Change was in the air at both Vinovo and Trigoria last summer. Seeking a return to pre-Calciopoli heights, Juventus turned to former captain Antonio Conte, meanwhile some 500kms south and following years of financial uncertainty, American businessman Thomas Di Benedetto led the Roman revolution. As 2011-12 nears completion, two of Italian football’s most interesting constructions have straddled different paths but appear to be headed for brighter times.
Their respective choices in playing stocks and on the bench were a careful consideration of philosophies and level of development. The Bianconeri – after beginning under Luigi Delneri – aimed for ready-made players capable of attaining their minimum goal of Champions League football, such as Stephan Lichtsteiner, Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Mirko Vucinic. Starting from scratch, Roma’s hierarchy deliberately targeted the future with signings such as Erik Lamela, Jose Angel, Miralem Pjanic, Bojan Krkic and Fabio Borini. Also, if Juventus went for a familiar face in Conte, Roma went the opposite way by signing Barcelona B Coach Luis Enrique.
The Lecce native built the team around the three-man midfield of Vidal, Pirlo and Claudio Marchisio. It shields a miserly defence – the best in Europe’s top five leagues, which concedes fewer than ten shots per match – whilst also contributing 13 goals. Juve’s average possession rate of 61.2 percent is Serie A’s highest and their 85 percent pass completion rate is equal-first alongside Roma. However, their 53 goals scored from a League high average of 19 shots per game is their weakest area.
More than a system, Conte has instilled a winning mentality at Juventus, the same attitude he conveyed as a player, which to him is critical: “It’s while I was part of that Juventus (under Marcello Lippi) that I learned what it means to be a winner. Even now, the most important thing I do as a Coach is to transmit that knowledge to my players.” Gianluigi Buffon agrees, noting Juve’s secret this season has been Conte’s ambition.
In Rome, the desire to duplicate the Spanish style initially manifested itself from two angles. Enrique’s favoured 4-3-3 formation differed from Luciano Spalletti’s fluent 4-2-3-1 and Claudio Ranieri’s 4-3-1-2. Its introduction, along with a number of new individuals, meant time was required to adjust. Their season start included four losses in the first ten matches.
Enrique altered tactically, reverting to a recognisable 4-3-1-2 Roma could steadily grow from, whilst incorporating the Spaniard’s style. They only trail Juve in terms of possession, shots per match and short passes completed. Where last term only David Pizarro and Daniele De Rossi averaged over 50 passes a game and with John Arne Riise third on 42, eight players better Riise’s mark. It indicates a team comfortable in possession, akin to Spalletti’s Lupi.
The second major alteration was the use of De Rossi. From the right of a midfield three he did not have a defined creative or defensive role. This has changed under Enrique as De Rossi is positioned ala Sergio Busquets at the midfield base. His primary job is to craft from deep and only fellow creators Pirlo (84) and Riccardo Montolivo (67) average more passes per match than De Rossi’s 66, plus he also assists by winning the ball back quickly – a key focus for Enrique – and sits in the top ten for interceptions in Serie A.
Whilst Juve have remained undefeated and are first, erasing many of the issues which plagued their past two seasons, Roma have experienced a mixed campaign with 15 wins and 12 losses. That is one more than last term and doubles that of their Scudetto-pursuit in 2009-10. Defensively Roma look suspect considering their fifth place. They concede four more shots per match than Juve, complete the least amount of tackles in Serie A and their 42 goals conceded is the second highest of teams in the top half. Greater defensive cohesion is an area Roma must improve in order to challenge for honours. But as he stressed in August, “I don’t have a crystal ball and I’m not Harry Potter,” Enrique acknowledged it will take time to cultivate his ideas.
Nonetheless, as he noted last week, Roma still can finish this campaign positively: “It’s true we’ve had some terrible results, but we must’ve done something right to stay up there fighting for the Champions League.” Conte meanwhile has almost steered Juve towards the Scudetto, but he too recognises they need strengthening in certain areas. And when Juventus and Roma meet at the Juventus Stadium on Sunday, it is another step along their exciting new paths.