Tuesday night’s goalless draw with Atletico Madrid highlighted all the strengths and weaknesses of Eusebio Di Francesco’s new Roma team. Forty-five minutes of snarling grit and snappy pressing encouraged a raucous Stadio Olimpico crowd, but the Spanish team took a tight grip of the match after the break, and in the end it was a phenomenal display from goalkeeper Alisson that saved a point for the Giallorossi.
Roma struggled to create in attack, managing just one shot on target — a long-range effort from the typically combative Radja Nainggolan — and, for a solid 20 minutes after the break, it looked as though Atleti could stroll through Roma’s exhausted three-man midfield at will. Di Francesco’s smart tactical switch to a back three with wing-backs midway through the second half helped plug the gaps, but in the end the coach had to thank his keeper and the post for stopping Saul Niguez from snatching a last gasp winner.
Atletico were unlucky to leave Rome with just a point after hitting the post twice and having 10 shots on target, some which of which were saved brilliantly by Alisson, and reports that that James Pallotta “wasn’t happy” with Roma’s Champions League return quickly flashed online postmatch, giving the suggestion that the Roma president was somehow angry at his team’s spirited but faintly clunky performance.
In reality the Roma president seemed relaxed as he strolled out from the stadium to his waiting car, but the American nonetheless responded to questions of whether he was satisfied with a clear “no”. “There are things I think we could have done better,” he added.
Pallotta would do well to have some patience. Since he arrived as part of the investment group that took control of the club six years ago, Di Francesco is Roma’s sixth coach, following Luis Enrique, Zdenek Zeman, Aurelio Andreazolli, Rudi Garcia and Luciano Spalletti, all of whom were unable to placate a fan base tired of being second best with a trophy. Spalletti came the closest to building a title-challenging team, but suffered for the vacuum left by the club as he clashed with Francesco Totti.
It’s hardly surprising that the team is undergoing a(nother) transition period, especially given the club’s policy — understandable, given the Financial Fair Play restrictions it’s had to operate under — of selling valuable players at a profit to help finance every summer transfer window.
The departures of Antonio Rudiger and goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny are the latest examples of a transfer policy that has seen Roma have to rebuild in defence practically every year, but others that have been shown the door include Mehdi Benatia, with whom Pallotta clashed, and Paris Saint-Germain’s Marquinhos.
As a result of such change, Roma don’t have a settled team or playing identity and the players are taking their time to adapt to Di Francesco’s system. On Tuesday Roma went toe-to-toe with one of Europe’s best teams, one moulded in the image of Diego Simeone the player, but despite having more of the ball (52 percent) kept bumping up against the Atleti wall without ever punching through.
Edin Dzeko cut an isolated, figure up front, a frustrated striker with his back permanently to goal who sliced way wide his only presentable chance, and by the end of the evening he could barely hold the ball up. A totally different player to the one that bagged 39 goals last season.
Asked by Mediaset after the match about whether he preferred the current system or how he was used under Spalletti, the striker let slip some mild criticism that would almost immediately be distorted into controversy-seeking headlines.
“It’s difficult to say if I feel better playing for Spalletti or Di Francesco, we’re only just starting,” Dzeko said. “Last year I scored a lot of goals but this year will be more difficult. I didn’t touch the ball much tonight, let’s hope that in the coming matches I receive it more, that way I can score some goals.”
After being asked whether he missed the presence of Totti — a somewhat ridiculous question given the retired legend only played 1,154 minutes in his final two seasons, while Dzeko was practically an ever present last year — Dzeko instead turned his attention to the loss of former strike partner Mohamed Salah and the effect that departure has had.
That Dzeko wasn’t taking aim at Di Francesco would be obvious to anyone who watched his interview — on Wednesday he denied criticising his coach via the usual social media platitudes — but his critique of the system is valid.
When Atleti stepped up their attacks in the second half, wingers Diego Perotti and Gregoire Defrel tended to slot back alongside Daniele De Rossi, Kevin Strootman and Nainggolan in midfield, leaving Dzeko alone to chase down high balls and clearances.
Once Di Francesco switched to 3-5-2 there was more of a balance to the team and Dzeko had someone helping him out in attack. But as yet the coach isn’t getting the best out of a talented set of players and, while Roma didn’t disgrace themselves on Tuesday, a big improvement is needed if they’re to get out of very tough group.
Terry is based in Rome and is ESPN FC’s AS Roma blogger. Twitter: @T_Daley