AS Roma – Feyenoord: A Special Triumph For The Special One (1-0)
The final of the first ever UEFA Conference League pitted managers of opposite backgrounds, with the men in the dugout representing historic teams who have nevertheless been left behind by football’s widening economic gulf. In the end, a solitary goal dashed the ambitions of Dutch outfit Feyenoord, with José Mourinho’s Roma coming out on top for a first major trophy since 2007’s Coppa Italia victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
When we think of generational coaching clashes in football, we think of the grand occasions: Jürgen Klopp’s upstart Borussia Dortmund against Jupp Heynckes’ ruthless Bayern Munich, or Pep Guardiola’s elegant Barcelona against Sir Alex Ferguson’s seasoned Manchester United.
The inaugural UEFA Conference League offered a similar matchup in its final, as wily veteran José Mourinho went up against the next great Dutch managerial talent in Arne Slot. The fact that such an intriguing clash happened at a lower level was part of the plan; after all, it was in keeping with the Conference League’s promise to act as potential silverware for those removed from Europe’s elite. Still, the final pitted once of Italy’s greatest clubs against one of Dutch football’s flagbearers, for the opportunity to claim bragging rights on Europe’s newest stage.
Mourinho organized his team in their standard 3-4-1-2 shape, as Rui Patrício was guarded by a backline of Roger Ibanez, Chris Smalling and Gianluca Mancini. The double pivot consisted of Bryan Cristante and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who were flanked by wingbacks Nicola Zalewski on the left and Rick Karsdorp on the left. Lorenzo Pellegrini played in the No. 10 role, behind the duo of Nicolò Zaniolo and the talismanic Tammy Abraham.
The lack of quality depth at Feyenoord means that Arne Slot has fielded the same starting XI for the majority of his games, with major changes coming in the form of tactical rather than personnel adjustments. For this game, he stuck with the defensive line of right back Lutsharel Geertruida, center-backs Marcos Senesi and Gernot Trauner and left back Tyrell Malacia. As usual, the midfield consisted of Fredrik Aursnes with Orkun Kökçü and Guus Til on either side, while Cyriel Dessers led the line with the help of wingers Luis Sinisterra and Reiss Nelson.
Feyenoord’s buildup scheme
In the initial part of the game, it was Slot’s side that had most of the ball. In buildup, Feyenoord’s center-backs split wide, while the fullbacks and double pivot remained deep.
Here, Kökçü orients himself towards the left back spot, which triggers the Roma press but allows Malacia to underlap and Til to make the run through the heart of the defense.
The deep fullbacks are an established part of Slot’s methodology, but it was interesting how the players moved in the first phase. Aursnes often acted as the holding midfielder ahead of the defense, while Kökçü oriented himself towards the left. In this phase, Kökçü movements were varied – he could drop back into the left back spot and release Malacia higher up the flank, or he could leave Malacia in his spot while orienting himself high in the left halfspace. Both actions had a knockon effect: if Kökçü dropped back into the defensive line, Sinisterra (who is right footed and cuts inside) could move into the frontline, while Malacia held the width on the left. On the other hand, Kökçü’s advanced position in the halfspace meant that Malacia stayed deep, with Kökçü acting as the reference point when building down the left flank.
During these sequences, right back Geertruida inverted to join the midfield, while Nelson held the width on the right. The right sided midfielder – Til – then had a free role, as he could join the overload on the left or make runs from the far side halfspace to get on the end of passes.
With Senesi and Trauner being comfortable on the ball, Geertruida’s inverted position meant that he could relocate to the flank if Feyenoord wanted to change the direction of the attack. In this case, Kökçü moved closer to the right flank while Aursnes dropped into a deeper position and Malacia came into the midfield. Left winger Sinisterra would then join Dessers in the frontline, while Nelson did the same on the right.
With Roma operating out of a 3-4-1-2 shape, it was usually Abraham and Zaniolo who closed down the center-backs while Pellegrini shadowed Aursnes. This meant that it fell to either wingback Karsdorp or Mkhitaryan to close down Kökçü, depending on the midfielder’s position. With Malacia also needing to be marked, Feyenoord were essentially tasking Roma’s wingback and midfielder to cover swathes of the field in a bid to shit down the left sided tandem. With Roma’s high pressing structure often seeing them field a slightly higher line, Sinisterra often had a one-versus-one opportunity to attack from outside Mancini. This was accompanied by striker Dessers’ runs between Mancini and Smalling, made in a bid to pin the defensive line.
Roma’s opportunistic approach
A Mourinho team is typically associated with avoiding the ball, sitting deep and breaking in behind, but Roma went for a different approach in the first half. They began by pressing high up the pitch, which saw the heavy involvement of the offensive trio as well as the wingbacks. Behind them, the defensive line largely stood off, only stepping in to sweep up loose balls or challenge for long balls. The approach saw them limit the opportunities that Feyenoord had, especially because their defenders were relatively less tired than the forwards when Roma had to fall back in a low block.
On the ball, depending on the situation, Roma either took their time or directly launched it forward.
One of Roma’s early sequences, where a rapid up-back-through sequence saw them find Zalewski on the switch.
An example of the latter would be when they were being counterpressed by Feyenoord, in which case a swift sequence saw Mancini hit Zalewski using a switch with the wingback in oceans of space.
Alternatively, they built more patiently, with Cristante playing as the screening midfielder while Pellegrini, Mkhitaryan and Zaniolo exchanged positions between the Feyenoord lines. They were helped by the Dutch side’s inclination to fall into a 4-4-2 shape in defense, which meant that the rotations of the Roma players occasionally exposed some gaps in midfield. Because Feyenoord had a four-man defense, they were forced to remain narrow in the center, which combined with their defensive approach meant that they did not lay pressing traps for the wingbacks. Instead, Roma had plenty of time to push their wingbacks forward before giving them the ball, although these did not result in high quality opportunities.
One surprising aspect was that when Roma lost possession, they counterpressed immediately to try and recapture the ball. This was a surprising approach given that Mourinho’s side were middle of the pack when it came to this kind of action.
Still, it was effective, as Roma’s most dangerous flashes came when they caught out Feyenoord and Tammy Abraham was on the end of through balls. Zaniolo’s goal itself came about as a result of Roma’s pressing from Feyenoord’s goal kick, with Smalling winning the aerial duel before the Italians piled on the pressure and Zaniolo conjured a moment of magic.
Feyenoord up the pace
With 45 minutes left to save their season, Feyenoord returned to the pitch and proceeded to ramp up the pace. They did this by adhering to Slot’s idea that the wings should be occupied by just one player, as the fullbacks began inverting and underlapping to a greater degree than in the first half. With the wingers starting from wider positions, this meant that Feyenoord were flooding the midfield with as many as five players versus Roma’s midfield pivot. Positional rotations meant that the wingers also began crashing the box, as combinations between players became quicker and more incisive.
The warning signal was fired soon after the start of the half, when a corner routine yielded two opportunities for Feyenoord. Noticing that his team was defending against waves of attacks, Mourinho made two substitutions: the creative Leonardo Spinazzola took over for Zalewski at left wingback, while Jordan Veretout replaced Zaniolo but dropped into the midfield line. This meant that Abraham was the furthest forward, with Pellegrini continuing to operate in the space behind the striker.
The game stood on a knife edge as Slot made offensive substitutions, but Mourinho’s men were able to hold the fort in a manner that was typical of their manager. At the end of extra time, Mourinho stood alone among his coaching peers, as the first ever manager to win all three European competitions on offer.
The final may have been short on goals but it was chock full of intrigue, as Slot had to navigate a Mourinho gameplan that highlights key opposition weaknesses. The high pressing approach shook the Dutch side and resulted in a first half that Roma managed comfortably, though the second half was controlled almost entirely by Slot’s side. This was far from an impervious performance by the Romans, but it is only the end result that matters. And that result showed that Roma had finally awoken from their stupor, with José Mourinho at the wheel.
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