In the wake of an extremely embarrassing 4-1 defeat to Celta Vigo, something needs to change.
Regardless of the fact that it was a friendly, and that barely any of the starting eleven are expected to be starters when the season begins next week, going down 4-0 at half time is unacceptable. Yes, they may not have been Roma’s first choice players, but eight of them are capped at senior international level. That scoreline should never have been witnessed.
Following the humiliating result, head coach Eusebio Di Francesco correctly accepted the blame for the defeat, saying “the responsibility always lies with the coach.” Indeed, while he arrived this summer with great promise, it appears he has a lot to learn when it comes to coaching a top level club.
Tactically, there are two options you can take going into a pre-season. You can either set out with a desired formation and work heavily on it, or you can experiment and try out many different systems. Di Francesco opted for the former, always using the 4-3-3 system he favoured previously at Sassuolo. There are a number of flaws in his decision to do this.
A trainer may have a favoured formation, one that they understand best, but they have to be able to fit their players to it. If they cannot, they should opt for the formation which best suits the available players. The 4-3-3 that Di Francesco likes to play, featuring inverted attacking wingers, is not the best option for some of Roma’s key players.
Firstly, let’s look at two of last year’s best performers, Federico Fazio and Radja Nainggolan. Neither of them benefit from this system. Fazio performs better in a back three, whilst Nainggolan excelled in an attacking midfield role in a 4-2-3-1 last year. Now the Belgian is less free to join in the attacks like he did last season. The team should be built around its best players, but Di Francesco’s tactics so far have not brought the best out of these two.
Another issue is Di Francesco’s reliance on having a left-footed, offensive right winger to cut inside and contribute to the team’s goal output. With this in mind, the loss of Mohamed Salah to Liverpool this summer was a massive blow, and the club haven’t yet been able to find a replacement for him. However, if Di Francesco selected a different formation, perhaps the Egyptian wouldn’t need to be replaced. For example, in parts of last season, Roma played a 3-4-2-1. The coach would be wise to consider using this formation again. It would allow Nainggolan to return to the attacking third, meaning only one space in that section of the pitch would be left vacant. This could easily be filled by a player already at the club, such as Diego Perotti or Stephan El Shaarawy.
The competition between these two players for a starting spot is one of great debate between Roma fans. In my opinion, Perotti had a much better season than El Shaarawy in 2016/17, but he could be frozen out of the team in Di Francesco’s system. El Shaarawy is a much more natural fit for these tactics, despite Perotti possessing greater technical ability. Again, that means not getting the best out of your best players. That is simply illogical.
Back to a 3-4-2-1 though, and Perotti would be comfortably suitable for the attacking midfield role alongside Nainggolan. El Shaarawy would also fit the position, and therefore the competition between the two would mean they would increase each other’s levels of performance, fighting for that starting spot. Cengiz Under would be another option there, meaning there would be plenty of depth for the area. Thus, more money could be spent on signing a new centre-back, which is also currently an area of concern in this team.
One defender at the club who also performs better in a back three is Juan Jesus. The left-sided centre back went through a great upturn in form last season, which coincided with the tactical switch to a 3-4-2-1 at the turn of the year. In a back four, he struggled, and there is reason to believe he could again. That would be very unfortunate for a player who I chose as Roma’s most improved player last season.
Next, Edin Dzeko scored 16 goals in games in which Roma started with a 3-4-2-1 last season, more than he scored in the entirety of his first season in Rome – half of which was played under a coach who used a 4-3-3. After being the league’s top scorer last year, no one would want to see Dzeko struggle in front of goal again – but he did in a similar system two years ago. He scored two goals this pre-season for Roma; it will be interesting to see how his season goes. He should feel confident after last year, but we will have to see how this system serves him.
Lorenzo Pellegrini may also benefit from a 3-4-2-1. Whilst he has played under Di Francesco for the past two years and understands the movements his coach wants him to make as part of a midfield three, he could also do well in a central midfield duo. This year, he made his senior Italy debut alongside fellow Roman Daniele De Rossi, and they were the only two central midfielders used by Gian Piero Ventura. Playing a 3-4-2-1 could allow De Rossi and Pellegrini to develop this partnership further (when the latter is on the pitch), and would also help the young midfielder grow.
There are crossover elements between the 3-4-2-1 I am suggesting and Di Francesco’s system. Both incorporate attacking full backs, needed to create width, something that EDF has understood and used throughout his coaching career. This would be good for the likes of Bruno Peres and Rick Karsdorp, who are both full backs who like to attack. The extra protection at the back would afford them even more freedom than the current system, and they could contribute a lot going forwards.
Di Francesco is a professional, and Roma fans should trust his judgement and ability. But a top coach needs to have several different formations at their disposal for their team to be competitive. And if things carry on like they did yesterday, EDF will need to think long and hard about whether he can use his preferred system at his new club. At the minute, it won’t work unless Roma invest in a top quality centre-back and an equally good right winger, which would strain the club financially. Switch to a 3-4-2-1, and one of those problems is immediately solved, meaning the other could be sorted more easily. For every problem, there is a solution, and this shape may be the answer to Di Francesco’s problems if they continue.
Suggested Roma line up using a 3-4-2-1 (with all players fully fit): Alisson; Manolas, Fazio, Jesus/Kolarov (or a new CB); Karsdorp, De Rossi, Strootman, Emerson; Nainggolan, Perotti/Florenzi; Dzeko