A decade of AS Roma and a return to Zdenek Zeman

by Jared Mercer

Zdenek Zeman has returned to AS Roma, in what is yet to look like a super successful team but rather a super entertaining one.  Zeman likes to play his teams in very attack minded formations that leave space all over the pitch, which often makes the opposing team more attack-minded as well creating some of the most eye catching soccer that Italy or Europe has on offer.  In the long run this is not the kind of stuff that creates champions but it will only add to the allure of a Roma side that is (or should be) the neutrals favourite.  Roma, since the turn of the century has been at the forefront of creating new attacking formations and tactics that have influenced Europe’s top clubs and this season should be no different under their new (returning) manager.

Barcelona over the past decade have become one of the most popular teams in the world from the time Frank Rijkaard returned them to European glory with Ronaldinho to the even more successful and influential Pep Guardiola and his star player Lionel Messi.  Their passing and possession game has gained many admirers with every player on the pitch able to play the ball, essentially creating a team of central creative midfielders and discarding the traditional roles of center forward and central defender.  Zlatan Ibrahimovic couldn’t find his way into the system that has forwards like David Villa playing wide and Lionel Messi in the false nine position and defensive midfielders like Javier Mascherano and Alex Song will regularly find themselves playing in the center of the defensive line to keep everyone on the pitch moving the ball.  Not only has this been successful at the club level but also at international tournaments as Spain replicated Barcelona’s success at Euro 2012 by playing without a recognized striker with the most advanced players being Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta, both Barca players.

Much credit is due to Barcelona and Guardiola for not only their vision but their ability to pull it off, however, they are not the first team to use this type of system in the past decade but they are definitely the most successful.  Roma have been using such a system since their Scudetto success in 2001 but because they are a much smaller club than Barcelona and can’t afford to buy players like Pique, Villa, Keita, Mascherano, Dani Alves, Fabregas, Song, Jordi Alba, etc. the giallorossi have had much more modest success. Roma also suffer from having their top players poached by larger teams around Europe and over the past decade have had to part with players such as Samuel, Zebina, Batistuta, Panucci, Cassano, Mexes, Aquilani, Mancini, Pizarro, and Vucinic.  Most of these players ended up at Juventus or one of the Milan clubs, while in Spain, Barcelona don’t have richer clubs to deal with and are not only able to hold onto their talent but sign top players from other smaller teams like Roma.  Therefore, Roma with a few loyal players (Totti, De Rossi) and a revolving door of new young talent have not won the Champions League or even dominated the Serie A, but in a more modest way have developed the style that many fans have come to love, and a style used by other wealthier teams to win many trophies.

If Roma had the money to keep their best players they would be able to make a push for more trophies but have done well in winning the Coppa Italia a couple times in this time frame.  It was Zdenek Zeman who started this attacking trend with Roma in his first spell with the team between 1997-99, but it was Fabio Capello who mastered it by adding a tough defense that earned Roma the title Serie A Champions in 2000-01.  Roma spent a lot of money gaining Gabriel Batistuta, Emerson, and Walter Samuel to be the new spine of the team and the investment really paid off on all areas of the pitch.  Emerson’s season ended early due to injury, which meant that Damiano Tomassi and Cristiano Zanetti were the anchors in midfield that allowed Francesco Totti, who in that season became truly world class, the freedom to burst forward from midfield and not worry about tracking back.  His goals were of great value but it was also Totti’s passing that aided the strikers with Gabriel Batistuta hitting 20 goals in 28 games in his first season at his new club.  Totti was the main creator behind the strike duo of Batistuta and Montella (or the less efficient Delvecchio), with Zanetti and Tomassi holding the fort behind them.  This would appear to be a very narrow formation but the two wing backs of Cafu and Candela were essentially wingers who marauded forward at will.

Cafu needs no introduction as one of the greatest all time wing backs, but it was Candela who had a truly breakthrough season with Roma that added to their attacking threat. This meant that there was only three at the back playing centrally in Samuel, Aldair or Zago, and Zebina, and they were able to mark the two opposing forwards with a man to spare. With Totti playing in between the lines defenders were unable to mark him, which meant that he could only be dealt with by a defensive midfielder, which would leave Tomassi or Zanetti more room to create.  The opposition full backs were often left free but they were up against Cafu and Candela who often pushed them back with their attack minded mentality but were also very defensively aware when Roma lost possession.  If Candela lost the ball up field then the back three could shift over with the left-footed Samuel taking the left back spot and Cafu coming back on the right to create a back four, therefore Roma were never left short at the back despite the attacking intent from the wing backs. It is rare to see a successful club use a back three but with Samuel and Zebina comfortable playing on either side of center, that left the Brazilian Aldair (or Zago) open to play the ball forward from a central position. Where Zeman was all out attack, Capello instituted a defensive system that was what created champions.

Up front Batistuta played alongside Marco Delvecchio who had a poor scoring record but was seen by Capello as a strong target man to play upfront. Vincenzo Montella scored so much as a substitute however that he eventually forced his way into the starting line up and with the trident attack of Montella, Batistuta, and Totti, Roma had as effective a strike force as any club had seen that decade.  Roma were unable to keep this team together unfortunately and only the remarkable Francesco Totti has carried on as club captain and talisman in the Roman attack.  Although his play with the Italian national team has not been as eye-catching as that of his club career, Totti has been one of the most consistently dangerous attacking threats in European soccer this century. Every coach that has worked with him has uttered the words “if only he moved to a bigger club, the rest of the world would know his talent.” But the hometown boy, now 34, will never leave his beloved club.

Six years later, Luciano Spalletti the new manager in charge of Roma, invented the 4-6-0 formation by necessity rather than genius.  This is the formation that has been used by Barcelona to such success but of their choosing, while Roma were forced into it due to an injury crisis.  Roma had been playing 4-2-3-1 until injuries robbed them of a central forward who was able to hold the ball up at the front, so the 2006-07 season saw Totti playing his usual trequartista role but without any strikers in front of him.  Essentially a creative attacking midfielder who also had the burden of having to score a striker’s amount of goals as well, this should have been a difficult season for Totti and Roma but they used it to their great advantage.  Because opposing center backs had no one to mark, and the midfielders found Roma with 4 across the middle but still with two wingers, Roma would always dominate possession but while also constantly playing on the counter attack.  This was as confusing to play against as it is to write about now but for all the unorthodoxy Roma made it work to great effect and it was another great year for Francesco Totti and their new star Mirko Vucinic.  Vucinic would have been a striker with any other club in the world (as he is with his new team Juventus), but at Roma he was played wide left to allow Totti to remain the furthest man forward and keep the system in tact since it was flourishing – for the most part, there were setbacks.  Whilst not a natural striker exactly, the position is not completely foreign to Totti as his 26 goals in 2006-07 earned him the European Golden Boot, and his position on the all time Serie A goalscoring table is a fine example of what a good finisher he is in front of goal.  The power of Daniele De Rossi in the center of the park was a bonus defensively but the overall quality of this edition of the team was far lower than the Scudetto winning 2001 side.

This formation was successful in spurts as Roma did not always have the quality to see off other top opposition despite their creative manner of play.  Defeating Internazionale 6-2 in the Coppa Italia Final was astonishing as Inter had won the Serie A by 22 points that season but it was tempered by the horrific 7-1 loss to Manchester United in the Champions League that showed the system self-destruct.  The first leg of that series proved successful for Roma as United’s center back pair of Ferdinand and Brown were confused as to who to cover with 4 or 5 Roma midfielders running at the defense in what was a genuine revelation in tactical terms.  The cunning of Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson to combat the system in the crushing return leg appears to be the only reason it failed so spectacularly in the end.  However both United and Barcelona cloned the 4-6-0 formation the following two years as they each won the Champions League and it is a tactical set up that could dominate European soccer for the next 10 years to come.

Now with Zdenek Zeman back in charge of the club where 15 years ago he began the attacking flair Roma has become known for, the giallorossi are already looking to be one of the most entertaining sides in Italy and Europe.  An opening day draw with Catania was not too promising but following that with a 3-1 road victory over Inter and fans are cheering his name again around the country.  Roma’s forward duo of Mattia Destro and Pablo Osvaldo have been used over the weekend in Italy’s decent start to World Cup Qualifying, each scoring a goal, and may go on to have as big of an impact as captain Daniele De Rossi currently has with the national side.  The victory over Inter, notable as it was, is not necessarily the sign of champions however.  Inter manager Andrea Stramaccioni flooded his team with left sided players which allowed Roma’s forward thinking left back Federico Balzaretti to get forward as much as he wanted down Inter’s right in a game that was very frantic and lacked any kind of shape.  There was loads of room in the middle of the pitch, which benefitted Roma this time around but against more organized opposition their openness could be severely exposed.

The current Roma side look to be more like that of the 2006-07 team where their attacking instincts are exciting and can catch teams off guard but they do not currently appear to have the defensive know-how to win any major trophies the way they did in 2000-01.  This is the Zeman way however and the Roma chairmen knew what they were getting in hiring the Czech manager whose teams always score and concede bucket loads of goals.  Therefore although they are unlikely to dominate Europe as Manchester United and Barcelona have over the past number of years, Roma have had a hand in creating the tactics that bigger teams with bigger players (some of which are former Roma players) have emulated to become champions.  They have left the 4-6-0 formation to play Zeman’s preferred 4-3-3 but this is not to be mistaken with a Mourinho/Chelsea styled 4-3-3, this will be all out attack.  Roma will not likely win anything this season but are sure to entertain and finish in a very respectable place in the Serie A standings – with Milan, Inter, Udinese, and Napoli weakened, this is Roma’s best chance at giving Juventus a run for top spot.  They will also continue to remain the neutrals favourite team as after a decade of thrilling attacking play, new manager Zdenek Zeman is going to ensure that if they don’t win the Scudetto this season they will at least have the most spectacular matches and will no doubt uncover some new tactical grounds that could change the game further.  Their first two matches of the season have been barnstorming!

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