As we sit here mulling over where it all went wrong, Roma are staring the abyss dead in the face. After a mostly positive start to his tenure, 2020 hasn’t been kind to Paulo Fonseca’s Giallorossi. I Lupi have been so poor that only relegation battling Brescia and Cagliari have accumulated fewer points in the last six matches. Yeah, it’s been that bad.
Losing twice to Juve was one thing—they are the defending champions after all—but things seemed to be back on track after the derby. There was plenty to build on after the Lazio draw. After all, it may have been Roma’s best performance of the season.
Then the unthinkable happened. An embarrassing loss at the hands of Sassuolo was followed up with another clunker against Bologna. Consequently, Roma’s four-point cushion over Atalanta has morphed into a three point deficit, with a critical showdown in Bergamo just a week away.
Last week, we took a look at some of the reasons Roma has been struggling since the calendar flipped. However, as things continue to get more dire, there is something that can’t be ignored: injuries to key players.
You may be thinking “Roma have dealt with injuries all season, what’s so different now?”. True. And numerically Roma may have less injuries now than at any point since early in the season. However, there is a crucial difference—who is injured. The Giallorossi are currently without perhaps their two most influential pieces: Amadou Diawara and Nicolò Zaniolo.
And while it may be true that Diawara missed considerable time during Roma’s injury crisis back in October, they haven’t found a way to adequately replace him (and Zaniolo) this time around. Their absences weren’t felt against Lazio because of great tactics from Fonseca. Yet, the combination of those two missing from the starting XI has been killer against lesser sides with dangerous attacks like Sassuolo and Bologna.
The Gaping Hole in Midfield
Roma haven't been able to stem the tide of opponent’s attacks without Diawara sitting in front of Chris Smalling and Gianluca Mancini. Consequently, a defense that had been so solid has shown major cracks.
Bryan Cristante is a player that has been lauded by the Roma hierarchy during his time with the club. But, for all the quality that he showed at Atalanta (and at times under EDF), he doesn’t fit the mold of a Fonseca midfielder. That is especially true of the role he is currently filling in Diawara’s place.
Cristante doesn’t have the attributes of a deep lying midfielder. Diawara excels at being the maestro of Roma’s attack. He dictates play in front of the defense, distributing from deep in the midfield. Cristante isn’t as accurate of a passer, nor does he possess the first touch of Diawara. None of that is news, but Diawara may be missed even more in defense.
Diawara is excellent at breaking up opponents’ attacks. When opponents are able to break Roma’s first line of pressing, Diawara is often there to limit the pressure on the defense. He’s a master at taking away the attacking spaces—something Roma have sorely missed without him. Cristante hasn’t been anywhere as good positionally; Sassuolo and Bologna were left plenty of space between midfield and defense, as shown in the images below.
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 Cristante excelled with Atalanta he was playing higher up the pitch, in more of a Simone Perrotta box-to-box role, where he could burst into the box with late runs, which led to him scoring a dozen goals. His role now, sitting in front of the defense, doesn't really suit his skill set, and Roma are suffering for it.
When Roma was deprived of Diawara the first time around, Mancini stepped in to fill that role. Fonseca brushed aside that idea after the Sassuolo match, but may have to reconsider with Atalanta looming. Only time will tell if Fonseca goes to the well again, but one thing is clear, Roma need to find someone more adept at Diawara’s role until the Guinean midfielder is able to return. Maybe keeping De Rossi around on a play for pay contract wasn’t such a crazy idea.
The Knee that Clipped Roma’s Right Wing
There has been plenty of debate about where Zaniolo should play on the pitch since his arrival in the capital. And while right wing may not be his natural position, there’s no question that he made it his own this season. Zaniolo may not be your prototypical winger with blistering pace or insane trickery on the ball, but his combination of size, strength, pace, heavy shot, and technique made him a handful for opponents.
In theory, Roma should have the pieces in house to replace Zaniolo at right wing. The replacement wouldn’t be built in the same mold as Zaniolo, but would be a more natural fit at right wing than Cristante is in the defensive midfield. After all, Cengiz Ünder became one of Serie’s A top prospects two seasons ago before anyone knew the name Zaniolo.
Ünder has all the tools to be a top end right winger and excel in Fonseca’s system. He’s got great pace, the ability to take men on, and great left-footed shot from outside the box; something the rest of Roma’s attackers lack. However, for whatever reason, the Turk hasn't fully recaptured that magic. He’s been unable to replicate his previous form, outside of the derby when he ran circles around Lulic.
This season Zaniolo has played slightly more than twice as many minutes as Ünder in Serie A (1,325 to 638), and has bested the Turk in most meaningful offensive stats per 90 minutes. So far this season, Zaniolo has four league goals (plus two in Europa League) to Ünder’s two, which is pretty much a wash when looking at minutes played. However, Zaniolo has been superior in other areas, namely in the passing attack.
Zaniolo has completed 81.2% of his passes in Serie A compared to the Únder's 76.3%. That comes out to an average of two fewer successful passes per game. In addition, Zaniolo averages an extra half-shot per match. Those numbers aren’t significantly different, but a couple passes here and a shot there do eventually add up.
Roma have also missed Zaniolo's dribbling ability, as the Italian has been much more willing to take on his man this season. Zaniolo has averaged almost four dribbles per match in Serie A with 2.4 being successful. That rate jumps to 5.5 total dribbles per match in the Europa League with 4.2 successful. Meanwhile, Ünder has averaged just 2.2 total dribbles per match (1.7 successful). And really that number is inflated by his nine successful dribbles against Lazio.
One thing that doesn’t show up in the box score is the way Zaniolo and Pellegrini have worked in concert this season. The two Italians have built a great chemistry and Zaniolo takes some of the creative pressure off Pellegrini. Without him, the Roman hasn’t looked as sharp in recent weeks. This will be a big concern if Pellegrini can’t refind his top form without Zaniolo flanking him.
Zaniolo's defensive work rate, while not the most noticeable facet of his game, has been missing on Roma's right flank. The Italian has been known to take some unnecessary cards from time to time, but his physicality is an asset on defense. Zaniolo works back hard in defense, something that Ünder isn’t known for. He uses his strength and big body to make attackers uncomfortable coming down his wing. Ünder will track back, but doesn’t close down the same way Zaniolo does.
Roma will need Ünder to pick up his game like he didn’t against Lazio, or he may see his minutes reduced again. Carles Perez showed some nice flashes off the bench against Bologna on Friday. It was a small sample size, but his five successful dribbles and three shots gave a boost to Roma’s attack.
Either way, Fonseca will need Ünder or Perez to help pick up the slack in Zaniolo’s absence. Otherwise, Roma’s attack will likely continue to sputter. That’s something Fonseca can ill afford with the defense conceding more often in Diawara’s absence. Roma will have to figure things out fast or this double injury blow to Zaniolo and Diawara could be too much to overcome in i Lupi’s hunt for a Champions League spot.