When distilled to its essence, football really is a simple game: run and pass, point and shoot...err, kick. Of course, when the rubber meets the road, that seemingly simple game of kick and run becomes an incredibly nuanced battle over the game's most precious commodity: space. The men and women racing up and down the pitch may be finely tuned athletes, but football is nothing if not a contest to see which side manipulates space most effectively.
Pressing, counter-pressing, counter-attacking, overlapping, building from the back—these are all essentially tactical ploys to see which side can create and manage space on the pitch to their advantage, using ball movement, player spacing, and even deception to move the opposition like so many pieces on a chessboard.
Despite the disparity between theory and application, Roma has been bedeviled by perhaps the simplest part of the game: kicking a 450-gram ball into a six-meter square goal. After investing over €60 million in two forwards, Tammy Abraham and Eldor Shomurodov, extending Lorenzo Pellegrini's deal through 2026 and welcoming Nicolo Zaniolo back to the fold after two years lost to knee injuries, the Giallorossi attack was supposed to be among the league's most potent this season.
With 21 goals through 12 matches, the Giallorossi rank seventh in goals scored, so they haven't exactly been decrepit in attack but Mourinho's side has been plagued by inaccurate shooting and inefficient finishing—to put it mildly.
If placing the ball in the back of the net is (theoretically) the easiest part of the game, why has Roma struggled so much lately?
It's not an easy question to answer, so let's attack this from two fronts: examining what they do well and then explaining (to the extent possible) why that isn't translating to more efficient play.
Roma's Shot Performance: Is There Value in Volume?
We'll say this much about Roma's attack: they're certainly not bashful. Through the first 12 matches of the season, Mourinho's men lead the league in total shots (223) and shots per 90 minutes (18.58), they're fourth in total shots on target (58), and their average shot distance (15.3 yards) is the best mark in Serie A, edging out Inter Milan by one-tenth of a yard.
Thanks to the volume of their attempts (and other facets of their attack), Roma ranks second in expected goals (22.8) and first in non-penalty expected goals (21.3). Add in their league-leading 163 key passes, 15 assists (fourth-best), 133 passes into the penalty area (fourth-best), and their 341 shot-creating actions (first in the league) and 33 goal-creating actions (tied for sixth) and the Giallorossi offense looks like a well-oiled machine.
But the numbers that really jump out are the gross shot totals. Roma's 223 total shots are 40 more than their closest competitor. What's more, the Giallorossi's attempts come closer to the goal than any club other in the league, while Roma leads the league in shots in the six-yard box and the penalty area, beating Inter in both categories. Mourinho's men also lead the league in shots in open play (151), shots from set-pieces (64), and are joint-sixth in shots on the counter.
All of that is just a long-winded way of saying Roma not only collects shots like a first grader collects Pokemon cards but those shots actually are actually taken in rather high percentage areas: close to the goal and within the frame.
We can debate about the value of volume shooting all day long, but presenting a consistent threat does have utility: It keeps the defense honest. Even if your accuracy leaves a bit to be desired, forcing the defense to respect the fact that you'll shoot the ball at any time from anywhere does give the attack a slight advantage.
And it's a trick Roma has used to great effect this season. Case in point, their 4-0 beatdown over Salernitana from late August.
On this late August afternoon, Roma's extreme methods were on full display. With 28 total shots, including 11 combined from Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini, Roma practically bludgeoned Salernitana into submission. But more than just peppering the goal with shots, Roma was sublime in the run of play, with four players registering at least three key passes and the team completing 89% of their passes in total, including an impressive 77% accuracy on long passes. And they managed all this while keeping the pitch tilted towards Salernitana's end, amassing 3,518 yards in progressive passing distance—their second-highest total of the season—while 32% of Roma's touches occurred in the final third, four percentage points greater than their current season average.
And this wasn't an isolated incident either. Roma has eclipsed 18 shots or more in seven of their twelve league matches so far, including four in which they reeled off more than 20 shots. With performances like these, Roma starts to look like a pack of extreme couponers who just so happen to play football on the weekends, finding value and bargains in a volume approach.
That's a lot to digest, so let's dial it back to the simplest form: Roma shoots more than any club in the league (and at a closer range), they've put more attempts on target than all but four teams in the league, and they pass, move, and create chances nearly as well as any club in Serie A.
(Here comes the but)
But Roma can't hit the broad side of a barn, and that carelessness could decide whether Roma is wining and dining in the Champions League next season or eating off the dollar menu in the Conference League again.
Inefficiency & Inaccuracy Are Holding Roma Back
Despite setting the league pace in shot attempts and ranking in the top five in total attempts on target, do a bit of simple math and Roma's real issues are staring you right in the face: they're incredibly wasteful. Roma's 26% on target percentage is dead last in Serie A while their 9% conversion rate is the third-worst mark in the league.
And unsurprisingly, Roma's busiest shooters have displayed this same bug (time will tell if it becomes a feature). The club's three highest-volume shooters, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Tammy Abraham, and Nicolo Zaniolo have combined to put only 22% of their shots on target (with a measly 8% conversion rate), with each player performing well below their career averages.
And club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini and record-signing Tammy Abraham exhibit this troubling trend more than any other players on the squad, and perhaps the league as a whole. With 43 total shots, Pellegrini has been the busiest shooter in the league, while Abraham (33 attempts) isn't that far behind, tied for fourth in total shots.
The problem is they've been incredibly reckless with those attempts. Among the top 10 shooters in Serie A (in terms of total attempts), Pellegrini (25.6%) is the second-worst in terms of on-target percentage. The worst? You guessed it: Tammy Abraham, whose 24.2% is the worst mark among the 10 heaviest volume shooters in Serie A. The accuracy rates among the other top 10 shooters range from a high of 42% (Ciro Immobile) to 29% (Victor Osimhen), so Pellegrini and Abraham stick out like sore thumbs.
Considering that Roma already consistently works the ball into high-percentage areas, outside of basic target practice and maybe an elementary school-style eye exam where the players get called down to the nurse's office one-by-one during quiet reading time (I bet Calafiori loves the Dog Man series), there are no simple solutions to this problem.
But could the problem possibly correct itself? To answer that question, let's look at some year-over-year shot charts to see if the problem is endemic or just a temporary blip on the radar.
First up, Mr. Abraham:
Here we see Abraham's open play shot chart from the past two seasons: 2020-2021 with Chelsea (swipe right) and 2021-2022 with Roma (swipe left). While we're comparing a quarter of a season with Roma to a full season with Chelsea, in terms of his actual playing time (1,040 minutes with Chelsea vs. 1,010 with Roma), it's a near-perfect comparison.
In '20-'21, Abraham scored six goals for Chelsea while putting 40.6% of his shots on target and converting 18.7% of those into goals; pretty good stuff from the then 22-year-old forward. This season, Abraham has regressed, putting only 24% of his shots on target and maintaining a 9% conversion rate.
And one look at the short chart tells you all you need to know. Abraham's attempts with Roma are not only coming from further away (12.2 yards vs. 9.7 with Chelsea last year), his shot groupings this year are far more scattered than last season; you'll notice the greater concentration within the goal framework during the ‘20-’21 Premiership season.
Over the prior four years ('17-'18 through ‘20-’21), both at the Premiership and Championship levels, Abraham has been a reliable shooter, putting an average of 41% of his shots on target, while converting 19% of those shots into goals, far better than his performances with Roma thus far: 23% accuracy and 8% conversion.
Given his historical record, Abraham's shooting numbers will likely rebound to their career averages sooner or later, but through his first few months in a Roma shirt, he seems to be settling for (or being set up for) lower percentage shots, which may very well be the case since Roma are shooting at a lower percentage and from further away than last season as a whole.
As you can see from his year-over-year (thus far) shot charts, Pellegrini's case is a bit more complicated:
Pellegrini, who is in the middle of a career year under Mourinho, appears to be actually selecting better shots this season, as evidenced by the greater concentration of shots within the area. Through 12 matches, Pellegrini's average shot distance has fallen from 19.5 yards away to 17.4 yards away from goal, the problem is simply one of execution; his current shot percentage is 8% below his career average.
Considering that Pellegrini is currently averaging career highs in shots per 90 minutes, goals per shot, and goals per shot on target—while also taking those shots closer than at any point in his career and converting at a 12% rate (three percent better than his career average)—he's a veritable test case in the battle between volume and efficiency.
Where Abraham's issues appear to be shot selection/location, Pellegrini's boil down to simple execution—he just needs to be more accurate. He's doing everything else as well (or better) than at any point in his career but his inefficient shooting stroke is holding him back.
If Pellegrini wants to place himself among the truly elite players in Europe, this has to change.
So... Can Any of This Be Corrected?
Roma’s extreme volume approach makes this a difficult question to answer with any certainty. Despite barely putting 26% of their shots on target, Roma's 4.83 shots on target per 90 minutes are the league's fourth-best mark, while their 0.33 goals per shot on target is seventh in Serie A, so there does appear to be some value in the volume. But at the same time, their 0.09 goals per shot is tied for the fourth-worst mark, their 9% conversion rate is the third-worst and they've underperformed their expected goal tally by 1.8 goals, making them one of eight Serie A clubs currently falling short of the xG target.
To be certain, Roma is walking a tight rope. If their first 12 matches have proven anything, it's that Roma is succeeding in spite of—or perhaps because of—their volume approach. In one sense, it's so perfectly Roma for the club to be dead last in accuracy yet somehow ranking in the top five in on-target attempts (both total and per 90), but when you take nearly four more shots per 90 minutes than your next closest competitor, that (almost) stands to reason.
In other words, if you shoot at will, sooner or later some of those attempts will hit the target and beat the keeper. There’s a certain amount of logic to that, but it’s not exactly a stable business model.
However, we can't simply expect the club to shoot less frequently—you have to take the chances as they come, after all—but even if they did, their accuracy suggests they won't be successful, so perhaps their “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” approach is the best course of action at the moment.
With Pellegrini in the middle of a career year (minus his SOT %) and Abraham likely to rebound to his career norms, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. But simply hoping that more will eventually lead to better isn't a sustainable approach to anything in life, let alone attacking football.
Upgrading certain areas of the roster will undoubtedly improve the squad as a whole, but Roma is already doing the leg work exceedingly well (progressive passing, chance/shot creation, etc.), they're just continually undoing all that groundwork by misfiring in the final third.
A simple solution would see players like Abraham, who are historically more reliable shooters, just take more shots (and closer to the goal), leaving players like Pellegrini and Henrikh Mkhitaryan to focus more on shot creation. But the spike in Pellegrini's shot attempts this season isn't him going rogue. Mourinho has very likely instructed him to be more aggressive/selfish in attack, so Roma may have painted themselves into a corner here.
Whether José Mourinho tells Pellegrini to dial it back or uses a different formation to force the issue—getting Tammy Abraham and Eldor Shomurodov more touches closer to the penalty area—Roma cannot continue on like this.
It may sound elementary, but if Roma can't correct these accuracy issues, their hopes for Champions League football may sail wide of the mark—just like so many of their shots lately.