Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Michael Bradley: the tactical implications of a Roma move

I've been a Roma fan since the fourth grade. In the midst of an enthralling elementary school history class, my parents whisked me away to Rome for a 10-day jaunt in the Eternal City, and something in me never left. While visiting the piazzas and the ancient landmarks and being doted on by accommodating Italian restauranteurs and doing whatever else it is that 10-year-olds do in European cities, I came across my first Roma scarf at an outdoor bazaar on the cobbled stones of the Piazza Navona. For an American kid, it was a strange concept, fashion meeting sport like this, but I bought it and soon had it hanging in my room, where it still hangs today (well, technically in a man cave now that it doesn't fit my fiance's design aesthetic, but I digress). The Giallorossi soon came to be my favorite color combination, and the dreaded Biancoceleste grew into a mythic sort of repugnance.

So I've seen a lot of Roma matches over the years. I cut my teeth on the revolutionary false nine with Totti during the Scudetto year in 2000-2001, marveled at the roiling mass of the Curva Sud during Roma derby matches and still curse a horrible scoreline against Manchester United in the 2008 CL. So as the fortunes of the club began a steady, inexorable decline under Rosella Sensi's ownership, the DiBenedetto ownership group and the subsequent Luis Enrique 4-3-3 era was met with enthusiasm from not only a rabid group of Romans but me as well. It seemed to augur something positive.

Of course we know now the season ended without note, and Enrique was quietly replaced in early June by Zdenek Zeman, another proponent of the 4-3-3 and the coach who essentially paved the way for Fabio Capello's success in the early 00's. And here we find Michael Bradley entering the discussion. The transfer from Chievo is not final, so Bradley's destination is technically still TBD, but all signs point to yes for the Bradley-to-Roma move, which means I am qualified to speak a bit about what that might mean for Bradley and for the club. Allow me now to touch on a few salient points.

Firstly, it is unknown exactly how Zeman's 4-3-3 will differ from Luis Enrique's and how the particular pieces end up fitting together. Every coach is different, and in a sense, the tactical nuances won't be evident until things settle down several months into the season. But we can extrapolate a few similarities between the two based on past experiences and current strengths, thereby making some educated guesses on how Bradley fits into this scheme. A popular worry I've seen popping up on message boards and in discussions is Bradley's use as primarily a holding midfielder with license to get forward as is required. This, of course, has been Daniele De Rossi's primary role for years. Nominally, Roma played something loosely resembling a 4-1-3-2 under Luis Enrique with some combination of Bojan, Pjanic, Gago, Perotta, Greco, Viviani and Lamela in midfield, Pablo Osvaldo or Fabio Borini up top, Totti going essentially wherever he wanted between the attack and midfield and De Rossi holding deep in front of the back line.

But in reality, the formation looked nothing like this. As games wore on and Luis Enrique's pass-and-move style began to find its place, the formation morphed into something almost indefinable, and I can liken it to Jurgen Klinsmann's tactical ideal. The back line almost invariably morphed into a three-man shelf, with center backs Juan and Gabby Heinze (or Burdisso/Kjaer) folding outward to make room for DDR as a sort of sweeper in the middle. This allowed fullbacks Jose Angel and Aleandro Rosi to essentially serve as auxiliary wingers. The two lived in the opponent's half, providing rampaging runs and serving up swinging crosses for a midfield that expanded and contracted like an overworked lung in a congested middle. This is a holistic system that, given time, I think can become a boon for Roma if given the space to breathe and tailored more to forward-thinking soccer. Last season was always going to be a work in progress, and the hiring of Zeman represents a sort of concerted continuation under a different banner on the part of Franco Baldini.

Knowing this, the fear that Bradley's and De Rossi's roles will overlap is more or less unfounded, assuming this scheme retains any sort of its previous shape. Of course things could change under Zeman, but my guess is that they won't change much structurally. Under Zeman in the late 90's, Roma was famous (or infamous, depending on which side of the Roma-Lazio divide you fall) for employing fullbacks Vincent Candella and Cafu in attacking positions, unshackling them from their defensive responsibilities and allowing them to live in dangerous positions. Zeman hasn't always done this, but when the personnel allows it seems to be his MO, and both Rosi and Jose Angel allow him to live dangerously at the back with De Rossi blowing up attacks.

Which brings us round to Bradley. Zeman has never been afraid to roll the dice on youngsters, and it seems he'd take a shine to Bradley's hard-nosed approach. Roma gorged on finesse players during last year's window with names like Jose Angel, Lamela and Pjanic, all of whom have flair for days but lack grit. As Gago returns to Madrid this summer, the side is greatly lacking the punch that men like De Rossi can provide but that few else on the team possess. Bradley fits this workmanlike profile better than almost anybody Roma has targeted this summer. He can effectively sit in front of De Rossi (or to the side of him, depending on how Zeman plays it) and be the conduit between il futuro capitano and il capitano himself, the aging but gifted Totti who still prefers to drop into holes like a false nine and create attacks through others. Bradley, it seems, would be a willing beneficiary.

The 4-3-3 is a fluid system, and playing in Zeman's iteration of it will help Bradley down the road. Instead of Luis Enrique's ponderous horizontal possession game that bogged down Roma considerably and opened up yawning chasms at the back, Bradley would be under the guise of Zeman's direct, rapid-fire 4-3-3, which fits the American ideal like a glove. It's still unclear as to whether or not Bradley makes a Roma jump, but there should be no doubt that were he to do so, it would be a clear opportunity for an American to play and start consistently at a higher club level than any American in history.

- Will Parchman


RobUsry said...

Great read. Great job, Will.

Timmy said...

Really great work, Will. Thanks so much.