Teams of the Decade #5: Roma, 2007
Some great inventions were the result of years of design and graft, eventually producing something roughly approximating the design brief. Others, like Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, were an happened upon by complete accident. In that sense, Luciano Spalletti is modern football’s Alexander Fleming, and the 4-6-0 was his great discovery that he never intended on inventing.
An injury crisis upfront was the reason Roma were forced into this highly unconventional shape – a modified version of their standard 4-2-3-1 system – since their attack had no focal point, with no fit player in the squad capable of holding the ball up. The only solution was to play Francesco Totti upfront, but rather than remaining upfront alone and waiting for service, Totti effectively played his usual trequartista role, moving into the gap between opposition defence and midfield and receiving the ball to feet. Perhaps 4-6-0 is an exaggeration, but it was certainly 4-5-1-0.
And this created an entirely new problem for opposing defences (because their centre-backs were suddenly left without anyone to mark) and opposing midfielders (who found Roma effectively playing four players in the centre of midfield, and yet still using two wingers). It was almost impossible for Roma not to dominate possession, and with the midfielders flying forward to exploit the space left by Totti, the Roma side almost played exclusively on the counter-attack, regardless of where the side won the ball.
The system worked so well that even when Roma’s fit forwards returned, Totti continued to be deployed as the furthest forward central player, with Mirko Vucinic – a striker in any other team in the world – converted to an outside left to ensure a goal threat from the wings. But whilst Totti is perhaps not natural a ’striker’ per se, that does not mean he is not comfortable operating there. His 26 goals in 2006/07 were enough to win him the European Golden Boot, and his position on the all-time Serie A goalscoring table proves what a fine finisher he is.
Initially Daniele De Rossi was given the ‘holding’ role in midfield, although later on it became David Pizarro charged with this task, whilst Mancini ocassionally operated on the left, with Rodrigo Taddei coming in on the right.
Roma perhaps lacked the quality across the pitch to make it work consistently, and it’s fair to say that the system was a sporadic success rather than a consistent one. The astonishing 6-2 Coppa Italia Final defeat of Inter (who won the league by 22 points that season) demonstrated its ability to completely outwit opposing managers (and flat-footed centre-backs) but the crushing 1-7 defeat to Manchester United in the Champions League demonstrated the danger of the system self-destructing.
Oddly enough, it was the first leg of that tie that demonstrated how effective the system was, and was heavily drawn upon by Sir Alex Ferguson for United’s shape the next campaign. Rio Ferdinand and Wes Brown were baffled about who they were supposed to be picking up, as a system with four or five Roma midfielders constantly running at the opposition defence was genuinely a revelation in tactical terms. Quite why it failed so spectacularly in the second leg remains unclear.
But the system will go onto be the most influential system of the decade. That the shape was adopted and improved upon by the side who won the Champions League the next two seasons (Manchester United and Barcelona) illustrates the potential in the 4-6-0, and it could well dominate football for the next ten years.
Roma’s 4-6-0 was at its best in that 6-2 against Inter. In fairness, none of the goals really show the system in operation that well, but you don’t win 6-2 in a Cup Final every season.
And for an individual moment to show off the counter-attacking ability of that team, look no further than Mancini’s legendary goal away at Lyon: