Tactics Explained: Eusebio Di Francesco’s Roma

Words by Feargal Brennan Illustration by Philippe Fenner
October 22, 2018
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Roma, under Eusebio Di Francesco, invested heavily in the summer transfer market, bringing in €130m worth of talent, including €26m for Steven Nzonzi and €24 for Javier Pastore. However, the big news was the spending on some of Europe’s brightest young talents, including Justin Kluivert from PSV, and Bryan Cristante and Patrik Schik from Atalanta and Sampdoria respectively.

Building for the future is great, but a lack of experience has been a problem in the short term. Alisson, Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman all departed before the close of the transfer window, taking over 300 Serie A appearances between them.

Tactically Di Francesco has retained the core values of last season, with a slight teak to a 4-2-3-1 formation, which focuses on midfield solidity and the creative impact of three supporting attackers.

Goalkeeper Robin Olsen is another new face at the club, arriving in the summer to fill the big boots left by Alisson. At 28, Olsen is not part of Di Francesco’s wider move towards a younger squad, with his transfer motivated by adding experience to the role vacated by his Brazilian predecessor. Ahead of him, Di Francesco has stuck with the same back four of Alessandro Florenzi, Kostas Manolos, Federico Fazio and Aleksandar Kolarov. Florenzi at right back and Kolarov on the left are asked to operate as both full back and wing back, given the amount of space in front of them.

Both players are encouraged to get forward and deliver crosses from out wide, but positionally there have been concerns over the gaps they leave in the areas behind, and the ability of Fazio and Manolos to cover.

As a pair, the centre-backs are relatively similar, aerially sound and physically strong, but that creates issues when playing against more mobile strikers. Neither player is great running back towards their own goal, although Manolos would be the more mobile, and quick attacking movement has caught them out already this season. As a defensive unit last season, they relied heavily on Alisson’s sweeper-keeper abilities and the added protection offered by Strootman, Nainggolan and Daniele De Rossi ahead of them, but only one of those four remain at the club.

Despite entering into his 17th season as a first team player, De Rossi is still key for Roma, with his leadership and organisational skills essential to bedding in a new midfield. Positionally he retains his role in front of Manolos and Fazio, dealing with breaks from midfield and acting as a screen between midfield and defence.

In order to provide added protection, Di Fransesco has added Nznozi alongside De Rossi, as part of a two-pronged defensive midfield unit, with the Frenchman providing the drive from deep as De Rossi slots in to cover as a third centre back at times.

Di Fransesco has looked to employ a more progressive style in the centre of the park, which sees his midfielders contribute more in the attacking third. He is still tinkering with his combinations in this area, with Pastore his preference in the No.10 role, just in front of De Rossi and Nzonzi. Given Pastore’s ability to play a more orthodox midfielder, he is comfortable coming deep to receive possession, and utilising the pace and creativity around him.

In the wider areas, Turkish winger Cengiz Under is deployed on the right with Stephen El Shaarawy on the left, however both players are comfortable on either side and are prone to swapping positions. Under operates as a more traditional winger, supplying crosses into the centre for Edin Dzeko and looking to cut in from out wide and shoot. By contrast, El Shaarawy positions himself in a narrower role, closer to the runs of Pastore, and looking to feed off Dzeko.

In a similar role to De Rossi, the experience of Bosnian international Dzeko is used to bring the best from inexpereinced players around him.  He operates as a dual-faceted No.10 with his back to goal, and as a penalty box No.9, as Roma move forward.

His movement and hold up play allow Pastore to advance in support from deeper areas, and even run beyond him and his ability to win headers and play wall passes allows El Shaarwaay and Under to bring the team higher up the pitch.

Roma use counter attacking as a real weapon, with Dzeko as the central pivot, either as the target for the final ball, or a creator for Pastore, Under and El Shaarwaay. If Roma attack through build up play through midfield, Dzeko will move into an advanced role, allowing play to build around him, so he is available in the box for a delivery.  If they look to use the deeper crossing routes of Florenzi and Kolarov, one of the wide attackers will stay close to Dzeko and feed off his knock downs, or steal in on his blind side.

Schick, Kluivert and Cristante have not seen much Serie A action so far this season, despite being highly rated by Di Francesco. The reason being he has had to postpone his heavily youth-centric policy to allow for experience to steady them during a testing start to the season.

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