Even at this early stage of his tenure in the capital, Eusebio Di Francesco has exceeded all expectations. By mid-December, Roma were sitting on 38 points from 16 games, a feat achieved by only two men in Roma’s history: Rudi Garcia in 2013-14 and Fabio Capello in Roma’s title winning campaign of 2000-01.
Whilst it’s hard to envision Di Francesco emulating Capello and wrestling the title from Turin at this juncture, the man who lifted the Scudetto as a Roma player is constructing a team capable of doing so in future.
Dating back to the first Luciano Spalletti era, Roma have been a side renowned for playing at times some truly breath-taking football, but always defensively suspect. Infamous capitulations to Manchester United, Bayern Munich and Barcelona over the years proved that there’s a soft underbelly at the heart of the Roma backline.
Yet Di Francesco has changed that mentality, as despite losing Antonio Rudiger last summer, Roma have conceded the fewest goals in the league, the third-best defensive record in European football this season. It’s a statistic that’s rarely associated with Roma, but Di Francesco has made them much more compact and resolute.
Di Francesco’s tactical ideology has, by his own admission, scarcely changed from his time at Sassuolo. His 4-3-3, when in possession, morphs into a 4-5-1 when defending. Himself a solid if not spectacular winger, Di Francesco demands his wingers track back diligently in support of the midfield three, yet it is this factor that is thought to be stifling Roma’s ability to score goals.
Mohamed Salah’s departure has hurt the Giallorossi’s ability to effectively switch into a counter-attack, especially in battles against top sides, when space opens up. Diego Perotti and Stephan El Shaarawy are certainly no slouches, but they can’t compare to the blistering pace of the Egyptian.
The evidence is in the numbers: Roma have scored fewer goals than any of the other Scudetto challengers, and in direct matches against the top six, they’ve scored a paltry five goals (they’ve yet to play Sampdoria). Roma have almost become un-Roma like.
In the second half of the season, Di Francesco will be searching to rectify Roma’s lack of goals. However, there’s little doubt of the impact he has made in the Eternal City.
The old mantra of ‘defence wins championships’ isn’t particularly true in the modern game, but having a secure backline will go a long way. And Di Francesco has, so far, accomplished that.