Fiorentina hosted Roma on Sunday, 25 October in what was considered a crucial match in the Scudetto race. Going into the game, Fiorentina sat top of Serie A on 18 points, while Roma were right behind them in second place on 17 points after eight rounds of fixtures.
Neither team had serious selection issues – Fiorentina were only missing Marcos Alonso – meaning they were both able to pick full-strength sides. Paulo Sousa lined his team up in his favoured 3-4-2-1 system with Federico Bernardeschi deputising for Alonso at left wing-back. His side otherwise looked the same as it did for their 4-1 thrashing of Inter Milan several weeks ago.
Roma had no serious absences and so Rudi Garcia lined the team up in his preferred 4-3-3 system with Antonio Rudiger occupying the left-sided centre-back berth in place of Leandro Castan, who had played in Roma’s previous league game against Empoli. However Roma tweaked their system upon taking an early lead, as illustrated below.
Fiorentina’s interconnectivity and attacking movements
Fiorentina had made a strong start to the season in large part due to their interconnectivity, as discussed in this recent post. Their 3-4-2-1 system allows for the formation of multiple ‘rhombi’ throughout the team, with three separate diamond shapes (one each on the left, right and through the centre) allowing for constant variety of passing options as well as comprehensive coverage in the defensive phase.
The values of this interconnectivity to building possession can be seen in the below sequence of images, as Fiorentina use its creation of multiple passing lanes at every instance to bypass Roma’s press.
One of the particularly dangerous areas of their team has been the inside forwards, Borja Valero and Josip Ilicic. The pairing tends to float immediately behind the opposition midfield line, creating issues for the opposition defenders as they must then decide whether to move up and press or allow the inside forwards space to run into.
The movement of Valero and Ilicic therefore creates numerous positional issues for the opponent, which has in turn led to the displacement of opposition defensive lines and the creation of space between or behind the defensive line for Fiorentina’s centre forward, Nikola Kalinic, to exploit.
One of the major concerns of a team facing Fiorentina is thus how to nullify the movement of their inside forwards without causing spatial issues that could be taken advantage of. Should the opponent become too horizontally compact, this allows space for Fiorentina’s wing-backs to attack, while should the opponent’s defensive line stretch out, this allows additional space for Kalinic, who tends to play on the shoulder of the last man in an attacking play, to move into.
The positioning of Roma’s wingers in the defensive phase
Initially, Roma attacked in what appeared to be their usual shape. Daniele De Rossi sat deeper to cover while Miralem Pjanic and Radja Nainggolan joined in attacks and pressed fairly high up the pitch. This aggressive stance was vital to the match as a whole, as Nainggolan won a tackle on the edge of Fiorentina’s penalty area to set up Mohamed Salah, who fired Roma into a 1-0 lead after just six minutes. With both teams yet to truly settle, this action completely altered the course of the match.
With a 1-0 lead, Garcia modified Roma’s approach in a scheme so well co-ordinated as to appear pre-planned. While it was early and their lead was surmountable given the time remaining, Roma’s wingers, Salah and Gervinho, began to drop much deeper in the defensive phase.
Without scrutiny this may have simply appeared as a method of getting as many men behind the ball as possible, but closer inspection evidenced a specific tactical objective. Gervinho and Salah’s dropping deeper was used to help cover the movement of Fiorentina’s wing-backs, which then allowed Roma’s full-backs – Alessandro Florenzi and Lucas Digne – to move inward and focus on tracking Valero and Ilicic, as shown below.
This positional shift was designed primarily to minimise Fiorentina’s aforementioned dangerous attacking movements. Roma had created a horizontally compact back four to minimise space through the middle for Kalinic and to allow the full-backs to mark and press Valero and Ilicic. This would usually only give greater space to Fiorentina’s wing-backs, however with Gervinho and Salah playing deeper in the defensive phase on each flank, this was less of a concern.
How Roma avoided possible issues with their defensive structure
Rudi Garcia’s deployment of Gervinho and Salah in deeper defensive roles came with some potentially serious problems. Ceding the majority of possession, Roma essentially formed a 6-3-1 formation with Edin Dzeko the sole constant attacking presence.
The obvious hypothetical issue with this defensive structure would be that in allowing Fiorentina such initiative, Roma could have been forced to defend deep in their own half with few real attacking outlets. This could then have had the knock-on effect of isolating Dzeko up front.
The Bosnian had what looked a futile task, having to hold up long, vertical balls from the back without instant support and under pressure from Fiorentina’s three-man backline. This could hypothetically have created a repetitive cycle whereby Roma – under constant pressure in their own half – were unable to build effective possession from the back and instead looked long for Dzeko, who would not have been able to retain the ball without passing options around him, thus immediately returning Roma to a deep defensive position.
Roma averted the isolation of Dzeko by playing their midfield three further up the pitch to create a central diamond. Nainggolan and Pjanic were given the task of pressing Fiorentina’s midfield duo of Milan Badelj and Matias Vecino to disrupt Fiorentina’s possession game. This was enabled by the coverage of De Rossi, who acted as Roma’s extra man. With Fiorentina’s inside forwards being covered by Roma’s full-backs and their wing-backs covered by Roma’s wingers, De Rossi could push up and support the pressing of his two more advanced midfield team-mates. This had the effect of forcing Fiorentina to pass horizontally and go wide as they found it difficult to construct good possession through the middle or through the half-spaces with Valero and Ilicic, as shown below.
Even with the midfield pressing, the chances of Roma holding on to their 1-0 lead in such circumstances were difficult; they needed to provide some sort of attacking threat in order to remain competitive in the game. Roma’s wingers – or wing-backs, as they now appeared – were crucial in providing that threat.
As already discussed, Gervinho and Salah had a vital role to play in Roma’s defensive phase, though they were also vital to Roma’s main weapon: the counter-attack. The quality that allowed these two players to be heavily influential in both the defensive and transitional phases was their speed.
The sheer pace of the pair enabled them to be utilised effectively. While they formed a part of Roma’s deep defensive structure, they were able to burst down the flanks instantly upon Roma gaining possession. In essence, Gervinho and Salah allowed Roma to go from being in the defensive phase to a counter-attack very quickly, giving Roma the constant dangerous possibility of transitioning instantly to attack upon winning the ball or after a turnover deep inside their own half.
The counter-attack through the wings was an effective threat for Roma to use as, with their wingers playing deeper, this encouraged Fiorentina’s wing-backs to move further forward, in turn creating space in behind them to be exploited. Roma were able to exploit those areas due to the great pace of Gervinho and Salah, who qualitatively are capable of beating most opposite men in one-on-one situations using their athletic gifts and dribbling skill.
Defensive display validates Roma’s title credentials
Roma went 2-0 up after a Fiorentina corner kick was cleared to Gervinho, who was totally unmarked near the halfway line and free to run through on goal. The Ivorian scored, though this had more to do with poor defensive coverage on Fiorentina’s part than Roma’s counter-attacking strategy. Roma then held out without conceding until the 93rd minute, when Fiorentina substitute Khouma Babacar scored to make it 2-1.
Despite the late goal, Roma’s performance was without doubt their most impressive defensive display of the season. Rudi Garcia showed a pragmatic element that has rarely been seen domestically in his coaching of the club, while the team itself showed they could win without having anywhere near the majority of the ball.
This performance is unlikely to provide a blueprint for Roma to follow in future, but it did show their ability to adapt to the circumstances. Against a side like Fiorentina, whose interconnectivity and movement has allowed them to dominate the ball and break down most opponents this season, Roma showed an excellent defensive game plan to counteract those qualities. The display and result can be viewed as a genuine validation of their Scudetto hopes.