It's season preview time here at CdT, but we're facing a season like no other. After the pandemic shut down the 2019-2020 season in March, the league scrambled to rearrange 12 rounds of play into roughly eight weeks. It was a mad dash to the finish line, but Serie A did a remarkable job to ensure that the 2019-2020 season was actually completed. While it was strange to watch football in completely barren stadiums, it did provide some much needed solace to those of us who use sport as a distraction from real world problems.
But, with such a compact fixture list through August and the league opting to begin the new season in mid-September, our usual summer detox was cut drastically short. Couple that with Roma's change in ownership and their relatively quiet transfer market, and it almost feels like this new season is an extension of the last one. All of which makes it a bit tough to put a new spin on season previews.
With that in mind, we're taking a different approach to previewing Roma's season. With only one new signing thus far (Pedro), Roma are, perhaps for the first time in a decade, blessed with continuity. And given that lack of change, rather than running through who will play where and when, we're going to preview the extremes: the best and worst case scenarios for each positional group.
Okay, let's start with the guys who score the goals.
Center-Forward: Edin Dzeko (starter), Nobody Knows (backup)
Wide-Forwards: Carles Pérez (likely starter), Justin Kluivert (likely starter), Pedro (sub/utility), Cengiz Ünder (sub/utility), Diego Perotti (backup)
*The combination around Dzeko depends on several factors, including formation and possible transfers.
Last season, Roma scored 77 goals in 38 matches, the league's fourth-best mark. While their expected goals mark of 78.32 was actually Serie A's second highest mark, trailing only Atalanta's incredibly 86.17 expected goals. Of those 77 goals, 34 were scored by forwards, with Edin Dzeko accounting for 21% of all of Roma's goals.
So, despite some dry periods, Roma's attack was among the best in Serie A last season. But what might a best-case scenario for Dzeko (or possibly Milik) and the boys look like in year two under Fonseca?
Well, given the change in formation during the restart, it's a bit difficult to predict. In Fonseca's normal 4-2-3-1, the optimal operation would see Dzeko receiving plenty of service and diagonal balls into the box from the likes of Lorenzo Pellegrini, Jordan Veretout and even Bryan Cristante, at which point Dzeko could spring one of the wide forwards into space or find a late run into the box from a central midfielder. This formation, while leaving Dzeko somewhat dependent on the play of others, still allowed him creative freedom in the area, where he was free to shoot or create as needed.
The three-man formation still plays to Dzeko's strengths, namely his size and actual strength, where his hold-up play would be even more crucial since he's more isolated up top. In that sense, his role is somewhat similar: serve as a target and, depending on how the defense forms around you, either shoot or setup one of the inside forwards.
It's not really that complicated, thanks in large part to Dzeko being such versatile forward, but the best case scenario for Roma's forwards would see Dzeko and the wingers and/or inside forwards working as an amorphous blob, changing shape, positions and roles as needed or dictated by the defense. With Pedro and Pérez's ability to work out-wide as traditional wingers or move centrally and operate as second-strikers or number tens, Roma's forwards should keep defenses guessing, giving Fonseca the freedom to change tactics in the attacking phases/areas as he sees fit.
Roma may not have done much work on the transfer market, but the blend of high energy attacking wingers (Kluivert and Ünder) with the more versatile hybrid players (Pedro and Pérez) actually gives Fonseca an ideal blend of skills and abilities to shift between multiple formations. And when you throw in the club's hybrid midfielders (Mkhitaryan, Pastore and a healthy Zaniolo), then the permutations are practically limitless.
And if all that goes according to plan, we could see Roma's forwards account for anywhere from 40 to 50 goals this season.
Roma may have scored the fourth-most goals in the league last year, but they weren't terribly efficient in that quest. The Giallorossi were 14th in the league in shooting accuracy, 7th in goals per shot, 7th in goals per shots-on-target and converted 12% of all shots into goals.
Regardless of the formation and tactics, it's fair to say that as Dzeko goes so goes Roma's attack. While the re-start and change in tactics were a boon to Roma on the table, Dzeko's performance took a noticeable dip, with the Bosnian forward scoring only two goals after the shift to the three-man backline.
When asking what dooms day looks like for Roma's forwards, the conversation really starts and ends with Dzeko. If he remains isolated up-top and Roma’s inside forwards can't exploit the spaces in-between the center-backs and full-backs, then there are no flick-ons, no diagonal balls, no one-twos and no spreading play; the attack will stagnate and Roma will lose the battle for space in the final third.
As a result, this increases the importance and stress on every shot. When chances don't come, the few you create have to be perfect, which, as their shooting performance last season indicates, is an area in which Roma's forwards struggle.
In essence, Roma's worst-case scenario is this: Dzeko on an island, swarmed quickly by defenders once he receives the ball, while Roma's wingers are easily closed out and/or fail to make use of the half-spaces around Dzeko. And without Nicolo Zaniolo running in behind them, Roma have practically not outlet valve, no last resort, no knight in shining armor.
In even simpler terms, it's this:
- Good Roma = amorphous attacking blob with interchangeable parts swapping spots and roles
- Bad Roma = the old video game Frogger, with Dzeko methodically and desperately trying to cross the street on his own while dodging 18-wheelers.
Outside of Dzeko and Pedro, the rest of Roma's forwards are quite young and if they get close to their best-case scenario, then one of Pérez, Ünder or Kluivert will likely have made a tremendous leap forward in their development, but who is the best breakout candidate?
Given his athleticism, aggression and technique, not to mention the fact that he was purchased after Fonseca was hired, the smart money is on Carles Pérez. In his half-season with Roma, Pérez ranked third on the squad in shots on target per 90 minutes, third in shot-creating-actions per 90 minutes and second in goal-creating-actions per 90 minutes—essentially, he excels in all the linking and creative areas that Roma need in order to become that amorphous attacking blob.
He may not have the same goal scoring potential as Ünder or the pure speed of Kluivert, but Pérez’s ability to work and create in tight spaces will help Roma achieve attacking nirvana. If Pérez continues to build off his fine form in the re-start, expect six or seven goals to go along with double-digit assists. Roma brought in old Pedro, Pérez could be the new Pedro.
With the amount of talent at their disposal and so many versatile and interchangeable parts, if Roma's forwards can master the mental aspects of Fonseca Football®, particularly the options and passing networks in the final third, then we may be in for some beautiful football this year.