A 5-point review of Roma’s 2020-21 season won’t do nearly enough justice in telling the real story behind their league campaign and Coppa Italia success. But we’ll have plenty more to say on Bavagnoli’s Roma this summer, well beyond just this article alone, and we figure there’s no better place to start than looking at the key questions we were asking ourselves, last August before the season kicked off.
Roma may have completed this season by doing the whole city proud and bringing home the club’s first major trophy in over a decade, but their league form fell below their own expectations and everyone in the team will be the first to admit it took a strong showing against Juventus in January’s Supercoppa semi-final to find that spark of belief that Roma had lost throughout the latter half of 2020.
So what went right? What went wrong? And what surprised everyone, for good, worse, and everything in between?
Roma Didn’t Sign Enough Experience (Until January)
It’s easy to forget that Osinachi Ohale was ever a Roma player, such was the treatment she received in the Eternal City during her half-season stay with the club. It was Ohale’s arrival, last summer, that gave us the context to ask whether Roma had signed enough experience to start moving up the table.
Ohale may be an accomplished player in Spain and at the international level with Nigeria, but her three appearances (and one goal scored) for Roma suggests that she never clicked with Roma coach Betty Bavagnoli before the club rectified their decision in January 2021 by signing the defender we get the impression they really wanted all along. And who wouldn’t want superstar Elena Linari in their first eleven?
Roma beat everyone to the punch when they brought Linari back to the peninsula, and the team’s form skyrocketed since then. That’s to say nothing of Roma’s improved belief and mentality in the pressure matches, too.
Linari just finished off her season by completing an immense 111 passes in Roma’s Coppa Italia final victory over AC Milan, while Linari won back the most balls (16) of any player on the pitch, and won the most aerial duels (5). Until Linari’s arrival, Roma were heavily reliant on young, talented, ball-playing defender Tecla Pettenuzzo at the back.
Pettenuzzo’s ability to intercept and find a pass is a joy to watch when she’s moving Roma up the pitch, but Tecla is a different player when it comes to tracking back towards her own goal. Running back to win duels inside her own penalty box is not Pettenuzzo’s strong point (she’s often at risk of conceding a penalty). The 21-year old defender will have to increase her intuition for defensive duels and close-quarters defending to win a place back in the Roma first eleven for next season. It’ll be a big ask to de-throne the starting centreback pair of Allyson Swaby and Linari from here on in.
The duo’s form already saw Roma let go of Ohale—the Nigerian returning back to the Liga Iberdrola to sign for Madrid CFF this past January—and the Swaby-Linari pairing looks like the rock-solid foundation for Roma success next season. But it arrived too late into last season to prevent Roma’s form taking a hit in the first half of the 2020-21 campaign.
If anything, the sheer change of attitude and belief that a signing like Linari has brought to Roma makes us ask if the club shouldn’t aim for yet more experienced, high-profile signings in other areas of the team.
Vanessa Bernauer Enjoyed Yet Another Good Season
Speaking of the battle between glamour names and the team players who don’t always grab the headlines, we were asking whether Roma midfielder Vanessa Bernauer (and others like Claudia Ciccotti) had it in her to pull out yet another solid season, at now 33 years of age.
No one else was more thrilled than us when Bernie completed her fairytale comeback from a Champions League final loss on penalties, back at Wolfsburg in 2018, to scoring the winning penalty that sealed Roma’s first major piece of silverware in 2021. That three-year arc of Bernauer’s career has seen her re-invent herself from initial expectations of wearing the Roma number 10 jersey and shouldering the creative burden of the Roma team, to making way for current number 10 Manuela Giugliano and Bernauer playing the ball-winning midfield role all over the pitch.
Wherever Roma needs her, Bernauer is there to win back possession. Bernie also hasn’t lost her eye for a killer pass in the final third, often putting pressure on the biggest opponents with the kind of passing she displayed against Juventus in that Coppa semi-final victory.
Teammate Claudia Ciccotti also stepped up to have a bigger say in Roma’s season, proving crucial to redressing the overall balance and emotional stability behind Roma’s play in key moments of games. It’s names like Bernauer and Ciccotti that have often provided the calm and steady hand to guide Roma across the line, whenever the pressure was on. That’s a stark contrast to the long-running problem facing Roma among their star midfield names: How to strike up a working bond between midfield trio Andressa, Giugliano, and Andrine Hegerberg?
It can’t be overlooked that, until Hegerberg’s forced absence from the team through long-term injury, Bavagnoli hadn’t really found a balance between Andressa and Giugliano’s influence on the pitch. Both like being the playmaker in Rome, and both like to win balls back for the Giallorosse higher up the pitch in order to get Roma on the front foot again. Then Hegerberg suffered her traumatic injury, and Bavagnoli saw an opening to move Andressa’s sphere of influence to the trequartista role near the frontline.
That left Manuela Giugliano with the mediano area of the field to weave her own increasing influence on this Roma side and brought out the kind of Giugliano performances that first made a major impression on the scene during Italy’s World Cup 2019 campaign.
But all things staying as they are, Hegerberg will be back in action next season. So what will Roma’s answer be then? Hegerberg’s own skillset (especially her supporting runs off the ball) can still prove crucial to Roma’s success moving forward, but there isn’t enough room in that first eleven for everyone. Which is also a pressing issue for our next name on our list below.
Giada Greggi Still Hasn’t Found A Role in Roma’s First Eleven
There is only so much we can say about Giada Greggi, at present, owing to her comeback from long-term injury. But even before she suffered the ACL tear last season, Greggi was getting put on the sidelines to learn from Roma teammates who play the role Greggi desires to play to a higher standard.
Greggi’s pure baller status and technical skills had us raving about her future in the aftermath of Roma’s inaugural 2018-19 season. And we weren’t alone in that view, as Greggi then went on to win Tuttosport’s Young Player of the Year the following December. And how many Roman-born players can you say have won an individual award from a Turin-based media group? That’s the extent of how much Greggi’s play can wow audiences on any given day.
But Giugliano and Andressa have forced a re-think of whether Greggi is really ready to bring out the best in her Roma teammates, to the same extent that the former two do on a weekly basis. The two things speaking in Greggi’s favor right now are that she’s immediately getting called back up to the senior Italy squad, after her return from injury, and Greggi made a successful cameo off the bench in Roma’s Coppa final win this May.
There Was No Teenage Breakout Star for Roma This Season (But Soffia...Madonna Mia...)
We speculated, last August, whether Roma would see another teenage name breakout on the senior scene in the 2020-21 season. As it turns out, technically, the answer is no (though Alice Corelli may dispute that). But Roma right-back Angelica Soffia is still only 20 years old (turning 21 this summer) and yet her transformation over the last 12 months has been nothing short of jaw-dropping.
The way Soffia has changed Roma’s play, as well as her own individual style of play, demands we review her in-depth at a later point this summer. But it’s enough to say, for now, that Soffia began Roma’s first-ever match with this club—all the way back in 2018 against Sassuolo—as a timid, squad-level player who was eager to prove she could successfully make the transition from youth-level midfielder to senior right-back, with Betty Bavagnoli’s vote of confidence.
Soffia is self-admittedly a person who has previously found it hard to retain confidence and self-esteem, but she only has to roll back the tape on her stunning 2020-21 season to remind herself what she’s capable of, from here on in.
Gone is the timid play and gone are the days where Soffia limited herself to proving she can hang tough in the tackle and win fouls off of opponents to justify her place in the Roma squad.
Now Soffia is firmly the starting right-back in Rome by rights and one of the best full-backs in the country. That’s thanks to Soffia’s confidence in taking on opponents with the ball, often dribbling past the toughest customers in even the most defensively sound Serie A teams—including Juventus and AC Milan—to totally transform’s Roma options in the build-up phase of play.
Meanwhile, as far as teenage talents go, we give honorable mentions to Alice Corelli, who often showed a technique on the ball that belies her tall and robust stature. She put those skills to good effect, as both an impact substitute for the senior team and a leading light in the Roma Primavera first eleven that won their second consecutive league title this season.
Manuela Giugliano Found Balance Between Vertical Passing and Spreading the Play
We’ve partially covered this topic earlier when reviewing the fates of Roma’s midfielders, but we were asking ourselves what happened to the Giugliano we knew and loved from Italy’s World Cup summer of 2019? Until this season even Giugliano herself admitted to the press that she’d yet to find her best form in a Roma shirt. But now things have firmly changed for the positive in the Eternal City.
That’s a key factor for a persona like Giugliano’s, who’s previously backed out of moves to the likes of Atletico Madrid years ago, and cut short her brief, one-year stay with AC Milan to move to Roma, all in the search of satisfaction and fulfillment beyond the pitch. Now, Giugliano looks to have found a home as Roma’s number 10, and she’s often the only one in the team that looks like she understands what to expect from Annamaria Serturini’s runs down that Roma left flank.
Giugliano banked on her Hollywood passing to find Serturini during most of the 2019-20 season, but Manu has now diversified her repertoire in her sophomore Roma campaign by spreading the play sideways when it’s needed, in order for Roma to build up their threat through other channels or simply maintain control of the game.
Before we saw just as many turnovers from Giugliano as we saw killer passes to the frontline over 90 minutes, which had Roma sprinting up and down the field and struggling to stay in games. Now Roma looks much more assertive and assured in possession, and a big slice of that has come from moving Andressa further up and leaving the passing out of the back to Giugliano in deep midfield.
Manu has rewarded that greater show of faith from the team, in her playmaking abilities, with a more versatile passing game. Nonetheless, I personally maintain the most spectacular side of Giugliano’s game—beyond the excellent dead-ball technique, passing ability, and shot technique—is Giugliano’s defensive game.
Her ability to intercept passes and shield her defense is the best in the league, completely putting Roma in the box seats when it comes to transition football as well as possession play. It’s something we touched upon in one of Giugliano’s best performances this season, after Roma’s 2-2 draw with Fiorentina:
In the 19th minute with Fiorentina attempting a counter attack of their own, Giugliano pulled off what can only be described as the most nonchalant/badass tackle you’ve ever seen. Sitting dead center in midfield, and with Fiorentina coming right at her, Giugliano calmly stuck her foot in and stripped the ball from the defender. It’s almost hard to put to words, but she side skirted the dribbler like a bullfighter, taking the ball away without even making contact.
And she didn’t stop there this season, going right until the very end and putting Roma over the finish line.
Giugliano’s defensive performance in the Coppa Italia final was spectacularly composed, especially given she was forced to commit a technical foul and take a yellow card for the team within the first five minutes of play. But Giugliano is rarely ever considered a red-card risk for her team, owing to the simple truth that her defensive skills are pure talent.
Bonfantini and Thomas Did Not Push Each Other to Double Figures
After we ranked Lindsey Thomas as our Roma Player of the Season in 2019-20, her goals and assists took a fall in this campaign just gone by. And Agnese Bonfantini near-completely fell off the scene, so much so that Bonfantini is linked with a move away from the club this summer. That’s a far cry from the expectations surrounding her when Bonfantini was one of the first Roma players to sign a multi-year contract in the club’s history.
Last year, both Roma forwards came close to cracking double-figures in a single season, and we asked whether they couldn’t both achieve that feat together in this campaign. The answer was no—and Lindsey Thomas’ inclusion in the first eleven even pushed Agnese Bonfantini to the bench. Which was a dire twist of fate for two teammates who even lived together under the same roof, back during the pandemic lockdown.
But that decision to keep Thomas in the first eleven was merited if we’re comparing her to Bonfantini in an isolated context on the pitch.
Truthfully, Thomas is the better player for Roma’s overall play. But that’s only expected when Thomas is now 26-years-old and has been used to competing at a higher level in France’s D1 league before she came to Italy to compete alongside Bonfantini. Thomas is not just work rate, but composure and the ability to string Roma’s passing together around the opponent’s penalty area on a good day.
The question from here on in is: How many good days can Lindsey Thomas string for herself in front of goal?
As good as she is, both herself and Bavagnoli have spoken on her need to believe in herself more if she’s going to be a real difference-maker on the scoresheet with Roma. Thomas’ marriage of skill and physique should really be competing for Capocannoniere titles in this league, but right now she’s just another forward that Roma have relied on to make ends meet further away from goal.
Aside from the battle of egos to be resolved in midfield, Roma has a lot of improvement to find in their final third play next season. Whether that happens with Bonfantini looks increasingly unlikely, and it’s not sure whether Thomas will be on the scene with Roma beyond the summer either. The French forward has been linked with a move to AC Milan for weeks now and may find it hard to resist the lure of Champions League football up north.
Either way, her staying or leaving won’t change the core issue where Roma fell short this season: This team needs to find cynicism in front of goal and more prolific play in the final third.
The build-up play has become incredibly solid over the last three seasons, and the midfield balance has finally been found. But the attacking third is where big question marks still hang over this club, and that affects our final topic over the past season.
Roma Didn’t Win Enough Games Over Direct Rivals in the League (But the Coppa...)
It will come across as nothing short of pedantic to finish up on this point, given Roma just got done triumphing over AC Milan to raise the Coppa Italia trophy days ago. But we asked whether Roma could win their head-to-head clashes with other big teams last season, and the league campaign pretty much fell flat on that point before 2020 was even up.
This Serie A season just gone by has seen Juventus win all 22 out of their 22 league games, while Roma still has yet to beat AC Milan in 90 minutes of play, in any competition. Roma are certainly getting the best of Fiorentina from year to year, but the Viola aren’t the force they were just 12 months ago after they suffered the loss of several star players to professional football abroad.
And we can’t forget that, when it was all said and done, Roma actually finished behind Fiorentina in the league on the very last day of the season anyway. So there’s plenty of ground to be made up in the direct encounters with Italy’s other “Big 4” teams, while the growing force of Sassuolo will demand they be counted in the big picture for Serie A next season.
All that said: Roma DID beat Juventus and AC Milan in the Coppa. And that’s as good a starting point as any to launch next season’s march up the table!