Roma may be riding high after ripping off their third straight win over the weekend, but that victory came at a cost: club captain Lorenzo Pellegrini, who is now lost for the remainder of 2021 after suffering an injury to his right thigh after only 15 minutes against Torino. José Mourinho and the Giallorossi were forced to adapt on the fly, inserting seldom-seen winger Carles Pérez into a more central role, but still managed to keep their wits about them in a narrow 1-0 victory over now thirteenth place Torino.
The win gave Roma a bit of breathing room in fifth place but Mourinho and the Giallorossi will need every ounce of ingenuity they can muster to see out the remainder of the calendar year without their captain and best player. And with 4th place Atalanta having a relatively easy home fixture against 16th place Venezia tomorrow, Roma has to claim all three points in Bologna to keep pace with Gian Piero Gasperini's club.
In addition to coping with life without Pellegrini, Roma faces the unenviable task of dealing with Sinisa Mihajlovic's pesky Bologna side, a club that displays similar promise as Roma while remaining susceptible to nearly the same demons as the capital club.
We're approximately 24 hours away from kickoff already, so let's take a quick look at a few of the key storylines in Roma's week 15 matchup.
Keep An Eye On
Will Musa Barrow Bury Roma Again?
Barrow, Bologna's 23-year-old Gambian attacking midfielder, is quietly becoming one of the league's most dynamic attacking talents. In 14 appearances this season, Barrow has bagged four goals and three assists while averaging 2.5 shots and 1.8 key passes per game, making him one of only four players to meet those marks.
Drill down a bit further and Barrow's performance looks even more impressive. His 32 total shots are tied for 10th most in Serie A, but unlike so many Roma players, Barrow is deadly accurate with his attempts. Through 13 appearances, Barrow's 13 on-target attempts are tied for the fifth-best mark in Serie A, while his 1.27 SOT/90 ranks 10th in the league.
Despite being such an accurate shooter, Barrow isn't the best finisher (only 13% conversion rate) and he's outperforming his expected goals and expected assist numbers, but we're still talking about one of the most active and accurate shooters in the league—and a pretty decent crosser of the ball—one who has victimized Roma twice in their past four encounters, so they'll be wise to keep an eye on Barrow any time he approaches the 18-yard box tomorrow.
They'll also want to pay special attention to this next guy...
Can They Mark Marko Arnautovic?
With six of the club's 20 league goals so far (and one assist), Arnautovic is shouldering an incredibly heavy load for Miha, playing a part in 35% of the club's goals; one of the league's highest marks in that regard. Arnautovic is, in many ways, Bologna's version of Tammy Abraham and/or Lorenzo Pellegrini; an incredibly busy but slightly inefficient striker.
With 40 attempts on goal, Arnautovic trails only Pellegrini, Ciro Immobile, and Dusan Vlahovic for the league lead in shots, but with only 30% of those attempts going on target, resulting in only 0.10 goals per shot, Arnautovic is plagued by many of the same issues that have dragged both Abraham and Pellegrini down this season: inaccuracy and inefficiency.
But, as his share in Bologna’s offense shows, it doesn't seem to matter; Arnautovic is option A through Z for Mihajlovic's club. Despite his waning accuracy, Arnautovic has struck up an effective partnership with Barrow and Nicola Sansone, with the latter setting up two of Arnautovic's goals. And when you throw Lorenzo Di Silvestri into the mix, Bologna has one of Serie A's most prolific attacking trios, as their 13 combined goals are tied for the sixth-best mark, even with the Roma trio of Abraham, Pellegrini, and Jordan Veretout.
Broadly speaking, Bologna can't run with Roma, but thanks to the combined exploits of Barrow, Arnautovic, and Di Silvestri, they have more than enough talent to pull off a surprise upset tomorrow.
A fact that feels more likely due to Pellegrini's injury, speaking of...
How Will Roma Adapt to Life Without Lorenzo Pellegrini?
Life without Pellegrini will likely be the focus of every probable lineups piece you read over the next six weeks, but, given his function in Roma's attack, it's a topic worth exploring multiple times and from multiple angles. In his pre-match press conference, Mourinho hinted at a multiplayer approach but singled out one player in particular:
“We’ve lost Lorenzo Pellegrini until the start of 2022, so we have to look at different ways we can use our players in midfield. Take, for example, Carles Perez - who has played almost as a central midfielder in the last two games.”
While that certainly remains an option, with Mourinho likely to rely on a 3-4-1-2, chances are we'll see Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the hole tomorrow with Jordan Veretout and Amadou Diawara providing cover in midfield behind him, though don't count out either Bryan Cristante or Gonzalo Villar if they manage to pass virus protocols before the squad list is submitted.
The key to surviving life without Pellegrini rests as much in Mourinho's ability to effectively manage Mkhitaryan's minutes as it does anything else. There's no replacing Pellegrini's actual production in the attack, but given his savvy approach, Mkhitaryan can replace Pellegrini's function in Roma's attack. And what's more, the veteran midfielder is in fine form at the moment, scoring a goal and chipping in two assists in his past four matches for club and country.
Mkhitaryan is playing as well as he has in months, so Roma's creative well won't suddenly run dry but it's imperative that Mourinho manages his minutes over the next six weeks, sprinkling in appearances from Pérez, Zaniolo, and perhaps even Villar and Cristante in attacking roles.