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Roma’s Backline Can Build On Swaby-Linari Partnership For Years to Come

Roma wouldn’t trade Elena Linari and Allyson Swaby for any other defensive pairing in the 2020/21 season.

Football Serie A woman AS Roma woman-AC Milan woman Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Italian football loves its tropes as much as any other league, and one of the lasting calcio ideals is building your trophy wins off a solid partnership at the heart of defense. That’s exactly what Roma managed to do when they brought star defender Elena Linari back to Italian football in January, pairing her with the ever-increasing influence of Allyson Swaby in Roma’s attractive style of football. But the newfound confidence didn’t stop there for Roma’s backline, as we saw full-back Angelica Soffia come on leaps and bounds in kind.

We’ll have a feature on Soffia’s pivotal role in Roma’s end-of-season success later, but it’s enough to say the 20-year-old full-back looks near-unrecognizable from the teenager who first hit the Roma scene back in the club’s inaugural 2018 league game against Sassuolo. Meanwhile, we can’t forget how much Roma captain Elisa Bartoli gambled her career when signing for her hometown club three years ago; a risk that has finally seen Bartoli rewarded with her Coppa winner’s medal in 2021.

Elsewhere, the leading four names were supported by squad players Tecla Pettenuzzo and Kaja Erzen; though it was disappointing that we went yet another season without really seeing anything, in terms of game time, from Roma youth Heden Corrado, who we had to leave out of this review as she only saw brief Coppa action and didn’t play any league games.

We also decided to leave stats out of this review, as we don’t have access to meaningful numbers that could be applied to the backline players across the board.

But we did map out all the goals Roma conceded below.

Player Reviews & Ratings: The Rearguard

Kaja Erzen

AS Roma v AC Milan - Women’s Coppa Italia Final Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Season Summary

Erzen does show strengths in her style of play that were so nearly an asset in some league games this season.

For one, Erzen’s crossing is more dangerous and more accurate than any of her peers from out wide. Second, she retains the instinct to run into space down the channel, pop up in the final third, and put it in the danger area. But Erzen has never managed to hook it all together over 90 minutes of consistent play, and that’s what’s kept her relegated to just seven league starts (and a further six appearances off the bench) in the 2020-2021 Serie A campaign.

With Erzen’s stature, Roma hoped the Slovenian would have found the confidence to take on opponents down the flank by now. But Kaja remains very much a give-and-go player when it comes to moving up the pitch. That’s a mold that her direct rival for the right-back spot, Angelica Soffia, has broken out of this year. And that made Soffia the first-choice in the crunch games when Roma really needed the extra player to move Roma’s attack up a gear, resist the press, and dribble between small spaces through the midfield, which Erzen has shown herself unable to do. Then there’s the defensive side of the game, where Erzen shows flaws on a regular basis.

AS Roma v AC Milan - Women’s Coppa Italia Final Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

If she’s not getting beaten in the air on crosses and corners, then she’s being given the slip on the ground by the likes of Inter’s Gloria Marinelli running in behind her, or even letting Napoli’s Federica Cafferata get the run in right across Erzen on the last Serie A matchday. Erzen even began the league campaign by getting beaten (together with Tecla Pettenuzzo) on her flank for Sassuolo’s equalizer during the league opener.

But while those errors did lead to goals conceded, they didn’t lead to as many points dropped. We counted six individual errors leading to Roma goals conceded by Erzen, but only four league points lost as a direct result.

Outlook for Next Season

Roma will be hard-pressed to find a squad player willing to play backup like Erzen does, especially for as long as the club goes without European football. Her role as a relief player from the bench was valuable, and she does bring a couple of strengths with her game. But it’s outweighed by the defensive errors, the lack of confidence in the air, and the lack of confidence in moving up the flank with the ball at her feet.

She’s now 26-years-old and must consider if she can trust this club to bring out the best in her, or whether Erzen isn’t better off with a move elsewhere this summer. On the positive side, Erzen remains a first-eleven full-back for Slovenia at the international level.

Final Grade: 4 out of 10

Tecla Pettenuzzo

FC Internazionale v AS Roma- Women Serie A Photo by Andrea Bruno Diodato/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Season Summary

Everyone knows I’m heavily biased towards ball-playing defenders, and I rate Pettenuzzo’s potential high enough that she could be the successor to Milan’s Laura Fusetti, both domestically and on the international scene.

Pettenuzzo has sometimes controlled games from the back for Roma in a way that makes you wonder whether she really is still just 21-years-old. Tecla has also managed to calm down the disciplinary side of her game that previously saw her get into card trouble, but she still isn’t disciplined enough. Even I can’t overlook her problems when it comes to running back to goal or defending in her final third. In that sense, Pettenuzzo remains a Jekyll & Hyde player in a Roma jersey.

Before Elena Linari’s January arrival demoted Tecla to the bench, Roma conceded over half of their total goals (17 in all comps) through set pieces alone (9). That includes five penalties given away, of which Pettenuzzo gave two away herself. She’s also not confident at winning either first or second-balls inside her own box, often getting beaten to the punch—look no further than the season opener against Sassuolo.

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Women Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Even after Linari arrived at the club, Pettenuzzo still played a direct role in conceding goals when she came off the bench. She’s at a natural disadvantage against most opponents in the air, and Juve’s Cristiana Girelli capitalized on that to lead the Bianconere’s failed comeback attempt in that 3-2 Coppa semi-final second leg Roma loss. But it’s moving up the pitch where Pettenuzzo looks like the class of her field.

When asked to read the game, cut out passes higher up the pitch and come up with defense-splitting passes of her own, Pettenuzzo is pure quality. Look no further than her intercepting Verona’s counter-attack on the halfway line, at the Tre Fontane, before Pettenuzzo put in a defense-splitting ball to assist Annamaria Serturini on her way to the winning goal on that day. Then there was the assist in the Florentia game that meant Pettenuzzo directly contributed to at least four league points while playing from the back.

But she needs to improve the defensive side of her game and find some credibility when it comes to competing for aerial duels.

Outlook for Next Season

Tecla has been both positive and diplomatic about Linari’s arrival in Roma, claiming it’s an opportunity for Pettenuzzo herself to up her game and learn from the best. Let’s hope Pettenuzzo means it, as she really could be a top player in years to come.

What she gives to the team in her possession play, she takes away with her defensive flaws when running back to goal. Mixed emotions.

Final Grade: 5 out of 10

Elisa Bartoli

AC Milan v AS Roma Women - TIMVISION Women Cup Final Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Season Summary

We could never play down Elisa Bartoli’s overall three-year impact on this club so far. You only have to watch the Serie A documentary Uniche to see that Bartoli’s character is worth its weight in gold, and then some—not just to the city or the club, but to her local neighborhood. She’s outright praised by departing Roma coach Bavagnoli as “the kind of captain that’s every club’s dream.” And yet, there’s something poor about Bartoli’s performances, during the first half of this season, that we struggle to put into words.

Maybe it was Bartoli losing her marker for Daniela Sabatino’s goal when Fiorentina took a point away from the Tre Fontane, or Bartoli getting beaten surprisingly easy by Gloria Marinelli away to Inter. Then there was the penalty Bartoli gave away in the early half of the season (though you could argue that was unavoidable given it was a handball on the line trying to break up an Empoli counter-attack goal), and getting beaten in a Juve game for Hurtig to score. It all led us to ask if Bartoli didn’t begin this season carrying some sort of injury. But then Linari came to Rome, and Bartoli was aces from then on in.

The second half of the season saw Linari able to cover the space left open by Bartoli’s ventures further up the pitch, and less work for Bartoli led to zero individual defensive errors. What’s more, Bartoli came up with crucial goals in the games against Napoli and San Marino that broke the deadlock in both fixtures to bring home the victories. And that’s to say nothing of Bartoli’s assist against San Marino, crossing in for Paloma Lazaro to score, early in the season.

Outlook for Next Season

Juventus v AS Roma - Women’s Super Cup Semifinal Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

She can now afford to take the same risks she always does upfront, without getting punished for it at the back, thanks to the safety of Elena Linari on her side of the pitch. But it’s odd that Bartoli and wide forward Annamaria Serturini still play like total strangers rather than teammates down that left flank, and it’s beyond time that gets sorted out after three consecutive seasons together in Rome.

Roma’s left-flank chemistry is lacking but, with fewer defensive worries on her mind next season, we trust Bartoli to work it out.

Final Grade: 6 out of 10

Angelica Soffia

FC Internazionale v AS Roma- Women Serie A Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Season Summary

We’ll have plenty of time to praise her to high heaven in our feature on Soffia later, but her all-around play from the spring of 2021 onwards has been nothing short of stunning. It’s just a shame it didn’t come earlier in the season, and 20-year-old Soffia’s next challenge is to prove she hook up her total football style over the course of an entire league campaign. But let’s start with the errors.

Soffia began the season as a rotation piece and saw her error count remain inconspicuous as a result. But the more Soffia proved to be a first-team regular as the season went on, the more it was evident that Roma still weren’t finding a way to plug the goals they’ve been conceding from wide (see the goals conceded map below of Before Linari and After Linari), in their own defensive third, all-season long.

After Linari and Swaby began to reduce the number of goals Roma conceded inside their own area, the outside-of-the-box goals conceded count went up nonetheless.

FC Internazionale v AS Roma- Women Serie A Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images

In the second half of the season, Soffia was responsible for no less than three goals that began with danger outside of the box; danger that Soffia could have done better to shut down at the source. Then there was the penalty Soffia gave away, which led to yet more points dropped in the Serie A girone di ritorno.

Overall, Roma conceded a lion’s share of goals that could have been prevented by the full-backs (14 goals against in all comps down to full-back mistakes—nearly 50% of Roma’s total goals conceded in all comps this season). It’s undeniable that Roma are vulnerable to going down on the scoreline whenever the opposing team focuses on dropping a long ball over the top into Roma’s defensive third, on either flank. But that looks like being true of Serie A Femminile in general.

At eye level (and no firm stats to back it up right now) it looks like most teams in this league are living or dying on the battle for width, and prone to being outflanked (or even outflanking opponents) on any given day. That could be even more reason for Roma to increase their competitiveness in this area if they want to move up the Serie A table, which begins with Roma seeing improvements in Soffia’s all-around performance—and not just her stunningly good possession game.

Outlook for Next Season

AC Milan v AS Roma Women - TIMVISION Women Cup Final Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

We haven’t covered the real story of Soffia’s rise this season; one which saw the league’s best opponents be made to look like mugs by the speed of thought and execution in Soffia’s play, and one where Soffia proved crucial to taking Roma’s build-up play to that next level.

But, even in her best form in the second half of the season, the errors and lack of coverage in Soffia’s own defensive third just highlighted how much more the 20-year-old has to round out her game.

If you believe the transfer rumors (more on that at the end of this article), then the club aren’t going to let Soffia rest on her laurels either.

Final Grade: 6 out of 10

Allyson Swaby

Football Serie A Woman Roma-Inter Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

Season Summary

Aside from Elisa Bartoli, Swaby is probably the club’s only constant in defense this season just gone by. She started off the season building a partnership with Tecla Pettenuzzo and then found herself forging an understanding with Elena Linari from January onwards. Throughout it all, Swaby has made some defensive mistakes here and there but balanced that out by going up the other end and scoring absolute top-drawer goals when Roma needed it most.

There was Swaby’s goal to take Roma 2-0 up against Inter, earlier this year, which actually proved the difference between Roma leaving that game with all three points by the final whistle. But the surreal moment of the season was Swaby’s wonder goal against Juventus in the Supercoppa semi-final; a goal where Swaby intercepted the ball in her half, went on a mad run up the entire length of the pitch, attacking the space in front of her, stringing a 1-2 pass with Lazaro, before receiving the ball to run inside Juventus’ penalty area and slot it past Laura Giuliani.

All of this in one continuous sequence of play, started and finished by Swaby.

That brought Roma level with Juve 1-1 on the day, before they lost in extra time. But the point is Swaby has been a cornerstone player in terms helping this Roma team to see that the big clubs like Juventus and Milan can be had, and aren’t nearly as invincible as they may have looked prior. How many times have we seen Allyson reduce Milan’s captain and hitwoman striker Valentina Giacinti to living off scraps in Roma-Milan games?

When it comes to the biggest one-on-one matchups in this league, Swaby proved herself to be one of Serie A’s most accomplished defenders over the past season. But, sure, Swaby did make her share of mistakes in the first half of this season all the same.

There were some poor defensive displays at corners and crosses in 2020, and there’s often a lack of understanding between sharing the defensive responsibilities whenever Swaby plays alongside Erzen. But the second half of the year saw Swaby completely mop those individual errors up, and the more she was flanked by Linari and Soffia on either side of her, the more Swaby upped her performances in kind.

Outlook for Next Season

AC Milan v AS Roma Women - TIMVISION Women Cup Final Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

In prior seasons, we wrestled with the debate over whether Swaby’s future in Roma lay at center-back or full-back. On the wing, she’s actually a surprisingly effective auxiliary right-back who can put in a hell of a cross. But that’s not where we want to see her anymore.

Swaby is Roma’s center-half for yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And that’s probably why she was one of the first Roma players to be handed a multi-year contract extension by the club.

Final Grade: 8 out of 10

Elena Linari

AC Milan v AS Roma Women - TIMVISION Women Cup Final Photo by Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images

Season Summary

Last but not least is Roma’s January signing at the back, who re-modeled Roma’s mental approach to their season goals, as well as putting a big dent in Roma’s goals-conceded-per-game ratio along the way.

We’ll put it like this: Roma were conceding 1.21 goals per game before Linari, and then conceded less than a goal per game (0.88) after slotting Linari in the first eleven.

Even though it’s foolish to map out that ratio hypothetically over the entire league campaign, let’s do it anyway: If Roma had kept that 0.88 goals conceded ratio throughout the entire 2020/21 league calendar, they would have conceded either 20 or 21 league goals. That would have brought them very close to second-place AC Milan’s defensive record (17 goals against).

The fact it would have been still some way of champions Juventus’ defensive record (10 goals against) suggests that collective defending from all 10 outfield players, and keeping danger away from your own defensive half in general, is still a key factor than just signing star players to your team and hoping for the best. Which is something I’ve never really liked about doing these defensive reviews and making it out like the goals conceded are all down to the backline.

Roma needs more control of matches in general, and more contribution from their midfield and frontline unit on the defensive end to keep moving up the table. But Linari, as an individual, brings far more than just performance on the pitch.

She was the loudest voice after big wins against Juventus and Milan in the Coppa, making sure the team canonized those moments in their mind by getting every Roma squad member to collectively belt out the Noi Siamo La Roma mantra. Linari knows that nothing breeds winning results more than the habit of winning itself, and has provided Roma with many positive, winning memories to build on in just six months spent playing in the Eternal City, thus far.

There were also highlight moments for Linari at the attacking end of the pitch, coming up with goals against Florentia and Napoli to round out the season with 2 goals in just 11 league appearances. And then, of course, there was the crucial assist from Linari to Lindsey Thomas in that Coppa semi-final second leg away to Juventus. But no player’s season is ever perfect, though. Not even a half-season like the one just gone by.

Linari was sometimes caught out in that game against Inter Milan right in the closing moments, through a spell of fixtures where she looked like she was gaining her full match fitness back after time spent on the sidelines at her prior club. But does it matter?

It didn’t cost any points and Linari has fully delivered on expectations in a Roma jersey to date.

Outlook for Next Season

Key player. Enough said.

Final Grade: 9 out of 10

Watch Out For...

AS Roma U19 v FC Internaionale U19 - Women Primavera Final Four Semifinal Photo by Emilio Andreoli - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

Roma’s defensive problems at full-back are far from resolved, so the senior squad could do a lot worse than giving Roma Primavera captain Eleonora Pacioni a call to senior training this summer.

Pacioni’s long-balls and general playmaking from the right-back position were devastating for opponents in the Final Four Primavera playoffs, and her natural stature means her opponents rarely see any joy trying to work it up Pacioni’s wing when she’s back there in defense. She knows what it likes to wear the Scudetto on her Roma jersey, so Pacioni should fit right into the winning mentality Roma are weaving through their senior side. But if you believe the transfer rumors, then Roma are aiming far higher when it comes to keeping the competitive heat on Soffia and Bartoli.

Italy Women Training Session Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Roma are reportedly in pursuit of 23-year old Empoli captain Lucia Di Guglielmo, who is a player I absolutely rate highly, especially after her appearance on the documentary Uniche. But I’m not alone in my estimation and she’s not short of suitors in Serie A: Her signature has been wanted by both Fiorentina for some time now, and more recently Juventus.

The Giallorosse would have to sell Di Guglielmo on a hell of a dream if they’re to convince her to share game time with Bartoli and Soffia in Rome. LDG has already cracked the Italy senior squad this year, and is a direct rival for both Soffia and Bartoli at both full-back positions, at every echelon of the game right now.

But LDG’s former Empoli coach Alessandro Spugna getting hired to the Roma bench may just bring Di Guglielmo to the capital after all. That would give Roma’s backline department the kind of squad competition to rival any club in the land.