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Reviewing Roma's Forwards: Tactics, Standouts and Possible Tweaks for the Future

Roma’s biggest job is convincing Thomas, Bonfantini and Serturini that Serie A can keep challenging them as a unit.

AS Roma v Juventus - Women Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

We want to close off our review of Roma Women’s 2019-20 season with a no-hyperbole analysis of what’s ahead for the Giallorosse goal-getters to prove in Italian football. We could talk about how Roma’s front-line scored more goals, delivered a bigger goal difference and all the other improvements from last season, but it’s no fun following a team when the story is just about ups and bigger ups.

Eventually you’re looking to come up against resistance. And we’re talking about on the pitch, not the behind-the-scenes force that still drags its feet in instating the women’s game to professional status where it should be.

Athletes are always looking for the next motivation, and there are ongoing concerns about whether Serie A Femminile is playing daring enough football—collectively around the league—to present a challenge for teams made up of the likes of Roma at the summit.

Lindsey Thomas, Agnese Bonfantini and Annamaria Serturini started most of the games up front in Roma’s 4-2-3-1, and we’ve taken a deeper look at how all three relied on their pace, ability to win the ball back, and direct football to put teams to the sword this season.

Style of Play

The following board isn’t done to absolute accuracy. It’s an impression of the average position for all five of Roma’s attackers (including bench players Amalie Thestrup and Maria Zecca) in all of passages of play leading to a Roma open-play goal:

Roma were far more vertical whenever physical forwards Maria Zecca and Amalie Thestrup were playing

Now, again, you have to allow us artistic license with the board above. It’s not as though we have analytics to track the average position of players live. But we looked at the build-up of all 23 league goals scored among Roma’s 5 attackers this season—omitting the fact that Maria Zecca’s only goal of the season was scored in cup competition.

When Roma began passages of play that led to any one of the Giallorosse front-line scoring an open play goal, Lindsey Thomas’s ability to find space proved crucial to letting Bonfantini and Serturini breathe. Without Thomas or Serturini on the field, Maria Zecca and Amalie Thestrup came off the bench and wound up—for better or worse—changing Roma’s attacking style to a far more direct and vertical shape.

AC Milan v AS Roma - Women Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Then there’s Agnese Bonfantini, who’s had a season of two halves. We touched upon how she struggled for consistent first-team football in the latter part of 2019, only to turn things around with a vengeance by the time the New Year came about. That’s generally owed to her own highly-vertical style of running through to goal (a new side of her game compared to last year), which took some time to become compatible with Thestrup’s roaming for space and chances down the same flank.

As Roma has gradually moved away from tall target-women like Zecca and former Roma player Martina Piemonte, Agnese Bonfantini has cut an even more direct route through to goal in turn.

The biggest task here lies at Roma coach Betty Bavagnoli’s door. The reigning Serie A coach of the year is on a relentless search for a fluency in Roma’s back-line and midfield that would make far greater use of Agnese Bonfantini’s style of play, potentially feeding Bonfantini with far more chances than the service that Agnese and her front-line teammates have had to live off of, to date.

Infact, Bavagnoli is often drilling it in to Bonfantini that she can serve herself with even more goals if she ups her ability to nick possession from the front (Bonfantini showed that she heard the call with her solo goal against Verona this past spring). But this is still essentially Roma’s forwards being asked to supply their own ammunition.

We can even illustrate this lack of fluency in the nature of Roma’s league goals scored this season:

Passages of Play Leading to Roma Open-Play Goals - Serie A 2019/20

Average seconds per goal 5.6
Average seconds per goal 5.6
Average touches per goal 4
Average passes per goal 0.9

Now, it’s not the most stunning analytics table, but we’re dealing with a season cut short to just 16 games. The one area that stands out is Roma making less than one pass, on average, for every goal scored from open play in the league this season.

Most of Roma’s open play goals were scored from winning balls back inside the box, at the half-way line, or a single pass made to put a Roma player through on goal. Then there were the stunning individual goals scored by Serturini and Thomas from long-range. Very few of Roma’s goals came from build-up play involving two passes or more. That being said, this isn’t insightful in itself because we can say that about all of football’s top leagues today.

Even if you look at the Twitter posts of Barcelona sides of the 2000s glorified on there, very few of those goals will come from unlocking defences that are set in place. Passing it around your opponent is the hardest type of football to achieve, so there’s nothing new there. Where can we look for some insight? By looking at Roma’s failure to score at home to Juventus and AC Milan, two of Roma’s three rivals in the league, and the sketchy nature of their goals against fellow rivals Fiorentina.

Room for Improvement

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

Roma takes only an average of 5.6 seconds per goal and, on the face of it, the plurality of their goals show that if you let the Giallorosse have up to eight seconds on the ball inside your half, the ball WILL end up in the back your net. That sounds lethal but—aside from the fact we’re lacking context of how that stacks up against other Serie A teams’ build-up play—Roma’s next challenge is to conquer rivals who excel at taking that time and space away from them.

Most teams in Serie A Femminile play it safe. They play deep, they let it happen to them. Roma unlock the game early with set pieces, knowing most opponents will then come out and try to chase an equalizer, while Roma pick them off with counter-attacks to seal the win. But the top of the table is a different story.

We saw earlier that Thomas, Serturini and Bonfantini leave a lot of open space between their mini-kingdom in the attacking half. And we know that they’re not using that space to string passes between them, so it’s a lot of running the ball with whatever freedom is afforded to each Roma forward in possession. The way to defend against this? All opponents like Juve, Milan and Fiorentina have to do is simply push up, and play high.

Sure, high defensive lines look risky. But if you know Roma’s attack are comfortable once they get running at full speed, then why let them even have the space to rev the engine in the first place? On the few occasions Roma have had the space cut off from top-level opponents like Juve, those are also the moments Roma struggle to get on the score-sheet.

We include Fiorentina because Roma scored only half of their four goals against the Viola from inside the box (in open play) this season, and one of those was Amalie Thestrup being quickest to dispatch a rebound straight into the net from a handful of yards out.

It’s hard to say this is room for improvement to be made among Roma’s frontline alone. Roma, as a team, have to get more confident stringing passes together; make the Juves and Milans of this world run and press even more than they already do, until they tire themselves out and start to sit back deeper.

That’s actually already happened in the road game away to Milan, where Roma took a 2-0 lead (even if through a free-kick and long-range goal) but lost their nerve when faced with the challenge of keeping Milan stunned and off-balance.

Andressa is a crucial part in developing this side of Roma’s game (hopefully influencing the growth of Manuela Giugliano and Giada Greggi in kind), so we’ll wait to see if Roma keep fielding the Brazilian in midfield or return her to the frontline next season. She’s the modern number 10, so it’s pretty immaterial where Andressa weaves her playmaking on the pitch - just as long as Roma convince her to sign on for another year.

Individual Reports

I’ve already taken enough artistic license as it is, and I’m never confident in developing a consistent scale to give out match or season ratings. So we’ll finish it off with individual comments on Roma’s front five. Who will stay? Who will go? And, more importantly, who will Roma manage to convince to stay beyond this summer?

Maria Zecca

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

The New Jersey-native Zecca was the only one of several fringe attackers—including Martina Piemonte and Luisa Pugnali—to get a second bite at the cherry with Roma this season. She still carries the number 9 shirt, but has again delivered a single, solitary goal in 2019/20 cup competition and zero goals in the league.

Zecca is a tall, powerful centre-forward in the prime of her career at 25 years old. Playing mostly with her back to goal to collect passes out of the air, she’s the antithesis to the team shape that Roma’s other strikers are carving out amongst them. She will struggle to find service in the Eternal City, and is likely to find another club this summer.

Amalie Thestrup

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Women Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

In her own way, Danish international Thestrup raised the bar of Roma competition this season, even if she did most of it from the bench. Last summer, it was Thestrup and Andrine Hegerberg that set the top numbers on the squad’s Mapei fitness test, and Thestrup style of play in Serie A laid testament to that fact.

The defensive forward is relentless in chasing down the ball, sometimes all the way to the opposition keeper when she has to. She never gives defenders a moment’s rest and is a useful option to bring off the bench, whenever Roma are leading games. But Thestrup’s scoring touch, both at club and international level, has completely evaded her in 2019-20.

She’s scored just thee goals for Roma this season. That’s a long way away from the goal-per-game striker she was back in the Danish league. She also shows a lack of confidence whenever she has time and space to think about what to do inside the box, but maybe that’s from the inconsistent game time.

Her journey in Italy might be over already this summer, as it’ll be hard for her to find first-team football in Rome unless she finds out where she left her scoring boots.

Annamaria Serturini

On first glance, it looks like Serturini’s goal tally has near-halved from last season. But all that’s happened is Serturini handed over penalty-taking duties to Andressa. The Brazilian dispatched just as many penalty-goals as Serturini did in her debut season with Roma (5). Meanwhile, Serturini was on-course to equal and beat her goal-scoring tally from open play, had 2019-20 rolled on to its natural conclusion.

She loves to dribble on the ball, often dropping deeper than any of her attacking teammates to give that extra option in possession on the halfway line. She’s also responsible for a huge amount of touches in possession on the build-up to goals, so there’s room for her to sharpen up her vision and decision-making when it comes to the final pass.

But if she’s not taking that final pass, then here’s a clue for Serie A defenders: Serturini taking several touches of the ball often leads to her smacking it into the back of the net, from any range, if you don’t do something about it. Serturini’s stunner away to Fiorentina got Roma’s league campaign underway this season, while she’s also scored another long-bullet at home to Orobica.

One of the graduates of Milena Bertolini’s Brescia school of football, Serturini is THAT sniper with a ball at her feet round the edge of the area, true to her goal celebration. Roma are hard-pressed to find a better forward than the young Italian in Serie A, making Serturini a near-certainty to play on for a third season in Rome.

Agnese Bonfantini

FC Internazionale v AS Roma- Women Serie A Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

One of the great shames of 2019-20 getting cut short is that we’ll never get to know who would have finished out as Roma’s top scorer by the end of it. Agnese Bonfantini may have started this season in-and-out of the side, but she looked like she truly cracked it by the time 2020 came about.

The goals rained in from Bonfantini, including a historic hat-trick against Verona, as she proved crucial to a countless number of league points secured for Roma. But there are small red-flags over her future, as much as she loves the club.

For one, she started off her career in Rome by making cuts into the middle of the pitch, playing like a Stephan El Shaarawy in this league. I’ll be honest: that’s a style of play I get bored of watching (though I know Bren is a fan), but even I could appreciate Bonfantini was mastering it by the summer of 2019.

And then she switched it up all over again this year, perhaps by necessity (after started to get double-teamed for space by opponents), and threw away the cuts into the middle of the pitch, instead just tearing a straight path through to goal. I’m a much bigger fan of Bonfantini moulding her career on that path.

Because it works. But it’s also very taxing individual football as you get older.

Can Bonfantini find the motivation to always be the fastest and first to every loose ball in this league? Or can her team reward her by involving her in play more? Bonfantini is the perfect example of how tactics-talk is largely irrelevant. When you’re simply faster, taller and stronger than your nearest opponent then all the waffling from me on the tactics board takes a backseat to just appreciating Bonfantini goal-highlights in their glory.

But she still sees herself ideally as that SES-type winger, if we’re going by her interviews this year, and that’s not what those around her want to see.

Both her coaches at senior club and international level are showing signs of wanting Bonfantini to push herself to become a striker, especially since it’d give Bonfantini the kind of versatility to play in a two-forward system that Italy often switch to at international level.

Double-figures await for Bonfantini next season. If it all plays out as it should, Agnese will undoubtedly become the leader in Rome by 2023 at the latest. Superwoman is already on all the billboards and the crowd banners on matchdays. She’s captured the imagination of everyone who’s come to watch her game at Tre Fontane.

Lindsey Thomas

AC Milan v AS Roma - Women Serie A Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

The most goals, the most assists. She can come deep to link up play through the middle, she can run down either flank to stretch the play for Roma to play around the opposition.

We’ve already written about Lindsey Thomas as our Player of the Season here. It’s safe to say, if Roma can convince her that challenges in Italy still remain then Thomas will keep being a constant fixture in the starting lineup next season.

That wraps up the 2019-20 Serie A Femminile coverage.

For all the critique we’ve just given Roma’s attack, let’s remember they were the second-highest scorers in the league behind only leaders Juventus. That’s a big improvement from last season, where Roma once laboured behind Milan and Fiorentina.

It’s a similar story with the goal difference, as Roma once again ranked only behind Juventus. We’ll never know if momentum would have carried Roma through to Champions League qualification this season, but we do know that direct encounters agains her three league rivals will shape the biggest part of Roma’s destiny next year.