Whether you call it the engine room, the transmission, or the brain-trust, success on a football pitch quite often begins and ends in the midfield. The very nature of the position places midfielders in the heart of the action, where they control the location and pace of play, very often dictating the intensity of a match through their pressing, spacing, running, and passing.
This may sound a tad oversimplified, but just because something is elementary doesn't mean it's any less important. Fortunately for Roma, their midfield is filled to the brim with talent, tenacity, and versatility, all of which should keep the Giallorosse in the thick of the Champions League hunt as they enter their fourth season in the top flight.
Led by Andressa Alves and Manuela Giugliano, Roma's midfield was among the most productive and dynamic in the league, and with more veteran depth added to the squad, the unit stands to get even stronger in 2021-2022.
With the new season starting this weekend, let's take a look at the best and worst outcomes for Roma's midfield this season.
Manuela Giugliano (starter), Andressa Alves (starter/hybrid forward), Vanessa Bernauer (likely starter), Thaisa Moreno (possible starter) Giada Greggi (possible starter/utility), Claudia Ciccotti (backup/utility), Andrine Hegerberg (recovering from injury), Joyce Borini (super utility)
With new manager Alessandro Spugna still putting his stamp on the team, it's a bit foolhardy to make sweeping claims about his intentions for Roma's midfield. However, if we use the basic tenets of the 4-3-3 formation as a guidepost, we can get an inkling of how Spugna’s midfield will operate this season—and it all begins and ends with Manuela Giugliano.
After a sluggish start to her Roma career, the only #10 in town showed her true colors last season. While her exact position on the pitch fluctuates, her role is clear: create chances. Using a staggered midfield with someone like Thaisa, Bernauer, Ciccotti, or even Greggi in a defensive role frees up Giugliano (and Andressa) to focus on finding passing lanes in the final third. Even if Spugna opts for a more lateral three-woman midfield, the combined possession, progression, and playmaking of Giguliano, Andressa, and any of Thaisa, Greggi, Bernauer, Borini, or Hegerberg (when healthy) should ensure that Roma has enough firepower to control the ball, retain possession and feed the forwards.
But the real genius of the Giallorosse midfield rests in its versatility. Even in the scenario we just described, thanks to her work rate and defensive posture, Giugliano can drop back and let Andressa operate as the de facto number 10, leaving Greggi, Bernauer, or even Hegerberg to play a more traditional number eight role.
With so much tactical versatility and so many overlapping skills sets, Roma can run out three or four completely different midfield combinations without skipping a beat. At this point, it's tough to say what the best lineup would be, but a Giugliano-Andressa-Thaisa trio would provide an ideal balance of creativity, intelligence, and energy.
No matter what combination Spugna settles on, with an almost perfect blend of youth and experience, brains and brawn, Roma's midfield has the potential to be the best in the league. It's simply a matter of establishing and maintaining that chemistry.
Apart from injuries besetting the squad, the biggest potential roadblock for Spugna's midfield is Spugna himself, or at least his tactical predilections. During his lone season with Empoli, Spugna proved to be a firm devotee of the 4-3-3, never wavering from that formation during the 2020-2021 season.
Roma's former manager, Betty Bavagnoli, started the season using the 4-3-3 and the results were...underwhelming. Bavagnoli utilized the 4-3-3 in all but one of Roma's first 11 matches last season, running out to a 4-4-3 (W-D-L) record. And that “all but one” match featured the 4-2-3-1, which Bavagnoli used for the remainder of the season to much greater effect.
We don't have to dig deep to remember what happens when the 4-3-3 grinds to a halt. Just think back to the dying days of Rudi Garcia and Eusebio Di Francesco's respective tenures in Roma, when the club was plagued by pointless possession, wingers dribbling themselves into a corner and acres of space for the opposition to run roughshod on the counter-attack.
While the midfield isn't solely to blame for the typical failings of a 4-3-3, considering Spugna's preference for this formation, we at least have to be wary of its shortcomings.
We can't really pick a breakout player from Roma's midfield when the locker room is full of seasoned veterans like Andressa, Thaisa, and Vanessa Bernauer, not to mention the 2019 MVP Manuela Giugliano. Considering that, so we're going in a different direction here and selecting a bounce-back candidate: Giada Greggi.
Nearly a year removed from her ACL injury, the 21-year-old Roman should be primed to reclaim her place among the most sophisticated and promising midfield talents in Italy. Given the depth in midfield, Greggi should have plenty of time to get fully back to speed and if she hits the ground running, she could press either Bernauer, Thaisa, or Claudia Ciccotti for playing time alongside Andressa and Giugliano, bringing an added layer of versatility to an already impressive positional unit.
No matter how much she plays early in the year, the most important thing Greggi needs to accomplish this year is proving her knee is ready for full-time duty. If she can remain on the pitch and earn Spugna's trust, her confidence should continue to grow. And with Bernauer and Thaisa only signed for this season, Greggi should be free to resume a much larger role in the near future.
In this transition year for Greggi, she needs to worry more about getting up to speed and less about reclaiming her place in Roma's hierarchy. If, however, she can manage this transition well and carve out a role this season, Roma’s midfield can become an elite unit.