Despite a slow start to their 2020-2021 season, the women of Roma finished the season with a flourish, defeating the leagues top two sides, Juventus and AC Milan, en route to winning the 2021 Coppa Italia—the first title in club history and the organization's first senior-level title since 2008.
In between the sluggish start to the campaign and the glorious ending, there were, as you might expect, plenty of intriguing storylines, moments of joy, and periods of frustration. So, before we delve into the nitty-gritty of the player's performances, we decided to tackle the big picture issues from Roma's recently completed 2020-2021 season.
We set some pretty high expectations for Roma last fall. It may have been a bit premature to talk about title contention, but the Champions League race seemed viable. In your estimation, what dragged Roma down this season?
Bren: I’m going to eschew any nuanced tactical discussion and pin it all on one thing: finishing, which was horrendous. That may sound a bit glib but I can’t even tell you how many times I threw my hands up in frustration (usually at 6:30 in the morning) watching a shot sail just over the bar, or swerve too far or even strike the post; it was incredibly frustrating.
And it points to one prevalent issue for me through Roma’s first three years in women’s football: the lack of a real striker. If we look at the top teams in this league, they all have dependable goal scorers up front—Roma doesn’t and I think this year was proof positive of how limiting that can be.
I was also confused about some of Bavagnoli’s personnel selections, namely that odd stretch where she played Baldi in goal ahead of Ceasar, and there were obviously some costly injuries this season, but if I had to narrow it down to one issue, it was finishing; plain and simple.
dallagente: Well, I’ll put it to you this way: Imagine waking up at 6.30 am to watch the kind of misses Valentina Giacinti pulled out against the likes of Sassuolo or Florentia, and it’d be the same feeling. I’ve been around fanbases on SBN and I notice even Juve fans say Ronaldo misses too many easy chances, so I think that’s just part of being a goalscorer.
I’ll say set-pieces killed Roma at both ends of the pitch. In the first half of the season, before Linari came to the club, Roma conceded over half of their goals from penalties and corners alone. If you lump in free-kick goals conceded too, then you realise Roma conceded just six goals from open play in the first half of the season. Then Linari arrives and Roma stops the errors inside the box but starts conceding more goals from outside the area. A lot of those goals in the second half of the season came from poor defending from the fullbacks. So there’s work to be done in just controlling the flanks and middle of the pitch.
Okay, what, if anything, could they have done to correct that?
Bren: Buy a real striker! If we had a Giacinti or Girelli, or even Daniela Sabatino, I have no doubt we’d be in contention for a Champions League place. But, so often this season, Roma seemed overly reliant on Serturini to score goals, and while she got nine of them, continually going to the same well match after match isn’t sustainable. Throw in the fact that Paloma Lazaro hadn’t scored a goal since February and the club’s offensive struggles really weren’t that surprising.
In light of that, perhaps Bavagnoli could have switched formations or schemed some way to find some measure of balance upfront because her cycling of Thomas and Bonfantini on the right didn’t really help either player establish any consistency this season.
My answer to this is sort of limited by my first response—I mean, how does one actually fix finishing—but the attack as a whole struggled this year, scoring fewer goals than last year despite playing six more matches. Some of that has to be down to tactics and personnel decisions on Bavagnoli’s part.
dallagente: I’ll be honest: As a full-fledged fan of Serie A Femminile by now, I still don’t see great goalscorers in the league. And if there are, then there definitely aren’t enough to go around.
Do I look at the top teams and envy their goalscorers? Honestly, no. But I don’t want to come off as delusional, I just don’t see versatile goalscorers or scorers of quality goals. The last great goalscorer I saw was Tatiana Bonetti and unsurprisingly, pro football took her to Spain. Who’s left?
You could sign Giacinti but then you’d have to live with the fact she lives off the last defender, and if there isn’t space in front of her to run then she’s not scoring half as many goals. You could sign Girelli but then you’d have to focus on crossing the ball more than ever. Then again maybe that’s just modern football and I’m getting old, as I’d say that about the men’s Serie A, too. Even the biggest clubs just play to serve the same kind of goals on their striker’s plates.
But Girelli’s aerial advantage in the box can’t be played down. Put her 8 penalties aside, and she still scored 13 goals from set-pieces herself—which is more than Roma did all season as a team. Same for Sabatino scoring 10 goals from set-pieces with Fiorentina, while Girelli got 12 aerial goals—nearly twice as many as Roma’s entire team scored in the air.
Milan have a similar aerial threat now that brought in Natasha Dowie (who often unlocks scoreless games for them). Lazaro is meant to be that aerial threat for Roma and she’s done well enough with what she’s been given. And don’t forget we’ve still yet to see what Banusic is made of, despite her scoring an amazing goal against Inter.
But for me, the story is set pieces, and generally, that means becoming better as a team in terms of keeping the ball away from your final third and keeping it in the opponent’s own. I think players like Andressa, Lazaro, and the backline players would probably have been trying to push for Roma to change into that kind of team, but they walked into a team where their expectations were swimming against the tide of Roma’s counter-attack, fast-break football for younger talents like Bonfantini, Serturini and arguably even Thomas to get on the scoresheet in the first two years. Manuela Giugliano is a good enough player that she can straddle the line between both approaches to football, and must become the leader of this club if she isn’t already.
At which point(s) during the season did you sense that something was amiss—that Roma would fall short of our lofty expectations?
Bren: Is it cheating if I say straight away? Roma blew a one-nil lead to Sassuolo in week one, eventually drawing the match 1-1 but this was a team they dominated 7-3 over their prior three matches. They followed that up with a 2-0 win over Pink Bari, which was fine (though they could have doubled that tally, and then fell to Empoli 2-0. Given the imbalanced nature of the league, where you have to be damn near perfect every week to keep up with Milan and Juve, Roma were on the back foot almost immediately.
dallagente: There was a long spell in mid-season where I just stopped watching because I was seriously short on time as it is and didn’t watch full-length Roma matches anymore in any league. That was shortly after the 1-1 draw away to Inter in October. I remember I got way way into Kathellen Sousa’s style after that match, but it was another game where I felt Bartoli was struggling to perform this season. Then I saw Bartoli win the vote for CdT Player of the Year and I stayed away for a bit because I don’t always want to come across like that contrarian guy. But it just didn’t match up with what was going on on the pitch. I get it though. People vote for the recognisable names and faces because, like me for a lot of this season, everyone is short on time.
Despite falling short of league expectations, give us a few areas in which Roma actually improved over their 2019-2020 performance.
dallagente: I think their ability to compete in the big games, despite the final scoreline at times, was a lot more convincing. It’s not really that things got better, it’s just there was a change of style and approach to games and a change of attitude overall.
Before this season just gone by, Roma were happy to be a fast-break team. They scored more goals and conceded less that way, but they never really looked like they had a foot in the big matches against the likes of Juve and Milan - and they never qualified for Europe. So what were they going to do? It was either wait for Bonfantini, Serturini and some of the younger names to mature over several years, or make the most of the more experienced names the club had signed today. What’s fantastic is that we’ve actually seen a mix of both.
Now, from this spring 2021 onwards, the build-up play and Roma’s ability to resist opponents pressuring them on the ball inside their own half is really good. If they could do that for 12 months, and not just the spring run-in, then we’ll see where that lands Roma in the table. Giugliano has re-found form, Bartoli recovered from her early-season dip and Soffia and Swaby showed far more belief when it came to attacking the space ahead of them and getting involved in attack.
Bren: Very well said, so I’ll keep mine short and sweet (while also agreeing): they did much better against the top clubs than the past two years. Defeating Juventus for the first time in the Coppa Italia semifinals, getting their first positive result against Milan during the regulars season, and then, of course, beating them in the Coppa final were all tremendous signs of progress to me.
I also thought the full-back play was much better this year, mostly because Soffia seized the reins and never looked back.
Which player(s) surprised you most with their performance this season?
dallagente: Easily, Angelica Soffia. I tune into games to watch her play. She’s gone from squad player to total footballer. And the funny thing is full-backs are your favourite type of player, Bren, not mine. But Soffia is sensational in current form. I think Allyson Swaby really improved her all-around play on the ball too, as the season went along. And I was hoping Bernaeur could keep her levels up from last season, which she did and then some. Claudio Ciccotti was also a surprisingly calm and effective presence off the bench.
Bren: Haha, I should have known you’d go with that one! I do love full-backs, I don’t know why and she’s definitely an excellent pick, but to keep things interesting I’ll go with Allyson Swaby, who, at this point, is probably getting a bit too good for the league. She’s not Italian and probably has no real emotional bond to the city and country, so I wouldn’t be shocked if she’s tempted by a move abroad before too long.
I’d also give a shout-out to Claudia Ciccotti, who always just seemed like roster-filler prior to this season but she’s fantastic at doing all the dirty work that allows everyone else to focus on the more glamorous aspects of midfield play—a great depth piece.
Which players disappointed you most with their performance this season?
dallagente: I’m disappointed that Agnese Bonfantini was unceremoniously dropped. This isn’t disappointment in Bonfantini herself, and more that I’m surprised with how few chances she was given. We saw the same thing happen with Greggi’s game time last season. I was also disappointed with Elisa Bartoli for half the season, and with Lindsey Thomas’ struggles in front of goal. I think Andressa has more to give to Roma, too, but injuries ate into her season.
Bren: Yeah, no argument here—I still don’t understand what she did or didn’t do to fall out of favor with Bavagnoli. It was kind of a bummer to see Bavagnoli leave her post on the bench but she definitely made some questionable personnel decisions this year with Bonfantini and that strange couple of weeks where she started Baldi in goal over Ceasar.
I’ll say Thomas—I still don’t really know what her role is and her dip in goals this year was epic, but some of that might be due to Bavagnoli’s tactics. Apart from that, I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t see more of the youngest players like Heden Corrado, Alice Corelli, etc—loan them out, what good does it do them rotting on the bench every week?
Who was the MVP of the 2020-2021 season?
dallagente: I normally don’t like just giving the end-of-season awards to strikers, but it’s hard for me to say anything other than either Serturini or Lazaro. They came in level with 11 goals + assists each in the league. I’ll give honourable mentions to Giugliano, Swaby, Linari and Soffia but their good runs of form didn’t last nearly as long as the more consistent Serturini and Lazaro did for Roma. I’ll personally give the MVP to Lazaro, since I know Bren will give it to Serturini.
Bren: Yeah, you got me. Serturini would be my choice, though if Linari had a full season with Roma, you could make a solid argument for her. Serturini may not be the most complete or dynamic player in the league, but she’s arguably one of the most dangerous forwards Italy has to offer.
Who was Roma’s best U-23 player this season?
dallagente: Well again, just gone off my previous answer, it’s Annamaria Serturini. She was consistent where the other U-23s were not. Honourable mentions to Swaby and Giugliano, too. But now all three names are either 23 years old or above, so the throne will be open to a new name next season.
Bren: Just to be different, I’ll go with Camelia Ceasar. She doesn’t look like she’d be as good as she is, but she always rises to the occasion. She has great positioning, incredible reflexes, and pretty decent “ups” despite being so slight of frame. I always felt more comfortable with her in goal.
Roma didn’t sign a lot of new players this season, but how can they build on the recent signings of international veterans like Giugliano, Andressa and Linari?
dallagente: Sign more of them! If only life were that simple. If Roma can sign a top international midfielder that mixes well with Giugliano and Andressa in midfield (or better than either Bernauer or Hegerberg), then great. And you can always sign a top-class keeper. As much as I have a lot of time for both Caesar and Baldi, I think the goalkeeping department is very upgradeable. I think at least one wide forward could be signed, too.
But I hear Roma are signing young Italian names to midfield and wide forward this summer. So it looks like there’s only so much Bavagnoli’s world-class reputation can convince the biggest names to come to the capital, for as long as Roma goes without European football. It was crucial for the club to hold onto Bavagnoli in some capacity because she’s been instrumental in attracting the Andressas, Giuglianos, and Linaris of the world to the club so far.
Bren: Yeah, this is a tough one to answer because so much of the Serie A Femminile transfer business remains shrouded in mystery. If nothing else, they need to keep the core of the team intact but if there’s a market inefficiency they can exploit, it seems like taking advantage of disgruntled players abroad might be it. They got lucky that players like Andressa and Linari wanted to leave their larger European clubs, so who knows, perhaps they can tap that well again.
Finally, and going along with that, what does Roma need to add or improve upon to challenge Milan and Juventus at the top of the table?
dallagente: A summary of everything we touched on above. If you can sign top names at goalkeeper, midfield and wide forward then you’ve done what you can on the mercato. Bonus points if you can find a striker who’s naturally an aerial threat in the box. Then Roma need to get better at their set-piece routines, especially in attack. And defensively, there’s still improvement to be had in defending the flanks and controlling the outside-of-the-box danger from midfield. That’s it: Seven areas to bridge the gap to the top.
Bren: Well, you mentioned it in a different piece earlier this week but it seems like Juve might be experiencing a mini exodus, so perhaps Roma will gain ground by default. As I mentioned above, keeping the core of the team together would be the first step and then I’d augment that with a better and more consistent striker.
If they can manage that and stick within the top four for the next couple of seasons, then hopefully they’ll be set to make even greater gains once the league actually goes pro.
Look for our positional reviews coming over the next several days and hopefully some exciting moves on the women's mercato this summer!