As his iconic playing career came to an end, Francesco Totti adapted. His legs couldn’t carry him the way they used to, so he was restricted to substitute appearances. Still, he remained remarkably influential to Roma in his final two seasons. Despite his limited time on the pitch, he continued to deliver incredible match-winning performances.
Perhaps his most inspirational cameo came towards the end of his penultimate campaign. Roma were down 2-1 at home to Torino when he entered the fray on 86 minutes. Immediately, he poked home from a free-kick to equalise. Then, three minutes later, he scored the winner from the penalty spot. That display brought some fans inside the Stadio Olimpico to tears.
Totti’s magical quality stayed with him until the very end of his career, which made it all the more emotional when he retired at the end of last season. He was going, and the magic was going with him. However, his departure allowed for the birth of a new Roma.
Previously, the Giallorossi were a team of stunning highs and ridiculous lows. They had what it took to beat the very best in Europe, but also seemed capable of losing to almost anyone in Italy’s top two tiers on a bad day. They also had that bad kind of unpredictability, meaning they could collectively lose the plot at a moment’s notice.
Take last season’s Champions League qualifier with Porto, for example. Having been unfortunate to only draw 1-1 away they returned home for the second leg with plenty of reason for optimism. However, having gone 1-0 down early on they had two players – Daniele De Rossi and recent Chelsea signing Emerson Palmieri – sent off on either side of half-time. Reduced to nine men, they lost 3-0 and dropped down into the Europa League.
The last time Roma met Barcelona, in November 2015, they lost 6-1 in the Camp Nou. They had less than 30 per cent possession, and created few chances. Their only goal came in injury time courtesy of Edin Džeko. That was one example of their frailty, though things have changed since. After a 4-1 loss at the Camp Nou in which they were slightly unfortunate, Roma turned things around in the second leg. A stunning 3-0 win built on a fierce defence acted as proof the Italian side are no longer brittle.
In the same summer as Totti’s retirement, Roma appointed a new head coach. Eusebio Di Francesco – who represented the club as a player – was brought in to replace Luciano Spalletti, who moved on to Inter Milan. This was the end of the surreal era, and the beginning of something far more functional.
EDF, to call him by his abbreviation, had earned a reputation for working miracles as he built Sassuolo into a successful Serie A club. He was also associated with attractive football. His 4-3-3 system was full of positional rotations in wide areas and precise passes. But, while undoubtedly fun to watch, there was a very real fear that this was not what Roma needed.
No, the Giallorossi needed grit, tenacity, organisation, defensive solidity. Fortunately for them, Di Francesco was willing to adapt to suit the club’s requirements. His first tactical modification was to do away with the 4-2-3-1 Spalletti preferred and bring in his favoured 4-3-3. The focus here was on adding an extra number in midfield, making them slightly tougher to penetrate. Radja Nainggolan, who had relished playing off of Džeko as a No.10, was withdrawn into a more central role.
Many aspects of Di Francesco’s Sassuolo are present in his Roma side. He has utilised extremely attack-minded full-backs in former winger Alessandro Florenzi and former Manchester City left-back Aleksandar Kolarov. There is also a desire to play out from the back, and to dominate matches through effective use of possession. However, he has also worked to ensure that, when necessary, his team are able to put in sound defensive performances in one-off games.
The results have been surprisingly good. Some, including this writer, expected a drop-off from Roma due to the managerial change and the loss of key talent such as Mohamed Salah to Liverpool and Antonio Rüdiger to Chelsea, but they have remained one of Italy’s top sides while also excelling on the continent.
Currently, they sit fourth in Serie A and are in a good position to qualify for the Champions League next season. As for this season’s Champions League, they topped arguably the toughest group, finishing ahead of Chelsea and Atlético Madrid, before progressing beyond an exceptional Shakhtar Donetsk side to draw Barcelona in the quarter-finals.
Their increasing capacity for strong defensive performances is shown in the fact they are keeping more clean sheets on average – keeping one every 2.3 league games compared to last season’s one in every 2.7. They also combust less frequently – this season they have conceded three goals or more on one occasion in Serie A; last season they let in three or more on four occasions. In 2016/17 they conceded one goal per game; this term they have conceded 0.8 per game.
Switching to 4-3-3 has played a part in this defensive improvement. So too has a more aggressive approach without the ball – Di Francesco’s Roma like to press in the attacking third and often keep a very high defensive line. However, the individual displays of goalkeeper Alisson have been more influential than any fresh tactical concept.
The Brazilian took the position when Wojciech Szczęsny’s loan spell came to an end, quickly establishing himself as one of the finest shot-stoppers in the world. His reflexes are awe-inspiring, while his sweeping qualities have helped his team to defend higher up the pitch. His importance is shown by the fact that Roma’s xGA (expected goals against) in league action this season stands at 32.54 – 8.54 more than they have actually conceded.
They may no longer possess the magic of Totti, but, with an outstanding goalkeeper, a more assertive mentality and a greater collective willingness to defend for whole games, Di Francesco’s Roma are a tougher proposition for Liverpool than past iterations.