In Italy, AS Roma has arguably the toughest midfield alongside Juventus in terms of quality and depth- they are well balanced and have a desirable mixture of experience, consistency and aggressiveness in Daniele De Rossi, Radja Nainggollan, Kevin Strootman, Lorenzo Pellegrini, Maxime Gonalons and Alessandro Florenzi. On paper, that is.
Roma started off well and it seemed that we were in for another quality title chase from them but over the last couple of months, Eusebio Di Francesco has taken a hit in terms of the team’s performance in the league. The new manager has been able to use Roma’s vast depth to a fair amount of efficiency and has built a top notch defense having conceded the least amount of goals in Serie A outsides table toppers Juventus and Napoli. But the frailties, among many reasons, lie primarily in their midfield and in lack of creativity upfront.
This is a humble attempt to analyze Roma’s biggest problem this season- the inconsistency or decline of their underperforming midfield and how the absence of a final third creator has deeply affected their output in front of goal. Also a cringe worthy effort to shower some praise on unsung hero Kevin Strootman’s carry job this season amidst the decline of De Rossi and Radja.
It is a fair argument if someone claims that Daniele has been performing decently as the Italian veteran can always be counted on to do a job in the base of midfield. But when you make a comparison between his stats for 16/17 and 17/18, it is quite easy to convince anyone on how much he has declined, especially in his defensive contributions.
In 2016/17 De Rossi averaged a total of 4.22 tackles + interceptions per 90, this has reduced to 2.88 per 90 in 2017/18. His dual success rates have fallen from 51% to 38%. His physical decline is very much obvious. Offensively, his KP90, xA, xG stats have dropped, even though those are slight variations that could be down to changes in team tactics.
I do not want to be harsh on the legend but as a captain his performances will affect his team badly, it probably has already. De Rossi is no longer the midfield general he once used to be- he is less confident and lacks the aura he once possessed.
It is only an opinion, but I’m being completely honest when I say Roma should have made the profit on Radja when they had the chance to. Multiple clubs were ready to pay well over 45 million euros for the dynamic midfielder. The Belgian has been terrible of late, wandering on the pitch with very little tactical discipline and flying unnecessary shots high over the crossbar. It is possible that the controversies regarding the national team selections as well as his smoking habits might have taken a toll on him.
Even if he is under Eusebio’s instructions to position himself further up the pitch in order to utilize his goalscoring abilities to maximum effect, the stats are against him. His direct goal contribution and x G/A have dropped this season and has been less involved in buildup play. On the back foot, Radja’s combined total of 2.79 tackles + interceptions per 90 have dropped to 1.72 also losing out on 2.37 tackles per 90 this season compared to 1.72 in 16/17.
Nainggolan has been quite disappointing in front of goal as well. Thunderous long range efforts used to be a trademark of his, but 19 of his 30 attempts on goal this season have been off target. This could just be a dip in form- also the overload of attacking responsibilities in the absence of Salah might have had a negative effect on his game, but if Roma are serious about that CL spot he needs to up his game real quick.
Since his return from what could’ve been a career ending injury, Kevin Strootman has been one of Roma’s most consistent players, often going under the radar as a top level performer. Strootman’s ability to dictate play with good movements in either half (at times like a roaming 8) and great final balls for Edin Dzeko from deep used to be a highlight of Spalletti’s tenure. But under the new manager Kevin has been limited to a more tactical role in the base of midfield, probably to balance the decline De Rossi has faced recently.
Strootman’s attacking stats have taken a hit under the new role but he is contributing in defense much more than he used to, proving how well he has settled into his new role under Di Francesco. In his last season under Spalletti, the Dutchman averaged a total of 2.45 tackles and interceptions per 90 which has risen to 3.94 per 90 under the new manager. This is quite a noticeable rise for a midfielder. He has maintained his xA and xG from last season, but the deeper role means he plays only half as many key passes per 90 compared to 16/17.
Kevin Strootman has always been an underrated midfielder and for AS Roma, an unsung hero for his unquestionable consistency. Along with 21 year old Lorenzo Pellegrini, who has been offering confident performances whenever given an opportunity, Eusebio should look to build a midfield core for the coming 3-4 years.
I’d prefer to keep Gonalons off the equation for the time being, as he is currently injured and hasn’t been given enough time on the pitch to be judged.
To put these stats into perspective,
Activating Lorenzo Pellegrini’s buy back clause has been without doubt one of the smartest pieces of business from Roma in a few years. And new manager Di Francesco knew exactly what he was bringing along with him as Lorenzo enjoyed a very good spell at Sassuolo under the coach, where the youngster had 12 direct goal contributions in his final season. Pellegrini has been racking up playing time at Roma since his arrival despite the presence of convincing, experienced midfielders ahead of him in the pecking order.
The 21 year old has been used in multiple situations by Roma, acting as rotational option between Strootman and De Rossi. He has thrived in either, putting up decent stats offensively and defensively. Lorenzo has directly contributed to 2 goals and 3 assists this season, backed by xG and xA stats per 90 0.13 and 0.21 respectively. He makes 2.5 key passes per 90, which ranks highest among the Roma midfielders. Pellegrini is a hardworking midfielder who covers a lot of ground and averages 2.85 ball recoveries per 90. Pellegrini also has a natural eye to find the target from long distances and he has already shown that at Roma. Eusebio will certainly look to exploit more of this in the upcoming matches.
In comparison to the aforementioned players, here is a look at Pellgrini’s stats:
xG – 0.13
xA – 0.21
KP90 – 2.5
xGchain – 0.43
tackles+interceptions – 2.85
goals + assists – 5
The issue at hand: Lack of an output machine
Roma’s biggest issue at hand, the area they failed to consolidate in the summer market- the absence of a final third creator/secondary goalscorer. Under Spalletti in his final season, Roma scored 90 goals in Serie A alone, superseded only by Napoli with 94. To compare, champions Juventus finished with just 77. Come 17/18, after 26 matches Roma have just 40 goals to their name which is sixth best in the league. This is not down to Di Francesco’s style of play. He has never been a defensive tactician- his sides score loads.
In my analysis there are three factors that have led to this downfall, two of them being Strootman’s new deeper role and Nainggollan’s lack of form, as aforementioned. The third, most importantly, has been their failure to replace Mohammed Salah as a final third creator and goalscorer. In his last season at the club, Salah directly contributed to 26 goals in the league in just 31 appearances, making 2.56 key passes per 90, quite unmatched by any current player apart from Edin Dzeko.
It is easy to blame the board for letting him go, but it was bound to happen sooner or later. I would rather blame them for their inability to replace him with a proven, experienced player. Salah’s departure has affected Roma as an attacking unit, and also Dzeko individually. Cengiz Under is an exciting signing but as of yet, he’s no Mo Salah. It should’ve been someone in the profile of Riyadh Mahrez, Douglas Costa, Hakan Calhanoglu or even Manuel Lanzini. People praise Monchi for his ability to run the market based on profits, but this failure is on him. Still, there are very few who can do a better job than him. One can fully bank on him to make the necessary moves wisely in time after good planning and not hurry into committing a mistake.
Roma took a wrong step in the summer market, and failed to rectify it in winter. However, mistakes are in the past and should be resolved as soon as possible. They have committed people high up the ladder in Monchi and club legend Francesco Totti. As with Di Francesco, I believe he is more than capable of handling his job. The board and the fans should place their confidence in him and look forward to exciting times that follow influential decisions.
Stats from understat.com and squawka.