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Roma’s Experienced Midfield An Embarassment of Riches in 2019-20

Giugliano, Andressa, Hegerberg et al. Roma’s midfield is the envy of the league. But is there room for them all?

Every team lives and dies by its midfield. Roma took that sentiment to heart in the summer of 2019, building on a promising engine room by adding experienced international names like Manuela Giugliano and Andrine Hegerberg to the mix. And the international pedigree wouldn’t stop there.

Though no one realised it at season’s kick off, household name Andressa would figure heavily into Roma’s midfield chemistry by the end of 2019 and onward. For us Giada Greggi fans, we struggled to accept this meant Roma’s vice-captain spending much of the 2019-2020 season on the bench, but it soon become clear Andressa would take Roma’s midfield chemistry to levels never previously seen at the Stadio Tre Fontane. And we could only hope that Greggi was soaking in everything she saw from her senior teammates on the pitch.

Italy Women Training Session And Press Conference Photo by Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

One of those teammates is Vanessa Bernauer, who’s managed to morph her role within the squad to much greater effect than last season. Bernaeur is a reminder of how much better your game can look when you’re surrounded by teammates—Hegerberg, Giugliano, Andressa in particular—who know how to mix your strengths in with their own.

Style of Play

Betty Bavagnoli stuck to rotating between 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 this season, preferring the former for most games and trying to make the most of Manuela Giugliano’s eye for a pass from the base of midfield. To keep it real, Roma fell short of Bavagnoli’s ideal football for most of the season, but most of the problems were down to the pace of possession falling flat among the Giallorosse back-line.

Roma kicked off the season with relying on pace from the fullbacks to run the ball, and Hegerberg in a more advanced role as a Plan B to lob it directly to the Norwegian midfielder in the air. Truthfully, all of Roma’s midfield were asked to rotate positions to give opponents no real reference for tight marking, but the setup with which Roma kicked off the season would not last long before Bavagnoli saw the need to change things:

Roma’s midfield to kick off the 2019-20. This wouldn’t last long before Bavagnoli saw the need to make changes.

In this initial lineup, Giugliano’s relentless search for the killer ball played a big part in Roma’s struggling to stay on top of possession early in the season. It wasn’t just pressure from high-pressing teams like AC Milan, but end-to-end games like the road trip to Verona, where the final scoreline flattered to deceive just how many opportunities Verona had to get back into that game.

Bavagnoli soon saw that she needed to make the most of Hegerberg’s ability as an incursore. That only Hegerberg knew how to play this role—an off-the-ball player who could time her runs inside her own half to try and drag markers with her, and inside the opponent’s half to run into the box and bury the ball in the net—made Hegerberg a key player to the side’s ideal football, and to helping her teammates shine. Gradually, the team inched close to Bavagnoli’s ideal style of moving the ball up field:

Roma’s preferred way of building possession out the backline was meant to make the most of Giugliano’s passing.

Keep in mind this is our best guess at what Roma were aiming for in the buildup. In reality, the passing between Roma’s back four often lacked the pace and intensity to really see the move through to it’s end. So we’re left guessing at to what Bavagnoli’s ideal aims were on paper.

It looked like Bavagnoli wanted one full back to push high up the field, leaving room for one of Roma’s deep-lying midfield two (often Hegerberg) to drop deep and hopefully drag a midfield opponent with her. At the same time, Roma would deliberately pass the ball around the opposite flank (Erzen, above) to attract the opposing team to the strong side of the pitch, while Roma’s other full-back (Bartoli, above) was left free, high up the pitch.

All Bartoli needed was someone in Roma’s backline to find her. And that responsibility often feel to Manuela Giugliano, when playing free of injury.

Football woman Roma-Juventus photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Roma passed the ball back across the back-line, before finding Giugliano in the heart of midfield, ideally with all the time and space on the ball to either slide-rule a ball to the free full-back, or to try and put Roma’s forwards in on goal whenever the opportunity was there to do it.

That was left to Giugliano’s judgement, and you can see how Bavagnoli’s setup was proof of her faith in Manu’s game. But Manu Giugliano still plays her deep midfield role as if she were a trequartista, often favouring the killer pass even when it’s not there to be made, and betrays her roots as a more attack-minded player in previous years.

There’s a lot more versatility for Giugliano to find in her range of passing and decision-making on the ball but, with time truly on her side at just 22 years old, she will get there eventually. The player who is already there, with the range of passing and unpredictability on the ball to keep the opponent on the back foot all over the pitch, is Andressa. Without question.

Roma’s paradox was finding a lot more fluidity in Giugliano’s absence. This was owed in big part to Andressa’s playmaking influence on the side.

Changes to the Roma starting lineup crept in, mid-season, dictated both by injuries (Federico De Criscio, Manuela Giugliano) and by tactical necessity (Andressa).

Once the Brazilian started to weave her influence from the middle of the pitch, and with young defender Tecla Pettenuzzo willing to take risks in dictating play from the back, Roma looked more confident with their original plan to rotate midfield three and never choose the same option twice in row, keeping opponents guessing as to where Roma would strike next. Vanessa Bernauer began to rise as a real ball-winning force high up the pitch, closing down opponents and sometimes driving Roma up the pitch, before she’d finish off the chances herself like Bernaeur’s winning goal at home to Sassuolo

Can we confidently say this is the way forward for Roma? I’ve personally tried to count up statistics manually in a small run of January games, to try and figure out which style—between Giugliano, Andressa and Hegerberg—was more effective to Roma’s results. And I still don’t know the answer.

The truth is, Andressa-Hegerberg-Bernauer shined away on the road to AC Milan and yet Roma still lost that game. That’s football. Bavagnoli’s task is now picking the most balanced three out of all these names for the 2020-21 season, and that’s not a task anyone would envy.

The Bright Spots

Andressa’s Playmaking | Hegerberg’s Runs | Giugliano’s Defending

AS Roma v Orobica Calcio Bergamo - Serie A Women’s Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

As much as we’ve praised Vanessa Bernauer and the ensemble cast in Roma’s midfield this year, the highlights still came from the arguable “Big Three” of the midfield: Andressa, Hegerberg and Giugliano.

Andressa could come deep, she could stay high, she could play it short, play it long, she could finish off a dead ball or curl a goal in from outside of the box. Andressa began to take the reigns of this team from late 2019 onward, and the Brazilian’s influence on this team cannot possibly be overstated—5 goals and 5 assists, though most of those goals came from the penalty spot.

In several interviews among teammates, Andressa was cited as the experienced head showing Roma’s younger stars how it’s done. If Andressa had put away two of her most spectacular free-kick efforts this season, we’d have been watching the highlights making the rounds on Twitter for a long time. And we can say the same for Andrine Hegerberg.

Football woman Roma-Juventus photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

As we said earlier, Andrine Hegerberg is arguably the only Roma player making runs off the ball, to sometimes devastating effect. She could have had a hat-trick in one league game this season, which would have changed the Roma history books, but the Norwegian will have to settle for “just” the 4 goals (1 vital goal to settle nerves on the road in the Coppa Italia) from midfield this year.

If the season had carried out to its conclusion, we may well have been speaking of Hegerberg as the team’s top scorer outside of Lindsey Thomas and Agnese Bonfatini up front. It still amazes us that she was deemed “not good enough” at PSG in D1 football.

If lifelong-Roma fan Hegerberg wants to prolong her stay in Italy, her skills and craft are more than welcome for a sophomore season with the Giallorosse. Her aerial strengths cannot be overlooked either, in a team that sometimes has to field the diminutive Giugliano and Greggi together, while Andressa isn’t necessarily one to fancy a battle in the air. That responsibility is often embraced by Hegerberg.

Finally, for the criticism we’ve given Giugliano in possession, it’s undeniable that the Italy star is the best at defending in the entire Roma squad. Arguably only Giada Greggi runs her a close-second in this area.

‘Oscar Del Calcio AIC’ Italian Football Awards Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

Giugliano’s ability to time her tackles and close down space mean that Manu never needs to go to ground to retrieve the ball. She is on another level when it comes to winning back possession, which is yet another paradox to write about a player who’s most eye-catching strengths are clearly her eye for a pass, and her ability to hit a pure strike anywhere from 30 yards into goal.

With an injury-free season in Rome next year, Giugliano has the all-round game to achieve whatever she wants. But her fate will lie in finding an understanding with her teammates, if she’s really to emerge as a leader within the Tre Fontane locker-room.

Room for Improvement

Football woman Roma-Juventus photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Is there any room, really?

Let’s not forget this season included Manuela Giugliano collecting Italy’s Player of the Season award, while Giada Greggi collected the Young Player of the Season award in Tuttosport’s vote - an extremely rare accolade for a Roma player to win the Turin paper’s vote.

Giugliano may have lost her regular starting spot with Italy but, in her place, Giada Greggi made her Italy senior international debut and capped it off with a goal. Meanwhile, there were bright spots among the supporting cast that shouldn’t be forgotten.

We still haven’t had a chance to see a lot of the promise in Emma Severini, for pure lack of game time. Manuela Coluccini capped her return from an ACL injury with a virtuoso cameo and incredible goal, while Claudio Ciccotti managed to have a key say in games - like the vital away draw at Fiorentina - from the bench.

If anything, the only margin for improvement here lies with Betty Bavagnoli finding the best three names to work together as a unit here. It’s surreal that the starting three may carry on without Giada Greggi into the 2020-21 season.