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How Roma went from slapstick defending to one of the fiercest back-lines in Europe

When it comes to AS Roma, there have been many surprises during the current season. From their opening salvo of a ten-match winning streak, the Giallorossi have provided 2012 and 2013 champions Juventus with the sternest test of their most recent period of dominance. Coming as they did from a woeful 2012-13, which ended with a seventh place finish and a Coppa Italia final defeat to bitter rivals Lazio, the transformation under Rudi Garcia defies belief.

Change was clearly needed, and the club took the bold decision to sacrifice its two most promising players, collecting €65 million from the sales of South American duo Erik Lamela (to Tottenham Hotspur) and Marquinhos (to Paris Saint-Germain). While fans worried about the club mortgaging its future, Sporting Director Walter Sabatini completely rebuilt the squad, adding many of the players responsible for the upturn in fortune. While the continued excellence of 37-year-old talisman Francesco Totti has clearly been a major factor, the signing of Gervinho has surpassed the expectations of even the most ardent supporter.

The Ivorian has registered six goals and nine assists in a campaign that has seen him recapture form not seen since he played under the French coach at Lille. With a midfield comprised of Kevin Strootman, Daniele De Rossi and Miralem Pjanic, Roma have become a devastating attacking force, leading Serie A in terms of both possession (59.3%) and pass completion rate (86.1%). The squad is also deeper than it is given credit for, with Radja Nainggolan and Mattia Destro among those allowing for constant rotation and refreshing of the XI sent out in pursuit of victory.

Yet the most amazing improvement is in defence, precisely the area where last year’s side was most flawed. Under Zdenek Zeman – and subsequently Aurelio Andreazzoli – the capital club were abysmal at the back, conceding more goals than all but three sides, at an average of 1.5 goals per game. If Sabatini added an impressive collection of names further forward, the arrivals of Maicon, Medhi Benatia and Morgan De Sanctis were unlikely to have garnered much envy across Europe.

The Brazilian had struggled through a poor season with Manchester City, making just seven starts and looking far beyond his peak years, while the goalkeeper had retired from international duty and been released  by Napoli, who sought a more reliable option between the posts. Thrown directly into the starting line-up, the trio of new arrivals joined Leandro Castán and Federico Balzaretti in a unit which looked considerably weaker on paper than last season’s incarnation.

Prevention is better than cure

Fortunately for Roma, the old cliché that football is played on grass not paper has held true, with the players coming together to form a formidable defensive presence. In those first ten games, the Giallorossi net was caused to ripple just the once – in a 3-1 victory over Parma – and they have carried that excellent early form deep into the season. With just seventeen goals conceded to date, Roma's is the second meanest defence in Europe, just behind Bayern Munich (16) and ahead of Paris Saint-Germain (18) - the trio are the only three sides to concede fewer than twenty times in the continent’s top five leagues.

They have done so firstly by denying their opponents the ball, then by pressing well to limit the number of chances De Sanctis faces. The 37-year-old has kept nineteen clean sheets, four more than any other stopper in the league, thanks largely to a defence which has allowed just 83 shots in the first thirty matches of the season.

In front of the veteran keeper, the defenders have impressed, providing excellent protection despite an early injury to Federico Balzaretti. While Dodô has filled in admirably for the Italian international at left-back, it is the form of the man on the opposite flank which is perhaps most surprising. Still only 32, he has recaptured the kind of form which made him such a devastating force for Inter, earning a recall to the Brazil squad after a two year absence. “His decision to join the Giallorossi was excellent,” Felipe Scolari said late last year, going on to add that he thought the player “has been reborn at Roma.”

Yet the form of the two full-backs pales in comparison to the towering displays seen in central defence, where the partnership of Benatia and Castan has been excellent all season. They have instantly shown the kind of understanding which often takes countless hours to forge, and one that has only grown as the campaign has developed.

With 80 games already under his belt for previous club Udinese, Benatia was – unlike other defenders Roma have bought in recent years – comfortably familiar with the demands of Italian football. Standing almost 6'4'', the 26-year-old has shown willingness to do put in the hard work required to nullify the best attacks, averaging 2.1 tackles, 2.6 interceptions and 6.3 clearances per game. He is more than just a physical presence however, showing fine distribution skills to average 49.3 passes per game with a completion rate of 88.9%.

Castan has contributed an average of 2.3 tackles and 2.2 interceptions – while completing 88.1% of his 46.4 passes per game – meaning their raw statistics are surprisingly similar, with the Moroccan’s tally of five goals perhaps making him the most eye-catching of the pair. But to see them on the field is to watch two men who fully complement one another, their pace and intelligence often covering for any errors that occur ahead of them. It has also allowed Roma to maintain a high defensive line, able to condense the field and stifle opponents in tight areas, denying them the space in which to create chances.

It is that ability, combined with the collective play of the defence, which has provided the team with the foundation on which their remarkable turnaround has been built. With a plan for an ultra modern stadium revealed just last week, their play has contributed to a feeling that this bright new era could bring genuine success to the Italian capital.