Analysis of Roma 5-0 Crotone: Fonseca’s Back 4 Remains Undefeated in 2020/21

Article by Ben Griffis

Roma emphatically beat Crotone 5-0 on May 9th at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, but the score masks some of Roma’s defensive errors and Crotone’s successful defensive tactics while showcasing Crotone’s major defensive errors and Roma’s opportunistic attacking.

Roma came into the match in 7th place, 9 points behind 6th place Lazio and 5 points ahead of 8th place Sassuolo. Crotone had already been relegated after a poor season, but didn’t come to this match already on holiday.

Roma, while a week ago were in a poor run of form in Serie A, came off a midweek 3-2 victory against Manchester United in the 2nd leg of the Europa League semi-finals. That performance was only a morale-booster for the closing stages of Serie A, however, since United beat Roma 6-0 in Manchester the previous week. Manager Paulo Fonseca’s switch to a back 4 worked against United, and he kept a back 4 for this match. Roma had been undefeated in the previous four times all season Fonseca moved away from his preferred back 3, and that streak kept up in this match.

Last week, Paulo Fonseca announced he would step down as Roma manager at the end of the season. 3 hours later, Roma announced that José Mourinho would take over at the start of the 2021/22 season. Fonseca is looking to finish out the season strong to secure Europa League qualification in the 6th spot, but does have his work cut out from him. After this match Roma are 6 points behind Lazio who also have a game in hand.

Serse Cosmi’s Crotone came into the match with 26 losses from 34 games, but also have the joint 3rd highest scorer in the league, Simy with 19 goals—2 fewer than Lukaku in 2nd place. Crotone didn’t look like a relegated side in the first half, but in the second half exhibited several major defensive errors which took the game away from them and frustrated Cosmi. Crotone’s game plan—drawing Roma players deep into Crotone’s half before winning the ball back and attacking on a counter—was relatively successful, but major awareness and concentration errors by defenders set the tone for the second half.

Starting lineups and formations.

Roma Substitutes:
Santon for Reynolds 59’
Pastore for Pedro 67’
Bove for Darboe 80’
Zalewski for Cristante 80’

Crotone Substitutes:
Petriccone for Cigarini 72’
Zanellato for Benali 72’
Rivière for Ounas 87’

Roma Buildup and Attack

Roma built up in almost a 3-3-3-1 shape, with the fullbacks pushing up with Cristante while Darboe dropped in line with the center backs. Sometimes Ebrima Darboe started even deeper than the Ibañez or Kumbulla and started the attack with a run from a sweeper position, much like Ronald Koeman used to do at Barcelona.

Roma’s buildup, and Crotone’s 5-3-2 defenisve shape. Darboe, #55, will take the ball from behind the center backs or just in front of them and push up the field, dictating Roma’s buildup play. Pellegrini, #7, will dictate play in the final third.

Roma began the game playing at a slow tempo, passing around the back line or holding the ball for long periods of time. Crotone did not press while Roma were in their own half, so they were allowed to play. When Roma picked up the pace, they preferred vertical balls starting through Darboe and ending up with Lorenzo Pellegrini.

Roma’s attacks formed around two cogs, Darboe and Pellegrini. Darboe started attacks and acted as the primary playmaker deep in the pitch, while Pellegrini dictated play when the ball moved further up the pitch. Pellegrini roamed around the final third, following the side the ball was on. Roma played one-twos with Pellegrini and either Mayoral or a winger to break through Crotone’s back 5 at the top of the box while defending. This tactic was relatively successful in the first half, but did not lead to goals. Roma did not need to use this approach in the second half, when Crotone’s defense faltered further up the pitch more often, leaving holes for Roma to exploit.

The first half saw Fonseca’s men create several chances, but good saves from Crotone’s Cordaz denied them, or the shots hit the post and crossbar. In the second half, Roma were more clinical with their chances, scoring 5 goals.

Roma’s first goal came from a quickly taken free kick just inside Roma’s half, on the right flank. Pedro saw Mkhitaryan running past the inattentive back line and restarted play with a long diagonal. As the center backs recovered, Borja Mayoral stopped his run to find wide open space in the middle of the box. Mkhitaryan cut the ball back and Pedro scored.

First Goal

Roma’s second goal also came from a lapse in concentration from Crotone’s defense during a seemingly unthreatening set piece. Davide Santon took a throw in level with the 18-yard box, sending the ball to Pellegrini, who was standing a meter behind Crotone’s back line. Pellegrini did very well to take the ball down perfectly with Golemić trying to recover and slotted it past Alex Cordaz.

Second Goal

Roma’s first two goals took advantage of Crotone’s tendency to switch off during set pieces, and after the second goal Crotone’s relatively strong back line switched off in open play as well. Lisandro Magallán didn’t track Pellegrini’s stopped run and cut to the top of the box between the defense and midfield lines for Roma’s third goal after thinking he would keep running into the box. Salvatore Molina was poorly positioned to defend a Karsdorp run from deep into the box and couldn’t recover, allowing him to send the ball across goal to Mkhitaryan. Cordaz had come out to close Karsdorp down, so Mkhitaryan had an open net to finish in, albeit at a tough angle.

Third Goal
Fourth Goal

Mayoral’s 2nd goal, Roma’s 5th and the last kick of the game, sealed the evening. Mayoral received a pass from Zalewski in acres of space on the left-central side of the box, while Golemić and Magallán covered Karsdorp’s run on the right. Djidji and Rispoli had vacated Crotone’s right-hand side, and couldn’t recover in time for Mayoral to shoot after being surrounded by 4 Crotone defenders. The shot took a deflection that left Cordaz flat-footed, although the shot initially looked to be going right to Cordaz.

Fifth Goal

Roma were always going to win once they picked up the tempo in the second half. Crotone’s defenders could not recover from their positional or concentration errors, and Roma made them pay.

Roma Defense

Roma defended in a 4-5-1 shape, with Pedro, Mkhitaryan, and Pellegrini dropping deep and Mayoral staying up. Fonseca instructed his players to press Crotone players quickly to force them into making hasty decisions. Roma also played a very high line, both in attack and defense, which was rather risky and opened them up to counters and long balls.

Ounas’s pace, coupled with a cutting through ball, beat Roma twice, once early in the first half and again late in the second. Both times, however, Ounas didn’t shoot when he had an open angle, and instead cut back, saving Roma. Both times Roma’s defenders played a high line and could not recover until Ounas made poor decisions.

After Roma scored their first goal, Crotone sustained pressure on Roma’s defenders for 10 minutes. In this time, the center backs had difficulties defending Crotone’s crosses and stopping shots. Fuzato made several quality saves to deny Crotone. Watch two of these major chances below:

In the first, Simy’s shot, Roma’s defenders can stop Ounas’ run but can’t clear the ball, even with 3 defenders around, since two go for the challenge and aren’t in a position to clear the ball. Cristante is then the lone man to clear when both Ounas and Simy are trying to get the ball. Once Simy sets his feet, both Cristante and Kumbulla don’t close him down quick enough—something unacceptable when Simy has scored 19 Serie A goals this season. Luckily, Fuzato makes a great stretching save.

In the second chance, Ounas does well to beat Pedro and cut it back to Ahmeb Benali. But look at where Roma’s defenders are in relation to Benali. Benali sat unmarked in a large space in the box. This allows him time to make the correct decision of passing back to an onrushing Cigarini, since Benali is quickly closed down and his shooting lanes blocked. Fuzato does well to save Cigarini’s shot, yet Benali should have been marked.

Roma’s poor defending for a Cigarini shot and Fuzato save. Ounas (with ball) runs to the touchline while Benali remains unmarked in a lot of space in the box (circled). Benali passes to Cigarini (double-headed arrow) who sees a powerful shot saved by Fuzato.

Overall, Roma’s high line helped them in possession but hurt them in transition. They were beat multiple times on the counter and with long balls, but Paulo Fonseca didn’t instruct his players to sit a little deeper or leave a man deeper to act as a sweeper. Especially with the game at 0-0 in the first half or 1-0 in the second, Fonseca should have made tweaks since Roma were consistently beaten. Further, without Fuzato’s saves early in the second half, the game could have taken a different route. Fonseca will have a fair amount of video to review from this match while preparing for Inter in a couple days and the massive Derby della Capitale against Lazio 3 days after that.

Crotone Buildup and Attack

Crotone built up slowly, with their back 3 deep in their own half. Both wingers sat deeper to provide a man on the wing for an easy outlet. Cigarini and Benali were both involved in the buildup, each dropping back to receive a pass from one of the defenders.

After passing around with a slow pace, Cosmi’s men would then look to play direct balls over or through Roma’s defense. Simy was a target man, allowing an outlet to kick the ball to and layoff to Ounas running past him, or to a midfielder who moved it to the wing. Other times, Crotone passed the ball on the ground between Roma’s center back and fullback for Simy or Ounas to run onto. Ounas had greater pace than the Roma defenders and caused lots of trouble, but his decisions were poor near the box and he didn’t take a few shots when he had an open angle. When Simy ran onto the ball he used his size and strength to hold off the Roma defenders, creating space for himself or finding a teammate running into the space vacated by one of the defenders.

These were the most consistent threats in Crotone’s attack, but poor decisions led to poor passes or shots and frustration from Serse Cosmi on the touchline. Cosmi could be heard many times yelling at his players for their decisions after Roma regained possession. Had these decisions been better, the game would have been very different in minute 60, about the time the tide turned.

As noted above, Crotone had a stretch of sustained attacking pressure for 10 minutes early in the second half, culminating in the two chances shown earlier, but were denied by Fuzato—similar to how Cordaz held Roma in the first half. After Roma’s second goal, Crotone played more exclusively on the counter in a bid to keep Roma’s score at bay. These counters were effective at getting the ball into Roma’s half, but a lack of support for the player running with the ball meant these counters didn’t pose a significant threat to Roma’s goal.

Crotone Defense

Cosmi lined his men up in a 5-3-2 defensive shape with a tight line between defense and midfield. The wingers dropped back into the back line, and the 3 central midfielders sat just in front of them, pressuring Roma’s ball carriers. When the ball was in Roma’s half, Ounas and Simy would try to be near the ball carrier, but did not consistently press them. The pressure became more intense as the ball moved toward Crotone’s box.

This tactic was very effective at drawing all of Roma’s players—including their center backs—near Crotone’s goal. When Crotone regained possession, Roma’s players were very high up the pitch and Ounas could use his pace to get behind. This plan by Cosmi was one of the most effective plans by either Roma or Crotone, as Crotone’s low pressure drew Roma into the final third, opening themselves up to a dangerous counter attack.

While Crotone had a relatively effective defensive game plan throughout the match, a lack of concentration led to many goals. Of course, we have already seen how Roma’s first 2 goals were caused by a lack of concentration on set pieces. A lack of positional awareness from Molina allowed Karsdorp to run freely for the fourth goal. Finally, while Magallán and Golemić tracked Karsdorp’s run on the right side of the box, Djidji and Rispoli both didn’t seem aware of Mayoral’s space for the fifth goal. One of these players should have been covering Mayoral, as there was a 4-on-2 in Crotone’s favor, but only 2 players defended.

Final Thoughts

Roma controlled the game in the first half, but didn’t capitalize because of decent saves from both the keeper, Alex Cordaz, and the post. After starting the match at a relatively slow pace, Fonseca upped the tempo in the second half and his team immediately scored. This set the tone for the half, with the last kick of the match being Roma’s 5th goal.

Roma were very lucky that Crotone were indecisive and overplayed in front of the goal, because their high line and shaky center back performances were carved up from Crotone’s long balls and Adam Ounas’ pace. Fuzato saved a few good shots early in the second half as well to keep Roma’s lead after their opener. Roma looked nervous after the first goal but the tide shifted for good after about 10 minutes of Crotone pressure.

Crotone had effective defensive tactics, but deserved to lose the match after multiple poor defensive lapses. However, they should have scored at least a goal or two over the course of the match. A lack of proper decision-making in Roma’s box gifted Fuzato a clean sheet, but Crotone’s other dangerous shots were well-saved by Roma’s goalkeeper.

Crotone sealed their fate with a lack of awareness and concentration from their defenders during Roma’s quick set pieces. Crotone’s laziness on a quick, long free kick to Mkhitaryan running past the defenders opened the scoring. Their lack of awareness to Pellegrini standing behind the back line in the box on a throw in led to the second goal. After the second goal Crotone were out of the match, but had their defenders payed better attention and their attackers made better decisions, the game could have been close.

Roma was very strong in attack, but Fonseca will have lots of defensive work to do before major clashes against Scudetto-winners Inter Milan and eternal rivals Lazio—both coming within a week of this match. He should also keep playing a back 4, which was one of the best decisions he made for this match. Roma have now played a back 4 five times this season in all competitions, and recorded 3 wins and 2 draws. In three of these games, Roma scored 3 or more goals, including recently against Manchester United in the Europa League semi-finals. With Roma’s record this season with a back 3 versus a back 4, it’s a wonder Fonseca hasn’t made this switch sooner. Ebrima Darboe looks like a great young prospect, and his ability to act as a playmaking libero, coming from behind the center backs into midfield to dictate play, is reminiscent of the Netherlands’ Ronald Koeman. Fonseca should keep using a back 4 with Darboe allowed to use his skills in the big matches against Inter and Lazio this coming week.

Header Image by Marco Pomella from Pixabay

The Stadio Olimpico in Rome, where the match was played.

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