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Barcelona (4-4-2) | Manager: Ernesto Valverde
1. Stegen / 2. Semedo, 3. Pique, 23. Umtiti, 18. Alba / 20. Roberto, 4. Rakitic, 5. Busquets, 8. Iniesta / 10. Messi, 9. Suarez
Roma (4-3-3) | Manager: Eusebio Di Francesco
1. Alisson / 25. Peres, 44. Manolas, 20. Fazio, 11. Kolarov / 6. Strootman, 16. De Rossi, 7. Pellegrini / 24. Florenzi, 9. Dzeko, 8. Perotti
Other than Philippe Coutinho, Radja Nainggolan, and Cengiz Under, both teams had their best players available for this clash. Roma played great but still lost by 1-4. The results from the Serie A teams in the Champions League Quarter-finals show that Italian football needs fundamental change to compete with the European elites.
Roma impressive defense structure
Roma fielded a 4-3-3 that could switch to a 4-1-4-1 in the defense. Daniele De Rossi guarded the space between the two banks of four. The Italians’ defense was aggressive in the opening 25 minutes. They pressed high in Barcelona’s territory. If the host needed to recycle the ball through the center backs or Marc-Andre ter Stegen during the build-up, Edin Dzeko, Diego Perotti, and Alessandro Florenzi would close them down. Barcelona’s players would form the triangles to facilitate the passing lanes. The visitors would then position in-between them to try to intercept the ball. Roma’s players pressed in layers, with the front three supported by the Kevin Strootman and Lorenzo Pellegrini. De Rossi and the fullbacks stayed behind and covered them. They maintained at about 45 degrees to each other. The structure resembled a fishing-net. It provided excellent support and cover between the players. Barcelona struggled to pass through this structure.
Roma switched to the 4-1-4-1 when they stopped pressing high. Eusebio Di Francesco still wanted to engage Barcelona’s players early in their possession; he didn’t allow Barcelona to advance through the center and find Lionel Messi in front of their defense. Roma would start pressuring the ball-handler in the mid-third. Strootman and Pellegrini were the primary pressers. They would engage the center backs, Sergio Busquets or Ivan Rakitic when they wanted to advance the ball in the middle. Roma stayed compact and forced Barcelona to advance on the flanks.
De Rossi covered the 4-1 up top. He needed to tackle Messi if Barcelona could pass through Roma’s defense, unfairly so even at times.
Sometimes the cover shadow of the Roma’s players could eliminate the passing lane to Barcelona’s attackers. If he found this opportunity, De Rossi would push up and initiate the closing down of Barcelona’s ball handler.
Roma played great defense in the majority of the first-half. Barcelona couldn’t create a lot of chances through the build-up. Roma found many interceptions when they pressed high and threatened Barcelona with several counter-attack opportunities.
Barcelona find the opening
Barcelona eventually adapted to the visitor’s tactics and found the ways to attack. Roma’s high-pressure defense was also too demanding to maintain it the whole time. They had to rest and sit deep. The ultra-defensive positions of Roma players didn’t deter the host. They took advantage of the situation and destroyed Roma.
Barcelona didn’t panic when De Rossi man-marked Messi and Roma forced them to play wide. They found a lot of success there. De Rossi’s primary focus was Messi, and he couldn’t move out of the central zone. Roma didn’t have enough players to defend the flank when Barcelona switched quickly between the flanks; on the right, Sergi Roberto positioned high and occupied Aleksandar Kolarov. Pellegrini needed to close down Rakitic or Gerard Pique, so Nelson Semedo always found 1vs1 opportunity against Perotti. The situation is similar on the left, except Jordi Alba would push deep and Andres Iniesta stayed back. Barcelona could always penetrate the right side. Perotti couldn’t stop Semedo as the Portuguese was too fast and technical.
But Barcelona didn’t create the most dangerous chances on the flanks from the dribble. The lack of numerical advantage on the flank meant Roma couldn’t pressure Barcelona there. They had to back off and gave the host time on the ball. Barcelona now had time to access the passing lane. They opted to use an overhead pass on the flank. These passes punished Roma.
You use the overhead ball to loop over the defenders to find your teammate in the space between the defense and the keeper. Barcelona didn’t do it for this purpose. They wanted the ball to bounce back to another teammate so that he could face the goal and immediately attack. At least one player, usually Iniesta or Luis Suarez, would stay on the same line as the defenders. When they looped the ball, they only had one runner as a decoy. Roma’s defenders would respond by dropping back to close the space between them and Allison. At the same time, the real target – Iniesta or Luis Suarez – would be the closest to the ball when a teammate sent it back or a defender cleared it.
This tactic is genius. It is an advanced form of gegenpressing; in the counter-pressing, the attacking team tries to win back the possession by deliberately jamming a loose ball with multiple players. The loose ball is a chaotic situation. The attacking team tried to use a numerical advantage to turn the random ball to its benefit. Barcelona’s counter-pressing here is different. They use their technique to generate a situation that would benefit them, no matter who touches the ball. They already forecast how the ball will develop and where it will end up. This way, they don’t need to jam the loose ball. Barcelona replace the number of the pressers involved in the counter-pressing with the incredible control and insight of the ball.
Barcelona’s defense was aggressive. They wanted to dominate the possession and kept pressuring Roma’s ball handler. Suarez pressured Federico Fazio early in the build-up. Roma liked to go left, so they always found Kolarov. Roberto would close him down as soon as he received the ball. Roma’s players couldn’t find a good passing lane forward once the ball reached the flank. Rakitic intercepted several forward passes from there. Both teams generated their chances from this situation: if the ball passed through the pressing trap, Roma would find a lot of space to attack. If Barcelona intercepted the pass, they could immediately attack because Roma’s players couldn’t return to the proper defensive positions.
The more Barcelona pinned down Roma; the worse Roma could transition into the offensive phase. The visitor often defended with nine players around the box. The host might not generate many clear shots, but Roma had no passing target after they intercepted the ball. Rakitic and Busquets always stayed behind the possession and provided the cover. With their teammates attacking the loose ball and putting pressure on Roma’s players, Barcelona were able to generate a lot of chances from the counter-pressing
Barcelona scored a goal just before the half-time. Roma pushed higher after the goal and tried to score an equalizer. The more space they left behind, the more advantage Barcelona had because of the quality of their players. Every Barcelona’s player can play few more dribbles and passes than the Italians, and they add up. A bunch of them together and we are looking at those high-percentage Barcelona’s chances in the game.
Roma played great. Barcelona couldn’t break them when they sat deep. The problem was the transition. The Italians controlled the zone but not the tempo. They couldn’t attack, got caught in the transition, and couldn’t move into the proper defensive positions. They lost the control of the game.
The scoreline is harsh for Roma because they did what they had planned and they still lost by a large margin. This result and the one of Juventus show that the Italian way of controlling the game is outdated, even going as far as being bad news for everyone in the Serie A. The Italian teams can’t compete with the European elites. They focus on one phase; the best teams focus on one phase and the one that follows. The Italian teams need a fundamental change in their football philosophy.