Lazio 1-2 Roma: Ranieri gets his starting line-up wrong, but fixes it at half-time

April 19, 2010

First half

Claudio Ranieri is a manager renowned for his surprise (and slightly baffling substitutions) – even being nicknamed ‘the tinkerman’ as a result. When he gets to the end of his career, however, he may well look at his substitutions in this Rome Derby as the most important of his career.

Lazio came into the game on a five-match unbeaten run with the 3-5-2 system they stuck with here. Tomasso Rocchi played around Sergio Floccari, whilst the wing-backs shuttled up and down energetically, forming a back five at times, and yet also being Lazio’s biggest threat going forward.

Ranieri named Francesco Totti, Mirko Vucinic and Luca Toni in the same starting XI for just the second time since Toni arrived in January. The first occasion, a 0-1 win in Bari, featured a right-winger in Rodrigo Taddei, with Vucinic on the left in a standard 4-2-3-1 shape. Today, however, Roma had three central midfielders, and therefore Roma lined up in an exciting-looking 4-3-3 shape, with Toni as the prima punta, Vucinic playing slightly to the left, and Totti just behind to the right.

It was a mouth-watering prospect on paper – Roma’s top-scorer this season (Vucinic) alongside two former European Golden Boot winners, and Giallorossi fans haven’t seen such a potent tridente since the Totti-Batistuta-Montella combination that fired them to their last Scudetto in 2001.

In the first half, however, Roma were awful. The gap between the midfield and the attack was huge, with no link player and no-one stationed in wide areas to stretch the play. Roma’s problem started from the back. Rocchi would drift to the wing when out of possession, meaning only one Roma full-back would be able to get forward and join the attack. When he did, he would be met by one of the Lazio wing-backs high up the pitch, whilst the opposite wing-back would drop back level with his centre-backs, allowing them to shift across and making a four-man defence.

Therefore, there was little threat from full-back and little in the centre of midfield, too – Roma’s three sat very deep and when they did come forward, they were met by Lazio’s trio, and the effect of six central midfielders and only two players from either side stationed on the flanks was a bitty, scrappy game that favoured Lazio, the weaker side.

And it was Lazio who looked the bigger threat on the break, as the players charged with picking up the Lazio wing-backs were Roma’s full-backs – generally around thirty yards deeper than where they picked up the ball, and so Lazio’s wing-backs were able to pick up the ball and run at pace before beating their man. Their attacking intent was signalled by the fact that,  on one ocassion, Kolarov’s cross was met at the far post by Lichsteiner.

Surprisingly, Lazio’s goal came from the centre – Ledesma’s through ball found Rocchi, who had made a run in behind, and he beat Julio Sergio to put Lazio 1-0 ahead.

Roma became more attacking but still struggled to get their front three into the game. Part of the problem was that all three were operating so centrally, playing into the hands of the Lazio three-man defence, who are most vulnerable when they are stretched and attacked from wide positions.

Here are two examples of Roma’s lack of width towards the end of the first half:

Here, Roma’s strikers (joined by Perrotta in the first picture) are simply too narrow. The Stadio Olimpico pitch is 68 metres wide, and here the Roma attack is only covering about 5 metres of it.

A change at half-time was inevitable, but no-one would have guessed that it would be Roma’s two golden boys, Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi - both Rome born and bred, both one-club men, the club captain and vice-captain respectively – to make way. Both had been poor by their standards, and both were on a booking, but it was a brave move by Ranieri, and as he later admitted, had Roma not won the game, he would have been slaughtered.

Second half

To replace them, Ranieri chose Jeremy Menez, who played centrally, and Rodrigo Taddei, who played from the right. Vucinic played a slightly wider role on the left, with Toni now happier with no-one occupying ‘his’ space.

Then, we had a huge turning point in the game – and the season – as Floccari missed a penalty, and blew the chance to put Lazio 2-0 up. Had that gone in, Roma might well have lost the game, and we wouldn’t be commenting on what great substitutions Ranieri made – it sums up how important individual moments can be.

After that, Roma were galvanised, and earned a penalty of their own. Taddei, whose right-sided threat had subdued Kolarov’s attacking tendencies, was tripped and Vucinic smashed home the penalty.

Menez was a constant threat with his direct running – something Roma blatantly missed in the first half – and he earned a free-kick on the edge of the area. Again, Vucinic stepped up and unleashed a thunderbolt of a free-kick into the net, and Roma had turned the game around.

No-one would claim that Taddei and Menez were better footballers than de Rossi and Totti, but Roma were far better off in the second half. In the first they had been one-dimensional, focussed on playing long balls for three forwards to challenge for. In the second they added pace to their aerial threat, and Taddei and Menez genuinely changed the game. It was fitting that the two Vucinic goals from dead ball situation both arose from fouls on the two substitutes - the penalty and free-kick simply wouldn’t have been won in the first half, as Roma didn’t offer that kind of threat.

Lazio threw on Mauro Zarate and seemed to switch to a 4-3-3, but Roma did well to get ten men behind the ball, and close the game out – the final 15 minutes was stop-start because of substitutions, injuries, free-kicks and scuffles between the teams, and Lazio couldn’t create any clear-cut chances.

Ranieri unquestionably got his initial selection wrong – against a three-man defence, you simply must offer an attacking threat in wide zones, and his narrow striking tridente barely troubled Lazio. One must give immense credit to him for acknowledging his error and correcting it at half-time – taking de Rossi and Totti off in a crucial Rome derby is like removing Lennon and McCartney from a Beatles farewell tour – and it was a classic example both of (a) how managers must play the eleven players that work well together, not merely the eleven best players, and (b) that more strikers doesn’t equal more goals – you have to create chances before you can finish them.

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