Catenaccio Italian defensive units have been dying a slow death, helped along by the Calciopoli scandal which brought such shame to Serie A.
Gone are the days of Claudio Gentile marking Diego Maradona out of the game, Paulo Maldini’s almost supernatural reading of the game or Franco Baresi controlling the tempo like the ultimate Libero that he was.
Even Juventus – the last bastion of defensive solidity – have looked remarkably disjointed on occasion, opening the door for a new champion in Italy for the first time in five years.
Roma are most people’s favourites, and with such a plethora of creative influences and a well-balanced strikeforce, they have all the ingredients to concoct a sustained title tilt.
However, the Giallorossi’s Scudetto hopes could be scuppered by forgetting those defensive principles that have served Italian sides so well over the years.
Rudi Garcia’s men have conceded almost double the amount of goals that Inter Milan have, one place above Roma in second, while only the faded giant of AC Milan have conceded more in the Serie A top seven.
In Europe, Roma have looked even more vulnerable. Twice in as many games against Bayer Leverkusen they inexplicably threw away a two-goal lead from the most comfortable positions. Fortunately a Miralem Pjanic penalty snatched a late victory in the Eternal City, keeping their hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages alive.
Remarkably, Roma have now failed to keep a clean sheet in their last 26 matches in Europe. Only Malta’s Valletta FC (29, 1974-1994) and Northern Ireland’s Coleraine (28, 1969-present) have had a longer run without a clean sheet in European competition (Iceland’s Fram also 26, 1973-1989).
Kostas Manolas has struggled for a regular partner in the heart of the backline, with Antonio Rudiger yet to find his feet since completing a loan move from Stuttgart, and a string of high profile departures in recent years have not helped their cause.
However, their defensive plight is all the more surprising when you consider the fantastic protection that the combative Radja Nainggolan and effervescent Daniele De Rossi provide.
Ahead of them Miralem Pjanic acts as creator-in-chief, effortlessly gliding around the pitch, picking passes and linking defence and attack brilliantly. The Bosnian trequartista is magical at times, but his good work is often undone by this fragility at the back.
The Champions League double-header with Leverkusen proved particularly worrying for Garcia. The Giallorossi absolutely capitulated in both, and such mentality and disjointedness cannot remain part of the set-up, or they will remain trophyless in what could be Francesco Totti’s final season.
Woijcech Szczesny has spoken of his desire to remain in Rome, but he is another who has to step up and not lose concentration at key times. The Arsenal loanee has made just 18 saves in nine league appearances, with a leaky defence ahead of him. Inter’s Samir Handanovic has produced 33 in 12 appearances. Sometimes such margins can be the difference between a close-runner up and champions.
Their spirited effort in the Eternal City derby at the weekend would have settled their nerves, with a rare clean sheet secured, but more of the same is needed.
Roma’s well-balanced strikeforce has all the tools to fire them to the top, and it would be a huge shame if such fine attacking play is wasted by vulnerability at the back.
Gervinho and Mohamed Salah offer superb potency in wide areas, Edin Dzeko is looking more like the striker Manchester City signed from Wolfsburg, even if he has been wasteful on occasion, and Totti is still to make his return.
Kevin Strootman is another absentee who has been missed. The skipper De Rossi’s legs are weary and Nainggolan’s feisty temperament often sees him caught out of position. The Dutch midfielder can be the calming influence that Garcia needs in front of his backline.
With a wealth of creative talent and an attacking arsenal that compliments itself perfectly, Roma have produced the Grande Bellezza that many foresaw in pre-season.
Yet, while being so pleasing on the eye, Garcia’s men have often left themselves open at the back. Shore things up, which they are more than capable of doing with the quality they have, then the Scudetto could well be returning to the Eternal City, and Totti could get the send-off that footballing romanticists the world over so crave.
About the Author – Pete Hall
Freelance football writer working predominantly for Sky Sports. Also regularly write for Bleacher Report, Eurosport, FourFourTwo and numerous others.