It was an intriguing early show between Roma and Bologna at the Olimpico di Roma on a Friday night. Paulo Fonseca’s team had not been doing well in the new calendar year. In the most recent seven games, they only won two. In the previous game, they failed to take any points from Sassuolo. They had to carry on to fight for a Champions League ticket next season.
Before the clash, Bologna ranked 11th on the Serie A table, two points behind AC Milan. They had a strong one in the league recently, with only one loss out of seven. They are also potential contenders of the Europa League spots.
The home team played in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Lorenzo Pellegrini was banned as he was sent off in the last game. Jordan Veretout and Bryan Cristante started as the defensive midfielders. In the attacking force, Henrikh Mkhitaryan returned from a hamstring injury, supported Edin Džeko with Diego Perotti and Cengiz Ünder.
Siniša Mihajlović played his Bologna team in a 4-2-3-1 also. He made some changes according to the previous game. Takehiro Tomiyasu started ahead of Ibrahima Mbaye, as the right-back; Andrea Poli was not in the squad, hence, Mattias Svanberg played as the pivot with Jerdy Schouten. Rodrigo Palacio remained as the lone striker.
High press of Bologna
In the early stages of the game, Bologna pressed high to disrupt the build-up of Roma, as they knew Fonseca’s team would play out from the back. The away team were willing to commit numbers forward to reach numerical equality, preventing Roma from moving the ball comfortably.
When the ball was at the centre, on the goalkeeper’s feet, Bologna at least put four players on the front foot. Given the limited kicking ability of Pau López, despite having five players at the back, Roma were playing out from the back with four only. They seldom played the ball to the keeper in this phase.
As illustrated below, both pivots of Roma were marked by Bologna (Roberto Soriano on Cristante; Svanberg on Veretout). Palacio pressed the keeper while covering Davide Santon; Riccardo Orsolini kept an eye on Chris Smalling, hence, denied the short options of López. They forced the ball long and tried to win it from Džeko.
If Roma moved the ball to both sides, Bologna would immediately shut the ball side, and ideally, Roma went long again. The midfielders were committed to this approach, as, when the front players of Bologna pressed, they always had support from behind.
In this situation, they forced López by marking the central short options initially. Then, the Spaniard passed to Gianluca Mancini, which triggered the white shirts to adjust their positions and the block.
Palacio marked Cristante; Soriano pressured Mancini while covering the centre, forced the centre-back to pass forward. And, as an important part of the press, both dropping players of Roma were followed by a white shirt, and under controlled.
Under some circumstances, Bologna even committed the full-backs to press as they marked the oppositions tightly. This successfully eliminated the intention of Roma, which they tried to create a numerical advantage in the first phase of the attack.
In this scene, Tomiyasu also joints the press as he noticed Perotti and Aleksandar Kolarov were dropping. With the pressing of Palacio, Orsolini and follow-up of Svanberg, Bologna enjoyed a four v three numerical superiority in this area.
In the early stages of the game, Roma found it was formidable to play out from the back as they failed to break the press of Bologna. They relied on a man, a dropping player, Perotti, to carry the ball forward.
Below is the dribbling graph of the Perotti. In this season, he provided 7.41 dribbles per game, with 68.1% success rate. However, in this game, the Argentine was even better, he had 14 dribbles, completed 12, which means the success rate was 86%.
Another notable point in this graph was the positions for Perotti’s dribbling. Almost half, six, of his dribbling came from Roma’s half. He made an impact in these areas to carry the ball forward, helped Roma to progress the attack.
For the game situation, with Perotti’s one v one ability, after he dribbled past a player, he created spaces and good conditions for Roma to reach the final third.
In this example, he first took on and got past Svanberg, drifted inside. Then, Roma could access the final third, and the Argentine had enormous spaces in front of him. His teammates were also running forward to create more spaces or looking for a pass.
If not Perotti’s dribbling, then, the front players, usually Džeko would have to drop deep, and Roma were unable to attack in numbers quickly. In this quick break, with Perotti’s progressive run, the capital team quickly reached Bologna’s box.
Another benefit of allowing Perotti drifting to the half-spaces was the release of Kolarov. The Argentine moved away from the touchline, hence, opened up a corridor for the Serbian to make forward runs, providing the width and crosses.
In this match, Roma had 21 crosses, and, these two players contributed 10 of them from the left (Perotti: four & Kolarov: six). For another reference, ten different Roma players attempted a cross in this game, but only three of them managed to complete at least one of them.
The crossings were a trademark of Roma’s attack of the game, as they struggled to penetrate through the low block of Bologna, they could only go wide, and both goals came from the crosses.
Vertical progressive passes
Another possible way to break the press, was to pass vertically through the block, eliminated the pressing players. Mancini and Cristante possessed this ability to progress the ball forward, if they had spaces and time to pick an option.
After the first 30 minutes, the press of Bologna slowed down. It gave more time for Roma players to make this pass forward. And, in this situation, Cristante dropped between the centre-backs, initially took Orsolini out of his position.
With Smalling’s suggestion, the Italian picked Perotti, who was between the lines with a vertical pass.
On other occasions, Mkhitaryan and Džeko also appeared between the lines, but in terms of the ability to turn and carry the ball forward, Perotti was the most skilful player to do this, as he did in this situation.
Low block of Bologna
However, despite access to the final third and control 56.76% of possession, Roma struggled to deal with the low block of Bologna when Mihajlović’s men defended deep.
Bologna’s low block was vertically and horizontally compact, and the wingers also worked hard to track the full-backs, as Fonseca instructed both Santon and Kolarov to stay wide to provide the width. Later on, he even substituted a more offensive full-back, Bruno Peres to replace Santon.
As shown in this image, Bologna put all players behind the ball. At the centre of the pitch, they had nine players defending. On the left side of the defence, Peres was marked by Musa Barrow.
With their low block, Bologna forced Roma to play the ball wide early, then, they tried to intercept those passes or defend the crosses.
Another point to note was the defensive work of the central defenders, as seemed they did enough preparations, forced Džeko to use his left foot to shoot instead of his preferred right foot.
In this match, the big Bosnian had six shots in total, and all of them were coming from his left foot, four on target.
The attacking shape of Bologna
When Bologna had the ball, their shape was like a 3-1-3-3, as they pushed Tomiyasu, the Japanese right-back to an advanced position. For Stefano Denswil, Mattia Bani and Danilo Larangeira, they formed a back three to keep the ball.
For the two pivots, Schouten and Svanberg, they could form another layer in the build-up, operating in the spaces of Roma’s midblock. With this approach, although Bologna did not attempt to play out from the back in every situation, they could still ensure a numerical advantage in when they were keeping the ball.
Roma defended with a midblock
For Roma, they seldom pressed high. Instead, they formed a midblock to deny the attack of Bologna, in a 4-4-2 or 4-2-2-2 shape. However, the press was far from effective, and the awkward positionings of the pivots became the flaw of the press.
So, both teams had three midfielders, ideally, they could man-mark each other. However, when Mkhitaryan joint Džeko on the front line, and they did not cut the central pass, then, Bologna overloaded the midfield.
Below was a clear example. The first line Roma press allowed Schouten received the ball from Łukasz Skorupski and turned comfortably. Then, should Cristante and Veretout step out to press Dutchman? Both pivots of Roma were pinned by a Bologna midfielder.
If any of them stepped out to press, then, unless the run and press were perfect to cover the players behind, or else Bologna would pass to space behind the pivots. In this situation, Cristante pressed, and Schouten did even better, as he found a farther player, Orsolini behind the Roma pivots.
Below is the graph that summarized the recoveries of Roma players in the game. The home team made a total of 80 recoveries, and, this graph somehow showed the inefficacy of their midblock.
They only regained possession in the opposition’s third for nine times, 11% of all recoveries only. For the positions they were winning the ball back, not many of them came from the centre. Furthermore, as shown on the list, the centre-backs and goalkeepers recovered most on the pitch. For the midfielders, especially Cristante and Veretout, they did not win the ball as frequent as the defenders did.
Cristante only had five recoveries, and Veretout had four only.
Palacio in Bologna’s attack
As an experienced player, Palacio was not a traditional number nine when given the chances to play as a lone forward. Instead, he liked to make diagonal runs around the box, stretching the defensive line. His teammates would make forward runs to occupy the spaces created by Palacio at the centre.
Below is the heat map of Palacio of the game. From his large cover of spaces on the pitch, it was hard to believe that he was 38-year-old already. As a ‘false-9’, he seldom dropped to zone 14. Instead, he made diagonal to both ends, stretching the defensive line and pulling the defenders out.
Below was an example of how Palacio’s run made an impact in game situations.
Since Roma was a team that mark the opponents tightly, in this case, Palacio’s wide run took Smalling with him. It increased the distance between the left-back and left centre-back of Roma.
As a result, Kolarov was isolated, and it was impossible for the Serbian to cover that much spaces around him.
For Bologna, both substitutes made important movements. Nicolás Domínguez made a forward run between Smalling and Kolarov. It created more spaces for Andreas Skov Olsen on the far side, as the Serbian came inside to reduce the distance with Smalling.
To conclude, it was a disappointing game for Roma, especially the two individuals who committed errors in this game. Somehow, they gifted Bologna two goals. In general, although the away team pressed high, Roma could still find a way out on some occasions, though they can be more consistent in their build-up. And, defensively, the shape and intensity of the press should be adjusted to protect the centre-backs. Now, they still got 39 points with Atalanta, but the Gian Piero Gasperini’s team still had one more match to create a three-point margin with Roma.
Bologna had a nice victory which gave them hope to continue fighting for a Europa League spot. In this match, they were not the strongest to create chances from their positional plays, but they were clinical to exploit the individual errors of the opponents. Both goals from Orsolini and Barrow were important for this victory. They would carry on and look for another three points from Genoa next week.