When the team news trickled through before Roma’s clash with Benevento on Sunday, there was nothing out of the ordinary that caught the eye.
Marash Kumbulla was dropped in favour of Bryan Cristante, but it was widely expected that the Italy international would slot in at centre-back, as he often has under Paulo Fonseca’s guidance.
Instead, Benevento coach Pippo Inzaghi was left surprised by his opponents making a wholesale formation change, as his Portuguese counterpart switched from a 3-4-2-1 to 4-2-3-1 system.
It was as abrupt a change as it was last season, when the formations switched in the opposite direction for Roma’s 2-1 defeat at Napoli on 5 July.
— ForzaItalianFootball (@SerieAFFC) October 18, 2020
Fonseca’s bold move paid off then despite the defeat. After the Derby del Sole setback, Roma went unbeaten for the rest of the season.
They are unbeaten this term on the pitch, too, with their 3-0 defeat to Verona coming as punishment for fielding the ineligible Amadou Diawara in a 0-0 draw.
Considering Roma’s run of form with a back three, Fonseca’s timing to switch things up was a little unusual, especially given the club hierarchy’s anger at the coach for his public complaints about their failure to appoint a sporting director recently.
But while on the face of it Roma were flying – 11 games unbeaten if you include the 0-0 draw at Verona – their performances at the start of the season hadn’t exactly got pulses racing.
The game at the Bentegodi was a drab affair, a 2-2 draw with Juventus left a bitter taste due to missed opportunities, and the 1-0 victory at Udinese was far from convincing.
Above all, Roma had struggled to threaten going forward, and the poor form of talismanic captain Edin Dzeko was a concern as he looked rattled by his Juventus move falling through at the last minute.
A helter-skelter 90 minutes followed, with Benevento putting up a better fight than the 5-2 scoreline suggests, taking the lead early on and then equalising in the second half before coming close to going back in front.
Roma didn’t always look comfortable at the back, but Fonseca’s formation change did succeed in unlocking the attacking potential of his players for the first time this season.
A swashbuckling performance from the front three was particularly encouraging. Pedro found the net for the second game in a row, Mkhitaryan bagged two assists and had a goal of his own chalked off, and most importantly Dzeko netted a brace to open his account for the season.
The experienced trio, who have a combined age of 98, had too much class for the Benevento defence and Dzeko’s double saw him overtake Rodolfo Volk to become Roma’s fifth-highest Serie A goalscorer with 80 strikes – three behind Vincenzo Montella in fourth.
Carles Perez reminded everyone of his ability too, with an extraordinary individual goal late on after his introduction off the bench.
It was a showcase of attacking football from two sides willing to throw numbers forward, but the closing stages were perhaps the clearest indicator of what to expect going forward.
Fonseca reverted to a three-man defence once his side got a two-goal cushion, hinting at future in-game formation changes and a clear signal that a four-man defence is the attacking option and a three-man defence the secure one.
Roma ideally need a blend of the two. While the fans will be delighted to see the goals raining in once again, they came at the cost of defensive errors, and the Giallorossi have now conceded at least once in their last eight home league games.
It was a step in the right direction, but with league leaders AC Milan next on the fixture schedule in Serie A for Roma, they will need to find balance soon.