With Roma's direct qualification hopes for the Champions League dashed before the restart (and really put to bed when they lost Atalanta in February), it's been tough to know how to properly digest the Giallorossi's performance during the restart. Things started off well enough with an Edin Dzeko-fueled comeback against Sampdoria, but then came the fall: three straight defeats in late June and early July. Of course, Roma balanced that out with a three match winning streak that came to a halt on Sunday against Inter, when Roma squandered a one-goal lead thanks to a costly error from Leonardo Spinazzola.
But with Roma's stated goal (Champions League qualification) out the window, how should we react? Without a pot of gold at the end of Roma's rainbow, have your emotions been stilted? Did the wins mean as much? Were those defeat as frustrating as they usually are?
SPAL 2013 vs. Roma: July 22nd. 21:45 CET/3:45 EDT. Stadio Mazzo, Ferrara
Without the immediate risk/reward of the Champions League hanging over our heads, the stakes just don't seem quite as high. But that's not to say that Roma have been playing consequence-free football; there's still the matter of Europa League qualification for next season (Roma have a two point lead over Napoli and Milan), which will be foremost in Roma's mind when they face SPAL 2013 on Wednesday.
It wasn't that long ago that a SPAL fixture was the stuff of nightmares for Roma fans—remember, they took all six points last season—but Roma reversed the curse last time out.
December 15, 2019: Roma 3, SPAL 1
Believe it or not, SPAL were the only team to sweep Roma during the 2018-2019 season, and with a first half penalty converted by Andrea Petagna, it seemed like that trend might continue. But thanks to an own goal, a Diego Perotti penalty and an 83rd minute strike from Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Roma walked away 3-1 winners in this mid-December match.
Roma's recent record against SPAL is proof positive that you can never assume anything in Serie A. SPAL are already dropping down to Serie B next season and have nothing to play for over the next several matches, so they'd love nothing more than to make Roma's life miserable tomorrow.
So let's take a look at how Fonseca can avoid that fate.
Keep An Eye On
Edin Dzeko's Involvement
Assuming he starts tomorrow, Dzeko's role within the offense should be a point of concern for Roma. Through Roma's recent tactical revolution, Dzeko's touches have actually increased slightly (both on a per match and per minute basis), but he hit an unexpected drought against Inter Milan last week, when he managed only 32 touches in 90 minutes.
While that's more or less in line with his season average, the worrying part was the location and nature of those touches. Playing more withdrawn, Dzeko, for only the third time this season, didn't attempt a single shot on goal. We may be able to chalk some of that up to Antonio Conte's game plan, but Dzeko wasn't able to establish a foothold near Inter's area, and as a result, Roma's attack as a whole suffered. However, in a testament to just how skilled Dzeko is, in the absence of any shot attempts he functioned as a veritable false nine, serving up three key passes and two assists.
Sunday's draw against Inter was an unintentional litmus test of Roma's over-reliance on their number nine. Without Dzeko leading the charge, Roma managed only seven total shots, their third lowest mark of the season, and produced only 1.4 expected goals, their seventh lowest total of the season.
Inter were responsible for two of Roma's worst offensive performances of the season, something SPAL will struggle to replicate, but keep an eye on Dzeko's positioning and function within the offense tomorrow. It may sound obvious, but if he's sitting deeper, don't be shocked if the squad as a whole suffers for chances tomorrow.
Having Edin Dzeko as options A through Z isn't sound planning in the long run, but for now it's all Roma has, so if he's forced into a more passive role, Roma may struggle.
Andrea Petagna vs. Chris Smalling
We warned of this yesterday, but it bears repeating: SPAL have struggled mightily this season, but with 50% of the club's goals, it's safe to say that Andrea Petagna has been SPAL's saving grace. And one look at that graphic tells you all you need to know about Petagna: not only does he love to shoot, he knows where to shoot.
Through 34 rounds of play, Petagna ranks top ten in total shots and shots in the penalty area. And as you can see from that map, most of his attempts come right in the middle channel, an area that will likely be occupied by Chris Smalling tomorrow.
It will take a total team effort to contain Petagna, but Smalling will have the toughest job on the pitch: keeping Petagna out of that sweet spot in the middle of the area and keeping the ball off that dangerous left foot—his eight left-footed goals are fifth best in the league.
Carles the Creator
Falling on our list of sinners following the draw with Inter, Lorenzo Pellegrini finds himself in a bit of a slump at the moment. Whether or not his struggles have been exacerbated by the tactical switch remains to be seen, but the lack of creativity coming from the middle was a contributing factor in Roma's weak offensive output against Inter.
Enter Carles the Creator. While he's spent most of his first six months with Roma serving as a winger, many have touted Perez as an attacking midfielder/second striker, a role we may see him occupy tomorrow evening. With agility for days, drool-worthy close control and a proclivity for playing short passes, Perez could flourish in a more creative, central role.
If we look at Pellegrini's failings over the past few matches, we can find a road map to success for Perez in this role: he just needs to think, move, and react quickly. Roma doesn't need him to be the second coming of Johan Cruyff, they just need quick and decisive passing to help unlock Dzeko in the middle or Bruno Peres on the right.
Perez is already one for the future, but creating a new role for him could increase his value exponentially.
Those are just three things to watch for in tomorrow's match. What else worries you about this 5th vs 20th fixture?