With the change in seasons only days away, it was only right that Roma were turning over a new leaf in this match. Limited by multiple pending transfers, Paulo Fonseca had to dig deep into his bag of tricks today to even field a starting eleven. With Edin Dzeko seated on the bench waiting for his Juventus move and Marash Kumbulla not yet up to speed, Fonseca was forced to alter the form and function of his now almost customary 3-4-2-1.
Without Dzeko leading the line, Fonseca opted for a false-nine look with Henrikh Mkhitaryan slotting into the role once made famous by Francesco Totti. Supporting Mkhitaryan was Roma’s first signing of the summer, former Chelsea man Pedro, who, along with Lorenzo Pellegrini, were free to swap positions in the attacking third.
At the back, Fonseca was similarly handcuffed. With Kumbulla just signed and Bruno Peres not in the matchday squad, Rick Karsdorp made his first Roma appearance in almost 18 months while Bryan Cristante made the rare appearance at centerback.
Outside of those sweeping changes, it was business as usual for Roma—and for Serie A, as this match was played on a pitch that looked more like loose leaf spinach than an actual playing surface. Roma may have sacrificed some speed by leaving Justin Kluivert out and loaning Cengiz Ünder to Leicester, but the loose sod definitely affected the pace of play for both sides.
Despite the landscaping and forced changes in the lineup, this new look Roma had their way with the Verona defense in the first half. With Karsdorp and Spinazzola providing width from the wingback spots, Pedro and Mkhitaryan were free to swap positions in the final third, recycling possession deep in the area and forming tidy passing networks at the edge of the 18-yard-box. It was a bit of a trade off losing Dzeko’s presence in the middle, but we haven’t seen Roma move the ball that quickly and that succinctly in the attacking third in months.
And this nouveau false nine almost paid dividends in the 25th minute when Spinazzola played a low cross from the left flank to Mkhitaryan at the near post. Micki did well to find the only possible place to attempt a shot, but seemed to get too much of his heel on the ball, pushing the shot just wide.
Things would open up as the match moved towards the 40th minute, with Roma nearly catching Verona napping on a turnover, only to see Mkhitaryan’s semi-breakaway snuffed out by the Verona backline. Moments later, Spinazzola found a bit of space on the left, wove through multiple defenders into the area and forced Mert Çetin into a blocked shot. Spinazzola still looks like a man reborn in this new formation and was easily Roma’s most dangerous player in the opening stages of this match.
By this point in the match, Roma were impressing with their speed down the flanks and their quick ball movement around the area, but they just couldn’t find a genuine clear cut chance on goal and missed two close range efforts from Mkhitaryan and Pedro. Playing with a false nine definitely improved Roma’s ball movement, but it was evident to anyone watching that Roma needed a presence up front.
Roma’s half-chances almost bit them in the ass as the first half wound down. With Verona working a one-two deep in Roma territory, Antonio Mirante made a miraculous kick save with his left foot, only to see the ball carom of the cross bar and fall down right on the goal line, which was miraculously cleared out by Roma’s defense; it was precisely the sort of disaster that seemingly always strikes them in the waning moments of matches and/or halves.
The first half ended scoreless, but Roma were the superior side, completing 80% of their passes and holding 56% possession, while also putting 5 of 11 shots on target.
But don’t get used to that sentiment…
Roma opted for no changes to start the second half, but Verona were the more aggressive side in the first 10 minutes or so, very nearly breaking the match open thanks to Davide Faraoni, who charged down the right flank and played a through ball to himself, splitting the backline and then running onto his own ball and pulling Mirante off his line, before attempting a tight angle shot. It was a tremendous individual effort from Faraoni, but he couldn’t put enough English on his shot to curve it in.
The match seemed to hit a brick wall as it creeped towards the hour mark, with much of the action stagnating in the midfield, but Spinazzola continued his impressive play on the left, once more dancing around the defense to set-up Mkhitaryan in the area, but Micki’s shot was (once again) blocked by the Verona defense.
The Mastiffs missed another golden chance in the 65th minute when Samuel Di Carmine missed a free header at the near post. And by this point in the match, Verona were definitely the more energetic and aggressive side, yet Fonseca continued to sit on his five subs.
Di Carmine threatened again moments later, slipping past the Roma defense before scuffing a shot, but Roma’s lax play in transition was tilting the pitch in Verona’s favor. And with five subs in his pocket, Fonseca didn’t make his first swap until Karsdorp left with a hamstring injury—Davide Santon took his place.
Roma would get their first chance of the second half off a turnover deep in Verona territory, with the ball eventually finding Pellegrini at the edge of the box, but Roma’s new captain wasn’t able to swerve it enough to squeeze in at the far right post.
Fonseca would make his first tactical change, pulling off Pellegrini in favor of Justin Kluivert in the 79th minute.
Roma were bailed out by the woodwork again in the 82nd minute when Federico Di Marco put a left footed shot into the upper 90 of the far right post, barely missing a goal, and his rebound nearly trickled across the goal line—Verona were definitely the better side this half but were done in by a bit of bad luck.
The woodwork would make another stellar save, denying Spinazzola on a beautiful 20 yard volley that struck the upper right hand corner of the goal, leaving no rebound whatsoever. It was easily Roma’s best effort of the night from a man who put in a remarkable 90 minute effort.
Fonseca would make another swap in 90th minute, inserting Gonzalo Villar for Diawara, who, to be honest, was pretty poor for most of this match.
The final chance of the match would stem from a Roma free kick, but outside of a glancing header from Mancini, it was emblematic of Roma’s efforts on the day—discombobulated.
Well, a win would have been nice, but I’m not sure we can draw many conclusions from this match given all the uncertainty surrounding the team at the moment. Certainly, the first half was encouraging in terms of Roma’s ball movement, but they two chances they created weren’t equal to the build-up that preceded them, while the second half saw a complete absence of cohesion and team-play.
All of which underscores what we already knew: Roma are very much a work in progress. Just how far along they are is open to interpretation. One school of thought would suggest that what we witnessed was the product of a team playing without a striker, while another school would say…yeah, no, sorry…Roma just aren’t that good and it’ll take more than Arkadiusz Milik to tie up these loose ends.
If all goes according to plan this week and Roma land Milik and perhaps even Chris Smalling, those conversations may change, but much like the stadium they so desperately crave, Roma seem stuck in the planning phases.
Roma host Juventus on September 27th.
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