Anytime a manager makes a dramatic tactical change, there are a few questions you have to ask. First off, what led to the decision? Will it work? Is it a permanent shift or just a temporary accommodation? Once you address those, you typically have to drill it down to the player level: does the team have the necessary players to implement this new vision? And lastly, which players will benefit the most from this change in tactics?
Well, we're a few matches into Paulo Fonseca's experiment with the 3-4-2-1 and the answer to that last question is obvious. Jordan Veretout has seen an uptick in his performance, as has Henrikh Mkhitaryan, but no one has blossomed in the restart quite like Roger Ibañez, Roma's 21-year-old Brazilian defender.
Prior to arriving in Italy last season with Atalanta, Ibañez was about as unknown as they come, having made only 21 appearances for Fluminense between 2017 and 2018. And even after making the switch to Atalanta, Ibañez remained a raw and untested commodity, logging only 22 minutes for the Bergamo club before moving to Roma this past winter.
To put it in even simpler and starker terms, Ibañez played all of 20 minutes prior to the restart—as a second half sub in Atalanta’s 3-0 Champions League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk in December. That's it. Not even a late match blowout appearance for Atalanta or some random start against a bottom feeder. Just 20 minutes of actual, live football since January of 2019 and none in Serie A since 2018-2019...when he made a one minute cameo against Genoa in May of 2019.
Despite that almost utter lack of a professional record, there was something intriguing about Roma's winter acquisition of Ibañez, who, even without playing a minute in Serie A this season, had the look of a tailor made Fonseca Football© defender thanks to his aggression, speed and penchant for vertical play.
But it takes more than looks and intuition to make a footballer. There was a point in time where a lot of people thought Juan Iturbe or Salih Uçan would be solid rotation pieces, if not outright star players. No disrespect to them, but facts don't always following those initial feelings.
So when Ibañez was given his Roma debut against Sampdoria, Paulo Fonseca had both our curiosity and our attention. But how would the kid who looks indistinguishable from Gianluca Mancini from afar fare in his first real taste of Italian football?
Precise and Progressive Passing
Well, in an unexpected twist, Ibañez was actually more impressive on the ball than he was behind it. In 90 minutes against Sampdoria, Ibañez (still playing in Fonseca's 4-2-3-1) took 75 touches (third most on the squad) and completed 93% of his passes, but it was the sheer spread and direction of those passes that was most impressive:
With his 66 completed passes against Samp, Ibañez covered a progressive distance of 371 yards. In other words, his passes traveled a cumulative distance of 371 yards towards Sampdoria's goal—the third highest mark on the squad that day. And if that weren't impressive enough, his 330 progressive yards with the ball at his feet was the top mark in the entire match.
In the club's first match in three months and during his first ever start in the league, Ibañez was the sharpest passer and most aggressive dribbler/carrier on the pitch. But then the manager decided to change formations, throwing Ibañez a sharp breaking curveball.
Ibañez wouldn't repeat his almost Beckenbauer-like performance following this change, but in each of his next four matches, a stretch in which logged 288 minutes, Ibañez still completed an average of 91% of his passes, covering an average progressive distance of 265 yards.
But what Ibañez sacrificed in attacking statistics following this tactical change, he more than made up for with aggressive and intelligent defending. After getting his feet wet against Sampdoria in late June, Ibañez has found a home in Fonseca's three-man backline and has arguably been one of Roma's strongest players during the restart and is starting to assert himself as perhaps the club's strongest defender outside of Chris Smalling.
Dynamic & Intelligent Defensive Work
Against Parma on July 8th, Ibañez completed four tackles, three blocks, four interceptions and applied 13 pressures, during which Roma won possession back 23% of time. Ibañez followed that up against Brescia on July 11th with a two tackle and 11 clearance performance, while also applying seven pressures, with Roma winning back possession an astounding 57% of the time.
The pressure stats vary a bit, but this is all just a fancy way of saying that Ibañez, despite being only 21-years-old and having virtually no experience prior to the restart, played with an intelligence, spatial awareness and a sense of timing that belies his age and lack of experience, helping his club rip off a three-match winning streak.
Against Hellas Verona on Wednesday, Ibañez turned in one of the best performances we've seen from a Roma defender this season, combining the offensive acumen we saw against Sampdoria with the defensive wizardry he started to flash against Parma. In 89 minutes against Verona, Ibañez didn't see much of the ball (only 39 touches, fourth fewest of any outfield player) but completed 20 of 25 passes, covering 173 yards of progressive distance. Ibañez also had two key passes (second most among Roma players) and played three balls into the final third (third most among Roma players).
Barely seeing the ball, Ibañez was still one of the most efficient and effective men on the ball against Verona...as a defender! But it didn't stop there, Ibañez was every bit as dynamic in his defensive duties against Verona—two blocked shots, nine clearances and eight interceptions, the latter two being the highest marks of anyone on the pitch.
Words are great, but how about some illustrative examples?
From Wednesday, here we see Ibañez denying Verona a potential equalizer in the 61st minute. Notice how he keeps his eyes on the ball as Verona start to attacking down the right flank while still holding his position in between the two Verona attackers in the box, but his break on the ball is what really makes this play exceptional.
The split second the ball is played, Ibañez reacts quicker than its intended target, Mattia Zaccagni (who completely waltzed between Peres and Mancini, for the record) to snuff out the chance. Watch that clip again and pretend Ibañez isn't there or was at least out of position, if that pass wasn't picked off, Zaccagni likely darts to his right (which you can see him start to do there) to avoid Pau Lopez coming off his line and probably has an easy chip-in at the near post over a splayed out Lopez, knotting the match at two with 30 minutes left to play. But thanks to Ibañez's reading of the play and his well-timed run to ball, Verona were denied a clear cut scoring chance.
But Ibañez's last man heroics didn't end there. Check out this match saver from stoppage time:
The buildup to this play wasn't as crisp as Verona’s 60th minute attack so Ibañez didn't get quite as clean a look at the passing lane, but this clip shows just how explosive his first step his, how quickly he can close ground on an attacker and finishes with a look at his textbook technique. After reacting to the pass into the box, Ibañez hunted down Mariusz Stepinski before making a picture perfect slide tackle, stripping the ball with his right foot before making contact with Verona's number nine—erasing another scoring chance and avoiding a penalty in one fell swoop.
Roger Ibañez's 90 minute run against Verona was undoubtedly the finest performance of his incredibly young career, but it was merely the latest showcase in what is quickly becoming his coming out party. Roma have taken to Fonseca's new formation like a duck to water and much of that is due to Ibañez's performance in the three-man back-line.
Precise and progressive passing from the back is key to almost any tactical setup, but it’s nearly a life and death affair in a three-man back line, and Ibañez, one of the most green members of the squad, has been a key figure in Roma's recent tactical turnaround.
With his size, speed, technique and touch, not only have Roma been quicker and more fluid in building from the back, but Ibañez's unique blend of intelligence, aggression and patience has willed Roma into becoming a more efficient and cohesive defensive unit.
And remember, he started all of this with only literally only one minute of Serie A experience under his belt prior to June 24. Ibañez will suffer through all the usual growing pains typically associated with young defenders, but the pace with which he's taken to Roma's new reality has been breath taking.
We won't make any bold proclamations about Roger Ibañez just yet, but Roma are no strangers to fluid, efficient and effective Brazilian defenders. If he continues along this path, it won't be long before Roma fans mention Roger Ibañez's name in the same breath as Juan or Marquinhos.