Roma 2-1 Fiorentina: everything down the wings
Roma ended a run of four draws with a victory over Fiorentina in a highly entertaining match.
Rudi Garcia’s side was as expected – Adem Ljajic continued to play the Francesco Totti role against his former side, while Dodo was still at left-back in place of Federico Balzaretti.
Vincenzo Montella moved Juan Vargas forward to the left flank having excelled at left-back against Verona in midweek. Manuel Pasqual returned at left-back, with Joaquin making way and Juan Cuadrado switching flanks. Alberto Aquilani returned in place of Matias Vecino in midfield, while David Pizarro was only fit enough for the bench.
This game was most interesting for its overall pattern, rather than for the specifics of either side’s play.
Arguably the most interesting tactical feature of this game was the identity of the two forwards. Just half a decade ago it would be unthinkable to imagine two top-class sides lining up with players like Adem Ljajic and Giuseppe Rossi as the main attacking threats.
Ljajic is naturally a winger or a player who drifts wide from a number ten position – a tricky attacking midfielder that excels in one-against-one situations out wide, regularly dribbling past opponents.
Rossi is more of a natural forward, but most natural at playing just off a traditional number nine, or alternatively out wide in a flexible forward trio. He’s just 5′8 and while he’s quick, his true speciality isn’t his pace in behind the defence.
Granted, perhaps neither would have lead the line if their manager had been able to call upon a full compliment of players – we might have seen Francesco Totti and Mario Gomez at either end. Yet it felt reasonably natural for both Ljajic and Rossi to be spearheading their sides’ strikeforce, and it sums up what forward-thinking managers in charge of technical sides want from their centre-forward: it’s about clever movement and link-up play rather than battling in the air and getting on the end of crosses.
Everything down the flanks
It was particularly strange that these two were the centre-forwards, because almost all the play came down the flanks – despite the lack of crossing options in the centre. Maybe this was a result of each side understanding the other wanted to play good passing football, and therefore keeping it tight in midfield.
There was little true creativity from this zone, despite Borja Valero and Miralem Pjanic being in good form this season. The six midfielders almost always played simple passes out wide, rather than looking to feed the two centre-forwards.
A particularly obvious approach at the start of the game was how deep Fiorentina sat without the ball. This seemed to be a very deliberate tactic, and is interesting because Montella knows Roma well, and while they’re playing under a new manager in Garcia, they’re essentially returning to the ‘false nine’ system they popularised towards the end of Montella’s playing days at the club.
It’s arguable that Roma’s 4-6-0 was exposed most obviously by Manchester United when Ferguson’s sat extremely deep against them in the Champions League, meaning Totti’s drifts into the midfield zone didn’t drag the defenders out, or create space for others to run into. It broadly makes sense, but Fiorentina dropped too deep and invited too much pressure throughout the first 15 minutes.
Another interesting approach from Montella was his use of wide players. Juan Cuadrado and Juan Vargas are naturally wing-backs, and while both have attacking capabilities, they’re more defensively aware than you’d expect for wingers in a 4-3-3 system. In fact, it was much more of a 4-1-4-1 for long periods, with Cuadrado and Vargas attempting to contain the runs of the two Brazilian full-backs, Dodo and Maicon.
Both played extremely aggressive roles and forced Fiorentina’s wingers back deep into their own half. It was difficult to know whether Cuadrado and Vargas were being pinned back by Roma’s aggressiveness, or whether Montella had deliberately fielded cautious wide players because he knew his side would be sitting deep as a whole. Either way, the Roma full-backs had the upper hand, and Maicon found himself in the penalty box to open the scoring.
The real star of the show was Gervinho, who started on the left but played highest up the pitch, constantly sprinting in behind the Fiorentina defence. He remains one of the most unpredictable players around but was at his best today, constantly taking the ball past opponents, and teeing up Maicon for the opening goal.
Roma also very nearly scored the perfect ‘false nine’ goal after 20 minutes. Ljajic picked up the ball between the lines, dragged Stefan Savic forward from the left-sided centre-back position, and Gervinho raced in behind. Somewhat calamitously, he knocked the ball away from himself with his standing foot and produced an air-kick.
The only question was why he seemed to switch wings with the extremely ineffectual Alessandro Florenzi. This allowed Nenad Tomovic forward increasingly from right-back, and he set up Vargas’ equaliser with a cross when Ljajic was briefly defending that side.
Tomovic surely wouldn’t have been in that position if Gervinho was sneaking in behind him, and while there’s an ongoing debate about how to nullify the threat of an attacking full-back (use a defensive player to track them, or use an attacking player to pin them back?) it’s less of a question when Gervinho’s playing like this – Tomovic would have been too terrified to advance.
The other dangerous player was Cuadrado down Fiorentina’s right (the Gervinho v Cuadrado clash is one reason to look forward to Ivory Coast v Colombia at the World Cup next summer) and he did something similar, constantly taking on opponents.
The difference with Cuadrado, however, is that he’s a winger rather than a forward and goes down the line rather than charging towards goal. Aside from a dangerous one-two with Rossi, he rarely offered a goal threat.
Fiorentina started the second half much more brightly, part because Rossi was coming deeper and replicating Ljajic’s movement, making it easier for his teammates to find him between the lines. However, the Roman centre-back pairing of Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan were very proactive, often coming high out of defence to intercept the ball.
Rossi also showed good movement in the box when the ball was wide – even if he’s not naturally an aerial target – heading over dangerously from a Pasqual cross.
There was no obvious change in strategy from Roma in the build-up to the winning goal, on 67 minutes – they simply took charge of the game with some good midfield passing, and Gervinho became heavily involved again. His good work down the left assisted substitute Mattia Destro for the winner – the forward offered more of a direct goal threat than the man he replaced, Florenzi, and this was simply a good substitution in the sense Florenzi had been extremely quiet.
It was surprising Montella waited until 72 minutes to introduce Pizarro – and when he did, he replaced Aquilani rather than Ambrosini, who was clearly exhausted, on a booking, and offers little invention. A couple of minutes later Ambrosini had to depart with cramp, which meant Joaquin came on, Cuadrado went left and Vargas moved into the centre of midfield.
For the final five minutes Vargas departed with Ryder Matos, an extra striker, making Fiorentina more like 4-2-4 and while they had moments of pressure late on, this was a rare example of Montella not changing things decisively from the bench.
A peculiar game – two technical sides featuring link-up men upfront, but everything going down the flanks, mainly through Gervinho and Cuadrado, two of Europe’s most dangerous dribblers this season.
There were a few interesting points here – the way Fiorentina’s defensive-minded wide players were forced back, the way Fiorentina attempted to defend extremely deep to prevent Roma’s system opening them up, and the debate about whether Gervinho should have been allowed away from his left-sided position.
But this was basically just a good game between two adventurous sides playing their own system.
Roma 2-1 Fiorentina: everything down the wings