There’s an old adage in sport: “Attack is the best form of defence.”
It’s actually a phrase that has its roots in the American Revolution, but it’s one that couldn’t be more appropriate in describing a current, quieter revolution: Zdeněk Zeman’s tactical approach at Roma.
However, if Zeman is serious about Roma’s chances of finishing in a Champions League qualifying spot this season—which, according to quotes stemming from him in the aftermath of Roma’s recent league encounter with Inter, he is—he must tighten up at the back.
So far this season, Roma’s gung-ho approach has seen Roma rise to the top of the Serie A goal-scoring charts, notching an impressive 44 goals, second only behind table-topping Juventus.
Impressive, indeed. But it’s the other end where the problem lies. Roma’s 35 goals conceded averages out at 1.76 a game, higher than the league-average 1.4, leaving Zeman’s side with the third worst defensive record in the league and keeping them at the disappointing No. 7 spot.
Zeman should be admired, really.
In an era when football has become so much about retaining possession, so much about strict, well-drilled, disciplined sides attempting to control games, having the confidence to stick so resolutely with a system that produces such expansive and exciting football but almost encourages such kamikaze defending is certainly brave.
Zeman and his favoured 4-3-3 formation go way back.
His career has been built around religiously sticking to his vision of total football, showing self-confidence and belief in building team after team around the system. Zeman even helped popularise it in Italy.
The system works well when strikers are firing on all cylinders; however, when Destro and Co. stop making the most of the countless chances created from Roma’s attacking play, it becomes very risky.
Take, for example, their 4-1 defeat at Napoli earlier this season. The visitors created 25 attempts at goal—compared to Napoli’s eight—but only scored once.
While last week against Inter, Roma had nine chances to score before the break, they managed only one goal from a questionable penalty. Based on the first 30 minutes, it appeared as though Roma would win comfortably; instead, they drew 1-1.
All-out attack, coupled with leaky defences, make for captivating viewing, no matter what the final score is. But when it doesn't produce results, it’s entirely frustrating.
Perhaps it’s time for Zeman to move away from 4-3-3.
A rare moment against Fiorentina in the Coppa Italia saw Zeman take a gamble by deviating from his traditional formation in order to employ a 3-4-3 system.
It was a gamble that paid off.
It wasn’t pretty, but Roma were stubborn and tough to break down, pulling off a win with a gritty, determined performance.
Before Christmas, club legend Aldair attempted to explain his views on Roma’s defensive woes. He believed that Zeman’s tactics and the quality, age and experience of the Roma defenders do not mix. Aldair’s opinion, however, doesn’t account for one of Roma’s star performers this season.
18-year-old Marquinhos has been the shining light in some of Roma’s darkest defensive displays. The former Brazil Under-17 captain’s impressive performances have seen him regularly keep veteran Argentine Nicolas Burdisso out of the side.
A natural leader, his excellent reading of the game, speed and intelligence have been superb so far this season, solidifying his reputation as one of football’s most exciting defensive prospects. In fact, Marquinhos has become such an integral part of the back four that Zeman requested he be withdrawn from this month's South American Under-20 championship.
Signed on a one-year loan deal, with an option to buy, Marquinhos has already begun to attract interest from some of Europe’s elite, which could well make Roma’s job of hanging on to him that much more difficult.
If, however, Roma can make Marquinhos stay in the Italian capital permanently and find him a high-quality defensive partner to help him shore up the back, then the Champions League may well become a realistic target once again.
Yes, Zeman should be admired.
But if he wants his Roma side to be rewarded for their bravery, then he must build from the back. Because sometimes, just sometimes, defence is the best form of defence.