As the age old coaching golden rule states, those who control the middle of the park win the football game. Rudi Garcia’s Roma were a fine embodiment of the principle in the 2013/14 season, controlling possession, dominating games and scoring goals with a consummate ease.
The current season has been a bit different. Their form and attacking fluidity has nose dived since the turn of the new year, in 8 league games Roma has managed only 2 wins and scored a measly 9 goals. Despite the dip in results, the Giallorossi have not surrendered the ball and continue to hog it. In the last match even managing a staggering 77% against Hellas Verona.
Naturally holding the ball is important but what you do with it is crucial.
Miralem Pjanic, Radja Nainggolan and Seydou Keita have seemingly bossed the midfield but an in-depth look at the matches highlight the gravity of the situation. The midfield display repeated staticness, stagnant movement and sideways passing or worse backwards passing.
Romanistas have been complaining that the midfielders have been too passive. I took the liberty of checking passing maps of all 3 midfielders mentioned above for the last 9 matches to confirm if there is any truth to the hue and cry of the fans. It makes for some shocking observations.
Let’s start with Pjanic. The Bosnian maestro was the key to Roma’s success last season but has failed to attain the same form this year. A case can be made that he has suffered a world cup hangover and has been overplayed, however the lack of quality demonstrated by him throughout the season indicates other factors.
I reviewed all the matches since the start of the new year and most of them pointed in the same direction. I have chosen the passing map from the 1-1 draw against Palermo.
Needless to say the Bosnian’s performance is aimless and not even remotely positive. A good chunk of his passes are sideways or backwards, with only a few passes being key or even from the final third.
For the chief playmaker of the team, these results are absolutely atrocious. For comparison sake let’s see how he played differently last season. For a fair evaluation I compared his performance to the same time period from last season there is a stark contrast.
In a match against Sampdoria last season, majority of his passing is forward directional and he’s a lot more involved in the final third of field trying to release his forwards.
Not discrediting his abilities as a footballer because personally I think he’s a top player but this season he has been a shadow of himself, but can he just be held accountable individually ? Is it the lack of rest or maybe something tactically ?
This discussion of tactics brings me to my next midfielder. The dynamic and charismatic Radja Nainggolan. For the first half of the season ‘Ninja’ was Roma’s best player and was dominating matches. His form, like most, has suffered in the recent games. Recently I have noticed Ninja’s odd ability to keep passing the ball backward even when its the 90th minute and the team is not winning. Could it be just me being an irrational and whining fan? So I put him through the same tests I did with Pjanic. Conclusion? My frustrations are well placed and well backed.
This recent performance against Fiorentina shows exactly why watching Roma will cause fans’ blood pressure to rise. Barring a pass or two, all of Nainggolan’s passes are directed towards the center circle which ensures possession but leads to nothing constructive.
Without having to open my geometry set, I can confidently tell you that at least 75% of his passing is to the sides of the field,in the backward direction to his fellow midfielders or the center back pairing.
Comparing him to last season is a bit tough because rather than being compared to himself he is put up against a healthy and fit Kevin Strootman. Despite both being top midfielders, they aren’t exactly like for like replacement, Strootman is a more defensive minded and likes to do hold position around the centre circle while Nainggolan is a classic box-to-box midfielder who will break forward at the first opportunity. Below is typical performance from Strootman (when he plays alongside Pjanic), with the crux of his game around the center circle and a majority of his passes in his own half and limited ventures forward.
This change in personnel type effects Miralem Pjanic. With ‘Stroot’ the Bosnian played with a lot more freedom and was heavily involved in the final third. Alternatively with ‘Ninja’, Pjanic has to carry his own weight defensively and play as a traditional center midfielder which as we are discovering he is inept to do.
Nainggolan’s all action style of play ensures that the fans never associate him with the terms passive and static football. And to be fair the criticism levied is in his case a tactical flaw which is Rudi Garcia’s responsibility and failure to gel quality midfielders together. It’s a bit unfortunate because with a fully fit Strootman, I imagine this would never be even a conversation.
Strootman’s injury and Roma’s participation in Champions League forced Rudi Garcia to strengthen his midfield in the summer. He purchased Seydou Keita, who brings with him composure on the ball and experience which is very important against top teams. Keita barring his participation in African Cup has been ever present in Garcia’s team. He has made the defensive mid position his own and has replaced local hero/legend Daniele De Rossi in the starting team. Keita’s nonchalant style of play brings him for most criticism plus his work will go under appreciate and very rarely players in his position will be heroes for usual fans. Having said that let’s see how Keita compares against the rest, I personally always got the feeling that the Malian prefers the safe option and having played at Barca the thought of losing a ball is criminal.
My fears are true the midfielder likes to play sideways a lot. If Keita was switching the focus of attack it would make sense but he usually plays it on the side he is near to keep the ball rolling. Unfortunately this could even work given Roma had a bomber ( a striker like Bobo Vieri ) who the full backs could target, but with Totti playing as central striker/false 9, the big presence in the middle is missing.
To cut the Malian some slack, he is playing as a defensive mid and his job is just to recycle the possession and provide it to someone more technical gifted so that the team can counter attack. So why is he getting so much criticism then? Let’s take a look at De Rossi from last season who occupying the DM position in 2013-14.
The few differences that immediately stand out in DDR’s performance against Bologna last year are the distance of the passes; Keita prefers playing short while DDR obviously likes passing in the distance, DDR frequently switches side allowing Roma’s winger to attack devastatingly and lastly DDR likes to take chances with straight through balls.
Comparing Keita to the highest earner of Serie A is a bit harsh but he is expected to fill those shoes, he has been able to do that to a greater extent defensively but he does not offer the same in terms of launching counter attacks. And to share the blame DDR has been completely off colour and looks like he has not at all recovered from world cup hangover.
The conclusion for me is pretty clear after comparing the 3 most midfielders from last season and current season. Despite the personnel not changing a lot, the tactical board has changed significantly. Players are being forced to learn new roles and adjust to a playing style they are not necessarily comfortable with. Rudi Garcia has to shake up things tactically or somehow reinstate confidence in players, one small change could be trusting Leandro Paredes more and giving him playing time. The young Argentine, as evidenced below, was more adventurous in his first start more than all the seasoned midfielders starting ahead of him, till then me and other fellow Romanista will keep pulling our hair out.