Guest Post: The rise and rise of AS Roma Women
Yash Thakur takes a look at an emerging contender at the top of European women's football
Hi, Grace here. Sorry that this is up later than planned. The fault lies entirely with me for not being better organised, and not Yash who has done great work as ever. As for me, I’m back to writing in my normal flow and should have an article on Liverpool out pretty soon.
All stats are from FBRef unless stated otherwise.
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In 2022, the red half of Rome rejoiced. AS Roma enjoyed a successful year all around, with the men’s team winning the first-ever Conference League while the women’s side won the Supercoppa Italia and qualified for their first UEFA Women’s Champions League campaign.
The women’s side has continued this positive run by qualifying for the knockout stages in their first attempt, giving a good account of themselves against WoSo giants Wolfsburg in the process.
In Italy, Juventus have won each of the last five league titles since the Turin giants founded their women’s team in 2017. There were challengers. Brescia (who sold their license to AC Milan in 2018) went neck-to-neck with them in their first season and Fiorentina pushed them, but nobody could topple the seemingly new giants in Italy.
However, the current Serie A Femminile table suggests a shift in power, not entirely but there’s a feeling in the air. After dandling around in the 4th and 5th spot in the first few seasons, Roma Women are currently top of the table and have a five point advantage over the current holders, despite losing both their games to Juventus in the first phase of the league.
Following a winter break, La Lupa returned to action this weekend with a 7-1 demolition of fourth-placed Fiorentina that included six different goalscorers. They have the best goal differential in the league this season and are the stingiest defence with just eight goals conceded.
So what's going on in Rome?
This Roma team is built upon the work of Betty Bavagnoli, who was their coach for the first three years of their existence and has taken over the role of their head of women’s football since 2021.
The current side is managed by 49-year-old Alessandro Spugna, who joined Roma from Empoli in 2021. He has managed to leave his impression on the team and has maximized the squad's potential thus far. Spugna’s usage of the squad and his ability to identify strengths of the players and play to them rather than being dogmatic is one of the underlying reasons for the success of Roma this season.
Spugna has utilized his squad very well so far, distributing healthy minutes among players and finding solutions to injury problems (in fullback position especially) at the same time. 14 different players have played over 40% of the minutes for Roma this season. Among players with over 1000 minutes this season, seven are entering or are in their peak years, with the experienced legs not at the twilight of their career either.
Based on the distribution of the minutes, the weighted average age of the squad comes out to be 27.5 years, highlighting the scope to achieve in the short term as well. With young stars waiting in the ranks for their chances and possible phasing out of some of the older players, Roma’s project looks to be on the right trajectory.
Moeka Minami, Manuela Giugliano and Giada Greggi are all under 25 years of age and rank as the three players with the most minutes under their belt this season. Benedetta Glionna, Annamaria Serturini and Sophie Haug are all players who will probably take up bigger roles in the coming time. Recently, the extremely talented youngster, Zara Kramzar, has been handed some valuable minutes and she’s been impressive. Beyond the youthful exuberance, veteran defender and captain Elisa Bartoli, alongside vastly experienced Carina Wenninger, have added the necessary wisdom to the side.
But how do they operate with and without the ball that has allowed them to be so successful this season?
Le Giallorosse are a team that has displayed flexibility and adaptability in their approach this season. Spugna has successfully fielded back three and back four systems this campaign, picking up good results in both, after largely sticking with the latter in the 2021-22 season. The back three has been a solution to Roma being short-handed in the fullback spot (just three recognized fullbacks) due to injuries.
The former Empoli manager doesn’t like to attach himself with one particular formation, which has worked well for Roma, allowing them to find solutions to existing problems. Versatility of players has been key in this as well. Wingers Serturini and Haavi have more than filled in the aggressive wingback role, giving Roma one less problem to worry about. Minami and Bartoli have both filled in at the wide centre-back or the fullback position according to the needs while Andressa Alves has switched between forward and midfield roles really well.
Irrespective of their starting formations, Roma have shown an inclination to build out from the back with a 3+1 structure in games, utilizing the three centre-backs with Giugliano showing up for the ball. This makes it difficult for teams to match the numbers in their first line of defence and Roma are usually able to find players in wide areas when playing out from the back or if the immediate option is blocked out, Roma can exploit the space in behind their first line by going long using the range of passing of their centre-backs like Linari or use Giugliano to spring them forward.
However, funnelling possession out wide is desirable for Spugna’s side, as the wide players are the major source of progression and chance creation for Roma. The wingers/wingbacks do two main things for this:
They are excellent at progressing play via individual ball carrying
Showing up to feet to receive deep and thus opening up space and performing synchronized counter movements with the near side midfielders moving out wide or stretching the defence laterally by staying out wide to receive.
In the example above, Le Giallorosse exhibited some well synchronised counter-movements to advance in the attacking third. This is another common theme, with Andressa Alves, Giugliano and Greggi all adept at making the in-to-out run from midfield into wide areas vacated by their winger.
Roma often push up bodies aggressively, having five-six players bomb up the field to provide offensive support in direct attacking situations, as can be seen in the attack above towards the end.
Roma can mix up their approach really well. When up against a team that is better at keeping the ball than them, Roma can play direct. While remaining capable of stitching up passing sequences when dominating possession. Their 30 direct attacks is the most in the league, and their 3.14 passes per sequence is only behind Juventus. They are able to exert their technical quality in both situations.
This can be seen in the field tilt across their games in the UWCL group stages this season. They have sustained territorial dominance against St. Polten and Slavia Praha while dealing blow-for-blow against Wolfsburg while not dominating possession.
Serturini, Haavi and Glionna are at the heart of the chance creation and progression mechanism at Roma. All three players rank inside the top seven for carries per 90 in the Serie A this season, with Glionna averaging the highest number of carries per 90 (20).
They are all capable of aggressively attacking the backline and show up regularly in advanced positions, with all three players ranking inside the top six for touches inside the opposition penalty box and Haavi and Glionna ranking inside the top 10 for attempted dribbles in the league.
A major theme of Roma’s chance creation is based on their player’s ability to create chances via their ball-carrying ability. The top three players with the most chance-creating carries in the Serie A are all wide attackers from Roma. Spugna likes his wingbacks/wingers in the setup to be able to initiate carry moments, and end them with either shots or chances. All three of Glionna, Haavi and Serturini rank inside the top 10 for expected assists per 90 this season in the Serie A. Their wide players are quick and good in attacking duels, allowing them to create separation for their next actions. At the time of writing, no player in Europe's major leagues has averaged more ball carries with a take-on per 90 than Benedetta Glionna this season (3.5.)
In terms of their shot-taking approach, Roma is a very shot-happy team. Their 26.62 shots per 90 is far and above anybody else in the league (Juve in 2nd with 19.6 shots p90). For players with at least five 90s played in the Serie A, the top 10 for shots per 90 is composed of six Roma players. Spugna encourages his players to try their luck at goal even from range, given they do have some very good strikers of the ball, this has resulted in their average shot distance being 19.1m, which is the fourth farthest from goal in the league.
While Giacinti is the leading goalscorer for the side, there is a healthy spread of goals within the squad. Giacinti’s six-goal tally is followed by four players scoring four goals each (Manuela Giugliano, Emile Haavi, Andressa Alves and Sophie Haug), highlighting the fact that while their attack does have key players, they aren’t reliant on one particular player for goals.
While the attack is an exciting facet of this team, their defence is one of the main reasons they sit at the top of the table right now.
Roma under Spugna this season have proven to be one of the stingiest defences in the league. With seven goals conceded (plus one own-goal), Roma’s defensive numbers match their underlyings. They have given up five goals from 5.05 xG in open-play and two from an xG of 2.07 from set-pieces.
The most significant difference of their on paper formation can be seen in their defensive shape. When lined up in a back four, they likely go for a 4-4-2 mid-block. whereas in case of a back three formation the defensive setup is largely similar to the initial shape a.k.a 3-5-2. Either of these two setups is geared towards denying time to opposition over denying and defending space for the Romans.
Roma do display a tendency to defend on the front foot and it is reflected in their intensity to apply pressure without the ball, especially in the attacking third. Spugna pushes his midfielders aggressively to mark immediate options in the attacking third while setting up bodies to pounce on a turnover.
Intensity in their high pressing is another aspect of Spugna’s team. They are quick to close down players in the attacking third and on their goal kicks. Their passes per defensive action (PPDA) 7.7 is the lowest in the league and they have managed to create more high turnovers (231) or shots from high turnover (53) than anybody else in the league (Juve 2nd best with 167 high turnovers and 34 shot-ending high turnovers).
However, this aggression from midfield and wide players alike leaves space between the midfield and the backline to be exploited. This is largely how Roma has suffered this season. They struggle to handle players who can receive with their back to goal and position themselves in-between the lines. This space is often covered by having the centre-backs aggressively close down receivers in between lines. The backline has to be aggressive in following the marker and their duels and the wide players on the flank have to be relentless in their commitment to support both offence and defence.
The lack of time on the ball for the opposition, especially once the ball reaches their half, while having the players with the work rate to remain in close access to the ball in order to pick up loose second balls has made it difficult for teams to cope with Roma’s defensive approach. Both midfielders, Giugliano and Greggi, and Moeka Minami rank inside the top 10 in Serie A for ball recoveries this season.
The aggression, however, can easily backfire when not compensated appropriately by covering the immediate space. Mistimed aggression by centre-backs or lapse in defensive coverage by the wingbacks can open up glaring holes in the defensive organisation. These have largely only been exploited once by Juventus and Wolfsburg.
Giacinti joined AS Roma in the summer and addressed an immediate void in the squad of a recognized goalscorer to lead the line. The three-time Serie A top goalscorer of the season has added more than just goals for the team.
She’s a high-volume shot taker and her ability to generate shots with minimal touches and space is incredible as well. Her goal against Wolfsburg in the UWCL is an example of her ability to get shots off quickly and while surrounded by players. She is active in and around the penalty box, consistently providing a reference in attack while adding depth by pinning the opposition's defence. She is good at making the in-to-out runs, attacking the channel between the centre-backs and the fullbacks on either side.
Beyond the goalscoring perks, Giacinti is a selfless runner. She works extremely hard off the ball and helps close down players from the front. Her linkup play, while not elite, is very serviceable and is geared towards little lay-offs and quick one-twos in behind.
Giugliano has reinvented herself for Roma, in ways that remain true to her nature. The Roma #10 began her career as an attacking midfielder, silky on the ball and blessed with brilliant vision but lacked that burst of acceleration in between the lines. Over the years, she remodelled herself into a deeper lying playmaker where she can exhibit her range in passing while being creative.
The weight on her line-breaking long balls, both in the air and ground, is impeccable. She can spot the run and pull off the pass without even breaking her stride at times. It helps Roma in quickly jumping into attack and dishing out passes to their wide players from their own third.
No player in the league has recorded more progressive passes per 90 than the Italian regista (7.03 per 90, players with more than 50% of the team’s minutes played). Her exquisite range and vision provide her with a variety of options to create chances from. Giugliano’s ball striking is clean and powerful and this ability makes her a threat from range while her quality from dead-ball situations enables her to threaten the goal or create chances from it. No player in the league has recorded more shot-creating actions per 90 (8.35) or from open-play passes (5.25) than the Italian midfielder.
Her defensive positioning sense and her recovery speed can improve but the pros of her on-ball qualities certainly outweigh the cons of her positioning against the ball.
Annamaria Serturini & Benedetta Glionna
Both the youngsters have been the beating soul of the team. Serturini has already etched herself in Roma’s folklore by becoming the club’s first-ever goalscorer in 2018. She has since gone on to set some more goalscoring and appearance records for the Giallorosse. She even scored in the UWCL for them this season.
Glionna had previously worked with Spugna at Empoli before following him at Roma. She had her breakout year under him and that partnership has continued to reap rewards at Roma as well. Spugna’s protegee has been one of the most exciting and explosive players for the side.
While there are differences in the way both these players operate and the zones they occupy. Serturini operates from the left, usually coming deep to receive and moving inside with the ball, Glionna likes to dart towards the backline from the right. Both are electric in moving the ball forwards via their carries, engaging their markers and creating separation from them using a combination of skills and pace. They are equally adept at creating and taking shots with Serturini more inclined towards the latter.
These players are likely to form the core of this project moving forwards and both have a ton of unscratched potential still. The ceiling remains high on both the players and the versatility displayed by them to fill in as wingbacks or as true wingers make them a very valuable asset for Roma moving forwards.
Greggi is a pocket-size midfield dynamite for Roma. The 22-year-old has been with Roma almost her entire career now. The tireless midfielder runs up and down the field throughout the entire 90 minutes, helping create chances with her runs into space and creating parity in defensive situations.
The 2019 Tuttosport’s “Italian Young Player of the Year” has brushed off her injury woes from the 2020-21 season and has become pivotal for the Romans. The young midfielder is skilled on the ball with a low centre of gravity in tight spaces and loves to provide offensive support, especially on the left flank, constantly drifting in and out from the wide zones. Her passing over the short and medium range is crisp and helps Roma penetrate in the final third while remaining capable of creating chances for her side.
Her 7.36 passes into the final third per 90 are bettered by just two players in the league, and only her teammate Giugliano has created more shot-creating actions from open play per 90 than Greggi (5.0 per 90).
It’s her defensive quality in terms of engaging in duels and providing coverage on the defensive front with her tackling that adds further value to her stock. Only Giugliano has attempted and completed more tackles than the Italian.
Can Roma clinch the title?
Following a change in the Serie A Feminille format this season, finishing at the top of the league after completing robin round format will not be enough to pick up the title. The teams will have to play another mini-league between the top and bottom half of the table to decide the winner (and the relegated team).
However, accumulating as many points as possible will certainly help the team get an edge over their competitors (as the points will be carried into the mini-league). Roma currently have a solid lead of seven points at the top of the table which will prove vital at the end. They have made a solid case for themselves. They are still in the UWCL and will be hoping to go as deep as possible.
Accolades at the end of the season aside, Roma’s rise is a story worth following. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day and this team has some way to go to be considered among the elites but Le Giallorosse are on the ascendency and continue to make waves.