Roma Resurgence- Rudi Garcia’s Tactics


In 2006, Roma manager Luciano Spalleti was facing a crisis. Injuries had hit his side hard, leaving them bereft of any fit centre-forward to lead the line. So Spalleti was forced to play a highly unorthodox version of the conventional 4-2-3-1, and Francesco Totti was deployed as the furthest man up front. The little bit of improvisation though, came as Totti dropped behind to play in his preferred trequartista role, a position that had found itself on the decline in modern football. A trequartista is originally an attacking midfielder gifted with complete tactical freedom, in some cases even without the responsibility of having to drop back to defend. The tactical discipline in modern football does not allow this measure of freedom, hence the role of a trequartista is reserved for adventurous managers, and players with high flair and creativity.

Francesco Totti played this role in the modified 4-2-3-1, dropping in the gap between the opposition’s defensive line and midfield. Being the inventive genius that he is, the Italian wrecked havoc from the position and finished as Europe’s top goal scorer that season with an astounding 26 goals to his name. This formation, with a player  playing as a withdrawn forward, came to be called the ‘False 9’ with Totti the first False-9 of the new millennium. Sadly, after a 7-1 dismantling at the hands of Manchester United in the Champions League and a variety of unknown reasons, the False 9 was abandoned by Roma. But the legacy of the innovation was carried on by Manchester United, and later Barcelona and the Spanish national team.

Come 2013, Roma found themselves in crisis again. The misery of losing out on a Champions League spot was compounded by losing to fierce rivals and neighbours Lazio in the Coppa Italia final. First choice managers Walter Mazzarri and Massimiliano Allegri both rebuffed Roma’s advances and third choice Rudi Garcia was chosen to take the helm. Garcia, a relatively unknown name, had enjoyed limited success with Lille during their golden period, that too when the squad was filled with highly-rated talents like Eden Hazard, Gervinho and Moussa Sow. Financial pressures forced the club into selling some of the club’s most notable names – Brazilian centre-back Marquinhos, highly rated wing-forward Erik Lamela and a key forward in Pablo Osvaldo. In essence, Garcia inherited a ravaged and demoralized squad, with little or negligible expectations. Roma’s miraculous rise though, all began right there, and the false 9 employed during the earlier crisis was to become a key factor.

The sales of the three key players allowed Garcia to scout the transfer market and rebuild according to how he saw fit. Napoli ‘keeper Morgan De Sanctis came in, seasoned veteran Maicon, a young defender by the name of Mehdi Benatia and Garcia’s former protégé Gervinho, all followed. The core of Roma’s side though, came in the form of Dutch-dynamo Kevin Strootman and Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic. Garcia was all too familiar with Pjanic’s style of play, after having watched him ply his trade for Lyon. The first step to Roma’s resurgence was now on the horizon.

The second hurdle that lay in Garcia’s way was implementing the blueprint in his head on to the pitch. The new manager took a massive risk in going with the formation that had worked wonders for Roma a good 7 years ago, choosing to employ 37 year old Francesco Totti in the trequartista’s role once more. Totti was required to perform the same duties from the earlier version of this formation, i.e. drop deep to collect the ball and create space for the wingers to exploit. In essence, if the opposing centre-back chooses to follow the trequartista into deep positions, he leaves his partnering centre-back exposed to an attack. On the other hand, if he chooses to stay back, it allows Totti to push further forward, or run directly at the back four, which is always difficult for opposing defenders, as they risk mistiming their tackles or having to organise themselves with effectively 4 or 5 Roma midfielders and forwards charging at them on the counter.

As was the case in the earlier false 9, the tactic required the services of quick wingers like Amantino Mancini and Rodrigo Taddei pushing up from the wings. Infact, when Mirko Vucinic returned from injury in 2006, he was converted by Spalleti into a left sided inside forward, to provide a goal scoring touch to the formation. The new Roma side employed the same framework – a fast and skilled dribbler in Gervinho to run at defenders and Alessandro Florenzi on the other wing, who was equally comfortable cutting inside or drifting to the byline. Gervinho’s return to form is not a coincidence, as during attacking transitions, Roma use the same 4-3-3 which Garcia used so effectively with the Ivorian at Lille. Totti’s intelligent positioning and brilliant understanding to create spaces allows Gervinho the space he needs to utilise his dribbling and speed, something that he wasn’t allowed to do while at Arsenal. The results are explicit; he has already contributed 3 goals and one assist in 6 appearances.

His effectiveness thanks to this tactical variation can be seen when we analyse his performance in a 0-3 win against Inter earlier in the season. Totti was up against a 3 man Inter defence – Juan Jesus (left), Andrea Rannochia (centre) and Rolando (right), aided by wingbacks Alvaro Pereira and Yuto Nagatomo. As Totti dropped into deep central positions, Jesus was forced to leave his left sided position to follow Totti towards the centre, leaving Inter’s left side in shambles. Gervinho looked to maximise on Totti’s exceptional space creation abilities by running into this gap, as Alvaro Pereira was forced to drop extremely deep to defend. As Inter attacked, Gervinho did not drop deep to track Pereira’s runs, but instead positioned himself near the half way line, ready to latch on to any counter attack initiation from Totti. True enough, Gervinho collected the ball 14 times around the halfway line that night, and succeeded in all 4 of his take-ons from the right flank. At one point in the game, Jesus lost possession after dribbling past a couple of Roma players. De Rossi switched play to the right side as Gervinho exploited the space left by Jesus. Perreira was forced to track and clattered into Gervinho for a penalty.

But the true reason for Roma’s resurgence lies in the balance in the midfield. In De Rossi-Pjanic-Strootman, Roma has arguably one of the most tactically sound and balanced midfields in Europe. The midfield is divided into three parts, with each player performing a key role.As is the key to countering with multiple midfielders, the false 9 places ample emphasis on not only the quality of the midfield, but also on the presence of a defensive midfielder capable of retaining possession as well as aiding fluid transitions. Owen Hargreaves played that role in United’s formation, Busquets took up that role in Barcelona’s side and De Rossi/ David Pizzaro did so in Roma’s earlier False 9. Naturally, he became first choice for the pivot guarding the defense. In the current Roma side, De Rossi is the deepest lying midfielder, and the most defensive minded of the trio. Thanks to his excellent anticipation and reading of the game, De Rossi wins possession by intercepting or tackling, and plays short passes to his more attack minded midfielders. De Rossi along with Totti becomes the key defensive transition at the back, as he can slot in alongside Benatia and Castan to provide three at the back, effectively making Balzaretti and Maicon wingbacks, and allowing them to push forward. Maicon who built his reputation as a rampaging full back at Inter has license to do the same at Roma, knowing that De Rossi is there to cover in case the opposition counters.

The second part of the midfield is what we will call the intermediate, performed by a comprehensive midfielder in Kevin Strootman. The Dutchman offers a well rounded package in midfield, strength to hold off players, power to surge through with the ball, tackling and the ability to pick out key passes, which in turn allows him to contribute at both ends of the pitch. Strootman is deployed ahead of De Rossi, but drops behind him in case De Rossi decides to push forward. During attacking transitions, Strootman shifts the ball, or carries it deeper to allow Pjanic and the two wingers to make runs. Strootman’s presence adds additional stability to the side, and makes it even more compact when combined with the tenacious De Rossi’s religious guarding of Roma’s back line. In the first 10 games of the Serie A, Roma conceded just once, a jaw dropping tribute to Roma’s excellent defensive organisation as well as the three man midfield.

Lastly the third role is performed by the creative ingenuity of Miralem Pjanic. Although he is as adept at contributing to the industrious work performed largely by De Rossi and Strootman, this double pivot in midfield allows him a measure of added freedom – a blessing to any playmaker in European football. Pjanic is the most advanced of the three midfielders, which allows him to make the most of his precise passing and tactical awareness. His game is of course, helped by Totti playing as a False 9, as the space created between defences is often used by Pjanic to thread through balls into the wingers. His role is not to be confused with that of Totti’s trequartista, as Pjanic is required to press constantly when not in possession.

This trio combined with Garcia’s excellent tactical acumen make Roma a compact and dangerous unit that performs defense and attack in measured transitions. As mentioned earlier, the defense too organizes itself according to the situation, allowing them to switch between a 4-2-3-1, a 4-3-3 or a 5-3-2 at will. Roma’s unbeaten record in the league coupled with the best start ever in a Serie A campaign is indicating that the side from the capital may after all be genuine title contenders come the end of the season.

But as is the case with any formation, questions will be asked as the season progresses. How good is the depth of the squad that Roma has? Considering that Totti is now 37 years old, how durable is he, and how can the side be adjusted to deal with punishing schedules? Who will play the False 9 if Totti is given a rest, considering Marco Borriello is a completely different forward compared to the legendary pass-master’s versatility and technical brilliance? If Roma answer all these questions satisfactorily, they could very well find themselves right where they sit right now, at the top of the table. But if the formation self destructs like it did against United all those years ago, Roma’s fantastic start will only be a distant and painful memory.

Shamir Reuben

Home is where it's green, with a goal post at each end. 20 years old, fictional and football writer. Trequartista by soul, semi professional and regional level footballing experience. Tactics enthusiast, staunchly maniacal Chelsea fan. Roots for Germany, soft spot for England, enchanted by Belgium.