L’Ultimo Uomo (Flavio Fusi) In a tense derby that was low on quality, the key to Roma’s victory was in the detail (and in a few tactical adjustments made by coach Luciano Spalletti).
While it’s entirely unnecessary to underline the importance of the derby, the league table – with Roma and Lazio separated by just one point – made yesterday’s even more important. Both coaches made it very clear on the eve of the game that they mustn’t settle for anything other than a win: Inzaghi spoke about a “must-win derby” and that everyone had to give their best in training in order to give him some tough decisions to make; Spalletti responded in kind, stressing that this derby may be even more important given that both teams were “at the top of the table” and that they were therefore playing for more than just local supremacy.
Choosing a formation
Inzaghi went with a 4-3-3, the system he has used most often so far this season (together with the 3-5-2), for a game that many believed was the biggest of his young career. De Vrij was left out of the defence, so Wallace and Radu played centrally in front of Marchetti with Basta at right back and Lulic on the left. Milinkovic-Savic was back to take his place on the right hand side of the midfield three, with Biglia as regista and Parolo on the left. Up front, the expected trio of Felipe Anderson on the right, Keita on the left and Immobile as centre forward were selected.
With his star man Salah absent (injured, along with Florenzi and Paredes), Spalletti went back to the drawing board and, as the teams lined up for kick off, his Roma side were adopting a 3-5-1-1 shape. Rudiger, Manolas and Fazio made up the three-man defence in front of Szczesny, while Bruno Peres and Emerson manned the right and left wings respectively. In the first 15 minutes, with De Rossi in the centre, Nainggolan – who had been expected to start in a more advanced role alongside Perotti playing off the striker – played more as a mezzala, and alternated with Strootman in supporting the forwards. Dzeko started as centre forward, completing the Giallorossi line-up.
It was Lazio who started the game with more conviction and showed a high level of intensity, evidenced by Biglia’s foul after just four seconds. Initially, Roma seemed a bit surprised by their rivals’ approach, struggling to find the right system to use and neither able to build their own attacks nor counter-attack effectively, with the result that Lazio had territorial advantage.
Initially, it was clear that, in the defensive phase, Emerson was almost always level with the three centre backs while Bruno Peres was positioned slightly further up, possibly to attack Lulic higher up the pitch and stop him from giving an option to Keita on the overlap. But they soon redressed this asymmetry, in part because Perotti was struggling to impose himself on Biglia. The former Anderlecht midfielder was finding space too easily and was therefore able to play long, direct passes to open up the play just as he had been asked to do by Inzaghi.
To remedy this situation, Spalletti abandoned the 3-man defence and returned to the more familiar 4-man back line. After around 15 minutes, Bruno Peres was moved to the midfield with Rudiger pushed out to right back, though he was given instructions not to get involved offensively in order to allow Emerson, on the opposite flank, to attack with greater freedom and frequency. Perotti also abandoned his role as trequartista to take up a wider position on the left.
Roma therefore defended with a standard 4-4-2/4-4-1-1, with Nainggolan pushing forward to help Dzeko press when out of possession but when in possession he rarely went too deep into the Lazio half. The changes gave Roma greater defensive stability, but didn’t solve their problems going forward. Meanwhile Lazio weren’t able to create many clear chances either – they were heavily reliant on attacking down the wings and the individual ability of Keita and Felipe Anderson, but just one of the Brazilian’s five attempted dribbles was successful. The first half can be summed up by the Expected Goals statistic, which finished 0.3 v 0.1 in Lazio’s favour.
Chances were few and far between overall: there were 18 shots in total, 11 for Lazio and 7 for Roma, generating 0.5 and 0.6 Expected Goals respectively. Moreover, the Giallorossi’s Expected Goals tally is significantly boosted by the big chance for Strootman, gifted to him by Wallace’s calamitous error, and which played a major part in deciding the derby.
However, that was bound to happen given that the two teams approached the game by virtually abandoning any attempt at building the play through the centre, instead focusing their attacks down the wings and waiting for the right moment. Just 20% of Lazio’s attacks came through the centre – their preferred approach was down the right (47%) but Felipe Anderson was ineffective (two key passes, but just one successful dribble from five and one shot from outside the box).
Roma’s approach was even more monotonous, as they mainly used the left wing to develop their attacks (60%). That decision was the result of the team selection; since Rudiger was told not to venture beyond his own half, it was down to Emerson, Nainggolan and Perotti to support the attacking moves. Bruno Peres was mainly used in the transitional phase or to make himself available for a switch of play.
Both teams were probably so afraid of leaving their centre open to their opponents’ counter-attacks that they decided to avoid using it when building their own attacks: losing the ball on the wing is certainly less dangerous, but the flip side of the coin is that it also makes it more difficult to create goalscoring opportunities.
As often happens in these sort of games, the match was decided by an isolated incident: Wallace’s error didn’t just gift the opening goal of the game to Strootman, but it damaged the team mentally as well, as the scuffle that followed the Giallorossi’s opener clearly shows.
In theory there was plenty of time left to turn things around (the Dutchman scored in the 64th minute) but Inzaghi’s team became very jittery as they tried to regather themselves in search of an equaliser. When Nainggolan doubled the lead, exploiting an equally disastrous error from Marchetti, caught out of position when the Belgian shot from distance, Lazio collapsed entirely. With 32 minutes of the second half gone, the game was effectively over; Patric, Lombardi and Kishna came on as substitutes but had no effect on the result.
Roma thus maintained the gap with Juventus and joined Milan on 32 points, who they face next at the Olimpico before the trip to the Juventus Stadium. But the derby showed how difficult it will be to replace Salah – they haven’t been so ineffective in the final third all season. Without the Egyptian, who will be back in February, Roma don’t seem to have an option who can replicate his runs into deep, nor is it clear which member of their squad will be able to try to replace him. Lazio remain on 28 points, level with Napoli, but if they are able to put this painful defeat behind them, they do have the means to continue to challenge for a European place and keep making life difficult for their rivals.