Manchester United

What Manchester United can expect from AS Roma in Europa League semi-final

Max Cooper
The danger man
The danger man / Paolo Bruno/Getty Images
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"I’ve not seen too much of them."

Those were the words which spilled out of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's mouth in the immediate aftermath of Manchester United's comfortable progression past Granada in April's Europa League quarter-finals.

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The Norwegian coach had been put on the spot over the quality of fellow semi-finalists AS Roma, and in fairness to him, he provided remarkable honesty in his initial comments. His assessment soon after only confirmed his lack of knowledge of the one team standing between the Red Devils and a European final.

"I knew they played two good games against Ajax. They defend well, as Italian teams always do."

In reality, Roma had not played two good games against Ajax, and as far as defending goes... well, it's far from their greatest strength. Far, far from it. Still, expecting Solskjaer to whack out a detailed portfolio on a hypothetical opponent is entirely unrealistic, and his words have probably been somewhat overanalysed.

That hasn't stopped Roma fans from glueing his face and comments around the Trigoria training ground, urging their heroes to make him pay for what they consider to be rather a dismissive opinion towards the Italian giants.

Two weeks have now passed, and no doubt Solskjaer has a much better idea of the team he is facing, and he must have had a shock when watching the defensive gaffes and bloopers reel from this season alone.

So, what should Man Utd expect from Roma on Thursday? 90min takes a deep dive into the strengths, weaknesses and the key men in this Europa League semi-final.


Style of play

Paulo Fonseca
A man who loves to attack / Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images

One word - attack. Paulo Fonseca is the antithesis of a classic Serie A manager. He demands courage and risk-taking on the ball, and implores his players to swarm forward at every given opportunity. Roma play an offensive 3-4-2-1 system under the Portuguese boss, looking to profit from space in wide areas or between the defensive lines.

The two forwards behind the focal point (usually Edin Dzeko, but also Borja Mayoral) are tasked with adapting to the gaps awarded to them during the game, sometimes hugging the touchline, or dropping inside to penetrate from a more central area.

Roma play a very back-to-front style of football, passing out from the goalkeeper and feeding their rampaging wing-backs, Leonardo Spinazzola and Rick Karsdorp. A majority of their goals come from releasing the wide men behind the defence and cutting the ball back across the box for one of the many waiting forwards to tap home.

When they're on form, they can blow teams away in devastating 15-minute spells, tearing their opponents apart with frightening pace and ruthless accuracy. It's truly a joy to watch.

In fact, they've scored three goals or more in a single match on 11 occasions in Serie A this year, until ultimately giving up on domestic football to focus on the Europa League. Champions League qualification via a top-four finish is out of the question for Roma and Fonseca, and European glory is the coach's last chance to save his job, as the executioner and new owner Dan Friedkin begins to sharpen his axe.

Fonseca won't give up without a fight, though. After all, it's all about courage and bravery until the end...


Danger men

Henrikh Mkhitaryan

It would be very 'Man Utd' if Henrikh Mkhitaryan came back to Old Trafford and tore them a new one, wouldn't it? The Armenian train is having one of the best seasons in his career, and is very much Roma's key forward in that front three.

He is the wild card, who pops up all over the pitch, runs in behind or drives at the defence with impressive speed. When he's on form, he's a hard man to stop. Roma need him at his best on Thursday, and if he's up for it, he could cause Aaron Wan-Bissaka major issues with his cunning movement and experience.

Leonardo Spinazzola

Speaking of giving Wan-Bissaka nightmares, next up is Spinazzola. The left-wing back is arguably the most influential player in the team, and vital to Fonseca's system. Spinazzola marauds down that left flank with incredible pace and devastating trickery, and his ability to cross with either foot makes him unpredictably chaotic for a full-back to defend.

He can step inside, go wide and cross or just leave a marker in his dust with as much ease as a nippy winger. Wan-Bissaka is known as one of the best tacklers in the game, but he'll be tested to his limit by Roma's not-so-defensive wing-back. Keep an eye on this one.

Jordan Veretout

Yep, it is the same guy who got relegated in that garbage Aston Villa team. Jordan Veretout has rebuilt his career in Italy, first with Fiorentina and now with Roma. He is an all-action, box to box midfielder who can do a bit of everything, and to the highest of standards.

His endless supply of energy and his gritty determination are irreplaceable in the midfield, and it's no coincidence that the team always suffers in his absence. Veretout has added goals to his game too, and is fast becoming one of the most valuable midfielders in Italian football. He is not the same kid that struggled in England six years ago - he's an Action Man.


Weak Points

Despite Solskjaer's words of praise for the sturdy backline, Roma's defence is actually the weakest point in the squad - by an absolute country mile. Fonseca's expansive style of play means that the rearguard is often left badly exposed, and gaping chasms of space are left for wide forwards to exploit.

In terms of personnel, they do possess some excellent individuals across the back three. Gianluca Mancini, who is suspended for the first leg, is key to their aggressive, front-foot style of defending, while Chris Smalling's return will come as a huge boost to Giallrossi fans.

Chris Smalling
A tough season for Smalling / Silvia Lore/Getty Images

Roger Ibanez has proven himself to be a full-blooded and exciting defender in his first full season at the club, although moments of erratic behaviour and the odd catastrophe do lurk under the surface. The main issue lies between the sticks, though.

Pau Lopez, ironically the hero of the quarter-finals, is an absolute liability. He is the cause of at least two heart attacks a game for Roma fans, and his decision-making under pressure with the ball at his feet is frankly horrid.

The Spaniard's poor passing has cost his team countless goals this season, and even against Ajax, he was extremely fortunate to escape in both legs, after surrendering possession on the edge of his own box.

Pau Lopez
A good shot-stopper, but a liability / Enrico Locci/Getty Images

And all of this plays into Roma's inferiority complex and fragile mentality. Against the smaller sides, they have blitzed to straight-forward victories, but their record against the big teams is horrendous. Against Inter, Atalanta, SSC Napoli, Juventus, Milan and Lazio (the six teams above them in the table), Roma have taken a total of four points from a possible 30.

When the going gets tough, this team crumbles and folds like a house of cards. The only exception being, of course, in Europe...


How can Man Utd win this game?

Much like Man Utd's trip to Real Sociedad in the Round of 32, they are facing a team that plays directly into their hands. Roma's high defensive line, commitment to pushing wing-backs high up the pitch and willingness to take risks makes them the perfect opponent for a Solskjaer side, who can sit back and pick them off on the counter.

The suspension of Mancini also leaves Roma horribly short of strong characters and solid defenders, and should Rashford be fit, he'll have a whale of a time against whichever centre-back steps into that slot to try and stop him.

Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood
The lightning boys / Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Roma like to start games quickly, and their weak mentality means that any early setbacks tend to dictate the outcome of the game. So, for Man Utd, it's a case of weathering whatever initial storm comes their way, and just biding their time.

The chances will come, and when they do, they must be clinical. This one is there for the taking.


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