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Previewing Roma’s Defense: Best & Worst Case Scenarios

A new and young backline is where Roma need to find some find some big in-house margins of improvement.

Gianluca Mancini Roma player, during the match of the... Photo by Vincenzo Izzo/LightRocket via Getty Images

The xG. That precious xG. It’s never told a lie. When it came to Expected Goals last season, Roma’s attack had no problem creating a threat against all Serie A comers, as Paulo Fonseca’s men ranked 2nd behind only Atalanta when it came to racking up the xG. But the Expected Goals Against (xGA) category is a different story.

Roma spent most of the season mired around mid-table when it came to xGA numbers in defending. Only a late rise in form at the end of the season meant Roma eventually finished with the sixth-best defence in the league, but this was a team that was put together (whether we believe it or not) for Top 4 football. So the improvements still have to keep coming.

Though it’s always unfair to equate “defence = backline” and “attack = frontline” in football, and especially in teams that play like Roma do, it’s still the best pretext we have to crowbar our way into a discussion on Roma’s backline players for the coming season.

The Defense

Chris Smalling of AS Roma in action during the Serie A... Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Depth Chart

Center-Backs: Gianluca Mancini (starter), Roger Ibañez (likely starter), Marash Kumbulla (likely starter), Federico Fazio (back-up), Juan Jesus (back-up)

Full-Backs: Bruno Peres (RB/RWB starter), Leonardo Spinazzola (LB/LWB starter), Riccardo Calafiori (LB/LWB back-up), Davide Santon (sub/utility), Rick Karsdorp (in limbo)

*This was written last week, prior to the pending acquisition of Kumbulla and/or possible departures of Fazio and Jesus.

The Best Case Scenario

  • Chris Smalling: The best case scenario is that Roma actually sign him. At the time of writing, he’s still not a Roma player.
  • Gianluca Mancini: Luca can get more comfortable in reading balls over the top, and he could do with a big helping hand from the club by having them find a right-back* to strike up some chemistry down Mancini’s side (*but NOT the Artist Formerly Known as Mattia De Sciglio). In his sophomore year, Mancini could really do with fine-tuning the aggression and cutting down the yellow cards. Even if there is something enjoyable about Mancini fouling players right in front of the referee’s face.
  • Federico Fazio: If the big man somehow rediscovers his 2017/18 form as the second coming of Franco Baresi, I’d get box office seats to watch it happen.
  • Ibañez: He’s more measured in his aggression than Mancini, but he still risks a lot and it could cost him a few impact injuries before long. If he can maintain full fitness in 2020/21 then the sky’s the limit.
  • Leonardo Spinazzola: It would be a dream for Spinny to find 90 minutes in his legs; not just one good half and then a cadaver of a second half. If he builds better chemistry with the frontline, then we’re talking about the model wide player in Italian football today.
  • Bruno Peres: Hopefully he keeps finding the Kwan that he found in 2020. If he can somehow find more confidence on the ball when closed down, we couldn’t ask for more.
  • Marash Kumbulla: His convoluted transfer deal would mean Roma have unofficially invested heavily into him already, so let’s just hope Kumbulla lives up to the billing. Really.
  • Riccardo Calafiori: All Ricky needs is some game time.
  • Devid Bouah: Ditto.
  • Bryan Cristante: Invokes the spirit of Yaya Toure at Barcelona, becoming a key part of a back three to lead Roma to trophies.

As a unit, Roma’s backline is expected to cover for long balls and intercept any danger before it happens. Roma usually do this by having any players who are no longer actively involved in the build-up play choose to stay back and take up preventative positions, marking the space where opposition runners could run into.

That wasn’t done to the very best last season, so if they can work together on this area and take it to the next level, then you’re laughing all the way to Atalanta-style xG figures on the attacking end and a Top 4 finish at the very least.

The Worst Case Scenario

Juventus v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Marash Kumbulla picks up a double quadriceps tear as he’s climbing off the exercise bike on his transfer-day medical. Being so tall ain’t easy.

Neither Juan Jesus, Davide Santon nor Rick Karsdorp find moves elsewhere, and Roma go into the new season avoiding the bigger elephant in the room: they failed to sign Chris Smalling, who makes his return to Maidstone United—the only club left in football that he can trust. Devid Bouah is loaned out before the season kicks off.

Later on mid-season, Gianluca Mancini collects a ten-game suspension for taking off his shirt and revealing a chest-wide tattoo of Marco Materazzi headbutting Zinedine Zidane. Meanwhile, Ibañez and Calafiori are sold off in January to balance Roma’s record FFP deficit. But Roma regrets the move when Kumbulla’s February comeback from injury goes wrong, tearing both ACLs in the space of a minute on his debut. Kumbulla is never seen in a Roma shirt again. All the while, Leonardo Spinazzola turns out to be Leonardo Spinazzola.

No one really ever knows whether that’s a good or bad thing, just that it comes in 45 minute batches. Bruno Peres loses the Kwan, while Federico Fazio is forced to fill in up front at striker (actually not a bad idea) because Dzeko is knackered and there’s no one else.

Bryan Cristante’s experiment as a backline player is a total failure, but only because it’s the one act that can provoke Amadou Diawara’s temperament into total blind rage. Diawara slams a bib on the ground one Tuesday at Trigoria, yelling “I get to be Yaya Toure!”, and the subsequent Cristante-Diawara training ground bust-up sees both players put on indefinite leave by the club.

That leaves Roma fielding a back three of Karsdorp, Santon and Juan Jesus while Kluivert and Perotti play wing back. JJ actually finds form, courage and exudes leadership in guiding Roma to 5th place. The remarkable turnabout in his career means Roma are eager to build around the Brazilian, but JJ leaves on a free transfer.

Possible Break-Out Players

Frosinone Calcio v AS Roma - Pre-Season Friendly Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Roma have watched Luca Pellegrini, Francesco Semeraro and Aleksandar Kolarov walk out the door to make way for the club’s belief in Riccardo Calafiori. So any good that Calafiori does on the pitch will be magnified this coming season, as a Roman-born player in an era where the club are supposedly not keen on doing things the “Totti/Sensi”-era way anymore (fine by me).

Exactly the same applies for fellow Roman-born and bred fullback Devid Bouah. But personally I, like many, have got my eye on Ibañez.

The Brazilian centre-half has won over many in the Eternal City by showing he’s not lacking in any area of his game. Being first to every ball in the air, on the ground, and incisive passing makes for the total package player.

Finally, don’t underestimate Gianluca Mancini’s ability to open up passing lanes (and find incredibly good vertical passes to the frontline) from the right side of the field. He may not be the most naturally gifted of all Roma’s young defenders, but Mancini’s got the mental strength, the vision and the work-rate to make himself a long-term fixture at Italian football’s summit.