhaps a large part of it. Roma has been creating chances, enough that they should be winning most matches. Yet, they are just 1-2-2 in five league matches in 2020.
Roma need to start performing closer to their xG if they are going to be able to finish in a Champions League place. Edin Dzeko’s 10 league goals are a decent haul in 22 matches. However, according to the underlying stats, he should have 3-4 more goals. After him, the drop off is resounding.
Aleksandar Kolarov, a left-back, is the team’s second leading scorer with five league tallies. Roma will need others to start finishing their chances and fast— namely Cengiz Ünder and Justin Kluivert. They’ll also need to hope that Carles Perez is able to contribute after his transfer from Barcelona. If not, the Giallorossi will have a hard time keeping pace with a high flying Atalanta attack.
Earlier this season, myself and many others praised Fonseca for having instilled a new mental toughness in the Giallorossi. For years, Roma has lacked the mental fortitude in the face of adversity. This season, that had seemingly changed...until the past month or so.
Lately, we are starting to see mental errors from Roma that we haven’t seen too often under Fonseca’s guidance. Those errors have cost Roma on the scoresheet and in the league table. A few episodes in particular stand out from the recent run of poor form.
With Roma already down an early goal to Juventus, Jordan Veretout’s huge error dribbling out from the back, led to a Juventus penalty that pretty much sealed Roma’s fate. Roma fought valiantly after halftime, but two goals down to Juve was too much to handle. Who knows if things would’ve turned out differently without the penalty, but Veretout’s mistake cost Roma dearly.
The same can be said of Pau Lopez in the derby. With Roma playing one of its best matches and leading by a goal, Lopez made one of the worst goalkeeping mistakes you’ll ever see. Who knows what he was thinking or if he was thinking because the whole mess could’ve been avoided with a simple punch to put the ball out for a corner. Lopez’s mistake likely cost Roma two valuable points against their city rivals.
Then Sassuolo happened. It’s hard to point to one or two errors because Roma was just mentally not there against the Neroverdi on Saturday. It was inexplicable after the way Roma played against Lazio, especially on the defensive end. And Fonseca’s post match comments pointed that out.
“First, I have to congratulate Sassuolo, who played well and won. The truth is that we didn’t play in the first half. It is impossible to win if we defend like that,” he said. “It is sometimes difficult to explain this difference that we saw from the Derby to tonight. For a team that always aim to win, we can’t play the way we did in the first half. Every time they attacked they scored. It’s difficult to explain the way we defended. We left too much space behind Cristante. To me, this is a mental issue. To play like we did last week against Lazio compare to today? It can only be mental”.
Fonseca has recognized the issue and he must remedy it. I’m not quite sure how that gets done, but Fonseca and his staff will have to figure it out fast. Call in the shrink, if necessary, because continued mental errors will likely derail the Giallorossi’s drive for fourth.
Heading into the season many feared that Fonseca football would lead to shootouts on a weekly basis. The common thinking was that Roma would simply have to score a ton of goals in order to pick up wins. However, once Chris Smalling and Gianluca Mancini joined forces it was as if the stars had aligned. Roma became one of the better defensive sides in the league.
That has changed since the calendar flipped to 2020. In seven matches in all competitions in 2020, the Giallorossi have conceded 13 goals. Meanwhile, prior to the holiday sojourn, Roma had only given up 13 goals in 15 matches in all competitions. It’s been quite the dramatic turn. This has in large part led to losing four of those seven matches. Conversely, Roma had only lost three times prior to Christmas.
#ASRoma has lost more matches in 2020 (4) than in the 2019 part of this season (3).— AS Roma Data (@ASRomaData) February 1, 2020
Furthermore the Giallorossi conceded 13 goals in 7 matches after conceding 13 in the previous 15 matches.#SassuoloRoma pic.twitter.com/jBj6ErXv0c
When seeing the dramatic difference in goals conceded, coupled with the subpar offensive production, it’s no wonder Roma has struggled to gain results. Mancini had a particularly rough night at Sassuolo, which happens from time to time with a young center back. But Mancini was far from the only reason Roma was hit for four goals by De Zerbi’s side.
One issue that was pointed out by Fonseca was the amount of space left behind Bryan Cristante. Roma’s team defending has suffered when teams break the Giallorossi’s high press without Amadou Diwara sitting deep in the midfield. Fonseca’s football thrives off high pressing the opponent. When that press is broken, the defensive midfielder is often relied on to win balls back; something that Diawara excels at.
Gli episodi di #SassuoloRoma:— Benedetto Greco (@grecben) February 2, 2020
Nel primo gol Berardi è persino raddoppiato, a palla coperta, ma trova lo spazio per servire Djuricic alle spalle della linea di pressione, totalmente dimenticato da Cristante. Il serbo serve Caputo in profondità ed è 1-0. pic.twitter.com/6h0o6u0AfO
When the pressing works well, you get a performance a la the derby where the opponent has trouble doing anything productive in possession. When it doesn’t, you get the Sassuolo match. On Saturday, Jordan Veretout wasn’t as effective pressing high as we’ve seen him be. Couple that with Cristante not being the same type of player as Diawara and we saw the defense get exposed.
Mancini is a student of the game and I’m sure is already working hard to correct his errors from Saturday. I’d expect him and Smalling to bounce back quickly.
That being said, where Fonseca will have to work hardest to improve the overall team defending, is the midfield. With Diawara out for the foreseeable future, Fonseca will have to drill Cristante on his positioning to ensure that Roma don’t get ripped to shreds again. Finding better cohesion between the Italian and Veretout may be imperative to Roma getting the defense shored up and weathering the storm of Diawara’s absence.
While Roma’s tumultuous start to 2020 has certainly made reaching the team’s primary objective of a top four finish more difficult, Roma are far from cooked in the Champions League race. As mentioned earlier, the head-to-head match up with Atalanta in Bergamo on February 15th could go a long way in foretelling the final league table. With that in mind, Fonseca has just under two weeks to get his team back to playing the Fonseca Football we saw to close out 2019. The success or failure of Roma’s 2019-20 season likely depends on it.
What has been most to blame for Roma’s rough start to 2020?
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Unfinished chances at goal