AS Roma are still far from the side they were many years ago, but they have enjoyed two of their better seasons over the last decade since Paulo Fonseca arrived at the club. The Portuguese manager came to Roma with a respectable reputation, having led Shakhar Donetsk to three league titles and a 74% win rate in his three seasons at the club. During his first season in charge at I Giallorossi, Fonseca led AS Roma to a fifth-place finish in Serie A – securing Europa League football for the team. Roma have since performed well in the competition this season, with a semi-final against tournament favourites Manchester United to play for in the next few weeks. Their performances in the Europa League have outshone their relatively sub-par season in Serie A, with the side currently in seventh place. Nonetheless, if Fonseca’s team were to pull out a miracle and make the Europa League final, this season would be seen as a complete success. With that, here is a tactical analysis of Paulo Fonseca’s AS Roma this season.
SYSTEM OF PLAY: 3-4-2-1
In his first season at the club, Paulo Fonseca utilized a 4-2-3-1 formation, but as the season wore on, he shifted the team’s tactics into a 3-4-2-1. The formational shift was very successful, winning seven of eight Serie A matches, and drawing the other. With that kind of record, it’s unsurprising that the Portuguese manager stuck with the 3-4-2-1 into 2020-21. The formational change has resulted in a few positional changes, including Lorenzo Pellegrini being pushed into a role as an inverted winger, rather than the trequartista role (number ten) he fulfilled in the 4-2-3-1. Deep-lying midfielder Bryan Cristante has also transformed into a centre-back this season, often acting as the libero in between two natural defenders. Those two centre-backs are frequently the young pairing of Atalanta loanee Roger Ibanez and Italian defender Gianluca Mancini, who also came from Atalanta just one year ago. Chris Smalling remains another option in the back-three, but has found his minutes more limited this season and has struggled to stay fit.
In the midfield line, Alessandro Florenzi’s departure to PSG meant that Roma needed a new right-wing-back. They found their man in Rick Karsdorp, and the former Feyenoord man has put up his best season for assists since 2015/16, currently sitting on five in the league. Leonardo Spinazzola has also had a decent return as the left-wing-back in the team, assisting three in the Europa League and four in Serie A. Central midfield has been the most competitive position, with top-scorer Jordan Veretout, pass-master Gonzalo Villar, and the versatile Pellegrini and Cristante all safe options. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s had less competition for his position as one of the two attacking midfielders, but the same cannot be said of Edin Dzeko, who is now starting to ease out of the side in place of the Europa League’s top scorer this season – Borja Mayoral.
Former Chelsea and Barcelona man Pedro Rodriguez is another interesting option for Fonseca to have in his back-pocket, and fits the system well having played as an inverted winger in Antonio Conte’s Premier League-winning campaign. On paper, Roma probably have the seventh-best team in the league, and that’s exactly where they stand. But they’ve outperformed expectations in the Europa League to reach the semi-finals, and may as a result secure a few more significant signatures next season. So those are the players, now let’s get into more of how Fonseca uses this 3-4-2-1 system to success.
AS Roma attempt to play out from the back, and favour shorter passes and a slower build-up. In 2019-20, Fonseca utilized a very similar 3-4-2-1 shape in their build-up (even when using a 4-2-3-1), with one fullback joining the midfield and the opposite side winger coming deeper. This meant that a decent ball-playing fullback like Aleksandar Kolarov would stay as part of the defensive line, as a more adventurous defender in Bruno Peres or Alessandro Florenzi pushed forward on the other side. Essentially, it was a mechanism for Fonseca to play to his player’s strengths, while also utilizing the back-three structure that most teams deploy in Serie A when building out from the back.
Now in a natural 3-4-2-1, both wing-backs remain high up the pitch, as the back-three form a more natural build-up structure. In Bryan Cristante, Fonseca has an excellent ball-playing centre-back who has the vision and range to hit longer passes. The former Atalanta midfielder offers Roma with a deeper range of depth for passes out from the back than the likes of Chris Smalling or Gianluca Mancini and this has been one reason for why his positional shift has been a success. Jordan Veretout offers a similar range of passing, and together the two of them are key to Roma’s build-up and ability to break through the lines and play through central corridors. But despite having these players in their disposal, Roma still prefer shorter passes and a slower-build-up, to which Mancini and Ibanez often find themselves on the ball in a wider position from centre-back, circulating the ball left to right until the right angle has been found to progress forward.
Another interesting feature of Fonseca’s build-up at Roma beyond the obvious, is the integration of the goalkeeper, either Pau Lopez or Antonio Mirante, out from their goal into a position at the top of the eighteen-yard-box. Fonseca uses his keeper as another option in the build-up, creating something of a flat back-four for the team to use and break the lines. While this offers the team an interesting development in their purposes of possession, it could result in a few concerns against high pressing teams, for obvious reasons. But on a more positive note, this shape allows the centre-backs to push wider and stretch the field, where Roma can create wide overloads between centre-back, wing-back, central midfielder and attacking-midfielder. Fonseca’s team favour the left when it comes to these overloads, and spend 38% of their time on the left side in attack, with the likes of Mkhitaryan, Ibanez, Veretout and Spinazzola.
Although they spend more of their time on the left, Roma attack down the middle more than any other team in both the Europa League and Serie A. Aiding in this verticality, they’ve also completed and attempted more through-ball passes than any other team in both competitions. Both statistics suggest that Roma prefer to play through central channels when possible and that their inverted wingers truly do play inverted. The two attacking midfielders also play very close to the striker, who often plays with their back to goal and attempts to occupy centre-halves with their physical strength and aerial presence. At 6’4 Edin Dzeko offers a greater aerial presence than most strikers in Serie A, while the slightly shorter Borja Mayoral offers more pace and power in behind the opposition defence and is a more mobile runner to work in tandem with the creative types in the side – Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Lorenzo Pellegrini. Jordan Veretout has also grown in importance to Roma’s attack this season, contributing 10 goals.
The French midfielder often joins the attacks late, and has developed a great understanding of when to time his runs to meet a through-ball pass from someone like Henrikh Mkhitaryan on his side. With Gonzalo Villar also often joining the attack, Roma attempt to create overloads in central channels through five players, whilst still maintaining their width from Karsdorp and Spinazzola. The two wing-backs don’t deliver a particularly high volume of crosses into the box, but also pose a useful attacking threat. Combined together, they’ve assisted 9 goals in the league this season, and created nearly two and a half chances per game.
With the likes of Mkhitaryan, Spinazzola and Pellegrini, Roma also have several capable dribblers who have the ability to unlock an opposition’s defence all on their own. They don’t need to have any elaborate passing sequences, nor do they need to constantly play passes into their target man and hope for the best. Only Juve and Sassuolo have completed more dribbles per game in the league this season, illustrating the individuals they have in their side to be more than capable of taking the game by the scruff of the neck on their own.
While Roma have excited in possession and attack this season, they still have quite a few things to work out with their defence. Fonseca’s team have conceded 47 goals in 31 matches. Although it’s not the worst in Serie A, only eight other teams have worse defensive records, and only Sassuolo have conceded more of top ten sides.
While Pau Lopez is developing well and has good distribution, he doesn’t exactly hold the pedigree to make up for Roma’s defensive woes and lack of artistry at the back. New additions to strengthen that area in the summer are certainly needed. But Fonseca is trying to make the most of what he has at the current moment, utilizing a clearly defined set of defensive principles.
Roma press in a man-oriented way. High up the field, they adopt a 3-4-1-2 shape, as one of the attacking midfielders drops into a number ten role, and the other acts as the first line of pressure alongside the striker. In theory, this allows Roma to track an opposition number six through the use of their number ten, and force the opposition out wide. When in their own half, the shape may look more like 5-3-2, again with one attacking midfielder dropping into the midfield line and the other remaining high.
They’ve had a reasonably successful time winning the ball back when given the chance to set up their defence, but often struggle in transition. This is one of their greatest faults that has led them to a poor defensive record. Particularly, Roma don’t tend to specifically set themselves up to counter-press and they are not overly careful when it comes to the number of players they push up the pitch at once. Their central overloads in attack mean that when they lose the ball high up the pitch, they’re usually able to shuffle their opposition into the wide areas before recovering their positions. And against stronger opposition or after taking the lead, Roma’s central midfielders may be a bit more sensible about picking their moments to join the attack and sit a bit deeper instead. This is the one method of counter-pressing that the team occasionally deploy. But with Roma’s midfield men not being the strongest, quickest players, they still struggle in transition. And they’re not the only one’s..
Of regular starters and substitutes, Pau Lopez is the only player who has won the same amount or more tackles than he’s attempted this season. Every other player, including every starting midfielder and defender, attempt significantly more than they win. This means that Roma have struggled to adequately stop their opposition, either by being forced to foul, or by being dribbled past altogether. In fact, only Verona have won fewer tackles this season in Serie A. They’ve been significantly more successful at stopping their opposition from playing through them, making the fifth most interceptions per game in the league. This may demonstrate that they prefer to stay on their feet, but the total number of tackles attempted speaks against that. More likely, it demonstrates that Fonseca has set up his team’s shape very well to stop passes into key areas of the field, but that the players lack the necessary speed, strength and overall aptitude to stop runners and dribblers, particularly in transition. If by the time next season comes around they can improve that ability, Roma may easily find themselves within the top five once again.
AS Roma have not had the best of seasons in Serie A, but their performances in the Europa League have been much better, and they’ve now reached the semi-finals of the competition. Paulo Fonseca hasn’t been able to drastically improve their defence since arriving in 2019, but he has improved their possession and attacking tactics, inspiring the likes of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Chris Smalling to revitalize their careers. He’s also fashioned Bryan Cristante into a libero at the back, and pushed Lorenzo Pellegrini and Jordan Veretout into more attacking roles, to get the best out of their abilities. So despite likely finishing in 7th place in Serie A, this season should be thought of as a relative success for Paulo Fonseca, and one that has certainly enhanced the Portuguese manager’s reputation.