Roma have been off to a ‘perfect six’ start to their Serie A campaign. Let’s take a look into Rudi Garcia’s tactical acumen and the changes he has brought to the table.
A little over two years ago, Paris Saint-Germain had finished fourth in their league campaign – a massive sixteen points behind the champions. The same season, AS Monaco had been relegated to the second division. But in a matter of three years, it is in a way incredible and yet even amusing to note, the two are now very realistically expected to turn Ligue 1 into a two-horse battle for the years to come. You’d like to believe this should thus put the ever so lovable volatility in French football to good rest. And should that actually be the case, the 2010-11 season will be noted down in the history of French football as one of the last two fairy-tale chapters before the league was painted Espano-Scottish. And by that account, Rudi Garcia, the man in charge of Lille in their title winning run shall reserve himself a page or two when the histories will be written, discussed and even revered retrospectively.
Rudi Garcia is a manager of modest needs or so has it seemed so far. He has never managed sides operating on exorbitant budgets. Unconditional support from an oil magnet’s purse is something as unfamiliar to him as stability and composure have been to Roma in last two years. If Roma ever needed a man who believes in the philosophy of ‘end justifies means’, it’s now. The tactical experimentations, stressing heavily on the aesthetics of the game produced little in terms of results and that’s primarily the reason neither Luis Enrique nor Zdenek Zeman could last long enough to leave their mark – quite possibly, in the best interest of Roma. The transfer acquisitions that were made under these managers were flamboyant, to say the least, and there wasn’t much explanation for the team being far less than the sum of its parts.
A system, yes, a system that doesn’t suppress the footballing expression on the field and yet is pragmatic in a good measure is something Roma were essentially missing and although the extrapolation of the six results this season so far will be slightly premature, there are reasons to believe the right system has finally been discovered. The fact Rudi Garcia did not carry a heavy baggage of expectations at the start of his journey in the Italian capital has helped him tremendously to try out his methods without the fear of facing the characteristic wrath of the Italian media – much more so, for being one of the few non-Italian managers in the league. His ideas have so far been very well taken by his players and his proactive rotation policies will be decisive both in finding options as the season progresses and in maintaining the well-being of the dressing room.
Tactically Sound And Solid
But for being unavailable for some reason or the other, both Erik Lamela and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo almost started every game for Roma during the last season. Totti was pushed to the left wing by Zeman – a role in which he quite visibly excelled after being underutilized the previous season. The three man attacking line looked pretty fluid and potent upfront but the failure to maintain a shape in sync with the midfield often left Roma very predictable in the attack and more often than not, vulnerable while defending on the flanks. But Zeman is hardly the man you want to question. Andreazzoli, his makeshift successor perhaps identified these flaws but there was only so much he could do as far as rectification was concerned.
Come to think of it, Rudi Garcia has hardly altered with Zeman’s tactical design and yet the team looks much more solid, cohesive and unfaltering. Of course, defensive solidity has been added to the roster by signing proven strength in this area but the tactical aspect of better occupation of space cannot be undermined at all. Days of Roma committing as many as eight men forward as soon as the game kicks off, seem to be of a distant past and that speaks volumes for the kind of influence the manager has had in his very first spell in Italian football.
Daniele De Rossi has deservedly been reinstated in his favoured role and while the Italian is playing to the best of his abilities, his team won’t need another defensive dimension in midfield. De Rossi has had a few indifferent phases during the last two seasons but is still one of the best in the business and in the company of Strootman and Pjanic, the three now make a very strong claim at being regarded as the best midfield combination in the league – especially when their Juventus counterparts haven’t gotten off to the best possible start to their season.
This Roma midfield’s greatest strength lies in the clear distinction in the role for each of the three and in the fact that all the three, should the need arise, are adept at picking up the other’s role. In Michael Bradley, Roma have a versatile backup who can easily slot in to any of these roles. Pjanic presently is the most liberated of the three in the mid and is the channel through which the attacking moves are driven. But that doesn’t compromise his defensive alertness one bit and that shows, tactical discipline takes the highest precedence in Rudi Garcia’s books – quite rightly so.
The Signings That Mattered
While it’s fashionable these days to have ball playing defenders in your roster, the basics of defending continue to remain as relevant as ever. And this is one area where Roma needed the maximum correction from their new manager. For a team that was leaking goals left, right and centre till not so long ago, it is indeed an accomplishment to have at least dropped hints of having sorted out their defensive issues. So far, Roma have conceded a solitary goal in their league campaign and it won’t take a rocket scientist to judge the kind of impact their new signings have straightaway had on the team’s fortunes.
Mehdi Benatia has been one of the top defenders in the league for some seasons now. His consistency of Udinese days has very well been carried forward and it can strongly be suggested, he has been Roma’s best player in the season. His form and fitness will be very crucial as the season heads to more decisive periods. But, while Benatia was almost certain to improve Roma’s struggling backline, the same wasn’t said about Maicon’s signing.
The Brazilian did not enjoy the best of his times during last two seasons and you might be forgiven to have deemed this one as a regressive move from Roma. However, it seems Maicon hasn’t yet given up on his hopes of featuring for Brazil one more time next year in front of the home crowd. And thus, the intent and the liveliness have truly been on show in what effectively is his last chance to showcase his potential and put a claim at selection. Surely, this is not the Maicon of Mourinho’s Inter days who’d be marauding through the right flank but that exactly isn’t his role with the Giallorossi either.
In fact, Maicon has tended to offer more defensively by drifting towards the centre to add numbers to the backline while Balzaretti from the left advances in attacking zones. The understanding between the defence and midfield too has quite apparently improved. Roma defend as a unit and hardly lack the composure dealing with the ball in their own half.
One of the more surprising decisions by Rudi Garcia was to convince Walter Sabatini to sign Gervinho – one of the better performers in that title winning season at Lille but an outcast at best in the following two years in North London. Gervinho has so far been used on the left forcing Totti to operate from the centre. But that hasn’t stopped the Ivorian forward to be the club’s joint top scorer sharing the limelight with Florenzi and Ljajic. Considering Mattia Destro’s unavailability and Rudi Garcia’s liking for rotation, Gervinho is definitely going to find more playing time than most thought he would. The high-profile Adem Ljajic, who many thought was a direct replacement for Lamela, has also been forced to earn a spot and has presently been competing with and complimenting Alessandro Florenzi, which is indeed heartening to see.
Roma’s ‘project’ almost appeared to be losing its direction with the sale of two of Europe’s most prodigious talents in Lamela and Marquinhos but the club has acted decisively in securing replacements. And much to the surprise of everyone, this side indeed appears to be more balanced and complete.
Despite the early signs of domination, Rudi Garcia’s Roma is still a work in progress and he has to ensure the players reach nowhere close to complacency. The start to the season has surely been flattering but one must admit, the fixture list too has played its part. It is now that the testing period starts as Roma face Inter, Napoli and Udinese in their next three rounds of fixtures. Both Inter and Napoli have themselves been off to a fantastic start and while Udinese have been off the colours so far, their bouncing back, sooner or later, is as certain as Milan conceding a goal from a set-piece situation.
To Roma’s advantage, is their lack of engagement in multiple tournaments this season. Most of the top teams in Italy will have their attention divided maintaining a balance between their domestic and continental priorities. This reminds us of the Juventus of 2011-12 who rose to the top of their prowess during the months of March and April where Milan faltered due to the thin squad struggling to meet the demands of two highly engaging tournaments. Roma have, for two seasons had the squad that can with very good reason be deemed title contenders but the on-paper potential has never been translated on the field. Whether it changes this season with the club deploying a more systematic and calculative approach, is something football enthusiasts all across Europe will have their eyes set on. At the end of May next year, few sights will match the might of Francesco Totti lifting a Scudetto.