This loss hurts, but not as much as it could have. Obviously any loss is going to hurt when you’ve managed to go so far without one, but this one hurts primarily because we reverted back to bad habits. All this season we had managed to never give up a goal in the first half – on Saturday, we gave up three. All this season we had managed to keep defensive errors to an impressive minimum – this past weekend, we gave up two avoidable goals thanks to poor defensive decisions. And all this season we’ve shown weaknesses upfront that moments of magic have papered-over – last match, all the magica was on the other side.
And yet I’m still not too upset. Perhaps a lot of that has to do with the quality of the opposition. Despite their earlier flailing about in the transfer market, Roma has put together an almost inexplicably good side. They’re the form team in the league, with Totti continuing to defy his age like some douchebag version of Javier Zanetti, Strootman settling into Serie A more quickly than any Dutchman since Sneijder, and even the justly-derided Gervinho shaping up much better than anyone expected. I’m not sure if they can put together a serious Scudetto bid – recall how Lazio were being discussed as title contenders around this time last year – but they’re certainly impressive, and will certainly continue to provide fierce competition for a Champions League spot as the season continues.
But more importantly, what this loss shows us is that we need to work on our Plan B. Mazzarri’s Plan A got us through six unbeaten matches, and it absolutely hinges on a well-marshaled three-man backline and wingers who can execute on two fronts effectively. When you remove the man (Campagnaro) who kept the backline so well-marshaled, and slot in a winger (Pereira) who doesn’t quite grasp his positional responsibilities, the strategy falters. If Campagnaro and Jonathan had been playing on Saturday, we certainly might still have lost, but I guarantee you two of those goals wouldn’t have happened the way they did,* and we at least would have had more space on the break to try and put a move together.
This is not meant as an excuse. A team’s tactical plan can be as airtight as you like, but if it can’t withstand swapping out a player or two due to injury, then it needs serious work. We saw a preview of this problem the previous weekend when we tried resting players, only to throw them back into the fray when the team failed to click. And that issue really proved decisive this time.
For all of Mazzarri’s supposed intransigence, it isn’t like he’s just militantly stuck to the script so far. Kovacic, Icardi, Taider and Rolando have all gotten decent degrees of playing time even if none of them are guaranteed starters, and he’s repeatedly managed to shuffle things effectively from one half to the next.
But eventually we need to see both greater flexibility and stronger resolve from him when the situation isn’t absolutely ideal. For example, we’ve had great luck spending half of the match growing into the game, and then going for the kill with revamped tactics in the second. But that’s only possible when you never concede in the first half. Introducing Kovacic and Icardi in the second half when the scores are level is a great weapon to have in your arsenal; introducing them in the second half when you’re already down is always just going to be a desperation move. (And frankly, the fact that we’ve gotten used to beginning nearly every match with our most creative midfielder and our biggest target man on the bench – for purely tactical reasons – is starting to get a bit annoying.)
Likewise with missing players. Losing Campagnaro is always going to suck because he’s our best defender, but losing him shouldn’t mean that our defensive communication and organization goes with him. And unlike the miracle man Jonathan, Pereira has shown precious little progress as a winger within Mazzarri’s system, so if we’re going to use him there, we have to take extra precautions to keep his shortcomings from biting us in the ass. And maybe we even need to go for a different formation when one of our wingers can’t do the job.
In any case, I’m not sweating this one. This is our first loss under Mazzarri, and if I had been tasked with predicting all this season’s fixtures back in August, I would have assumed it would have come sooner. Walter was given a pretty patchy squad when he came in, and he was smart enough to know he couldn’t fix everything at once – so he started by giving us a solid default foundation, and worrying about the variables later. We’re now getting into the part of the season where those variables – "Who takes the leadership position when the defense is shuffled?" "When should we show a more aggressive hand from minute one?" "Are there situations where we revert to a back four?" – start to take on renewed importance. He’s pulled off several fetes of low-level wizardry already, so working this out is just the logical next step. And unlike the last one, this international break comes along at a perfect time for a bit of reflection and regrouping. Calma, ragazzi, calma.
*As for the penalty call, I look at it like this: The foul did indeed take place outside the box, and the correct call would have been a free-kick. However, it was a much, much closer call than that infamous Rocchi decision that went against us back when Mazzarri was on the other side – without video replay, that’s always going to be a toss-up decision – and giving up the foul was an idiotic move to begin with. Gervinho had Ranocchia standing right there waiting directly between him and goal, with Cambiasso and Pereira both positioned on his flanks ready to close him down if he went to either side, and there were no Roma players in advanced positions at the moment for Gervinho to even pass to. In other words, there was absolutely no need for Pereira to make that tackle at that moment. Plus, even if it had correctly been called a free-kick, you’ve still given up an almost perfectly-placed dead-ball situation against a team that has Francesco Totti taking the free-kicks – a better scenario, but still not a good one by any means. So yeah, it was an incorrect call, but we have nowhere but the mirror for pointing fingers.