Nick Sabetti: Zeman’s minimalist Roma could contend for Serie A summit

The return of Zdeněk Zeman at the helm of Roma has been met with much enthusiasm by the Giallorossi faithful, and it might just be their year to return to the top of Serie A.
When Antonio Cassano brought Inter Milan level against Roma Sunday night just before halftime, it seemed likely that the goal would propel Inter to go on and win the game in the second half. But Roma wasn’t going to back down as perhaps it would have in recent seasons, and the away side came out firing after the break, dominated play, and ultimately won the match 3-1 courtesy of two superbly taken goals from Pablo Osvaldo and Marquinho.

There are very few teams in the league that could go to the San Siro and overpower Inter the way Roma did on Sunday. That Roma had to play most of the game without its best midfielder Daniele De Rossi, who picked up an injury in the first half, made the win all the more impressive.

Despite the striking result, Roma head coach Zdeněk Zeman tried not to get too carried away with his team’s performance and played down his side’s Scudetto chances.

“It’s too early to say whether or not we will be able to compete with Juventus for the title,” Zeman told Sky Sports. “But for sure we want to play out the championship our way and be an annoyance to everyone we play.”

Juventus is still, unquestionably, the team to beat this season. With AC Milan severely weakened by the departures of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva, and Inter Milan still trying to find some stability in the post-Mourinho era, Roma may very well prove to be the Bianconneri’s biggest threat, although Napoli and Lazio will definitely have a say in the matter. But the fact that Roma will not be participating in any European competition this season is definitely an advantage.

Though the emphasis is still a very attack-minded football and relatively little attention is given to the defensive phase, as far as playing styles are concerned, last year’s Roma led by Luis Enrique and this year’s side led by Zeman are practically polar opposites.

Enrique, who won the Spanish second division in 2011 with Barcelona’s B side, was supposed to import Barcelona’s playing style: a system whose essence is maintaining as much ball possession as possible. The essence of Zeman’s game, on the other hand, is essentially: the Bohemian demands that his players pass the ball as little as possible.

This minimal approach to the game gives much more prominence to every play that is made, for passes are no longer made for the sake of it but with the purpose of enabling the team to become dangerous as hastily as possible. This mentality ultimately translates into a very direct game where players constantly pursue the quick vertical pass down field, instead of the short three-metre pass that is so predominant in Barcelona’s tiki-taka system.

Given the drastic divergence between this season and last season’s playing styles, Zeman explained that his Roma side is still very much a work in progress as it needs to unlearn much of what it learned under Enrique.

“We weren’t always able to play vertically,” Zeman explained to reporters in the postgame press conference following the Inter game. “When you start passing the ball while so close to each other, the team isn’t able to take off in transition, but these are only the first games of the championship.”

Zeman’s style may be very direct, but that doesn’t mean his teams play a kick-and-run game where players just pop the ball forward and hope for the best. It’s a system that depends on getting numbers forward and intricate player movement off the ball.


In an interview with Gazzetta Dello Sport in July, Marco Di Vaio, who is one of Serie A’s best ever scorers and played under Zeman during his time at Lazio at the beginning of his career, credited Zeman for his eventual success as a forward.

“For a forward, Zeman is the most you could ask for,” said Di Vaio. “All the things he taught me I still carry with me - cutting runs, movements, runs to free yourself from your marker. For a defender, playing under him is probably less exciting.”

Though Zeman sides usually find the back of the net the most, they also tend to concede the most as well, so being consistent will definitely be the Giallorossi’s biggest challenge.

At the very least, they’ll be fun to watch, but they've definitely raised some eyebrows so far.