“It wasn’t long ago that the three-man defense was one to guarantee a special kind of defensive solidity,” Paulo Fonseca told Il Romanista earlier this summer. “Today it can be said that this system is considered key when it comes to attacking. I think that Roma will be able to use it. Here [in Italy] it’s very hard to play between the lines and inside the pitch. If we want to play more through the wings then we could be able to use it.”
And so Roma’s Portuguese maestro let it be known, in indirect terms, that he was studiously looking further up the table at the success of Italy’s leading top 4 teams. With the exception of Sarri’s Juve, all the leaders regularly play with three at the back. In Atalanta’s case, they’ve been doing it since 2014, and their mammoth 85 league goals scored (and counting) is the envy of Serie A.
Paulo Fonseca initially claimed, in that same interview of this past June, that he was looking at Roma adopting a similar shape from the beginning of next season. Now that he’s decided to move forward ahead of schedule, it suggests Fonseca isn’t actually wrestling with how the team should shape up, but who best fits Roma’s shape from here on in.
What Changes in Roma’s Defending?
On paper, very little changes here. You can’t find much more of an edge from going to a three-man defense when you’ve basically already been playing with one.
All season-long, Roma have shown all the stereotypical strengths and weaknesses of three-at-the-back because the Giallorossi already used that shape in their buildup, during the “on-paper” 4-2-3-1 days.
In possession, Roma would typically push up both full-backs high up the pitch and let one of the midfielders drop back deep to string passes together. The result can be summed up above, in our snapshot of Roma’s run from Matchday 18 (the first game after the winter break, where teams have all had a couple of weeks to plan ahead against Roma’s football) to Matchday 30, where Roma last lined up in a 4-2-3-1 away to Napoli.
Incidentally, that 13-game run started and ended with losses at home to Torino and away to the Partenopei.
Throughout, Roma showed the biggest weakness of a three-man defence: conceding space and (counter)-attacks behind the wing-backs, though it has to be said that Roma sometimes chose to play Italian-style asymmetric football by pushing up only one full-back and leaving the other to stay deep.
In fact, Paulo Fonseca’s first season with Roma has been one of so many different build-ups and approaches that it’s very, very difficult to draw any meaningful patterns of play. Let alone from just 13 league games.
But the bottom line is Roma have strength in numbers through the middle of the pitch—whether because they’re just that confident, or because opponents let Roma her have the middle. Or a mixture of both.
Fonseca told the press, in the build-up to the home game against Udinese, that: “against Sampdoria and Milan, we never had tactical problems [in defense]. We almost always begin our build-up play with three and we’ve never had any problem with marking out the danger. In fact, if there’s a moment in which other teams have never been able to make themselves dangerous [against us], it’s in that very tactical situation. I’d even say that marking out the danger is one of the best things I’ve seen from my team in those two games.”
No sooner would Fonseca make that statement that he came under a slight “commentary’s curse” or sorts, when Fazio was beaten clean—as the most immediate marker—for Udinese’s opening goal the following day. But whether Fonseca is correct in his assertion that Roma are tactically sound is something we can’t answer here. What is true is that—of all the jobs Roma has to improve on to move up the table—defense is second-priority at best, if not lower.
Roma have conceded an xGA of 42.09 expected goals against in the current league campaign, while actually conceding 43 goals. It may be only the 9th-best defense in the league in the actual goals conceded category, but it’s not as wide a gap as Roma’s expected goals in attack versus their actual goals scored (over -6.00 xG difference). And it’s defensively not a huge gap to the league leaders, while actually being on a par with 2nd-placed Lazio’s defensive xGA at the moment.
This is simply a case of a team defending to expectations and, if there are defensive improvements to be found with this squad, it’s certainly not going to be done by throwing an extra man in the middle.
In every one of the 13 games we looked at, Roma had more attacks through the middle of the pitch than her opponents, often even double the amount. Roma have the lion’s share of the action through the middle of the pitch, knowing that opponents are (by now) looking to exploit wins and points against Roma by playing on her defensive weaknesses out wide. The flanks are a completely different story.
Even in heavy 4-0 home wins against teams like Lecce, the away side has just three attacks through the middle and yet still enjoyed a couple of dozen attacks down both flanks (each) against Roma. So what can Fonseca do about defending in the bigger picture of the season?
The only tweak from the tactics room would be for Roma to switch to a more Italian style of marking man-for-man, which won’t happen.
Whereas classic Serie A football would be worried about man-for-man battles, Roma’s hierarchy of decisions under Fonseca is clear: the ball comes first, whether in attack or defense. That’s why there’s little point in talking about man-marking at Roma, unless we’re talking set pieces.
After Roma have moved the ball up the pitch, it’s the back three players who recognize they’re no longer needed in the build up, and focus exclusively on cutting off any potential danger in Roma’s defensive half. That means positioning yourself around the few danger-men who stay up for any potential counter-attack, and making sure you work around your teammate.
Perfection would mean cutting off the ball from even reaching your opponent before a counter-attack even gets started. But, failing that and assuming the other team has worked the ball into Roma’s half, then Fonseca’s defense is concerned with cutting off the danger-man on the ball from making any effective passes. That’s why Roma’s narrow shape, trying to cluster around the opponent on the ball, has sometimes looked like Roma could care less about defending the far post. Because it’s actually true: that’s their very last concern, if even a concern at all. The priority is to stop the ball getting anywhere near the far side in the first place.
It’s also why Roma’s defending virtually lives or dies by their ability to read the danger ahead of time.
In this area, Chris Smalling is in a league of his own in the Eternal City and has taken over from where Federico Fazio used to earn his bread and butter, while Leonardo Spinazzola can be pretty handy on his day.
With younger players like Gianluca Mancini and Ibañez, it’s simply a waiting game for them to gain experience and improve.
But it looks like Roma will have to turn to the summer transfer market for stronger defensive wing-backs in general. There’s nothing much else Paulo Fonseca himself can do, besides a radical (and ill-advised) change in approach this late in the season. Three-at-the-back certainly isn’t that radical change.
What it is, is a more direct route to goal at the other end of the pitch.
What Changes in Roma’s Attack?
As we mentioned earlier, Roma should have at least six goals (if not more) scored this season, given the chances they created. The Giallorossi also began the season restart against Sampdoria as the league-leaders in terms of goal chances created inside the 18-yard box on the day. And yet Roma only won that game 2-1 on the final scoreline.
What’s more, Roma have a natural problem of conceding goals (and giving away xGA) directly from errant passes and losses of the ball in build-up play. And there are signs that opponents are happy to let Roma have the ball in the middle of the pitch, in order to exploit exactly those kind of errors.
From the moment Stefano Pioli openly reminded a Milan player on the touch line, just five minutes into Roma’s trip away to the San Siro this summer, “Cristante senza palla e Dzeko senza palla” it was starting to become clear that Fonseca’s constant tactical variations were still delivering very predictable play at the heart of this Roma squad.
Perhaps even before Matchday 18 last winter, teams had already begun to double-mark both Roma’s deep-lying play-maker and striker on the inside of the pitch, whenever the Giallorossi were on the ball. It’s the very move that lead to Fonseca lamenting, in June, about how hard it was to play through the middle.
This is nothing new in football. If you want to dance the ball through the heart of midfield, you need the technical quality on the ball to control it under pressure in tight spaces. Roma’s opponents were daring the Giallorossi to prove their strength in numbers through the middle was actually a weapon, and not just a choke point for coming undone on the counter-attack.
Unfortunately, too often the latter has been the case when it comes to conceding goals right after losing the ball under pressure. It’s now looking like Roma have plundered through some more hundreds of millions and a couple dozen more staff changes just for Fonseca to find the long way around to where predecessor Eusebio Di Francesco left off.
And rather than this being a story of Di Francesco, it’s a question at the very heart of Fonseca’s constant re-jigs and how to make the most of EDF’s own disciple Lorenzo Pellegrini.
There’s no doubt that one of Lorenzo’s worst performances came in the away game to Milan. Just look at the losses of possession from Lorenzo alone, and it makes it very hard to defend Roma’s #7 as anything other than the antithesis of possession-based football where Fonseca’s dreams go to die.
When Edin Dzeko is cut off from receiving the ball directly from midfield or the back, you simply need the three supporting attackers behind him to really have their act together, know how to control the ball with little space, and know how to move off the ball to break between the lines.
If Lorenzo Pellegrini still has a case to make for himself in this Roma side (and truthfully, I’m beginning to give up on him) then it’s because of his movement off the ball. But we already knew he was capable of doing this from his days learning how to drag opponents wide under Eusebio Di Francesco at Sassuolo.
That was back when, just like in the first half of the 2017-18 season in Rome, EDF’s 4-3-3 was asking the central midfielders to pull wide and open up direct passes from the back to attack.
Unfortunately, back then Eusebio Di Francesco had Kostas Manolas refusing a move elsewhere and forcing the club to sell Antonio Rudiger. What Roma were left with was Manolas dead-scared to make anything other than 2mph sideways passes to Alessandro Florenzi, while the opposition laughed their way to pressing Roma back towards goal.
What Eusebio Di Francesco would have killed for was a baller like Gianluca Mancini at the back, but we digress.
The more important point is the space in the middle of the pitch was created by the movement of players like Lorenzo Pellegrini back in 2017, and even back in Sassuolo’s days of qualifying for the Europa League (the exact same place Roma find themselves in today), so Pellegrini’s selflessness in being able to drag markers wide is absolutely nothing new.
Have we really spent the last five seasons watching Pellegrini take the long way around to becoming the exact same player as when he was nineteen years old? It’s depressing if you think about it long enough, but Paulo Fonseca has come around to accepting that Pellegrini’s strength simply doesn’t match the ideal shape with which Fonseca began writing his own way into Rome this season.
Before we’re accused of singling out Lorenzo Pellegrini, it has to be said that he isn’t the only one to have dropped the ball in possession in games. There were games like the 4-0 win away to Lecce where Henrikh Mkhitaryan, of all people, gave away the ball as much as six times over 90 minutes. Sometimes Nicolo Zaniolo has racked up the losses of possession too, and Edin Dzeko is not gifted with a great first-touch under pressure either.
Arguably only Mkhitaryan, Carles Perez and Justin Kluivert can be considered as well-adapted to working it through the middle on a good day. On a really good day. There’s also Javier Pastore, on a really healthy day. But the alternating performances of Kluivert have been nothing to write home about, while Pastore looks like he’s running the same kind of work schedule that Hollywood Hogan used to run in the days of WCW wrestling.
The difference between all these names and Lorenzo Pellegrini, however, is that Pellegrini has lost it far more through the middle (owing to his position) while the others have mostly lost possession out wide. Just looking at bad touches of the ball alone doesn’t tell the whole story; they could have received a bad pass they had no chance of controlling, and other factors come into play. But it remains the case that Lorenzo Pellegrini leads the entire Roma squad in this unwanted award, currently racking up an average of 2.7 bad touches per game this season.
And so, the 3-5-2 is a better way to look for that direct ball from the backline, while exploiting the wings more as well as Pellegrini’s own movement out wide.
You can only go looking for an attacking edge where there’s space on the pitch to find it and, in the case of Serie A’s leading teams bar Juventus, that space is to be found at the back. That means pulling a man back out of midfield and having him start early on the ball from defence.
Since Roma have only played 3-5-2 for one game so far, we’re not reading much into the win against Parma.
Three losses on the bounce was always likely to result in Roma moving back to the mean before long, and they did exactly that by picking up at win last round. But the manner of the goals both had Fonseca’s stamp on them, so that is credit to the coach.
Jordan Veretout’s winning goal started off with that early ball from the centre-back to out wide, before Mkhitaryan moved the ball up the pitch and passed it back into the middle for Veretout to take care of the rest. While Lorenzo Pellegrini continues to make room for Mkhitaryan’s growing influence on this Roma side, the Armenian continues to rack up goals and assists at a rate that no other Roma teammate can match.
The question is: who will be the extra man on the ball at the back from here on out? It’s been Bryan Cristante for one game, but we could easily see more of Ibañez or the against-the-odds resurgence of Federico Fazio.
One thing’s for sure: if Roma’s opponents try and move up to press Roma like in the 2017-18 days, the difference is that Roma have quality and courage on the ball at the back now. But it’s been a long journey, and quite a few compromises, just for Fonseca to hit the walk the very same glass ceiling that his predecessors straddled before him.