Having been outscored 5-2 in their past three matches (WLL), it's safe to say that Roma weren't pleased with life in the restart. But the truth is longer and far uglier than that. With only six victories in 16 matches, 2020 as a whole has been unkind to Paulo Fonseca and Roma, leading to all sacking rumors we saw throughout the week.
In order to combat his club's complacency, Fonseca once again went hog-wild with his lineup selection, making 10 changes from Roma's midweek match against Udinese, and it wasn't just the players. For the first time since February against Atalanta, Fonseca deviated from his preferred 4-2-3-1, utilizing a three-man back-line tonight in Napoli.
Credit to Fonseca for recognizing that his tried and true tactics had run stale, but through the opening 25 minutes or so, this change seemed almost academic. Roma struggled to build play from the back (something a three-man back-line is supposed to alleviate) and couldn't find any linking play in the middle third, struggling to get the ball past midfield for large swaths of the first half. It was the same stymied play we saw against Udinese earlier in the week.
But, once the match approached the half-hour mark, Roma came alive. Fueled by penetrating runs from Davide Zappacosta and Leonardo Spinazzola, each of whom seemed to be enjoying their more advanced roles, Roma were able to open the match a bit, finding the switches of play and back post runs that evaded them in the first half hour.
Despite those signs of life, Napoli had the game's first true chance. With an injury forcing Chris Smalling to leave the match, Federico Fazio assumed his place in the center of defense; a forced switch that almost proved disastrous when Arkadiusz Milik got in between Fazio and Mancini for a clean look on goal. Fortunately both Milik's shot and Jose Callejon's subsequent rebound were off the mark.
The Giallorossi would have their own chances on the other end—again thanks to Spinazzola and Zappacosta getting forward, switching play and settting up Lorenzo Pellegrini and/or Henrikh Mkhitaryan with perfect low crosses. But, when you're facing Kostas Manolas and Kalidou Koulibaly, sometimes perfect isn't enough. As great as those runs and crosses were, Napoli snuffed them out with ease.
It's a shame the first half had to end because Roma were showing some serious signs of life.
Roma carried over the same attacking intensity in the early moments of the first half, but their defensive frailty was exposed prior to the hour mark. While Roma had been bending but not breaking to this point in the match, Napoli had no trouble threading diagonal through balls into the box and more often than not were able to get the corresponding run behind Roma's center-backs. But they just couldn't get the timing quite right...until the 55th minute when Mario Rui found a streaking Callejon in the box, who tucked the ball right in-between Pau Lopez's legs to give Napoli a 1-0 lead.
Roma would strike back several minutes later thanks to Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan: 60th Minute (Napoli 1, Roma 1)
Gol! Salió Fazio del fondo, Dzeko tocó justo y Mkhitaryan la clavó abajo. Daje!!! pic.twitter.com/5M8DDa923J— Maxi Friggieri (@MaxiFriggieri) July 5, 2020
After taking the feed from Dzeko at midfield, Mkhitaryan drove down the left side of the pitch waiting (and likely baiting the defense) for Justin Kluivert to peel off to the left and carry the defender with him. Once he did, Mkhitaryan just buried it near-post for the equalizer. Job well done all around.
This was pretty similar to their exchange against Ghent: Kluivert's run gives them two options: by running through Mkhitaryan's path, Micki can thread it through/past the twisting defender or he can wait for Kluivert to peel off the defense to take his own shot. It's a subtle chemistry, but it worked brilliantly in both instances.
Kluivert would then make way for the triumphant (and shocking) return of Nicolo Zaniolo in the 66th minute—just a miraculous recovery some five and a half months after tearing his ACL in mid January.
Roma held tight for the next quarter of an hour before conceding the match-winner to Lorenzo Insigne in the 82nd minute after the Napoli native struck a beautiful curler to beat Pau Lopez at the far post.
Lorenzo Insigne: 82nd Minute (Napoli 2, Roma 1)
INSIGNE with a stunner! #NapoliRoma pic.twitter.com/iFossVvfDO— Sacha Pisani (@Sachk0) July 5, 2020
Not much Lopez could do there, but it was nice of Fazio to pass it right to Insigne, wasn’t it?
Napoli momentarily grabbed a third goal that was ultimately ruled offside, but this was a bitter end to a much better performance from Roma.
Well, a loss is a loss is a loss. Despite looking a bit sharper this evening, Roma still came up with the short end of the stick. And once again, the dividing line between victory and defeat (well, between a draw and defeat in this case) was individual execution. Over the past few matches we've seen Roma doomed by lackadaisical passing in their own end (Diawara and Zappacosta gifting goals with aimless back passes) and today's defeat was no different, as Fazio seemingly passed the ball right to Insigne before he struck the match winner. It may not have been as glaringly obvious as those prior errors, but it was no less damning to Roma's chances of victory.
What happens now is anyone's guess, but there can be little doubt that the club is reeling and are now in danger of falling below Europa League qualification. Fonseca was given the vote of confidence from James Pallotta over the weekend, but with six losses in their last ten league matches, the criticism and calls for his job will likely show no signs of abating.
Home against Parma on Wednesday.
And for no reason, here's the best mustache to hit the Western world since Tom Selleck was cracking skulls in Honolulu...