I look around, I look around and I see a lot of new faces. Which means a lot of people have been hearing about Roma’s Coppa Italia 2021 victory. Arguably the best performer in this past May’s Coppa Italia final win was Roma center-back Elena Linari, who put in the kind of intervention and passing numbers that had to be seen to be believed.
Linari has only had half a season to make her impression on the Giallorosse, but the results spoke for themselves: A Roma side conceding 1.21 goals per game before Linari’s signing improved to conceding just 0.88 GPG with Linari in the first eleven. But there’s room for yet more improvement if Roma are serious about finally clinching one of Serie A’s two European spots this coming season.
Last year’s top-two defenses of Juventus and Milan conceded 12 goals and 17 goals respectively, which would have effectively meant Roma's current level of performance still only put them as the third-best defense in the league. We feel we can confidently say that only Juventus’ squad looks better defensively than the team Roma has now put together at the back, but Roma has to prove that on the pitch this season. Then, of course, the backline isn’t just about defending but restarting play and working the ball up the other end of the pitch. And, to be honest, that’s where Roma is looking like a paradox.
On the one hand, Roma’s backline is comfortably the most stacked department in the entire squad. Roma has left their new head coach Alessandro Spugna with no excuse when it comes to depth, with some ridiculously talented names ready to come off the bench at any given moment. But does that mean Roma will be relying on the backline to carry both the defensive AND attacking responsibilities this season?
We ask because, while the backline may be aiming to keep racking up the clean sheets, Roma’s full-backs are undeniably offensive players by nature and look like they enjoy getting forward to join in goalscoring more than they like to hang back and keep the goals out of their own defensive end. A lot of how this Roma defensive unit keeps itself together as a team relies on the midfield helping out in defense, and Roma’s frontline carrying their weight when it comes to getting the team ahead on the scoreline. But that’s football: You can have the biggest names lined up there at the back, but their fate is still very much in the hands of teammates elsewhere on the pitch. It’s a good thing they’ll all have Linari to push them to their limits at any given moment this season.
Center-Backs: Elena Linari (starter), Allyson Swaby (starter), Tecla Pettenuzzo (backup), Eleonora Pacioni (backup).
Full-Backs: Elisa Bartoli (starter), Angelica Soffia (rotation), Lucia Di Guglielmo (rotation), Borini (backup).
The Best-Case Scenario
We’ve got eight players to preview, so let’s keep it to individual scenarios:
- Elena Linari: The best for Roma is Linari to keep doing exactly what she’s doing. She’s a player that sets the standard around this league, both in terms of performance and leadership. If we’re really being greedy then we hope to see Linari get more goals this season, and she has plenty of ways to do that given she’s good with both feet, able to score from direct free-kicks, and always an aerial threat at corners.
- Allyson Swaby: Ditto for Swaby, whose praises we perhaps don’t sign enough. It’s easy to take her for granted because she’s the only constant at centreback for the last three years, but ideally, Swaby keeps showing the confidence to hold onto and shield the ball in possession, while picking her spots in the build-up play which she did to stunning effect with goals against Juventus and Inter Milan last season.
- Tecla Pettenuzzo: If the Real Nuzzo can stand up this season, and round out her game by finding intuition when running back to goal to stay calm throughout defensive recoveries, then you’ve got a hell of a player on your hands. It’d also be great to see more of her assists straight to the frontline this season, as she’s always been gifted in possession.
- Eleonora Pacioni: The best case for Pacioni is simply to play in what’s looking the season where she makes her senior debut for the club. It’d be thoroughly deserved for the player who’s captained Roma Primavera to two consecutive league titles.
- Elisa Bartoli: Show the same return to form that Bartoli found in the second half of last season, which was helped by having the security of knowing Linari is there to back Bartoli up when the Roma captain makes her runs forward down that left flank. In an ideal world, we hope Bartoli finally strikes up some real chemistry in the final third with her left-wing-mate Annamaria Serturini.
- Angelica Soffia: Whatever Soffia’s been waking up and having for breakfast since this past spring is exactly what needs to continue into the new season. Her breakout form last season was not only phenomenal but completely transformed Roma’s collective belief in their approach to games in both league and cup, against opponents big and small.
- Lucia Di Guglielmo: For someone who gets along so well with Soffia during their time together playing for Italy last season, LDG really has been given the task of “the bad guy” in Roma’s squad this coming year. She’s both Bartoli and Soffia’s competition, and her job is to play well enough for Roma that she forces Spugna to leave one of the other two names out of the first eleven.
- Borini: We can’t say we know enough about Roma’s plans for their new signing this season. The Brazilian has proven to be an all-around utility player, but Borini could feature in midfield or attack instead of out wide in defense. Time will tell.
The Worst-Case Scenario
- Elena Linari: The only scenario we can dream up here is Linari finding out she misses her childhood club Fiorentina far too much, and hands in a transfer request in January.
- Allyson Swaby: Similar to Linari once again, in that we’ve sometimes wondered if Swaby will seek a challenge in a more competitive league. She’s another player Roma have to work hard to keep at the club by moving up the league table.
- Tecla Pettenuzzo: The worst thing is if Pettenuzzo limits herself to just being a great ball-player, but an unreliable one-on-one defender. In that case, we’ve sometimes asked if Nuzzo would make for a better defensive midfielder but, for that to happen, a player still needs to enjoy running out wide, covering the flanks, and putting in the tough recovery tackles to cover for teammates. Tecla has also been positive about getting benched for Linari last season, but that could easily turn into frustration if Pettenuzzo doesn’t get enough game time.
- Eleonora Pacioni: She has nothing to lose, there isn’t really a bad scenario for Pacioni this season.
- Elisa Bartoli: Unlike the first half of last season, Bartoli can’t afford to start off this campaign as badly as she did back in 2020; otherwise it’ll be an awkward situation for everyone around the club facing the possibility of benching their captain for some deserving names coming off the bench.
- Angelica Soffia: Could last season’s form during the run-in turn out to be just a flash in the pan? Can Soffia get more disciplined on defense and start stopping those dangerous crosses floated into Roma’s box from her flank?
- Lucia Di Guglielmo: There’s a risk the competition between LDG and Soffia (and even Bartoli) leaves both players questioning whether the coach believes in either player enough to stick it out in Rome. LDG took a big chance by signing for Roma when all of Serie A’s top clubs were calling for her services. I don’t know how Spugna is going to manage the game time between all three of Roma’s star full-backs AND convince them all that their long-term future lies with the club.
- Borini: Too much of an unknown for us to say anything. We can’t be sure she’ll even feature in defense.
Possible Break-Out Player: Eleonora Pacioni
We could mention names like Angelica Soffia, Lucia Di Guglielmo, or Tecla Pettenuzzo as our pick for break-out player from the Roma backline this season, given that all three are in their early twenties with a long career path ahead of them. But it feels like all three names have reached so many milestones in their respective careers already that only Champions League football would take those names to unchartered territory in a Roma jersey. For that reason, we’re going with Eleonora Pacioni as our breakout candidate for the 2021/22 season.
Pacioni can play either center-back or right-back and has already done both for Roma Primavera in the crunch games. As a center-half, Pacioni finished as one of the top scorers in the Viareggio Cup of 2020 (where Roma lost the final to Juventus but Pacioni scored in that very same cup final) to prove that she knows how to use her height advantage to make a real difference at both ends of the pitch.
Last season, Pacioni finished off her year by starring at right-back in Roma’s Scudetto playoff final victory over Inter Milan. She not only aerially dominated her flank on defense, but Pacioni showed the kind of vertical, direct passing to the frontline that we normally see from Allyson Swaby on a weekly basis with the senior team.
Pacioni has plenty of tools to break into the senior team this coming season, and the club trusted her with the responsibility of publishing her daily journal during the senior squad’s pre-season ritiro this summer. Roma has serious plans ahead for Pacioni, and the 19-year old Roman is ready to answer the call.