Blog by: Anirudh
Roma’s attempt to achieve that ultimate footballing ideal – achieving results in style – has proven difficult, but their new French manager might have struck the right balance.
It feels like Roma, in the Eternal City, is eternally in distress. Since Thomas Di Benedetto’s consortium, with James Pallotta as owner, took over from the Sensi family less than two years ago there have been four changes in coach, each attempting to launch their own mini-revolution.
First there was Luis Enrique, then Zdenek Zeman, before Aurelio Andreazzoli was appointed from within to introduce structure from the chaos that had emerged under the previous two regimes. However, the feeling that Andreazzoli’s appointment was only a stop-gap was exacerbated by Roma’s terrible capitulation in the Cup Final, at the hands of arch rivals Lazio.
It was a fatal blow. Roma fans held a mock funeral. The team finished sixth in the league. Lazio continually rubbed salt in the wounds — Senad Lulic, who netted the winner, claimed he’s launching a clothing line in dedication to the minute he scored.
It has been revolution after revolution, having signed twelve new players under Enrique (and sold nine of them since) as well as eleven — more if you count co-ownership — under Zeman, underpinning the constant cycle of change in which Roma found themselves trapped in. The board wanted Walter Mazzari or Max Allegri to oversee a new regime, but were rejected by both. It was a shambles.
Gradually, though, Roma regained their sensibility. The appointment of Rudi Garcia was a move grounded in rationality. It was, maybe intentionally, perhaps ironically, a compromise between the two types of managers Roma sought and had had during the Pallotta reign. Garcia is an intriguing cocktail of the attacking idealism that dominates the philosophy of Zeman and Enrique, but blends that with the winning, pragmatic streak evident in Andreazzoli, Mazzari and Allegri.
At his unveiling, Roma director of sport Walter Sabatini described Garcia as a synthesis of the coaches they had before. It’s a neat piece of symbolism, but perhaps most importantly, Garcia has actually won things — the French league and cup double with Lille, achieved with the kind of attractive, positive playing style Pallotta so desperately wants Roma to play.
“My objectives and football philosophy,” Garcia says, “are without doubt offensive, but I am well aware that in order to win a game you also need an excellent defensive base.” It’s the classic line trotted out by thousands of newly appointed coaches, but Garcia actually has the substance to match.
Only one goal conceded – and without their best defender from last season, Marquinhos, to boot – and second for average possession are statistical indicators but more importantly the key elements of Roma’s new system are obvious on the pitch. Sunday’s Derby della Capitale provided the best demonstration, with the home side lining up in their now customary 4-3-3 formation.
What has been most intriguing, tactically speaking, is the use – or rather, return – of Francesco Totti to the centre forward role, having been used on the left side of attack last season with the freedom to drift inside at will. Totti has been granted the same effective ‘free role’ under Garcia, but rather than moving in from the flank, he’s been handed the false nine guise that Luciano Spalletti originally tumbled upon in the 2007 season.
It only came about because of an injury crisis, but it worked magnificently — Totti dropped into his usual playmaking zone, but by moving in advance of the opposition defenders into deep positions, he dragged away defenders and opened up space in behind. We’ve become so accustomed to Lionel Messi doing the same the term ‘false nine’ has passed into general footballing taxonomy, but Totti’s subtle shift in position was one of the first occasions in which such a tactic had been applied in the modern game.
Both Maicon and Federico Balzaretti relish the freedom they get and frequently motor high up the pitch towards the end of attacking moves, although Balzaretti’s goal against Lazio was an exaggerated illustration of this trend.
The width they provide on the overlap is also crucial in that it occupies the space otherwise vacated by the movement of the wide players inside, as they make runs into the space Totti creates. This is the one area in which Roma have lacked fluency thus far, and after selling their two top scorers from last season — Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela — there’s a concern about where the goals will come from (something the remarkable stat of having not scored in the first half correlates to). Gervinho, Adem Ljajic and Alessandro Florenzi all have the attributes to make those driving diagonal runs from the outside to in, but are yet to truly complement Totti in attack.
Meanwhile, Garcia’s favoured format for the midfield trio not a pure 4-3-3 in that the roles are restricted: instead, Garcia encourages the triangle to rotate on its axis, so that while Pjanic is often the most advanced, he can also become the deepest when the other two venture forward.
Daniele De Rossi, the holder, Kevin Strootman, the runner, and Miralem Pjanic, the creator, are all flourishing within the new template (and Michael Bradley soon to return from injury), with the middle man, Strootman, making a bright start to life in Italy.
Some might view his continental crossing from the Netherlands down to the south of Europe a sideways move, however it was probably the ideal move for a player looking to shore down a spot at next year’s World Cup but also keep on challenging himself at the highest level. Furthermore, it wouldn’t have been hard for Roma to convince him to climb aboard the Garcia project – he fits perfectly into the Frenchman’s philosophy, combining street-smart tackling and aggression with the kind of neat, tidy distribution associated with the likes of Michael Carrick.
“I won’t say that Strootman [is the surprise I promised the fans],” president James Pallotta said, “but he’s the player we needed. It was evident that the team found it difficult [going from defence to attack and back again last season].”
Strootman himself says “I like to play from one side of it to the other. I do both phases of play, attack and defence, without a particular preference.”
Strootman’s versatility in the midfield band has had a flow-on effect to the rest of the side, with the defence enjoying the sort of protection so conspicuously absent under the Zeman reign. With the full-backs taking turns to get forward, there’s a wonderful balance with the deep-lying midfielders — if Maicon gets forward, De Rossi, the more right-sided central midfielder, sits, and vice versa with Balzaretti and Strootman, the latter tending to the left of central midfield.
The defence also benefits from the compactness Garcia has instilled from front to back. Roma no longer feel like eleven individuals strung out across the width and length of the pitch – instead, they close the lines between bands neatly when without the ball, but still looking to press reasonably high up the pitch.
Unfortunately, though, like at Lille, there’s the very real risk that this Roma side will be broken up, just like the French champions were dismantled once they’d emerged as one of Europe’s bright new teams. Adil Rami went to Valencia, Cabaye and Gervinho to the Premier League, then later Eden Hazard also to England as well as Moussa Sow in the winter to Turkey, of all places.
Money and prestige always tempts players to greater places and for the likes of Strootman, Ljajic and Pjanic Roma should, and probably does, just merely represent a stepping stone to better things, and a better paycheque. This reality might be difficult for romantics to accept but it is doing exactly that – realising that positivity need not sacrifice all pragmatism – that in itself led Roma to Garcia, and to a fine start to the season.