Roma In Need Of Tactical Renovation

Injuries, finances and deflation. AS Roma needs to reevaluate its tactical framework to return the money it has put in, but can José Mourinho modify one of the oldest squads and highest wage bills in Serie A?

Written by Joel Parker.


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Presented like a new emperor, the signing of Paulo Dybala wasn’t just a form of celebration, but a statement of intent.

After all, that is what appointing José Mourinho brings. Expectation elevates and, riding high from lifting the Conference League trophy, the desire for instant success can become more of an unhealthy obsession when your club spends millions. When Dybala put pen to paper last July, talk of more success was not uncommon, whether it was from the local bars of the Italian capital or national media alike.

Yet Roma’s season didn’t transpire as what was being sold. Despite reaching the Europa League final, Roma finished outside the top four and was comfortably bested by their city rivals, both in the standings and when they faced one another.

Having only spent €7 million in the 2022 summer transfer window, Mourinho described Roma reaching Champions League football as not only more than a miracle but like Jesus Christ coming to Rome and walking around the Vatican. But how can this not be achievable with the third-highest wage bill in Serie A?

As FFP (Financial fair play) bares down on them, solutions must come internally. Teams that have recently turned to Joséfication are comfortable with seeking results over the performances, but when the results don’t come, what then? Squad building has left holes, but Mourinho needs a tactical renovation to achieve what he was hired for.


The unexpected numbers

When we look at the sustainability of a club’s performances, a look at Expected Goals can be a good indicator of things going right or wrong. In the case of Roma, we have to add some very important context. Come the end of October, Mourinho’s team where 0.1 Expected Goals off eventual champions Napoli. From eleven games, this reached a total of 25.8, which pitched Roma as the second-most effective attack in Serie A.

However, when we match this against their actual goal total, no team in Europe’s top five came close to the level of underperformance. During this period, they had only scored 13 goals, which ranked them eighth in the division and a staggering -12.8 differential against their Expected Goals.

Taking a look deeper into these numbers and more problems start to arise. These massive differences between goals and expected goals came against six teams: Salernitana, Cremonese, Empoli, Atalanta, Leece and Sampdoria. Five of these teams would eventually end up within Serie A’s bottom seven clubs and Roma produced -8.58 of that differential in these matches. The form of Tammy Abraham took a lot of the limelight during this period, having stormed seventeen goals in his first campaign but only scoring twice. However, Lorenzo Pellegrini and a goalless Nicolo Zaniolo also contributed to missing chances.

Roma were overpowering teams they should be beating, but against clubs higher up in the league told a completely different story. They barely tallied over one Expected Goal against Juventus, Udinese and Internazionale, with their work from set-pieces inflating these numbers.

Mourinho’s team brought this differential down come the end of the season, but not by scoring more goals. Roma lost their creativity in Serie A matches towards the end, focusing on a deep Europa League run, whilst consistent injury problems riddled the squad throughout the year. Nevertheless, their tactical blueprint showed significant weaknesses too, which saw Roma fall short of the mark.


A shallow core in the buildup

Mourinho has stuck to the 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 system within their team’s buildup. With Chris Smalling in the center of the back three, Gianluca Mancini and Roger Ibañez played the most minutes as the wide center-backs. From a defensive standpoint, both can fulfil their roles quite effectively, but in their buildup, neither player can offer the consistent progressive passing or carrying value that is required. This massively hinders a back three system because you already have the extra player out of your team’s attack and Roma lost balance ahead of the ball because of it.



As a result, Bryan Cristante often had to drop deep to assist the center-backs in the buildup, but he is another player whose defensive side of the game is more solid than his work on the ball. Furthermore, the lack of pinning also reduces the effectiveness of the build. Roma wing-backs are hugely relied upon to feed the ball back inside, but they occupy just behind the second line of the opponent and do not stretch the opposition’s defense.


Home game versus Lazio Roma: This is what positional problems in the buildup lead to. An unbalanced midfield and lack of line-breaking from center-backs led to the incapability of short progression. Lazio wingers compacted the center by pressing inwards and Roma had to switch the play to wing-backs, but the ball ends up where Lazio had the overload off-ball.


Stephan El Shaarawy, an experienced forward who turned into a wing-back throughout the season, is the only outlier in this. Leonardo Spinazzola has had minutes from the left, but injuries have kept him back from reaching the same heights as EURO 2020. Wing-backs having to cover deeper areas of the field reduce their ability to overlap into the final third or make darting runs on switches of play. Even in games in which Roma controlled a lot of the ball, the ball circulates in the middle third without being able to get the ball up the pitch.

Deeper wing-backs can lead to u-shapedness and deprive the system of any flexibility without the links between the lines. Lorenzo Pellegrini started the season next to Cristante, but even when playing deeper, Pellegrini was getting significantly more touches up the field. José added Nemanja Matić to his ranks, someone who is still able to drop deep and dictate but makes himself and Cristante an immobile midfield pairing.

Ultimately, one of the center-midfielders splitting and moving behind the opposition midfield line added to the imbalance. Roma’s buildup was easy for quality Serie A teams to suppress and keep deep, whilst the shot quality massively declined in these matches. Against the rest of the top seven clubs in the division, their were only two games where Roma got above 0.75 Expected Goals (in open play): a 1-1 draw at home to Milan and the 0-1 defeat to Atalanta earlier in the season. Roma only won three of these twelve games, all in which their buildup failed to establish control and lead to a poor approach upon entering the final third.


Passmap versus Cremonese (2-1 defeat in February) defines their problems when in long spells of possession. U-shaped circulation, Cristante has to drop towards center-backs to support. Wing-backs are deeper, unable to pin and stretch the opposition block whilst Dybala drifting on the right side is their best chance of keeping the ball high up.


Pellegrini is pretty important to Roma’s buildup because when he plays higher up, he roams towards the ball side to be the only consistent forward option. Despite often fielding two or three forwards, Roma still find themselves unbalanced as they look to receive as strikers and are less concerned with connecting play. Dybala does connect in the right halfspace upon entering the final third, but he only peels and builds connective tissue when Roma has got the ball past the halfway line and Dybala usually waits to get on the ball when he is closer to the box.

This became their main construction of attack, that or blasting the ball into the left channel for Abraham or Andrea Belotti to lap onto. Consistent injury problems for the Argentine put a major effect on Roma’s ability to attack when up against better defenses: Roma barely created in home defeats to Napoli and Lazio, as well as a 1-1 draw away to Sassuolo, when Dybala was out with a hamstring problem


Passmap versus Hellas Verona (3-1 win in October, the opponent’s with ten men after 36 minutes) showcases their reliance on Pellegrini’s high positioning and lateral movement to connect play as wing-backs remained very deep.



Vintage defensive principles

Sitting in medium-to-low blocks has never been a problem for Mourinho teams, but whether it is the correct approach for a team to be able to build blocks back into the Champions League is up for debate. Mourinho did get his Tottenham team into a high league position, but their passiveness lead from having control to being controlled, sitting too deep and not being able to get the ball out to relieve pressure.

Only three teams conceded fewer goals than Roma throughout the campaign, but the off-ball approaches from Mourinho can come with bizarre tweaks or poor execution in other positions on the field. At the start of the season, pressure on the ball would not come from the three forwards in the medium block but would come from Cristante or Matić moving outwards depending on the side of the ball. This made Roma quite vulnerable in front of their defense, as long as two opposition attackers were on the same side ahead of the ball, neither Mancini nor Ibañez could step up to block the passing lane back inside to the striker or number ten.



As the season continued, Mourinho tweaked this defensive arrangement. Pellegrini would drop off into the midfield line to create a 5-3-2 off the ball. This saw more shifting as the outside center-midfielder moved towards the ball and his teammates in the same line would cover. As the season continued, Edoardo Bove gained more minutes in midfield and offered more flexibility and intensity out of possession.


Away game versus Milan: Roma’s midfield shifts in the 5-1-4/5-2-2-1 formation to encounter Milan’s right-sided rotation. Once a Roma player was beaten one-versus-one, Díaz was found free back inside.


As you may expect, Mourinho is more than comfortable watching his team lockdown its own third and protect leads. Roma is good in this manner, but their low block can still raise some questions. When Mancini or Ibañez step out of the defensive line, Smalling can’t always cover if he is also occupied. Halfspaces can be left free, in the Europa League final, Sevilla wasn’t always creative, but dinking balls from the halfway line down the channels could isolate Roma down the wider channel and inside would be free before the midfield line could reset.

Deep fullback runs have also caused their defensive block problems. Taking the free man from the backline and throwing them towards Roma’s last line can disrupt their set-up, pinning a Roma player out and creating space for a receiver underneath.


Away game versus Fiorentina: Deep inside fullback run was able to drag and pin Roma player, which created overload to potentially play around against low block.


Nevertheless, to be a great defensive team, you need to be effective in more than just one phase of play. In terms of pressing, Roma struggles to impose themselves on teams. Mourinho attempts to dial his team’s intensity up by changing into a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formation, but the profile of midfielders means that this framework becomes unstable and its organisation is poorly staggered.

Quite like their on-ball approach, off the ball, Roma can find themselves one-dimensional and lack ideas against other styles. Teams that build themselves from European competition to try and get to the elite stage have to be more proactive.


Is Roma able to renovate?

Investigated for breaching FFP rules, Roma has to keep their business watertight whilst alleviating pressure. Evan Ndicka arrived from Eintracht Frankfurt on a free transfer, a left-footed center-back who might be able to offer some carrying ability out of the backline to add to some dynamism.

Houssem Aouar also arrived on a free, a midfielder who can either play deeper as part of the double pivot or further ahead, potentially filling the left forward spot in a 3-4-2-1 formation. Defensively, he has proved to be a very solid player, despite us knowing him more for his creative passing attributes and being a player who can retain under pressure, although he doesn’t carry up the field. In a team who plays at a slow tempo, without playing a heavy transitional game, it gives Aouar a solid platform for his strengths to come through.

These transfers indicate Roma doubling down on their system, which is no surprise considering the coach and the position they find themselves in. Sales of Cristian Volpato and Benjamin Tahirović showcase the desperate state of affairs, two young midfielders that the club would have preferred to blooden through within their structure.

If Mourinho was to change towards a back four more consistently, he would face similar issues as he already does and that is the application of width. They do have profiles that suit the fullback positions, including Rasmus Kristensen who arrived from Leeds United on loan, as well as Spinazzola and Zalewski, but the lack of wingers in their frontline would leave them very restricted. Dybala would most likely be pushed onto the right side of the forwards and still depend on a fullback overlapping in this phase to add the difference.

Roma is going to continue with a varied back three system; capable of defending in a compact block for long periods, capable of finding some form of access through the lateral work of one of their forwards, but limited in other areas. A passive off-ball approach needs to be met with a strong transitional game, but Roma hasn’t had dribblers, or a counterattacking plan, even before Mourinho arrived. A buildup plan needs to have balance and be able to pin opponents back, but Roma has struggled to impose against quality Serie A defenses on the ball. Perhaps the new additions can strengthen the style of play José deploys, but Roma naturally juxtaposes.


Takeaways

Mourinho enters his third season in the Italian capital in a stage of limbo. Not much of the activity that he probably wants, and with the exception of AC Milan, not many clubs around them making drastic changes. It leaves Roma entering a new season with the same ambition as the last, breaking into the top four but another Europa League spot is more of a realistic option.

This is an injury-prone team that is desperate for a new tool in its armory, something added to their buildup or more proactive pressing when they need to engage. A more likely scenario would be the return of Roma’s set-piece game and Auoar papering over the cracks in midfield to potentially elevate them up the table.

Roma needs a Champions League return, it’s almost the minimum expectation for a club that hires Mourinho, regardless of his tactical game slightly steering off almost a decade ago. A miracle he might claim it to be, but if a special one can’t produce one then just how special could one be?

Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]

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