Fiorentina (4-3-3): Viviano – Tomović, Gonzalo, Compper, Pasqual – Aquilani, Pizarro, Valero – Cuadrado, Jovetić, Ljajić
Roma (4-2-3-1): Lobonț – Torosidis, Burdisso, Castán, Balzaretti – Bradley, De Rossi – Lamela, Totti, Florenzi – Osvaldo

Initially the game started at breakneck speed with Fiorentina attacking predominantly down their left with the fullback Pasqual, false-nine Jovetić, and ‘inside-out winger’ Ljajić causing Roma problems. The ‘three playmakers’ of Aquilani, Valero and Pizarro in the midfield were mobile and dangerous, but Roma were able to counter-attack well with Totti, playing in the hole behind Osvaldo, central to all of Roma’s play.

Fiorentina try different approaches

If the first minutes were open and end-to-end, around the 10 minute mark Fiorentina switched gears and settled into a pattern of defending very deep, sometimes with every man behind the ball, looking to counter-attack Roma with quick, vertical play through the midfield.

Fiorentina's back four (red) and midfield (blue) defend deep

Fiorentina’s back four (red) and midfield (blue) defend deep

If Fiorentina could press Roma in dangerous areas around the penalty box then they would, but their default was to fall back into their own half quickly and not leave any gaps for Roma/Totti to exploit.

Whereas in the opening stages the pressing had been much more aggressive with Pizarro, Valero and Aquilani closing down their midfield counterparts, now Fiorentina were so determined to get back into position and mark their respective zones, that Roma’s players could often carry the ball until they were 35 yards from the Fiorentina goal before being checked (in the 19th minute, the centre back Castán ran with the ball for 60 yards, without a challenge).

Additionally, with neither side trying to hold a high line or staying compact, the game was often suddenly stretched with a lot of space in midfield if either side broke quickly. This was especially true if Fiorentina were able to break through the initial ‘offensive press’ led by Totti and Osvaldo.

Roma’s first 30 minutes

The key idea for Roma was to stop Pizarro’s distribution and usually it was Totti who would pick him up. Normally Pizarro (as the deep-lying midfielder) would be taken by the attacking midfielder (Totti), but here Roma’s striker Osvaldo also concentrated on Pizarro too, with Totti then interfering with the Fiorentina centre-backs’ passing.

Totti (red) pressing the man on the ball and the pressing matchups

Totti (red) pressing the man on the ball and the pressing matchups

This made a lot of sense: with Totti having a free role (he was on the left, then the right, then he was dropping deep into midfield), when possession was lost often the closest man to Fiorentina’s regista was Osvaldo who plays very centrally. At other times with both Totti and Osvaldo pressing the Fiorentina defence, Totti was clearly instructing the central midfielder Bradley to push up and take Pizarro.

Roma's aggressive pressing meant Fiorentina had trouble playing out from the back

Roma’s aggressive pressing meant Fiorentina had trouble playing out from the back

In the 30th minute, a long delay due to a collision between Lobonț and Fiorentina defender Gonzalo left the goalkeeper with a broken nose (he was replaced at half-time with Goicoechea) and after the restart Fiorentina adjusted again: If the first 10 minutes had been a little too open and frantic, followed by a period of more measured defensive play, then the final 15 minutes of the first half saw Fiorentina gain real control.

Fiorentina take over the game

Roma’s initial pressing had subsided – it’s unrealistic to expect the 36-year-old Totti to keep up that energy level – and with Fiorentina now being able to play out of defence, the midfield of Pizarro, Aquilani and Valero started to dictate the game. Two key figures for Fiorentina were the left-back Pasqual and Ljajić on the left-wing. Ljajić receiving the ball wide and cutting inside, with Pasqual overlapping and looking to get to the byline; for large periods it was almost as if Fiorentina were playing with two left-wingers.

Story of the game: Fiorentina attack down their left

Story of the game: Fiorentina attack down their left

Pizarro was taking up more advanced positions, meaning Roma’s central midfield of Bradley and De Rossi were trying to cover Pizarro, Aquilani and Valero, Jovetić’s dropping deep from the centre-forward position, and Ljajić coming inside and often exchanging positions with Jovetić. This was too much for the Roma midfield-duo to cope with, and the concentration of the play down the left flank with the overlapping Pasqual led to a number of good chances for Fiorentina.

The second half began as the first ended, with Pasqual pushed high, Ljajić threatening and exchanging positions with Jovetić (who was finding and creating space wonderfully as a false-nine), excellent movement by the Fiorentina midfield trio, and with the play being mainly down the left, sudden switches of play to Cuadrado on the right led to a number of chances.

The movement and exchange of positions of Jovetić (yellow) and Ljajić (blue) caused Roma problems

The movement and exchange of positions of Jovetić (yellow) and Ljajić (blue) caused Roma problems

Roma could worry Fiorentina on the counter-attack, however this only looked to happen through Totti, with every Roma ball seemingly searching him out. If Fiorentina attack and defend as a team – and with ‘attacking as a team’ meaning that with almost everyone forward they were liable to get caught on the counter – then Roma were attacking as a four and defending as a six. Or rather, it’s fair to say Roma were ‘attacking as a two’, with Totti and Osvaldo, as Lamela and Florenzi were next-to-invisible for long stretches of the game.

With Roma playing 4-3-3 under Zeman for over half a season, and switching to 3-5-2 when Andreazzoli took over in February, then reverting back to 4-3-3 for two games (versus Torino and Pescara), and now playing 4-2-3-1, it’s no real surprise that Roma looked somewhat disjointed, relying on long passes to Totti and Osvaldo. Roma needed to slow the game down, enjoy a little possession, but were unable to cope with Fiorentina’s high tempo – the energetic pressing of Totti and Osvaldo a distant memory, it was now Fiorentina who were closing down Roma’s play high up the pitch.

The change to 3-5-2

Andreazzoli had tried stemming the Fiorentina play by taking off the anonymous Lamela and bringing on Pjanić, and he’d taken up a left-sided midfield position but with orders to come inside to stop Roma being outnumbered in the central areas (Florenzi moved from the left-wing to the right). Fiorentina had responded with a double substitution in the 71st minute: a straight swap with Aquilani off, and the fresh legs of Fernández on, and oddly Jovetić off, veteran Luci Toni on. False-nine replaced with English-style target-man.

However Pjanić-for-Lamela wasn’t having any effect on the waves of Fiorentina attacks and in the 74th minute, with Roma barely in the game, Andreazzoli brought on the centre-back Marquinhos for Florenzi and Roma went 3-5-2: Goicoechea – Marquinhos, Burdisso, Castán – Torosidis, Bradley, De Rossi, Pjanić, Balzaretti – Osvaldo, Totti.

Facing Fiorentina’s 4-3-3, going to a three-man defence isn’t as crazy it seems at first glance. Roma’s most immediate problem wasn’t so much the Fiorentina wide-players – they were drifting inside – but that they were getting overrun in the central areas: the two-man midfield of De Rossi and Bradley couldn’t cope with the three-man midfield of Aquilani-Pizarro-Valero, and the wide players, Cuadrado and Ljajić, coming inside. As the wide players were a secondary problem caused by Fiorentina’s dominance in central midfield, cutting off the supply to them was the priority.

The key to making a three-man defence work against a three-man attack lies with the wide-midfielders (for Roma this was Torosidis on the right, Balzaretti on the left): If Fiorentina attack down Roma’s right, then Torosidis has to move up and check that threat, whilst the three-man defence moves across to the right behind him and Balzaretti drops back from left-midfield into a left-back position, making a four-man defence. Likewise, if the play is on Roma’s left, then Balzaretti has to meet the threat, whilst the three-man defence moves to the left behind him and Torosidis drops back into the right-back position, again making a four-man defence. With the three central midfielders Bradley-De Rossi-Pjanić matching Fiorentina’s trio of Aquilani-Pizarro-Valero, this should work, and indeed a rough balance returned to the game: both sides took turns in attacking one another.

Roma's switch to 3-5-2 with defence marked with blue and midfield with yellow

Roma’s switch to 3-5-2 with defence marked with blue and midfield with yellow

To Fiorentina’s immense credit, soon after Roma switched to a back three, the right-back Rômulo (on for Tomović) and inside-midfielder Fernández joined Cuadrado on the right flank, to mirror left-back Pasqual, inside-midfielder Valero, and Ljajić on the left. In the image above you can see the two ‘sets of three’ of Fiorentina on each flank trying to overload the wide-midfielders. (Try imagining an English team making that in-game tactical adjustment.)

From the 30th minute until the switch to 3-5-2 in the 74th minute Roma were getting outplayed (the odd Totti-led counter-attack notwithstanding), but the change to three at the back gave them a way back into the game: no longer out-numbered in midfield they were able to build some play once more.

With both sides attacking each other as the game came to an end, the goal came from a corner (Osvaldo, header, 92nd minute) won by a quick counter with Totti and Osvaldo. It’s far too much to say the change to 3-5-2 won it for them as Roma had been counter-attacking with Totti and Osvaldo all game, and Fiorentina created so many chances to score – including De Rossi’s deliberate handball in the penalty box missed by the ref, and even as late as the 91st minute, Fernández hit the post with a good shot – but Roma looked far more comfortable once they moved to three at the back than they did with their ‘broken’ 4-2-3-1.