Looking to reset his side's league form, José Mourinho unveiled a few minor surprises in his lineup today as Roma welcomed Empoli to the Stadio Olimpico for a 6 PM local time kickoff. Making his first league start of the season, Chris Smalling rekindled his partnership with Gianluca Mancini, but he wasn't the only familiar face coming back to the starting lineup as Matías Viña returned to action after a brief spell on the sidelines. But without a doubt, Mourinho's biggest surprise was the inclusion of Ebrima Darboe, who earned a second-straight start after an impressive run against Zorya on Thursday.
And Roma would need every bit of Darboe's defensive presence. Despite their three-year absence from Serie A, Aurelio Andreazzoli has Empoli playing some surprisingly effective football, as evidenced by their early-season upset over Juventus. Empoli stumbled a bit after that round two victory, dropping two consecutive matches, but fought back to win consecutive fixtures against Cagliari and Bologna.
While Empoli isn't redefining the spirit of the beautiful game, Andreazzoli's team has plenty of pluck, which was on full display in the earliest stages of this match as they matched Roma step for step and shot for shot. Through the opening 15 to 20 minutes this evening, Empoli weren't necessarily playing better than Roma but they were more efficient and effective in possession, pumping four shots at Rui Patricio despite only seeing 31% of the ball.
And most of that near damage came from Andrea Pinamonti, who threatened to steal a goal early in the match, beating Chris Smalling to a ball in the box before firing the ball into the side netting. Through the game's opening 20 minutes, Pinamonti managed two shots on goal and won two corners. And with Empoli running stride-for-stride with Roma, one couldn't help but shake the feeling that the outcome would be determined by Pinamonti himself, who seemed destined to back his way into a match-winning goal by hook or crook.
So, when the 22-year-old forward was forced off the pitch due to injury, I'm sure I wasn't alone in breathing a sigh of relief, though we certainly hope it was nothing serious. The ensuing 10 minutes didn't feature much action but Roma began to explore other paths to the goal, with Nicolo Zaniolo and Lorenzo Pellegrini doing most of the heavy lifting in the attack.
As arguably two of the more talented players on the pitch, It made a certain amount of sense, but Empoli's defense did well to collapse the edges of the 18-yard-box, shrinking the available attacking space for Roma's two Italian internationals.
As the match crawled towards the half-hour mark both sides found a bit more breathing room but Empoli came closest to scoring when Filippo Baldinelli out-jumped and out-muscled Rick Karsdorp in the Roma box, only to see his headed attempt sail over the bar.
But Roma jabbed right back, willing a three-on-one counter out of the blue, and with Pellegrini, Zaniolo, and Abraham leading the way, a goal seemed like a mere formality but, once again, the Empoli defense compacted itself at precisely the right moment, turning a sure-fire goal into an impressive defensive stand.
By this point in the match, 35 to 40 minutes into the game, Rui Patricio had more touches than Tammy Abraham, highlighting Empoli's impressive defensive work, as they effectively negated any chance Pellegrini or Zaniolo hoped to create, but Roma's captain could only be contained for so long.
Lorenzo Pellegrini: 42nd Minute (Roma 1, Empoli 0)
Henrikh Mkhitaryan Lorenzo Pellegrini pic.twitter.com/DULCEJ1MfZ— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) October 3, 2021
Now, this was an efficient goal; no extraneous touches, just a great run, a great key pass, and a class finish. After receiving the ball at midfield, Mkhitaryan knew exactly what to do to pick apart the defense: immediately turn upfield, keep his head on a swivel and look for the advancing runners. And in this instance, Pellegrini reacted just as quickly as Mkhitaryan, sprinting into the box to get on the end of Mkhitaryan's through ball and taking a subtle touch before placing the ball just past Guglielmo Vicario's outstretched arms.
It wasn't a great half from Roma but they really turned it on in the final 10 to 15 minutes and went into halftime with a hard-fought advantage.
Where Mourinho stood pat to start the new half, Andreazzoli made two changes, bringing on Nedim Bajrami and Nicolas Haas. After watching his side concede a goal late in the first half, Andreazzoli went heavy on the attack in a quest to equalize at the Olimpico, and perhaps more.
But it was quickly rendered moot by a Roma side who looked refreshed and ready to show their former interim manager who's the boss.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan: 48th Minute (Roma 2, Empoli 0)
Mkhitaryan's name may appear in the box score, but this entire sequence owes its origins to Tammy Abraham, who intercepted the ball in midfield, drove right at the Empoli defense before giving himself some space with a series of hesitations dribbles. And with the defenders properly shook, Abraham fired a bullet at Vicario, forcing the keeper to parry the ball off the crossbar. On any other day, this was probably a goal—the technique was exquisite and the shot almost perfectly placed—but as it stood, Mkhitaryan was the beneficiary of all Abraham's hard work, pouncing on the rebound to increase Roma's advantage.
Seemingly incensed at hitting the woodwork again (the seventh time Roma has hit the posts this season), Abraham came right back forced Vicario into a save at the near post. It's unfortunate that Abraham didn't score, but he did nearly everything else flawlessly: holding up play, passing, moving, dribbling, linking up; he's becoming an all-over threat under Mourinho.
Not content with their two-goal lead, Roma kept their foot on the gas as the match approached the hour mark. In a somewhat similar passage of play that led to Mkhitaryan's goal, Zaniolo burst through the Empoli midfield with a head full of steam, bullying his way to the edge of the 18-yard-box where he quickly laid the ball off to the overlapping Karsdorp on the right. From there, Karsdorp whipped the ball across the face of goal towards Pellegrini, who was charging into the box with a near-free header awaiting him but couldn't steer the ball into the back of the net, seeing his attempt sail wide left.
Mourinho would be forced into his first change in the 64th minute when Darboe went down with apparent cramps, replaced by Bryan Cristante, who was walking on eggshells thanks to his accumulated yellows.
Despite that unexpected substitution, Roma continued to attack as the match marched towards the 70th minute, with Abraham again bringing Vicario into the match, firing a left-footed shot towards the near left post, with the keeper barely getting his fingers on the ball. Gianluca Mancini had a pop in the 77th minute, heading the ball just past the right post off a Pellegrini corner.
Mourinho would make a series of changes late in the match, swapping out Matías Viña make for Riccardo Calafiori and Zaniolo for Stephan El Shaarawy. These final changes would prove academic as Roma was able to close out the match without issue, conceding only a late Patrick Cutrone header that was easily handled by Rui Patricio. The match didn't end without issue, however, as Smalling was forced off after he tweaked a muscle in his right leg, replaced by Roger Ibañez while Nicola Zalewski received a late-match cameo in place of Mkhitaryan.
Empoli has surprised many with their solid start to the new season, and indeed they played Roma as equals for much of the first half, but the Giallorossi were simply too talented and too deep for Empoli to contain for the full 90 minutes. Mourinho did well to manage the early threats from Andreazzoli's side while also effectively managing the minutes of his more fatigued players.
Roma's Mourinho Makeover remains a work in progress, and while Mourinho and Tiago Pinto have a few more items they need to pick up at Home Depot in January, we're really starting to see the seeds of this project take root. Fueled by the combined attacking talents of Pellegrini, Zaniolo, Abraham, and Mkhitaryan, Mourinho's Roma looks poised to become a direct and aggressive attacking machine, bowling over their opponents' thanks to the combined brains and brawn of that quartet.
There are bound to be some peaks and valleys as the season progresses, but the blue print is becoming clearer with every passing match.
Another international break. Yay.
Man of the match?