Roma suffer on both ends against Barcelona
Ryan Wrenn analyses the Gialorossi’s heavy defeat at the Camp Nou on Tuesday evening, and believes Edin Dzeko’s early chance proved costly for Rdi Garcia’s men.
It might be difficult to appreciate, but the 6-1 demolition Roma suffered at Barcelona’s Camp Nou on Tuesday was broadly similar to the much more credible 1-1 draw the Giallorossi earned in the Stadio Olimpico back in September.
‘Broadly’ should be the operative word there. Roma’s gameplan was more or less the same one that had so frustrated Lionel Messi and company then: disciplined defensive and midfield lines to frustrate Barcelona’s build-up play, and wide men waiting for long balls forward in the transition from defence to attack. If that plan didn’t work quite as well as it did in September, it could most be down to three crucial changes, each one forced upon Garcia by injury.
As surprising as it might seem, on at least one level Roma’s ability to limit Barcelona’s build-up was actually better on Tuesday than it was in September. Barca managed more passes overall in Tuesday’s match – 701 – but only 131 of them were in Roma’s third. The 641 passes Barca managed in total in September, of which 192 were in Roma’s third, stand in pretty stark contrast.
The more meaningful distinction between the two games, however, is shots on goal. Barcelona managed precisely three accurate shots in the two sides’ first game. On Tuesday, they managed 12.
That contrast comes down to where exactly those final third passes in both games originated from, and where they ended up. In September, Roma were able to field both Seydou Keita and Daniele De Rossi in midfield, with Radja Nainggolan playing in a more box-to-box roll ahead of them.
That added muscle in midfield kept Barcelona pushed back from Roma’s backline, effectively clogging up the most dangerous goalscoring areas on the pitch. So while Barcelona might have had more possession in that area, it was mostly from lateral passes back and forth around the defensive shell Roma had expertly constructed.
An injury to De Rossi’s thigh kept him out of contention for Tuesday’s match however, meaning Garcia was without his primary defensive midfielder. Keita stepped into De Rossi’s typical role, but alongside him was not a like-for-like replacement for the Roman legend. Garcia instead opted to field Miralem Pjanic in a more advanced creative role, with Nainggolan returning to shuttling duties.
The change in midfield meant that the 35-year-old Keita was often left overwhelmed, unable to track down both the Barca players slaloming toward goal and the players passing the ball over Roma’s defence to those runners.
Seven of Barcelona’s passes that resulted in a shot on goal came from the area Keita was assigned to patrol, including the assist for Messi’s brilliant chipped goal that made it 2-0 in the first half. Even if their total pass numbers were down in Roma’s third on Tuesday, Barcelona made those passes count more thanks in part to the flimsy nature of the Giallorossi midfield.
It’s important to note here that, in large part, these failings were the natural consequence of the game Garcia set out to play in attack. Without his injured speed merchants Gervinho and Mohamed Salah, the Frenchman was lacking the primary advantage Roma had in that first game in September. Though Gervinho was injured for that game as well, Salah proved time and time again that he could be the lockpick for Barcelona’s defence. His team-mates were obviously clued into this advantage: a significant portion of the successful long balls up the pitch were directed at the Egyptian forward.
Barcelona’s high line made this kind of pacey play one of the Catalan team’s only weaknesses. Without Salah or Gervinho on Tuesday, Garcia knew he had to find another advantage. In the end, he settled on set pieces.
Even if it meant denying Roma defensive cover, Garcia risked starting Pjanic in midfield. The Bosnian is among the undisputed masters of dead ball and set piece situations. An expert at direct free kicks, his influence would only be bolstered by the relatively towering presence of countryman Edin Dzeko in the box. Even if Roma could manage only a handful of corners or fouls near Barcelona’s penalty area, they’d be ready to exploit them as much as possible.
The problem was that Barca refused to oblige. They kept fouling in their own half to a minimum, only giving Roma two chances within reasonable distance to goal. Added to that, Roma’s few forays into Barcelona’s third only resulted in three chances on corners. To Garcia and the team’s credit, these chances were obviously well-choreographed. An early short corner worked around Barca’ penalty area before being chipped up in the air found Dzeko, but the forward was unable to get it on target.
With the scoreline then 0-0, a goal there could have allowed Roma to make the changes in both tactics and personnel needed to play a better containment game.