The report has it that Fiorentina coach Vincenzo Italiano belted out from the sidelines of the Viola’s pre-season training to his players: “If we make mistakes like this, Mourinho will be having a smoke while he watches his team win!”
Yet despite Italiano’s apprehension about Fiorentina's potential mistakes on the ball, we’ve largely Mourinho's men stand off opponents in Roma's new-look, passive defense. That means someone has to break character tomorrow, whether it be the home or away side, or this match has a low-scoring draw written all over it.
Roma vs. Fiorentina: August 22nd. 20:45 CET/2:45 EDT. Stadio Olimpico, Rome.
Keep An Eye On
Will Roma Push Up On Fiorentina’s Backline?
Fiorentina wasn’t confident on the ball last season, ranking in the bottom-five teams for OPPDA (Opponents Passes Per Defensive Action) in their own half. To speak plainly: The more you got up in Fiorentina’s half, the harder they found it to escape with the ball.
A lot of that may be down to whether Fiorentina even have any ball-carriers at the back in the first place.
Arguably only deep-lying midfielder Sofyan Amrabat could shoulder the burden of getting the ball out of the Viola half, but he’ll need help if new coach Vincenzo Italiano is to weave his pass-and-move ideals through the Tuscan club. In that area of the pitch, Italiano has promoted the promising Italian midfield talent of Alessandro Bianco from their Primavera squad during the summer break, but we don’t expect Bianco to be thrown in at the deep end of competitive action against Roma this Sunday.
Fiorentina have also tried for some low-risk moves on the mercato, while Italiano still feels out how much he can bend the squad to his desired style of play. But the bottom line remains the same here: This is a Viola side ripe for picking off in their own half.
If there are mistakes to be punished, then it’s ideally because Roma’s forwards Shomurodov, Zaniolo, Mkhitaryan steal into the Viola passing lanes as they did against Trabzonspor mid-week in the Europa Conference League. Generally, Roma have shown a mixed approach to pressing from the front under Mourinho so far.
Gone is the counter-pressing from Paulo Fonseca’s days but, if the opponent spends too long passing it sideways or backward, then we’ve seen the aggression from Roma’s forwards, pre-emptively looking to steal the ball back. Yet Roma could collect paydirt if they push up even more than what we’ve seen this preseason, forcing the Viola backline into some key giveaways on Roma’s route to goal.
Will Roma’s Backline Hit It Long?
We could ask the exact same questions of Roma’s backline, in the same way we just put Fiorentina’s own under the microscope. The difference is that Roma’s backline is full of players who pride themselves in their ability to play it out of the back, and perhaps there’s too much pride there.
Vincenzo Italiano may not believe in pressing ALL over the pitch, ALL of the time (he prefers his side to sit deep defensively like Mourinho if the transition phase is dead) but Fiorentina will definitely be asked to immediately counter-press whenever their attack loses the ball inside Roma’s half. That means we shouldn’t expect Roma's old habits to change overnight, for reasons that are largely out of Mourinho’s control in such a short space of time at the club.
This is a Roma team that’s been taught to love the ball over the last two seasons, often at the expense of making avoidable, if not selfish mistakes when playing it out of the back. And yes we’re looking towards familiar faces like Gianluca Mancini, Roger Ibanez, Jordan Veretout, Bryan Cristante, Amadou Diawara, Gonzalo Villar... you name it, the list is long.
If Fiorentina decides to try and immediately win the ball back after giving it away in Roma’s half, can guys like Mancini and Ibañez handle the pressure now? Is one more summer's worth of experience enough to break those old habits, or will they make some new choices and hit it long to the frontline more often now?
The latter could be an equally valid option with guys like Shomurodov, Zaniolo, or potentially even Tammy Abraham fighting to get on the end of long-range passes from the likes of Mancini, Ibanez, and Cristante. Roma may just make a quarterback out of some of you, yet!
Will Fiorentina’s Passing Overwhelm Roma?
It’s way too early days to find answers to what may be an over-arching theme of the Serie A campaign ahead, but some will be asking if Mourinho’s football will end up looking outdated in Serie A or whether it will find a home here. And, if Roma does manage to make a success of Mourinho’s stand-offish football, then does that make the Italian league Jurassic Park, even if the supposed “dinosaur era” tactics of Mourinho can win games?
Like it or not, it’s going to be in clashes against the “new school” coaches like Vincenzo Italiano where answers will be found. Though, realistically, this fixture has come way too early in the calendar to judge either man sitting on the respective club’s benches.
What we do know is Italiano favors the collective approach to passing the ball rapidly out of the back, usually instructing a wide forward to drop deep when the Fiorentina full-back (or deep-lying midfielder) is ready to start the play upfield.
Meanwhile, the Fiorentina midfield stays mobile—with one of them running wide off the ball, with the aim of either dragging someone like Veretout or Cristante with them to open up the middle of the pitch—but the Viola midfield could remain free on the wing to overwhelm Roma’s wide men with sheer numbers.
(The above diagram is a little off because Italiano rarely favors a DM starting the play instead of his full-back and doesn’t really push up both full-backs at once. The important theme is Fiorentina potentially overloading either flank to outnumber Roma’s wide men who are standing back, in Roma’s 4-4-2 defensive shape, well off the Fiorentina ball-carrier).
That’s exactly the kind of pressure that Mourinho’s former teams in the Premier League came under, being outnumbered and outgunned as they watched opponents flood between the lines of Mourinho’s defensive shape. It’s one of the drawbacks of sitting back and inviting the opponent onto you: You need physically strong and mobile players (basically world-class players when it comes to individual duels) to fight back and dampen the opponent’s confidence. Otherwise, you’ll be standing static while the opponent is already up to speed.
We don’t know enough about Matias Viña to say whether he’s cast in that individual mold, but we know Rick Kasdorp isn’t used to being asked to go defensively mano-a-mano for an entire 90 minutes. A lot of questions marks will be on Karsdorp, Viña, and their deep-lying midfield partners Veretout and Cristante going into this match. Especially given what we highlighted earlier about the decisions Roma’s frontline could make off the ball.
If Roma’s frontline is planning to push up, they’ll either need the rest of the squad to push up with them, which is unlikely with Mourinho, or they'll be asking the wide forwards to do a lot of work in all phases of the game.
It could be down to the wide men like Zaniolo and Shomurodov to help Viña and Karsdorp not get outnumbered, as one of either Veretout or Cristante will have their mind on shielding the deep-lying Roma backline.
Can Roma’s Two-Man Power Trip Find Another Gear?
The headline-grabbing theme to Roma’s summer mercato was everyone watching the Giallorosso frontline get younger, agile, and potentially ice-cold on the break. One partnership central to that theme will be the budding relationship between wide-forwards-turned-shadow-strikers Nicolò Zaniolo and Eldor Shomurodov working inside from both Roma flanks.
And we can’t forget that Roma’s Two-Man Power Trip will soon be led by third-man Tammy Abraham at the front, while the whole trio enjoys a supply of ammo from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lorenzo Pellegrini making up the rear. But that comes later this season.
These early weeks will largely be about the understanding Eldor and Zaniolo can strike up. And truthfully, Eldor’s CV (so far) suggests he isn’t the strongest player when it comes to individual defending from the front.
Yes, Eldor puts in a lot of work off the ball and is willing to throw himself into duels to trying winning it back, but his time at Genoa showed an eye-opening 15 tackles lost out of 19 tackles attempted; all of this in a little over eighteen 90-minute appearances during last season’s Serie A with Genoa. The guy simply doesn’t know when he’s beaten or when he’s walking with a knife into a gunfight; which is something that will either continue to be used against him by Serie A opposition, or exactly the right kind of spirit that can be molded by Mourinho into a more efficient player.
Tammy Abraham is a similar story, as both himself and Eldor have the kind of tall frame that robs them of a little natural strength (at least in their early years) within individual duels. It’s really Zaniolo who stands out as the most physically robust, but Nico is coming off of two major injuries and it’s a lot to ask Zaniolo to press, tackle and sprint up and down that flank game after game.
At some point, you have to believe these Roma frontmen will figure out the right alchemy to divide the work up between them. Shomurodov and Abraham are probably much better off as shadow-pressers, hunting the ball in tandem with one of their other frontline teammates up there. Only one thing’s for certain this Sunday: Vincenzo Italiano’s teams don’t tend to mix it up in the midfield third.
That means tomorrow’s final score will be found in both defensive ends of the field. If Roma’s frontline can hit top gear, even for just a moment, they could beat the pre-match odds and make this a much higher scoring game than the late-August, roasting-hot, stalemate weather at kick-off time suggests on paper.