In time, Roma Coach Eusebio Di Francesco could very well establish himself as one of the game’s most prominent masterminds. Together with his derby rival Simone Inzaghi, he certainly looks like the strongest candidate to follow in the footsteps of Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri.
His debut season at Roma – also his first at the helm of a major club – saw him reach a sensational Champions League semi-final that nobody will ever forget, and an embarrassing Coppa Italia Last 16 exit which nobody remembers.
There is, I think, something representative about this coexistence of memory and amnesia in our understanding of the man. It reflects Di Francesco’s own intriguing and ambivalent qualities, which are either very well known or else completely opaque.
What is well known? Glossing for concision over his personal history and results, we can say of EDF that his default formation is the 4-3-3, and that he is good at developing youngsters. This much is obvious enough, and let’s add that the Roma Coach is perhaps even better at nurturing talent than Atalanta’s Gian Piero Gasperini, who plays his youth products out of necessity rather than preference.
Di Francesco also seems to be fairly able at managing his players psychologically and keeping the locker-room together, although this quality needs more intense testing. Sporting director Monchi did a persistent job of avoiding (or else selling) divas and troublemakers, so for now the Roma Coach is simply doing a good job of an easy task.
This covers what we know. What we do not know is how proficient the man really is with tactics, and this is a pretty serious lacuna for anyone looking to evaluate a football Coach.
The consensus is that Di Francesco’s induction into football systems was heavily informed by the endlessly influential Zdenek Zeman, and that his 4-3-3 mimics the latter’s aggressive tactics, but furnishes them with a new layer of defensive rigour.
This assessment is very popular, but I suspect it is passé. It may be true of EDF’s Sassuolo days, but I’m not sure it accurately describes his work with Roma, at least not so far.
Part of the problem is that the picture is not complete. Zeman relied heavily on technical passers in the midfield, but last year’s Roma critically lacked a playmaker, which means that the Zeman model (or, for that matter, even an orthodox 4-3-3) could not be implemented.
What was EDF’s solution to plug that hole? The simple answer is that he did not have one. With no other options to push up play than giving the ball to left-back Aleksandar Kolarov, the Giallorossi were effectively funnelling themselves down one flank, which made them increasingly predictable.
Ironically, it became fashionable at one point to say that Di Francesco’s favourite style of football involved ‘building play through the wings’. This was a typical case of putting the cart before the horse, as onlookers assumed that Roma played that way by design rather than lack thereof.
The onset of the winter crisis, in which Roma jeopardised even their Top Four placement, exposed the weaknesses of their formation. That Di Francesco refused to change it is not a marker of ‘style’, but of incompetence.
Having a tactical system in football is next to useless if that system is not flexible, and here was a man who refused to calibrate his 4-3-3 even as it repeatedly failed. Around February of this year, I came to the conclusion that Di Francesco was overall a decent Coach, but that tactics were not his strongest suit. And then, of course, the ‘Romuntada’ happened.
I covered Roma’s Champions League quarter-final against Barcelona in greater detail elsewhere, but let us note that EDF’s abrupt switch to a 3-5-2 wasn’t just a masterstroke in tactics. It was also deeply out of character, a gesture that flew in the face of everything we had seen from the Roma Coach until then.
From there until the final game of the season, Di Francesco was as transformed as any character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He juggled formations, systems and solutions, sometimes even to excess (the 3-5-2 gamble backfired against Liverpool).
In the aftermath of the championship, many have attempted to explain DiFra and his tactics, sometimes in great detail. But the truth is that the man in charge of the Giallorossi showed us conclusive evidence of tactical incompetence and brilliance, and this contradiction has yet to be resolved.
Still, it should be resolved fairly quickly. Roma have finally been provided with a playmaker in the form of Javier Pastore, and the team have more than sufficient depth to actualise almost any tactical system. Inexperience is no longer an excuse either, meaning that Roma’s worth this season will be an accurate reflection of Di Francesco’s.
The 49-year-old pulled off a Janus impersonation for a year, but it is unlikely he’ll be able to repeat the trick. With Max Allegri, Carlo Ancelotti, Luciano Spalletti and Simone Inzaghi to lock horns with, there is no more room for indecision. This year DiFra will either bite the dust in the trail of the elite, or he will claim his golden seat among them.
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Football Italia staff