If you weren’t already getting yourself excited, it’s about time you did! Liverpool are back in the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in a decade, and with the run the Reds are on, one wouldn’t bet against them going all the way to Kiev.
Despite their opponents being the bookies’ least favoured side left in the tournament, Roma won’t be the pushovers many Liverpool fans hope and think they are, however. Here, we take a closer look at what Klopp’s men can expect from their opponents on Tuesday.
Style of Play
Despite rolling out a 3-man back-line in their historic win over Barcelona, as well as the Derby della Capitale, those fixtures were a divergence from the norm, chosen to counter the 2-striker formation of the Blaugranes and Lazio. Throughout the season, Eusebio Di Francesco has favoured a 4-3-3, and it seems likely, not to mention advisable, to do so again at Anfield.
The Giallorossi typically employ two separate styles of defense, and switch fluidly between the two dependent on the situation.
If the opposition attempt to build their play from the back, Roma will push their team up high and counter-press. All three midfielders, and occasionally even the fullbacks will move up the pitch, looking to force the opposition into making mistakes, cutting out passes into midfield, and launching a counter attack if possession is won in advanced areas.
Should the other team play their way through the initial pressing phase, the Romans will normally fall back into a narrow 4-5-1 formation, restricting play from taking place in the middle of the pitch and forcing the opponents wide. Their centre-backs will typically play a cover system, focusing on denying the ball over the top and trusting their midfield to protect the space in front of them.
Di Francesco’s side generally create their chances through three distinct phases, the first of which we have already touched on. If the counter-press is successful — as Liverpool fans will know very well — opportunities are there for the taking, with the opposition unbalanced and your attackers are already up the field. Wide players and midfielders will all charge into the box, and Roma possess a significant threat if they are able to apply their counter-press effectively.
Despite being competent high pressers, Di Francesco’s men are not one-trick ponies. Boasting the second highest possession stats in the Serie A, the Giallorossi will happily hold onto the ball and build their attacks. Spreading players across the pitch in order to expand the field of play, the end goal is typically working the ball wide to one of their advanced fullbacks, looking for the cross into the box. 36% of Roma’s assists this season have been from crosses — compared to Liverpool’s 18% — made possible both by the excellent service from Aleksandar Kolarov and Alessandro Florenzi — tallying seven and five assists, respectively — and the aerial strength of spearhead Edin Džeko.
Finally, the Italians are a tall and physical side, posing a serious threat on set-pieces. Centre-backs Kostas Manolas and Federico Fazio, alongside the aforementioned Dzeko, provide a considerable aerial thrust, and 23% of the Romans’ goals have been scored off set-pieces.
While Radja Nainggolan is perfectly capable of threading the needle and picking out a through-ball, the above are the main attacking threats posed by Tuesday’s opponents.
If the Reds are to avoid digging themselves a hole in the first leg, they must be wary of the threats posed by their opponents.
Firstly, Liverpool have — despite the significant intensity in their play — occasionally come out somewhat flat in the beginning of games. If the backline and deep midfielders are not switched on and ready for the high press, they could end up in the hole before the tie has even gotten properly started. The sporadic Klopp maxim, if in doubt, punt it out, should be applied liberally and unashamedly if the Roman counter-press is unsettling in the early going.
The second issue of which the Reds should be wary, is the enthusiasm Roma show for crossing the ball. Liverpool’s fullbacks have struggled to close down the ball carrier and allowing unchallenged crosses much too easily on too many occasions this season, and if Kolarov and Florenzi are allowed time and space to ping balls into the Reds box, there is a pronounced chance of disastrous consequences.
This folds into the third major challenge, Edin Džeko. The former Manchester City man is a big, physical spearhead, capable of both hold-up play and aerial dominance, and if there is one thing Liverpool’s defenders — Dejan Lovren in particular — has struggled with, it’s big, physical attackers. Harry Kane, Romelu Lukaku and Salomón Rondón have all had their way with the Croatian at various times this season, and Džeko will undoubtedly be looking to target Lovren and avoid Virgil van Dijk. Whether charging at an inswinging cross or dropping in to play in his team-mates, the Bosnian must be prevented from having a dominant performance, and Lovren must receive the necessary assistance to make it so.
Keys to Victory
Having hopefully put together a gameplan that prevents defensive collapse, the Reds should — and will — go forth and attempt to win the game. Here are a few potential weaknesses they could look to exploit.
First, and most naturally, Liverpool will attempt to apply Jürgen Klopp’s gegenpress. While Roma are more than competent at distributing the ball from the back, and will punt it away indiscriminately if deemed necessary, they do spread their team out a lot in the establishing phases of play, and should the harrying of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain succeed and force an error, there will be plenty of space for the Reds to attack.
Secondarily, during their own counter-press, Di Francesco’s side push their defensive line up to the midfield line, and their fullbacks will go beyond even that. This means that an early release into the wide areas will often be on, and attacks can build from there, with the Roman defenders forced to run towards their own goal. Liverpool have applied this strategy with great success against aggressive pressing sides already this season — Manchester City the obvious and recent example — and are more than adept at finding the time to overplay the press.
When Roma drop into their 4-5-1, their backline is very narrow. This is by design, forcing the opposition to play the ball wide while packing the middle, where they trust the size of Fazio and the athleticism of Manolas to deal with balls swung in from outside. In this formation, however, their midfield often appears very flat, which comes across as more of a bug.
Despite both Daniele De Rossi and Kevin Strootman being comfortable in a holding midfield role, there is often room in the half-space between the midfield and defense, and with both centre-backs preferring to cover the space behind rather than pushing up, there is an opportunity to play balls into this danger zone. All of Firmino, Salah and Mané are comfortable moving into this particular space, and given time to turn, will look for the diagonal run in behind, or, should the run be covered by the retreating centre-backs, the shot from mid-range.
Lastly, there is a potential mismatch to be exploited. Roma are a side filled with hard-working athletes, and the Reds cannot expect to outrun or outgrind their opponents, but right full-back Florenzi, for all his glorious crossing and occasional captaincy, can be overwhelmed. Getting beaten exactly as often as he successfully makes a tackle, Florenzi is vulnerable in one-on-ones, and he will be facing off with Sadio Mané, possessor of one of the most venomous stepovers in the game. With Andrew Robertson overlapping, there is every chance the Italian international could be in for a rough night.
There are many other factors to take into consideration, of course; the transformative powers of Anfield and the Stadio Olimpico, the goalkeeping excellence and Liam Hemsworth-esque visage of Alisson, the overwhelming attacking power of Liverpool’s front three. Covering them all in a simple article would be an impossibility.
A Champions League final, the first one since 2007, hangs in the balance, and while Liverpool are rightly considered favourites, they should not be taking their Roman adversaries lightly. Outlined above are some reasons why, and perhaps a few paths to success.