A fascinating game unfolded at the Stadio Olimpico on Sunday evening, as Juventus edged out Roma to clinch the Winter Champion crown. Capitalising on Inter’s Saturday night draw with Atalanta was paramount, although the Bianconeri looked increasingly shaky as the game developed.
The battle on the side-lines was one for the football hipsters. Progressive Roma coach Paulo Fonseca attempting to outwit Maurizio Sarri.
There were no surprises in either starting XI, but injuries during the first half forced both tacticians into changes. Merih Demiral and Nicolò Zaniolo were making an impact on proceedings for their respective sides and it was a blow for everyone to see two of Europe’s most talented young players removed because of injury.
There was a frenetic start, Juventus found themselves ahead within minutes and doubled their lead with the match barely 10 minutes old. Roma’s self-harm was emphatically punished. Aleksandar Kolarov defended a Miralem Pjanic free-kick poorly and allowed Demiral to finish unopposed at the back post. Jordan Veretout was then guilty of being caught in possession on the edge of his own box as a result of poor awareness and indecision. Fingers will be pointed at goalkeeper Pau Lopez, but Veretout had more than enough time to deal with the ball. A midfield player at this level is expected to handle those situations.
It took 20 minutes or so for the first half to find any kind of rhythm or pattern. The home team responded well to their errors and set about executing Fonseca’s game plan. Roma’s 4-2-3-1 was very flexible both in and out of possession. Led by Edin Dzeko and Lorenzo Pellegrini, the Romans set about pressing Juve’s centre-backs and forcing their first pass towards the full-backs to prevent Sarri’s men developing play centrally. Roma’s first line of press was followed instantly by the supporting cast.
Juve were willing to accept the pressure. Moving the ball to their full-backs as Roma wished, the Old Lady looked to play forward to their strikers who had positioned themselves wide in order to help the team’s build-up. It had some success, when Juve could find the first pass out they had space to exploit or were quickly able to gain control of play. It did not come without risk and on a number of occasions gave possession away cheaply, allowing Roma opportunities to counter.
Former Shakhtar Donetsk manager Fonseca was also willing to take risks in order to get the desired rewards. In possession Roma were expansive, committed numbers forward, but looked vulnerable to counters. When building from the back, one of Amadou Diawara or Veretout would drop deep alongside their centre-backs to create a three and allow both full-backs to move high, providing maximum width.
In a shape that resembled a 3-4-2-1, the narrow positioning of Roma’s midfield ahead of the ball forced Juve’s central four to stay compact, keeping the spaces wide free. Once play reached either Alessandro Florenzi or Kolarov, Roma quickly looked to create overloads down the sides. Attempting to detach Juve’s defensive structure with the use of adaptable attackers like Diego Perotti and Lorenzo Pellegrini.
In general, Roma’s tactics were working reasonably well. They had positive spells of possession and were conceding little, but were unable to create much, meanwhile Juventus managed the first 45 minutes just enough to maintain some control. For the away side there were a few neat passages of play and a midfield that looked slightly better balanced than in previous months. Adrien Rabiot was having his best outing in a black and white jersey. The Frenchman is improving each week, both his athleticism and ability to impact play in different phases was evident in Rome.
The opening stages of the second half continued in similar fashion, with Sarri making a small change tactically in order to help his players evade Roma’s press. Committing another player wide to help his full-backs required Roma to shift another man over, stretching them and opening spaces to play through. However, Juve’s play lacked quality, and although the result looked secure, on 68 minutes a Roma penalty changed the momentum.
Sarri responded instantly to his side conceding, withdrawing Aaron Ramsey and Paulo Dybala in favour of Gonzalo Higuain and Danilo. A surprise switch to 4-3-3 with Juan Cuadrado now taking up an attacking role. Sarri had perhaps become concerned with the spaces his side were conceding in wide areas and looked to nullify that with these changes.
As Roma pushed on, the Bianconeri wasted great opportunities on the counter and but for the reliable Wojciech Szczesny – who at this moment has been Juve’s most consistent player this campaign – and vital last ditch defending from Matthijs de Ligt, the outcome would have been different.
Juventus looked nervy under pressure in the closing stages and were unable to retain the ball or find a third. Roma will have wished for a few extra minutes that may have been enough to grab an equaliser. In the end, Juve claimed the three points they were desperate for, and with it the tag of Serie A winter champions. As for Roma, it is two defeats from two in the New Year, but there was certainly enough in their play to suggest they can feel confident about pushing for a place in the top four.