Both Roma and Fiorentina did well to serve up a four-goal bonanza at the Olimpico, as yesterday evening’s match could have just as easily sunk into a stalemate of new faces, good intentions, and failure to launch. Luckily for us watching, that wasn’t the case; and even better for us Roma fans was the home victory.
I took the easy task of doling out Sinners and Saints ratings in Serie A Week 1 because everyone is eager to justify the money spent on this new-look Roma side. These are the times when academic passes look “inspired”, mistakes are forgiven and anything that goes right for Roma can’t be an accident, so much so as a clear page turned from the past, right?
Let’s just wait two months or so, when all the league’s teams traditionally get up to full match sharpness. But I really do hope the feel-good factor is here to stay.
Until then, here are the first weekend’s Sinners and Saints, starting with the halos:
Yes you, Rui. I’ll kick this off by eating the proverbial slice of humble pie.
I may not have been as firmly against Rui Patricio’s signing as some, but I still felt (and it’s going to take a lot more than one league game to feel different) that Patricio is a bad signing at worst, and lateral signing at best. But Patricio has the right to tell me to sit down with performances like the one last night. Still, there’s one quirk in the stats here.
Not that the numbers ever really keep you warm at night, but Rui Patricio’s 43 touches of the ball put him behind only six other Roma players for the biggest share of possession. From the teammates who saw more of the ball than Patricio, five of them were the entire Roma backline plus Bryan Cristante. So, as far as who’s shouldering the most responsibility of passing the ball amongst them in this side, not much has changed from last season just yet.
Rui Patricio also made more than twice the amount of saves as his Fiorentina counterpart (we’re talking about Terracciano since Dragowski had himself an early bath) and the Roma keeper never really drew attention to himself while doing it.
I may feel Ibañez is Roma’s best player (aside from Henrikh Mkhitaryan on a good day) but I don’t believe we’ll have many opportunities to single out an influential Ibañez performance at BOTH ends of the field this season, so I’m taking the opportunity here.
As Bren wrote in some of our pre-season pieces, it’s much more likely that Ibañez’s ability to make runs and carry the ball forward will be curtailed under Mourinho’s football. But that didn’t stop the Brazilian from launching a ball over the top, straight to Tammy Abraham in what proved a key sequence ending with Fiorentina reduced to ten men. And as far as Ibañez’s attacking tasks being reduced this season, that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it frees him up to become far more lucid in Roma’s own defensive third.
That’s exactly what we got from Ibanez last night. He made more clearances than any teammate (5), made the joint-most interceptions (3), won the joint-most aerial duels (2), committed one foul, and didn’t give away possession even once. The Brazilian even found time to successfully dribble past someone in the 16th minute of the game right before he sent in that long ball to Abraham.
Roma was staring a labored draw in the face, or at best a 90th-minute winner after a nervy game, without Mkhitaryan in the lineup last night.
Not known for being as good when he’s put out wide on the left-wing, Mkhitaryan still set the tone of the match when he shielded the ball, then nutmegged and dribbled through four Fiorentina defenders with minimal space between him and the touchline, in the third minute of the game.
When Fiorentina was as happy as Larry to have equalized on the hour, Mkhitaryan took less than three minutes to rob Fiorentina of the ball in the middle of the park, catching them wrong-footed before Mkhi fed a second-assist to Tammy Abraham that finished with Jordan Veretout restoring Roma’s lead.
No one influences Roma games the way Mkhi does, but there is a new contender...
I rarely agree with handing out match ratings based on just one key action alone, but the assist from Shomurodov for Roma’s third goal was straight out of the top drawer.
Not only the strength to hold off the first challenger but the timing and selection of the pass were absolutely top class from Eldor. Surely everyone thought Lazio’s Sergei Milinkovic-Savic took the best moment of the weekend, with SMS’ perfectly weighted assist for Lazzari against Empoli on Saturday, but then Eldor comes up with this move on Sunday.
With a much easier passing lane open out to Mkhitaryan on the wide left, Shomurodov could have gone for that option and just let Miki take the responsibility of finding Veretout’s run in the middle with a cutback pass. But instead, Eldor takes it on himself to thread a ball that takes three Fiorentina defenders out of the game, with the perfect weight on it for Veretout to slot the ball past the onrushing keeper.
If Eldor’s planning on keeping up what he’s shown in a Roma shirt so far, then sign me right up for a season ticket.
It was a tight one between Tammy Abraham and Lorenzo Pellegrini for the final halo, but we’ll give it to the €45 million man on his Serie A debut. It’s worth remembering that, on the evidence so far, Abraham still isn’t a needed solution to any pre-existing problem at the club.
We’ll hear a few more ‘it’s nice to finally have a frontline that presses right from the front’, soundbites to justify the changing of the guards in the Roma #9 shirt in these early weeks. But that’s nothing new for Roma, as the club already solved that with Borja Mayoral’s pressing from the front last season.
Yet Mayoral is just a loan signing, whereas Abraham brings a potential club-record spending in tow, and so he brings a genuine shift of mentality for people around him at the club too. The club’s staff and (most) teammates know they will have to do their best to put him in the best position to succeed. What was encouraging, to that end, was how demanding and communicative Abraham is on the pitch already.
He was already instructing teammates to “play it!” when the pitch opened up for a direct pass upfront to him and telling them to look for eye contact. The kind of player that encourages his teammates to play with their heads up is exactly the kind of player worth spending real transfer fees on.
Then there was Abraham’s backheel-nutmeg that left a Fiorentina player for dead in the second half, the dribble past the keeper that got Dragowski sent off (in front of watching Poland manager Paulo Sousa no less!) in the first half, and those two assists for Roma’s first two goals. Just a low-key debut for Tammy in Rome, then.
Nicolò Zaniolo and Roma’s Full Backs
Normally we’d have individual sinners, but we’ll group these guys together since their woes came about from the same unresolved questions within this new-look Roma defense.
It’s true that Zaniolo’s recovery foul (when he was already on a yellow card) was unwise, but he’s been out of the game for one-and-a-half seasons so the double booking wasn't shocking. Roma strangely played better with ten men (explained by Mourinho after the game with the line “we probably thought it would be easy with an extra man”), so no drama there.
Let’s move on to why Roma’s frontmen are being asked to do so much pressing in the first place, which looks it could be a long-running theme that no silver-bullet, defensive midfield signing can magically solve on their own.
A lot of this goes to Roma gambling on Rick Karsdorp and Matias Viña finding new levels in their individual defensive game, in particular.
With how deep and narrow it looks (we don’t know for sure) like Mourinho are asking the back four to play, that’s always going to mean one deep midfielder out of Veretout/Cristante is shielding the backline from the middle of the pitch.
If you don’t have any of the back four stepping up to close down any kind of space in front of them (and again we can’t say for sure if this is by instinct or by tactical design), instead staying so focused on defending the 18-yard line in a flat-four, then one of the defensive midfielders forcibly has to stay in the middle of the park to close down space in front of the backline.
Last night, that guy was Bryan Cristante as Mourinho shifted to what looked like a 4-1-4-1 or maybe a 4-1-3-2 off the ball, instructing Cristante from the sideline to stay on Dusan Vlahovic at all costs while Mourinho told the rest of the Roma team ahead of Cristante to try and push up the field a little more.
That leaves only Jordan Veretout to come out wide and help either Roma full-back to double-team and tackle opponents on either flank, if you can even afford to take that risk in the first place. After all, if you fail (and Veretout does get left for dead defensively a lot), you’ve left Cristante all alone to face the music. And though Bryan is willing, he’s short on pace and mobility to be that “lone” DM there.
Subbing Cristante out for Diawara, Villar, Darboe, or Bove comes with defensive risks attached to all those respective names (apart from maybe Bove?), while signing slow-as-treacle Granit Xhaka was never the answer (just ask Chelsea and, if you don’t believe Chelsea, then ask Brentford).
Signing Zakaria could raise the levels somewhat, but I’m really more excited about Zakaria’s ability to dribble out of pressure. What you really don’t want to do is spend money on a guy who’s recovering from an ACL injury, as Zakaria has been, and overload him with defensive duties in either one of Cristante or Veretout’s roles. So what then?
The ideal answer is Karsdorp and Viña getting stronger in their own individual battles without the need to call for backup. That would mean less getting targeted by opponents, and less need for Veretout and/or Cristante to come out there in the first place. If only things could sort themselves out that easily.
In Viña’s case, it’s particularly worrying that he’s struggling so much on the defensive end because he was explicitly signed for this team’s style of play. But these are early days.
Until then, it’s up to the FRONT four to make the recoveries and defend solidly as a unit from the front to shield the midfield and those flanks. If Zaniolo was unwise, it’s equally true he was put in a position where he felt the need to help out defensively. And as long as he's playing at wide forward, that's unlikely to ever stop being the case.
It is what it is for now, but there isn’t any one “magic” signing out there on the transfer market to sweep these issues under the rug, even though I’d welcome Zakaria with open arms tomorrow!