Rarely has a Roma player been given to license to live through mistakes. So when Betty Bavagnoli—installed as Roma coach in the summer of 2018—took it upon herself to continue molding former midfielder Angelica Soffia into a full-back, it sounded like one of the many could-turn-out-good-but-more-likely-terrible ideas that wouldn’t last a season at Trigoria.
It’s one thing for former AGSM Verona player Soffia to learn a different role with the national team, which she was doing in the Italy youth ranks (even wearing the captain’s armband at U-19 level for her country) before she moved to Roma, but quite another to live up to the inflated expectations that come with playing in the Eternal City. This is despite the fact that Soffia first arrived in Roma as an accomplished player in club football, having played for one of the more successful clubs in the land (before big-brand Italian clubs decided to enter the femminile football divisions and re-shape the panorama) and, as we mentioned in our U-23 Countdown last summer, being one of the few players in Rome (maybe even the only) who could say she played Champions League football as a teenager. Despite the promise Soffia evidently showed on her CV, though, she admitted she’s never been one to retain much confidence.
We touched upon that last summer, too:
“I’m a person who doesn’t have that much self-esteem,” Soffia confessed to the club’s official Instagram account during the pandemic lockdown, “so I wouldn’t have ever expected the fans to warm to me as far as football goes. It always makes me happy and motivates me to give the best of myself.”
Talk of sacrifice and remaining humble in service of the team was all well and good. We’ve all heard those kinds of media-trained soundbites from many a player over the years, and often you expect it to lead to a serviceable career as a relief player off the bench or a utility player that can come in and share game time over a season calendar at most. For the first two seasons of Soffia’s career, she looked like fitting that exact mold.
She was good for getting into a tackle and showing some fight or drawing a foul in order to kill off opponents’ momentum. But Bavagnoli’s Roma were falling short on territory that will sound familiar to any Roma fan who’s watched through the Eusebio Di Francesco and Paulo Fonseca years on the men’s side: Build-up play.
Some fans say it's pointless, others say it’s essential, and there’s a bunch of us on the middle ground who feels it's a good idea as long as you have confident players ready to make it a reality on the pitch, beyond just a fancy idea. Roma had the confidence of club captain Elisa Bartoli ready to ride challenges down the left flank but lacked a suitable counter-part down the right-wing. That meant Bavagnoli, in large part, gambled half of her stay on the Roma coaching bench on the talents of wide forwards Annamaria Serturini and Agnese Bonfantini, further up the pitch.
2018: Between Build-Up Play and the Ski Mask Way
Roma spent a lot of 2018 to 2020 recycling the ball along the backline—and often left Bavagnoli lamenting the fact the players did it at way too slow a pace in her post-match interviews. Nonetheless, Roma’s elaborate build-up was based on “faking” that they were about to move the ball up one flank, only to pass the ball to the other flank when the opposite full-back, or often the wide forward instead (sometimes both), were free to receive the ball on the weak side of play.
All of this was done by design, and a big show of faith in Bonfantini and Serturini’s sheer pace and ability to come deep, make themselves a passing option, and then immediately run-up to the opponent’s goal to support Roma’s finishing moves. More bodies crowding the midfield meant fewer opponents for players like Soffia to try and take on, often able to find her feet as a fullback that could make runs in behind opponents into the attacking third, rather than having to take on the responsibility of driving the ball herself.
We saw evidence of this in Roma’s very first league game against Sassuolo back in 2018 through build-up play involving Roma centreback Federica Di Criscio, wide forward Bonfantini, and Angelica Soffia down the right flank:
- Agnese Bonfantini receives Di Criscio’s pass in the half-lane and wastes no time one-touch passing it into Soffia’s run outside.
- Soffia shows the pace and strength to fend off her marker on the way to Sassuolo’s penalty area.
- Soffia evades her marker once again, inside the penalty area. She doesn’t go through her but instead runs round the outside.
- Sassuolo have enough time to adjust and make every pass difficult for Soffia, who loses possession. But Bonfantini wins the ball back and gets fouled, earning Roma a penalty and leading to the Giallorosse’s first ever league goal as a club.
Above is the story of A.S. Roma’s first-ever league goal scored in Serie A Femminile. Soffia used her pace more than strength, avoiding physical duels for the most part and using her technical skill to evade her marker.
It was an approach that left Sassuolo with just enough time to recover at the end of the move, and force Soffia into turning over possession inside Sassuolo’s penalty area. But the tireless pace of Agnese Bonfantini meant there was a support run inside the box, with Bonfantini quickly recovering possession after Soffia had lost the ball. As soon as Bonfantini won the ball back, she was fouled. Roma’s penalty was dispatched by Annamaria Serturini, and the club were back in the game, halving Sassuolo’s lead (though Sassuolo ended up winning the match 3-2).
Despite the loss at the final whistle, Roma took less than ninety minutes of league play to show themselves they had routes to goal. They could hurt opponents and get on the scoresheet while making use of young talents throughout the team. But the plan was heavily reliant on Bonfantini and Serturini to fast-break upfront, and break Roma into goals the ski mask way. There was really only the alternating form of Martina Piemonte, meant to win long-balls in the air as Roma’s more direct route to goal, in the prima punta position. And then there was Soffia herself, who showed very few moments like the one above.
Most of Soffia’s play in her first season with Roma was about being the spare player to offer width, and shielding the ball whenever she received it. Soffia would often be relentlessly pressed by opponents, who felt her lack of conviction in possession was a tactical weakness there to be exploited. Soffia’s response was to get more involved in the dark arts of the game:
“What do I make of being having the third-highest yellow cards?” Soffia said in that same pandemic 2020 interview. “Everyone’s told me that I keep getting hit on the pitch. So I decided to take a few yellow cards, myself!”
That approach brought the Roma full-back some more time with the club, especially when wind the clock back to the 2019 summer transfer market—one where Betty Bavagnoli and the club’s directors really started to push for big, international names to take their long-term vision higher up the Serie A table.
A 4th-place finish in Roma’s debut season was good—considering the Giallorosse gambled heavily on youth compared to Milan, Fiorentina and Juventus ahead of them—but it was evident that demanding so much work from Bonfantini and Serturini wasn’t a sure bet for getting Roma into the European places. Roma’s 2019 summer signings left the club with ample opportunity to go several directions with their football, but what’s remarkable is Angelica Soffia survived the summer clearout at full-back.
2019-2020: Quiet Gains For Soffia
Gone were Soffia’s peers Eleonora Cunsolo and Camila Labate, among others, and in was drafted Kaja Erzen from Tavagnacco—who had scored against Roma from out wide in the 2018-19 season.
That was enough for Roma to hope that Erzen could bring firepower to the right-back position and, failing that, share game time with Angelica Soffia and even Allyson Swaby sometimes slotting in as the auxiliary right-back. On the left side, of course, Roma captain Elisa Bartoli held dominion. Roma’s saved most of their transfer signings from re-sculpting the midfield and frontline.
Andressa, Lindsey Thomas, Andrine Hegerberg; all names who were coming to Serie A from more competitive leagues abroad, and two of them (Thomas and Hegeberg) with a vertical style to complement Bonfantini and Serturini’s pace and turn Roma into a predominantly fast-break, counter-attacking team for Soffia’s second season in the capital. The icing on the cake was the arrival of Italy star midfielder Manuela Giugliano, and there was enough technical prowess among the new signings to make a ball-dominant team out of Roma yet. But in the end, counter-attacking football won out.
Between the fast-break trident of Thomas, Serturini, and Bonfantini up front (sometimes foiled by defensive forward Amalie Thestrup coming off the bench) the ski mask way continued, for the most part.
The 2019-20 season saw a Roma side that—when given any longer than 8 seconds on the ball inside the opponent’s half—scored goals. You let Roma come up for air inside your defensive half and you’re going to get scored on. It was that simple. But it was equally simple to shake Roma out of their comfort zone and confidence.
That was the case whenever high-intensity opponents like Juventus and AC Milan chose to press Roma just inside the Giallorosse defensive half. Bartoli was a solution out of that press down the left flank, but Roma needed more on the other side.
They didn’t get that in Erzen; at least not entirely. And they honestly didn’t get it from Soffia either. The Italian full-back was reduced to just nine league appearances in her second season, while Roma finished in 4th place—yet again adrift of Europe. But you couldn’t help but notice, from 2019 pre-season onwards, the physical gains Soffia made away from the pitch.
Even if the young Italian wasn’t yet a difference-maker for Roma, Betty Bavagnoli’s continued faith in Soffia wasn’t looking misguided—not if you noticed the physique Soffia put on herself from her second season onwards. It was a stark contrast from when Soffia first arrived in Rome (and yet another exhibit of what players in this league can do when they receive full, consistent support to build themselves) and set the foundation for the explosiveness, agility, and speed of thought in possession that Soffia eventually pulled out the bag in 2021.
2021: Soffia Emerges As Roma’s Regista Di Fascia
Just like young talents don’t become first-team players overnight, we can’t pretend this past season saw Angelica Soffia find the “beast mode” setting in her psyche from Matchday 1. The first half of last season saw yet more tentative play from Soffia, more ghost runs behind opponents, and more reliance on letting the ball do most of the work. In fact, one strange quirk of this entire Roma team is that January, for two calendar years in a row now, is where the play on the pitch really shifted up to gears never seen previously.
While there have been a lot of isolated gains in the summer off-season, it’s repeatedly been the winter break that harvested a more explosive, faster, and lucid Roma once league play resumed. And this past January is when we saw something beyond just star-defender Elena Linari’s arrival to the club; we also witnessed Soffia assume full control of Roma’s flanks—be it on the right or left.
Soffia took the reigns for Roma wherever she was needed, as was the case in March’s Serie A game against Inter Milan:
- Inter are 3 goals down to Roma and eager to put some respectability back on the scoreline. Inter’s Gloria Marinelli closes down Angelica Soffia just as the Roma full-back is receiving a pass.
- Soffia uses the familiar run of wide forward Serturini (off screen) coming deep for Soffia to pass the ball up field, just as in that first move way back in 2018.
- But Inter are ready for Roma’s build-up play, matching up the numbers evenly player-for-player, and Soffia quickly recognises Serturini is in trouble.
- Serturini has to pass it all the way back to the byline, to a Roma teammate (off screen) while Soffia has made sure to complete the triangle of passing options by positioning herself on the flank upfield.
- Roma could just hoof the ball upfield, but instead they now trust Soffia as the player to break them free of Inter’s pressure, playing a short pass to Soffia coming deep to collect the ball.
- Inter feel confident that they’ve caught Soffia in possession...
- ... but not today. Angelica Soffia isn’t just embracing the responsibility of moving around for her teammates, but individually taking on the responsibility of dribbling past opponents within the smallest pockets of space.
- Gone are the days of Soffia getting “put against the wall” by opponents on the touchline. She passes the ball upfield and releases her team into 3 vs 4 attack, while 6 Inter players have been caught pressing upfield and are left behind the ball.
We recognize the familiar build-up play from 2018 that never left the scene. Annamaria Serturini comes deep to collect the ball from Soffia on the left. But Serie A had long since adjusted to Roma’s play, and it didn’t take long for the Inter players to start pressing Roma inside their own half with even numbers. Soffia not only recognizes Serturini is in trouble but moves to offer herself as a passing option, and then dribbles the team out of danger herself.
This is the full arsenal of tools that you could ever hope to expect from any player. We’ve witnessed it with Paulo Fonseca’s own Roma on the men’s side: Any strategy or tactic looks redundant if your players refuse to keep the tempo high and keep moving for each other on the pitch, while the very same strategy and look beautifully lethal when that collective movement takes hold of the play.
Soffia began to not only provide that relentless movement off the ball but found a weapon in her game that we’d never seen from her before. The physical dribbling. The ability to turn opponents on a dime piece, and put Roma on the front foot all over the pitch. But still, let’s be real. This March moment in itself isn’t enough.
Inter Milan pressing Roma aggressively inside their own half on that day was no big deal at that moment since Roma were already up 3-0 on the scoreline (even though the match ended up 4-3 to Roma so respect to Inter still has to be paid) but Soffia did manage to go from a possession play into releasing three Roma attackers free into space to break onto what little was left of Inter’s four-player backline, in an instant. That’s useful to have when you’re ahead on the scoreline, but could Soffia do it when Roma needed to unlock games?
Or, to up the stakes even further, could Soffia do it when Roma needed to come from behind? What about against the toughest opponents in the land? Say no more...
Spring 2021: Finding Beast Mode in the Coppa Italia
- Soffia nows moves inside the pitch, as Roma’s right-back in the Coppa semi-final against Juve, to collect a backheel pass from Agnese Bonfantini while Soffia is already under pressure from Juve’s Pedersen.
- Soffia leaves Pedersen and Serie A MVP Cristiana Girelli in the dust with a 180-turn on the ball.
- Soffia shows both Juve players a clean set of heels, running into space that didn’t exist prior to Soffia creating it for herelf, but she’s now triple-teamed by Italian international midfielder Martina Rosucci...
- That’s no matter for Angelica Soffia, who gives Rosucci the brush and runs onto Juve’s backline, that’s now caught flat against Soffia’s creativity.
By now you recognize the routine above: Roma’s wide forward comes deep to collect the ball, the opponents (Juventus - this time around) have predicted Roma’s play and moved up to press the Giallorosse inside their own half. Except now Angelica Soffia (playing right-back on the day of that Coppa semi-final second leg) has moved inside the pitch to anticipate it all, and take on the burden that previously fell on Bonfantini’s shoulders in seasons past.
What’s even more spectacular about the sequence above is two-fold: Roma needs some creativity to get back on level terms and not crash out the cup on away goals at the time. Second, that creative spark comes from 20-year-old Soffia beating 29-year-old Danish international Sofie Pedersen (66 senior international caps), 31-year-old Serie A MVP Cristiana Girelli (65 senior international caps), and 29-year-old Italy midfielder Martina Rosucci (35 international caps) all in the same sequence of individual play.
I may only be a three-season deep Serie A Femminile fan myself, but I believe that makes Angelica Soffia kind of a big deal.
It certainly makes her a player ready to build on more than just the single, solitary senior cap she’s been given by Milena Bertolini’s Italy to date (even though the competition is fierce and Empoli’s Lucia Di Guglielmo is a hell of full-back herself). But Soffia’s play against Juventus didn’t stop at just superstar dribbling:
- Soffia beats a Juve opponent on the dribble before sending the ball infield.
- Second part
- Manuela Giugliano receives Soffia’s pass and bring the ball upfield while Juve are defending in numbers. But Soffia has followed up her earlier move with a run into space to match up those numbers in attack.
- Manuela Giugliano is wearing the Roma number 10 for good reason. Giugliano threads a near-perfect throughball to find Soffia’s run behind the Juve backline, only cut out by keeper Laura Giuliani at the very last moment.
Above is a moment earlier in the game, with Juve alternating between high-intensity pressing and choosing their moments to take a breather and defend deep.
It’s looking like just another walk in the park for Juve who, up until that moment (and with the exception of the semi-final first leg), had never lost or even drawn to Roma since the club’s inception in 2018. And Juventus were already up on the scoreline right where they wanted to be. But Soffia shows the initiative to attack the space ahead of her, whenever it was there to be had, and her run is found by Roma’s number 10 Manuela Giugliano—the through-ball only cut out at the very last moment by the diving save of Laura Giuliani at the feet of Soffia. Then came Soffia’s time to help bring Roma back into the game, which happened over several moments later in the second half:
- Soffia sees Juve ready to come out of their own half
- Soffia starts to press Juve and try to trap them back inside their own end of the pitch.
- Soffia’s aggression is backed up by teammate Giugliano, and Roma’s press forces Juventus into passing it backwards.
- It’s a ping-pong battle for possession in Juve’s defensive third.
- Roma forward Lindsey Thomas is forced to pass it back to Soffia herself.
- Soffia has just enough time and space to see Roma striker Paloma Lazaro calling for it inside the box.
- Soffia sends an inch-perfect ball over the top, to meet Lazaro’s run in behind Juventus defender Sara Gama.
- Lazaro gets an outstretched foot to it and sticks the ball in the far corner, but the goal is ruled out for offside.
The first warning signs for Juventus came in the moment above, where Soffia worked with Giugliano to aggressively keep Juve inside their own defensive third. Then Angelica follows that up with an inch-perfect ball over the top (in the same sequence of action) to meet Paloma Lazaro’s run behind Sara Gama on the far side.
Lazaro’s outstretched foot was just the finish Roma was looking for, as the away side believed they drew level when the ball nestled past Giuliani into the far corner. Soffia would have had an assist... but the goal was ruled out (correctly—if we’re remembering it right) for offside. Roma would not stop there, and nor would their full-back wearing the number 4 jersey:
We’ve about ready to wrap this feature up on the sequence above, as we don’t want to belabor the theme by now. But it’s hard to believe this is the same Angelica Soffia that, for several seasons up until this spring of 2021, had to run around opponents to find her way to the penalty box.
Now Soffia’s confidence in her own skill on the ball is enough that she’s not just evading opponents who make the mistake of closing her down, but sending them the wrong way as she dances past each one. That’s exactly what she does to Lisa Boattin, Juve’s left-back above (and Italy international with 19 senior caps), and she kept driving that point home until the (now deposed) Coppa Italia-defending holders Juventus came apart, mentally and emotionally, under Roma’s pressure on the day.
Not only was Juve’s left midfielder Arianna Caruso subbed off the pitch in the second half from trying to keep up with Soffia on that flank, but Martina Rosucci was reduced to trying to hack Soffia down to the ground, while Cristiana Girelli completely lost her cool late in the game to deliberately elbow Soffia’s Roma teammate Vanessa Bernauer moments before the final whistle.
That Girelli was still on the pitch (only yellow carded) to score a goal in the dying moments (when Juventus were 2-1 down to Roma by then) was yet another thing about the officiating that we had to get used to as the norm in this league. But a lot of that pressure was thrown on Juve by Soffia’s all-round play, of which we chose to leave out several other sequences of play—including a moment where Soffia came inside the pitch to act as a playmaker from deep, whenever Roma needed to pass it back to her.
Soffia would waste no time receiving a pass from one flank, to then immediately pass it to the weak side and help Roma’s attack outflank Juventus. It was an initiative that directly led to Agnese Bonfantini cutting in at the byline, before sending in the ball for a clear-cut chance that Lindsey Thomas failed to put home. No matter, though.
Roma kept up the pressure, kept up the goal chances, scored two vital away goals, and won that Coppa semi-final. The rest, as we know, is history. Soffia was immediately challenged, in the first five minutes of the Coppa Italia final itself, by Milan’s Refiloe Jane—who would show Soffia down the outside and dare her to try to take Jane on. Soffia did and was savvy enough not to lose possession while keeping up her courageous play.
How did Soffia do in that final? Good enough.
After going down from cramp (and Rossucci’s hack) in the semi, getting subbed off from being out on her legs, and recovering enough fitness just in time for the final, Soffia put in a good 68 minutes against Milan as Roma’s first-choice full-back. It kept Milan honest, and Roma persevered to take the cup on a penalty shootout victory.
Euro 2022: So What’s Next?
We may have heaped praise on Angelica throughout this feature, but we also have to be realistic. The competition for Soffia at the international level is not lacking at either full-back position. We’ve mentioned a couple of names already, especially Lisa Boattin on the left making waves for Juventus, and Lucia Di Guglielmo just breaking into the Italy squad as Empoli captain on both flanks (LDG is even linked with a move to Roma, Fiorentina, and Juventus this summer because of her stellar form).
All three names have time on their side; they’re all in their early twenties and both LDG and Soffia have shown the versatility to be effective to their team’s game from both flanks. And that’s before we even consider the other established names with Italy, like Roma’s own Bartoli and Milan’s Valentina Bergamaschi. It’s not going to be enough for Soffia to beat these names in one-on-duels every Serie A week—though it helps her case that she’s now doing that in 2021.
What Soffia needs to find is a balance between her confidence in attack and her defensive game; something that we had to take into our end-of-season review on the Roma backline and could only give Soffia a 6 out of 10 for the 2020-2021 season.
That feels like it doesn’t do justice to how far Soffia has come along as both an individual talent and team player in such a short explosion of form in 2021. But the facts are that Roma finished 5th in the league, their worst league finish since 2018, and well short of initial Serie A expectations this season.
This club wants to be challenging for Europe, and can’t be conceding as many goals from outside-of-the-box crosses on both flanks as Roma did during the 2021 end-of-season run-in. In that very same Coppa semi-final, Juve’s opening goal came as Caruso floated in a ball from well wide at the byline, on Soffia’s flank, with Soffia late to close Caruso down before Pedersen scored in the area.
Then there was the final Serie A matchday, and Napoli’s keeper sending a long-ball into Roma’s box, where teenage forward Alice Corelli was left to cover the right flank with Soffia further up the pitch—not directly Soffia’s fault, but the inexperienced Corelli conceded a penalty on that sequence of play all the same.
That was a moment that also revealed just how much Soffia (among every other member of this Roma side) has bought into the team spirit, as Angelica busied herself with trying to pick up a mortified Alice Corelli’s spirits in the dying moments of that Napoli draw:
So we’ve got a possible future captain in Angelica Soffia (if the club can hold onto her), a ballplayer who can dribble in tight spaces, send opponents the wrong way, string passes together out wide or in the middle of the pitch, and make runs off the ball to give her team the numerical advantage in attack. At just short of 21 years of age, Soffia is Trigoria’s leading example of total football right now—just as long as she can get her defensive game up for next season.
Oh, and racking up assists or goals at the other end never hurt anyone, either. Speaking of which, Soffia is getting closer on that front too:
Yep, that’s another Serie A big-four club—this time Fiorentina—making the mistake of trying to close Soffia down, who promptly dribbled past them before hitting the Fiorentina crossbar with a rocket shot off her weaker left foot.
Soffia may not have scored in Roma’s 2-1 win on that day, but it’s only a matter of time. In so many other ways, she’s already made the difference for her club, who now reign as Coppa Italia champions.