ACF Fiorentina – AS Roma: Both Teams Cancel Each Other Out In A Scrappy Draw (1-1)
Fiorentina and AS Roma faced off in a physical, aggressive encounter that saw moments of pressing from both sides, lots of aerial duels, and few measured passing sequences. Roma ended up taking control of the unruly game as play progressed, but were forced into chasing an equalizer after Fiorentina converted a penalty at the half hour mark.
Both ACF Fiorentina and AS Roma have struggled to find consistent form in the first part of this season, which is represented by their recent form charts. Fiorentina had failed to win their last three games preceding this encounter, scoring a meager two goals in that timeframe. Roma had fared slightly better up until that point. They managed a 2-0 win against Empoli and drew with Napoli, only to endure a shock defeat to ten-men S.P.A.L in-between those two games.
Despite the duo’s struggles, both Fiorentina and Roma sat equal on points and well within touching distance of the European spots on Saturday, making a win in this match all the more important.
Roma manager Eusebio Di Francesco approached this critical encounter by using virtually the same lineup that played against Napoli. An injury to defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi forced Di Francesco to bring Nicoló Zaniolo into the lineup as a number ten, as Lorenzo Pellegrini played a bit deeper in mifdield. Other than that, he only replaced center back Kostas Manolas and right back Davide Santon with Federico Fazio and Alessandro Florenzi respectively.
Very few changes for Stefano Pioli’s Fiorentina as well. Everyone who played in the game against Torino started, except for attacking midfielder Valentin Eysseric – who was replaced by Giovanni Simeone – and central midfielder Edimilson Fernandes – who was exchanged with Gerson.
The battle of the presses
Both Fiorentina and Roma engaged in irregular, somewhat suboptimal pressing games that still had a big impact on the game. Fiorentina were the ones who kicked it off by applying high pressure whenever Roma tried to commence their build up from the goalkeeper.
Fiorentina’s early high press versus Roma’s build-up
The front three of Kevin Mirallas, Simeone, and Federico Chiesa sat on the edge of the box and looked to guard against passes to the center backs, with Simeone sometimes moving up to press the keeper while protecting the passing lane behind him.
Roma reacted to this with a strange build-up structure, as left back Aleksandar Kolarov’s actions were quite puzzling. He often dropped back in line with Fazio, which pushed center back Juan Jesus further out wide and sometimes even in front of Fiorentina’s pressing attackers, acting more as a midfielder than as a central defender.
Di Francesco’s ploy did not come off that well. Jesus wasn’t too comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal and gave possession away cheaply as early as the second minute. The presence of Kolarov at the back also reduced the number of attacking players up the field, allowing Fiorentina to better compress their midfield and stunt Roma’s build-up play.
For whatever reason, Pioli instructed Fiorentina to abandon this scheme after fifteen minutes, seemingly ending the Fiorentina threat. This may have caused complacency with Roma’s players, resulting in a terrible back-pass from Cengiz Ünder when Fiorentina decided to press out of nowhere, just before the half hour mark. Simeone latched onto the loose ball and won a penalty when goalkeeper Robin Olsen bowled him over. Defensive midfielder Jordan Veretout stepped up to take the penalty and made no mistake and put Fiorentina up 1-0 in the 32nd minute.
The Fiorentina press pretty much never came back after that, and soon, it was Roma’s turn to try to defend high up the field. They did the same thing with their front three that Fiorentina did on goal kicks and closely marked midfielders Veretout, Gerson, and Benassi with Zaniolo, Nzonzi, and Pellegrini. In more fluid play, the pressing became more incoherent, an example being Edin Džeko, who would randomly decide to close down Fiorentina’s goalkeeper Labon Alfont without any support whatsoever.
Alfont went for a direct and long ball every single time he was pressed, racking up a total of 28 long passes just for himself. Such an action was understandable when all his close options were marked on goal kicks, but it was downright foolish to ignore the two free center backs six or seven yards away from him when Džeko pressed by himself. Consequentially, Fiorentina rarely managed to hold onto possession and lost the chance to construct many potential attacks.
Roma find space down the flanks
As mentioned before, Fiorentina’s decision to put the brakes on their press allowed Roma to more easily progress up the pitch and dominate possession. Once they made it into the opposition half, Fiorentina settled into a rough 4-1-4-1 medium block. A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. At times, their defense was less organized and morphed into a 4-4-2 formation when central midfielder Marco Benassi stepped up to join whoever was stationed up top – usually Simeone or Chiesa.
Roma attacking Fiorentina’s 4-1-4-1 formation, that sometimes turned into a 4-4-2
Benassi’s movements and the general lack of organization seemed to arise from an unclear sense of aggression. Even though Fiorentina seemingly did not want to press out of their defensive formation, wingers Mirallas and Chiesa would sometimes step up to try to close down Nzonzi and Pellegrini when the two defensive midfielders strayed wide. Since there was no support for these isolated decisions, Roma could make lot of headway down the flanks.
Florenzi and Kolarov consistently managed to burst into space and were the focal points of Roma’s attack. They received two of the three highest figures for touches in the team and combined for 13 of Roma’s 32 crosses throughout the game.
The fullback strategy resulted in a very good chance in the first half, when Kolarov charged forward on the overlap When a wide player, most of the times a wing-back, runs outside to fill in the space left by a winger going inside with or without the ball, this is called overlapping. and fired in a low cross that El Shaarawy failed to connect with properly. Roma quickly recovered the ball and chipped a pass over the scrambling Fiorentina defense, but Džeko’s effort went flying over the crossbar.
Roma decided to double down on their crossing as the second half continued, and finally found a stroke of luck in the 86th minute. Kolarov was the protagonist once again, and he curled in a dangerous delivery that the goalkeeper dealt with unconvincingly. The ball arced high into the air and fell to Florenzi, who neatly volleyed in the equalizer.
Fiorentina rely on Federico Chiesa and the counter-attack
With Roma holding onto the ball nearly all game, Fiorentina were forced to find their chances in transition. Talented winger Federico Chiesa was crucial to this effort thanks to his frightening pace, dribbling ability, and directness.
Whenever Roma coughed up possession in fifty-fifty duels near the halfway line, Chiesa was on hand to pick up the loose ball and launch play forward. He was unafraid to attempt daring through balls to striker Simeone or simply drive of the entirety of the pitch himself.
Perhaps this is why Chiesa’s defensive positioning was a little suspect across the course of the game. He generally positioned himself higher than the other winger – Mirallas – and was often eager to take the place of Simeone at the point of the attack. This can be seen as a desire to avoid defensive duties, but it’s possible that Pioli wanted Chiesa in advanced positions because he was the player best suited to lead the counterattack.
Though this allowed Chiesa to be a threat on the break all night, his best moment came when Fiorentina had a rare spell of possession in the second half. He fearlessly drove towards the heart of the defense from the left, played a one-two with Benassi, and bore down on goal. Instead of shooting, he made the right decision to play a square pass to Simeone, but the execution was off. The ball instead fell to the onrushing Gerson, who shot from a difficult angle and thus failed to put Fiorentina up by a two goal difference.
Roma will no doubt be disappointed that they were unable to come away with a win. They had most of the ball and some opportunities, but it is worrying that they failed to create from anything other than crosses. Given this result and their overall form, it is fair to say that Di Francesco’s side needs to find another gear if they want to seriously compete for the Champions League places again.
Fiorentina have no reason to feel especially pleased either. Their initial pressing scheme was good but their defensive structure became confused as the game progressed. Additionally, it is worrying that Chiesa holds such a big creative burden, as it risks making the team one-dimensional.
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