Claudio Ranieri made a winning start to his second stint as Roma manager on Monday evening, as his side beat Serie A strugglers Empoli 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico. A beautiful long-range strike from Stephan El Shaarawy gave the home side the lead before centre-back Nunes Jesus got Empoli back in the game with an own goal three minutes later. Patrik Schick scored the winning goal in the 33rd minute but it was far from plain sailing for the home team. Alessandro Florenzi was sent off with ten minutes to go, and the visitors also had a goal disallowed by VAR.
This article will discuss how Ranieri’s Roma managed to overcome a valiant Empoli side.
Ranieri played in a 4-2-3-1 on his return to the club he managed from 2009-2011 and made five changes to the side who lost to Porto in the Champions League last Wednesday. Davide Santon got the nod over suspended Aleksandar Kolarov at left-back, whilst Alessandro Florenzi replaced Rick Karsdorp on the other side of the defence. Centre-back Kostas Manolas was dropped in favour of holding midfielder Bryan Cristante, and Stephan El Shaarawy and Justin Kluivert started on the wings. Edin Džeko, ruled out due to suspension, was replaced by Patrik Schick.
Visitors Empoli lined up in the same 3-5-2 system they have deployed for most of the campaign. They made no changes from the side that drew 3-3 at home to Parma in their previous match.
Roma in possession
The image below shows Roma’s typical midfield shape during the game. Normally, one full-back would go beyond the half-way line whilst the other dropped back to form a defensive three with the two centre-halves. In the midfield, N’Zonzi played deep whilst Cristante looked to progress play. This shape effectively balanced the defensive and offensive aspects of Roma’s play.
Though the above image shows left-back Davide Santon pressing forward, the Italian was quite cautious. His compatriot Alessandro Florenzi on the other side of the defence was far more offensive throughout the game. Despite being sent off with ten minutes left, he still registered a shot on goal as well as making four interceptions. The usual defensive shape going backwards was, in fact, Santon in the back three alongside Jesus and Marcano. The image below shows this, as the defence prevents an Empoli counter-attack.
Much of Roma’s 55% of possession went through Steven N’Zonzi. A marquee summer signing from Sevilla, the Frenchman has failed to impress thus far in Italy. Many supporters have been critical of N’Zonzi’s lazy approach in possession, and whilst he did make a few misguided passes, he overall had a strong game. He clearly works better in a midfield two with the younger and more mobile Bryan Cristante than with Daniele De Rossi. He may have started the game poorly, but as the ninety minutes progressed N’Zonzi grew into the game as shown by the pass maps below.
The first, showing his touches of the ball in the first half-hour, demonstrates how deep he had to drop and how he was usually reserved to the left-hand-side of the centre circle. The latter, showing his touches from the 53rd to the 83rd minute, show a more varied game. Not only does N’Zonzi have more touches of the ball in Empoli’s half during this time period, but he also drifts onto the left-hand side more to create play and shut down opponents.
In possession, Roma grew in confidence as the game wore on. N’Zonzi and Cristante both impressed in the midfield two, and Zaniolo also dropped effectively to pick up the ball. This is an aspect of Roma’s game Ranieri will want to maintain in future games.
Roma’s excellent wingers
A peripheral figure under previous coach Eusebio Di Francesco, Justin Kluivert shone against Empoli. His pace and movement were too much for the away defence to handle, and he showed just why Roma paid over £15 million for him in the summer. The below image shows Kluivert using his strength to shrug away a defender before running into space in the box. This is just one demonstration of the skill and intelligence he used throughout the match in which he registered five dribbles.
The best aspect of Kluivert’s game may have been his chemistry with El Shaarawy on the opposite wing. Much like the full-backs, Kluivert and El Shaarawy were rarely in the attacking third together whilst Roma were building up play. Usually, one would drop to pick up the ball and progress play via a dribble or through pass, whilst the other stayed high on the left wing, occupying the full-back and finding space.
El Shaarawy was also excellent on the day. The Italian international took three shots, had an 83% pass success rate and scored the opening goal. He was more eager to drift inside than Kluivert and used this to his advantage as he stitched up play nicely when he cut inside. The shot below demonstrates this as he receives the ball from more centrally inside the attacking third. This allows him to lay on a chance for Zaniolo.
The below heat map perfectly demonstrates Roma’s attacking throughout the game. On the left-hand side, Roma were comfortable building up play with the presence of N’Zonzi and El Shaarawy dropping deep. Most of the action in the attacking third, however, came down the right wing courtesy of Kluivert.
Roma’s exploitation of width going forward and the excellent performances from Kluivert and El Shaarawy were positives for Ranieri. He should know, at least, that goals shouldn’t be hard to come by.
Flaws in Roma’s performance
If expected goals are to be believed this was a comfortable victory for the home side, but statistics can lie. In the second half, Empoli manager Giuseppe Iachini made some clever tactical tweaks that changed the game. Empoli were awarded far too much space in the box and were denied a late goal thanks to VAR. Overall, the visitors showed that they have more quality and tactical adaptability than most sides in the Serie A relegation battle.
However, not all of Roma’s problems in the game were down to Empoli’s strengths. The home side’s confidence was shattered after they shockingly lost their lead just a few minutes after gaining it. They nearly went behind early on after a free-kick from Manuel Pasqual and their failure to defend set pieces cost them.
Adding to this, Patrik Schick had a bit of a lacklustre game. The Czech international scored the winning goal but lacked the predatory instinct that the suspended Edin Dzeko has in front of goal. Nevertheless, Roma still deservedly won the game and are now just three points off Inter Milan in fourth.
Overall, Claudio Ranieri will be satisfied with his Roma team’s performance in his first game back in charge. They looked fluid in possession, Kluivert was outstanding, and their defence mostly withheld Empoli’s late pressure. Improvements are still to be made should Roma still harbour top four aspirations, but this is a solid start.
Next up for Ranieri and Roma is a trip to battle-hardened SPAL before hosting Napoli on the 31st March.
Empoli, meanwhile, have a crucial relegation tie against 19th place Frosinone. They then play Juventus and Napoli in a challenging run of games.
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