Saturday, July 19 th, 2014
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Roma: the best formation is no formation
4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-5-2: tactical dogmas for some, random numbers in a sequence for Rudi Garcia. His Roma marvelously transcends schemes, offering one of the most exciting shows in European football
by Ben Cousins
If you were watching the Coppa Italia semi-final between Roma and Napoli on 5th February, the men living inside your television probably told you Roma were playing a 4-3-3 formation. And whilst this is a great description for the purposes of showing you who is playing, it stops short of really explaining the Giallorossi's amorphous tactics.

Gervinho's opening goal in the 13th minute exemplified exactly why Rudi Garcia's total-football tactics have delivered such tangible improvement from the Romans. The Ivorian, with the new-found responsibility of going wherever the hell he likes, has been pillaging terrified defences all season. He seems to be simultaneously occupying the right wing, the left wing and the center forward position; combining this with Francesco Totti's natural inclination to float and elude, defenders are often left marking dark matter, totally unsure of what to do and where to go next.

This could be relatively easy to achieve with such a talented Roma side if you didn't care about defending, but Roma have the most frugal defence in Serie A. This is not down to a rigid structure behind the compilation of trequartistas, but an equally flowing and holistic defence, swooping in to surround the opposition attackers like the tide terrorising once proud sandcastles. This is what's known as a defensive overload, and essentially equates to outnumbering their attackers in any given zone.

Imagine the ball is with Callejon on Napoli's right wing - Daniele De Rossi drops in-between the centre backs, and Leandro Castan then joins Torosidis to create a two-on-one in Roma's favour. Kevin Strootman drops deeper to ensure the man from Madrid cannot pass into his midfield, and before he even knows it Adem Ljajić is blocking his route back to Maggio and he has nowhere to go. All he can really do is chuck the ball to Morgan De Sanctis and apologise for the inconvenience he has caused to the watching Stadio Olimpico.

It is this propensity to not just close down, but press intelligently and eliminate the opposition's options that provide a defensive unit not of four, but eleven. They defend as a team and attack as a team. A boring and simple rhetoric but a nuanced and stoic affectation that Rudi Garcia has brought with him from Lille, a side regularly in possession of the best defence in Ligue 1, coincidence I think not.

Yet of course it wasn't all high fives and fist bumps for the home side, after Rafa Benitez inspired an Istanbul-like turnaround, scoring two goals in a most unforeseen renaissance. It appeared Napoli, in the first half confined in the rigorous structure of, that dirty word, a formation, had left their shackles and developed their own interpretation of elusion and space-invasion.

No longer was Gonzalo Higuain making unrequited darts behind the defence, but now Lorenzo Insigne and later Dries Mertens were accompanying him in their own attempts to affect the game, committing defenders and questioning the fabled defensive overload. De Sanctis may have gifted them the first goal but it was the desire to run at defenders that caused them to back off and create the problems.

Mertens replaced the usually talismanic Hamšík and further embodied the change in approach señor Benitez ordered, linking up with Higuain and Insigne terrifically to create a devilishly nimble and prickly Bermuda triangle of one-twos and step-overs. The exquisite second goal was almost bashfully celebrated but it was everything Napoli hadn't been so far. With genuine ingenuity and the desire to run past their Sky Sports registered domicile of five square yards, Napoli had morphed into a fearsome attacking proposition.

But despite Mertens' wonderfully energetic goal Roma demonstrated their ability to shape-shift into a different animal, as they enveloped the ball for several minutes, affording themselves the requisite rest necessary for a resurgence of their own. It is this ability to evolve that makes them so dangerous. They are equally happy with 60% possession as they are 40%, and they will transcend from 3-5-2 to 4-3-3 to 2-1-7 as the need presents itself.

Juventus are the only other side in Italy as capable of this; this is why they are both so damn good. And never should it be underestimated, this tactical ambiguity intertwined with responsibility and work ethic. It is easy to say Arturo Vidal is the best player in Serie A but it is Conte's template that gives him the opportunity to be so.

So next time you say something like "I think Roma should play with three at the back", stop and think; if you watch closely, they already do. But they don't really. They do though… Sort of.

Saturday, March 1 st, 2014
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