Revamped Roma's rapid decline leaves Di Francesco in line of fire

Paolo Bandini on 24 September 2018

Five games in, and the Serie A top scorers chart has a decidedly unfamiliar feel. Fans might have expected to see Cristiano Ronaldo in first place, perhaps pursued by the man he displaced at Juventus: Gonzalo Higuaín. Or how about reigning joint-capocannonieri, Ciro Immobile and Mauro Icardi, each returning with the same teams?

All but the last of that foursome scored this weekend, yet none of them leads the way. The most prolific player in Serie A is a 23-year-old signed by Genoa from Cracovia this summer for a paltry €4.5m. Krzysztof Piatek’s five goals only look more impressive when you consider his team has played one game fewer than the rest of the division.

Nor is he alone in upstaging the big names. There are three players tied for second, of whom only Lorenzo Insigne could fail to raise an eyebrow. By scoring four times before the end of September, Udinese’s Rodrigo De Paul has matched his best-ever tally. Grégoire Defrel struck once in 20 appearances for Roma last season, yet has quadrupled that figure already at Sampdoria.

That final observation might sting the Giallorossi, on the weekend when they endured a humiliating defeat at Bologna. Another of their former players, Gervinho, scored the goal of the weekend, a glorious coast-to-coast for Parma against Cagliari that evoked memories of George Weah.

There is little such magic to be found at Roma these days. Little of anything, from a footballing standpoint. Their performance lacked character and courage, but quality and tactical cohesion, too. Roma held more than 72% of possession and took 26 shots but never really looked like scoring. They conceded twice to opponents who had failed to score in four games.

Taken in isolation, it was a dismal performance. Viewed in the context of Roma’s season, it was an alarming one. The Giallorossi have taken five points from as many games, their only win arriving via a sensational last-gasp finish by Edin Dzeko against Torino in the opener. They have conceded nine goals already in Serie A and are yet to face any other members of last season’s top five. Oh, and Real Madrid thrashed them 3-0 on Wednesday.

Whatever happened to the team that went to a Champions League semi-final last season? The one that boasted the second-stingiest defence in Italian top-flight?

Frustrated supporters might tell you it was sold from underneath them. Defrel’s departure was not much mourned and even Alisson’s transfer to Liverpool was mostly accepted once that fee became public. But then the club sanctioned the sales of Radja Nainggolan and Kevin Strootman as well.

In board rooms and on balance sheets, these moves could be justified. Nainggolan was 30, known to enjoy a cigarette and a night out, and could draw a fee more than twicewhat Roma paid to acquire him in 2014. There was a tidy profit to be made on Strootman, too, a solid player but never quite the force he had been expected to blossom into before three knee operations in 18 months.

Roma had acquired a wealth of new midfield options in the meantime, from Steven N’Zonzi, Bryan Cristante and Javier Pastore through to younger players brimming with potential like Ante Coric and Nicolò Zaniolo. But had any thought gone into the balance of this group? The latter three might all be too attack-minded to slot neatly into Eusebio Di Francesco’s preferred 4-3-3. N’Zonzi fits the exact same mould as the one starter who did remain – Daniele De Rossi.

Eusebio Di Francesco vents his frustration during Roma’s tepid display at Bologna.
Eusebio Di Francesco vents his frustration during Roma’s tepid display at Bologna. Photograph: Giorgio Benvenuti/EPA

The manager gave his consent to all the sales, yet the fact he is struggling to make this new group fit together is evident from the fact he has used six different starting lineups in six games. In a candid moment after Sunday’s defeat, he admitted: “I don’t know what formation to use”.

Di Francesco did also seek to downplay that element, arguing that, more than any perfect scheme, what he needed was for his team to buy-in. He talked before and after the game about the need for players to light a fire within themselves, and to compete.

These are not reminders the likes of Nainggolan and Strootman often required. There is little to be gained from stoking flames in any case, if your engine is not functioning in a way that can harness them.

One of the most vivid vignettes Sunday began with Di Francesco chastising Cristante during a cooling break, only for the player to get himself booked moments later and Roma to concede the opening goal two minutes after that. Cristante eventually had to be withdrawn after sailing dangerously close to a red.

Bologna’s first goal was well taken by Federico Mattiello, but preceded by a flap from Robin Olsen. The second came from a well-executed counterattack, yet the ease with which they bypassed an entire team spoke to Roma’s lack of tactical discipline in their pursuit of an equaliser.

Federico Mattiello fires Bologna ahead as Roma’s defenders fail to deal with the danger.
Federico Mattiello fires Bologna ahead as Roma’s defenders fail to deal with the danger. Photograph: Giorgio Benvenuti/EPA

There are countless people to blame, from directors who led the transfer campaign – including Monchi – through to the players themselves. Yet in situations like this it is most often the manager who carries the can.

De Rossi defended Di Francesco in his own way, asserting “you shouldn’t need to have Guardiola on the bench to beat Bologna or Chievo”. Monchi later insisted the manager’s position was not up for discussion.

Most significant, though, might have been the remark of president James Pallotta, quoted simply as saying “I am disgusted”. The long memories of the Roman press corps recalled the American using the exact same phrase following a defeat to Spezia in 2015. Rudi Garcia was fired three games later.

Di Francesco has ordered his team into a private training retreat this week, just as the Frenchman did then. With a home game against Frosinone coming up on Wednesday, and the derby against Lazio three days after, time is not on his side.

Talking points

• Var-cical scenes at Marassi, as Inter had two goals chalked off before Marcelo Brozovic hit a winner in the 94th minute. The ultimate decisions were all correct, to be fair, as was the one to disallow a goal by Defrel at the other end.

• Juventus were bad against Frosinone, and won all the same. Ronaldo scored again, but this felt like a game we saw many times without him over the past couple of seasons. After seeing him drill another free-kick straight into the wall, though, Miralem Pjanic and Paulo Dybala would be justified in asking when they can expect another turn.

• Does the Chiesa family have yet more to offer? After scoring Fiorentina’s final goal in a 3-0 win over Spal, Federico ran over to celebrate with his 14-year-old brother Lorenzo, who recently joined the club’s academy and was acting as a ball-boy. Their father Enrico believes the younger sibling is actually the more talented …

• Milan had neither beaten, nor even scored against Atalanta at home for four years. Gonzalo Higuaín ended one of those runs in style, but his team’s failure to capitalise from there after an overwhelmingly dominant first half might only cause greater frustration..

Frosinone 0-2 Juventus, Milan 2-2 Atalanta, Bologna 2-0 Roma, Chievo 0-2 Udinese, Lazio 4-1 Genoa, Torino 1-3 Napoli, Sampdoria 0 -1 Inter, Fiorentina 3-0 Spal, Parma 2-0 Cagliari, Sassuolo 3-1 Empoli

Pos Team P GD Pts
1 Juventus 5 7 15
2 Napoli 5 2 12
3 Fiorentina 5 8 10
4 Sassuolo 5 4 10
5 Lazio 5 2 9
6 SPAL 5 0 9
7 Udinese 5 2 8
8 Sampdoria 5 6 7
9 Inter Milan 5 2 7
10 Genoa 4 -3 6
11 Atalanta 5 1 5
12 AC Milan 4 0 5
13 Roma 5 -2 5
14 Torino 5 -2 5
15 Cagliari 5 -3 5
16 Empoli 5 -2 4
17 Bologna 5 -3 4
18 Parma 5 1 2
19 Frosinone 5 -12 1
20 Chievo 5 -8 -1

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