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Sinners & Saints: Empoli 2, Roma 0

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When almost everything is going to plan, the smallest gains are the hardest to find.

Serie A woman Roma-Pink Bari Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Yesterday’s loss to Empoli was one of those games that happen, to paraphrase Roma coach Betty Bavagnoli after the match. Bavagnoli’s sober reflection was accurate, even if hard to stomach: Sometimes you risk exactly what you need to against an opponent, you don’t take your chances and you get punished. The opponent makes the most of what few mistakes you made, and what little opportunity fell their way.

Usually those small teams are mentally intimidated to the point a match like yesterday’s often ends up in a 0-0 draw or a 1-0 edged out at the death, but it only masks the fact that the bigger side on paper ran the risk of getting caught cold on the break throughout.

Yesterday Roma were, instead, caught cold. And it was that lack of intimidation, the lack of bite and general lack of cattiveria to Roma’s play that Bavagnoli singled out as the next aspect to work this season.

The way I see it, it doesn’t take a change of coach, a change of formation or a symbolic overhaul of the system that wouldn’t go anywhere beyond symbolism for its own sake. The smallest increments of change are the hardest to find when you’re so close to the reaching the top of the mountain.

And yet it’s small changes that go a long way, starting with the ones we suggest in this week’s Sinners list.


Sinners

Allyson Swaby

Serie A woman Roma-Pink Bari Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

It would have been tempting to put Tecla Pettenuzzo here instead, as the Italian defender’s biggest mistake yesterday was key to Empoli getting 1-0 up the scoreline. But I’m not into singling out a player for one mistake in an otherwise very impressive performance, and Pettenuzzo continues to look like this season’s most improved Roma player.

Swaby, on the other hand, came into this season as a known entity at the back and arguably the club’s chosen leader of the backline. But when you have Empoli trapping Roma into passing into Swaby, and then deliberately holding off pressing the Jamaican defender, then you have a problem that only Swaby can overcome.

Far more worrying is the likelihood that big Serie A opponents like the Milans and Juves, and smaller teams alike, will copy the tactics Empoli used against Swaby, rather than the odds of us seeing another rash tackle from Pettenuzzo inside the box.

Empoli were dead-set on closing down Elisa Bartoli and Tecla Pettenuzzo’s side of the pitch all match, but evidently believed Swaby was more likely to be a danger to her own team than Empoli, when given time and space on the ball. Empoli were proven right in that gambit; Swaby’s turnovers nearly racked up into the double-figures yesterday.

The Roma defender is never found wanting for courage when playing direct, vertical passes up field. The problem is those passes don’t find a Roma teammate as often as they should.

Roma’s Entire Midfield

AS Roma v Pink Bari - Women Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Just when we thought we were done pointing out how indispensable Andressa is to Roma’s fortunes this season, the Brazilian underlined that sentiment in a way no one would have wanted.

There’s little to write about Andressa’s performance yesterday, because the game passed her by; only her being first-choice free-kick taker served as the occasional reminder that Roma’s playmaker was actually on the pitch. Meanwhile, Vanessa Bernauer was arguably the only Roma player to provide the cattiveria that Bavagnoli is looking for in the Roma ranks, but Bernauer wound up getting too involved with scraps and shoulder-barges to join in any kind of constructive play.

A booking in the second half forced Bavagnoli’s hand in subbing off Bernauer early, but substitute Andrine Hegerberg probably faired even worse. Hegerberg got an early knock to her knee after coming on, and never looked settled from then to the final whistle. Then there’s Manuela Giugliano, who continues to look a shadow of the deep-lying midfielder we saw dominate the 2019 World Cup.

Serie A woman Roma-Pink Bari Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

“It must be at least five or six offsides by now”, said Roma TV’s commentator mid-way through the second half, as yet another long-ball found Serturini caught out by Empoli’s offside trap. It wasn’t as if Empoli were parking the bus. Instead, the Tuscan side found more and more confidence in exploiting Giugliano’s over-eagerness to hit long balls over the top.

Sooner or later, Giugliano has to see that her passing is not proving the weapon she wants it to be. It’s helping opponents kill the rhythm more than helping Roma to score goals, let alone win games. It’s long since time for a change in her approach to possession, even if Giugliano remains (by some distance) the best defender in this team.

There was a moment in the first half where Giugliano defended an Empoli counter-attack almost entirely by herself, merely by closing the space and staying on her feet, buying Roma teammates time to get back into position behind the ball. But it’s her attacking game that needs a re-think.

Annamaria Serturini

Serie A woman Roma-Pink Bari Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Too isolated in this team. At one point in the second half, both Serturini and a Roma teammate failed to react to Empoli winning back the ball down the flank, leaving Elisa Bartoli outnumbered by herself. At the other end of the pitch, Serturini rarely moved in tandem with Bartoli either, instead roaming up field in wait for a long ball from Giugliano. And that’s where it gets really confusing.

In the times Giugliano actually did put Serturini through (onside) for a run at the backline, Serturini refused to take on her opponent, and instead held the ball up in wait for Roma’s midfield or defenders to run into the middle.

As Bren rightly pointed out yesterday, this did lead to a couple of dangerous passes into the middle from Serturini. But if you’re going to hold up a counter-attack for your teammates to join you, wouldn’t it be easier to move in unison with the team to work the ball up together? Her final decisions undermined Serturini’s choice to lay in wait, posted upfield in the first place.

Annmaria “No Mates” Serturini needs to strike up more chemistry than just a lone understanding with Manuela Giugliano from a different postcode.

Paloma Lazaro

AS Roma v Pink Bari - Women Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

We said we wanted to see more of Lazaro, and we got it. Unfortunately it was the first static performance we’ve seen from Lazaro—against Empoli the Spaniard probably would have done better just to move out wide and switch places with either one of Roma’s other forwards.

It gradually became clear, perhaps uncharacteristically given what we’ve seen from her prior to yesterday, that Lazaro wasn’t up for the pressure in the middle.

On the couple of occasions Lazaro found herself on the ball near (or inside) Empoli’s box, the forward just simply went to ground. Sometimes the effort was tame enough that not even Lazaro could bring herself to try and ask the ref for a penalty. A performance to forget; one in which Lazaro also remonstrated with teammates Giugliano and Serturini on a couple of occasions.

Saints

Agnese Bonfantini

Serie A woman Roma-Pink Bari Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Bonfantini isn’t faultless, but she made a chance out of nothing yesterday (finding herself extremely unlucky that the spin on her lob hit the inside of the post in the first half) and put in a lot of effort to try and create chaos among two or three Empoli defenders at at time.

The only possible faults we could knock Bonfantini for are sometimes going to ground too easy (though she takes just as many legitimate hard knocks) and finding too much comfort in hugging the touchline. But Agnese has found another level in her dynamism and work rate this season, and deserves far more than being stuck at 0 goals for it.


Next up for the Giallorosse is the international football break.

We’ll found out which of Roma’s players made Milena Bertolini’s latest Italy call-ups next week, while others like Swaby and Andressa will hope to turn out for their respective nations - Covid-19 travel restrictions permitting.