As June turned into July, Paulo Fonseca returned to the drawing board following a downturn in his side’s play. Milan, Napoli, and Udinese took nine points away from Roma, forcing the boss to re-examine his tactics and player choices.
While his strategy of total football would undoubtedly remain, there were whispers within the press that the coach was trying out a 3-4-2-1 formation. Yet unforeseen in the first three quarters of the season, it was immediately met with positivity, highlighting certain players’ attributes.
None more so than Bruno Peres and Leonardo Spinazzola - the wing-backs had different journeys in their season, as Peres returned to Rome following a few loan spells, while Spinazzola struggled in the flat-back four man defence. Edin Dzeko meanwhile, had too often been forced into isolation, as the offensive wingers would drop to aid the outside backs when facing strong opponents. The tandem of Jordan Veretout and Amadou Diawara also seemed unbalanced, as the Frenchman felt held back from doing what he does best, in driving attacking play from the centre.
The tide turned against Parma. Spinazzola was suddenly making dazzling runs to pierce the final third, while Peres’ width had exposed his opponent time and time again. Left with fewer defensive duties, the backline was stabilised by a three-man defence. It must be noted that Roger Ibanez then surprised Serie A - but not his coach - proving his strength, positioning, and reaction through a run of games.
Diawara, meanwhile, improved his form after a tough restart. Over a string of matches his confidence multiplied, and he now finds himself as the epicentre of the team’s play, acting in a 360 degree range to maintain possession and probe counter-attacks. Veretout has also shown tangible progress by scoring several goals, as well as a scorcher against Parma in the match that commenced Roma’s revival.
Dzeko, now consistently finding support in Henrikh Mkhitaryan, has since scored two goals and created two assists - but equally as important, has been fundamental in hold-up play and Fonseca’s offensive build-up.
Roma will now get to test their new formula in international waters. Sevilla are led by the 53-year-old manager Julen Lopetegui. In his 17th year of coaching, the Spaniard has made his rounds through the upper echelons of Iberian football, having most recently managed Real Madrid, before being axed following a 5-1 away loss in El Clasico. Unbeaten in their last 17 matches - including draws against Barcelona and Atletico Madrid - Lopetegui has reached this staggering statistic through a possession-based-approach.
A 4-3-3 on paper, Lopetegui orders his defensive midfielder to drop back as an anchor, and his wing-backs to join the midfield in creating a 3-4-3 as soon as the ball is won. This helps his side overload the midfield to utilise fast, ball-playing midfielders such as Ever Banega and Joan Jordan.
At the centre of the attack Lucas Ocampos has scored 14 times in his first season with Los Nervionenses. With the size and strength of a centre-forward, Ocampos’ play is incredibly balanced with tidy dribbling skills and explosive speed. Typically used as an inverted winger, he drifts inside to stretch out the opponent’s backline with Luuk de Jong, often looking to find the ball on his right foot. Now in the prime of his career at 26 years of age, Ocampos is the single greatest threat in Lopetegui’s roster.
On the right flank, Suso has found a permanent place to call home. He has struggled at the beginning of his five-year deal though, scoring and creating an assist just once. Nevertheless, he will be eyeing up a key performance against a club he knows well from his days with Milan. A big match is too often all the motivation a player needs to recapture their career.
The chink in Sevilla’s armour lays in its width. Jesus Navas is a cornerstone on the right side of the defence, having played 38 matches thus far. However, at 34 and with Suso not one to assume defensive responsibilities, Spinazzola has the chance to overtake his entire left flank. The match between Sergio Reguilon and Peres could also make Spinazzola’s side a key area of battle, if they cancel each other out.
If Lopetegui chooses to give Navas a less attacking role, he will be opening his midfield to more danger in Fonseca’s high-pressure defensive shape. Roma will have at least two major areas to target come Thursday.
There is also the return of Nicolo' Zaniolo, who has come back at just the right time to make a genuine impact on their Europa League campaign. On the other hand, Chris Smalling looks as if he won't be participating following the breakdown of negotiations with Manchester United.
The Giallorossi are approaching their Round of 16 Europa League fixture against Sevilla at the best time. Winning six out of their last seven - including a spirited performance against Inter - has proven the Lupi have the proper attitude, with a character carved out from the depths of their hat-trick of losses. Roma and Fonseca will now stand tall as they ply their lessons learned in an evolved strategy against a crafty Spanish side.
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