Leverkusen’s defence, the children Gary Neville would mercilessly cut off

Roma vs Bayer Leverkusen, FT 3-2

[Champions League, 04/11/2015]

With the previous instance (written about here: https://everyteamneedsaron.com/2015/10/23/time-the-romans-took-their-pills-a-centre-back-focussed-match-report/) of this fixture featuring eight goals, this was always going to be one to keep an eye on. Gary Neville put himself in the position of a loving parent to find something to appreciate in the Manchester Derby by virtue of its defending; he would likely strike this child out of his inheritance and wouldn’t even count its kids as real grandchildren. And people love grandchildren.

Both teams played the full match with the same centre-backs as the last game; Manolas and Rüdiger for Roma, and Tah and Papadopoulos for Bayer Leverkusen.

The first half started, and continued, like a kids’ game at school, the players’ minds on that special someone in Science class that they want to impress instead of boring things like a defensive structure. Roma scored within the first couple of minutes from a break and, if you were to jot up the number of breaks the Italians got in the first half with Roman numerals it would probably be a XXX movie.

Papadopoulos stepped up to challenge Dzeko around the halfway line, who passed it out to the right to the open Salah, who sprinted down the pitch and scored. Tah probably should have backed off more when his partner went up to Dzeko, which may have given him a better chance of getting across to Salah. Salah seems pretty speedy, as is Gervinho who was also playing, so it would also probably have been a good idea for Leverkusen not to set themselves up to be vulnerable to fast breaks. Like, seriously.

For all of the hype around Tah – ‘The Future of Defending’ according to one YouTube highlights video which, from all I could be bothered to watch, seems to mainly include relatively easy headers – he did not have a good game in any way and actually at times gave off the impression of a Roma sleeper cell. He consistently failed to be aware of players in space behind him, at least twice leaving Dzeko wide open on breaks that should really have been converted into goals.

A couple of other moments seemed to be down to inexperience, though the kind of inexperience you’d sooner attribute to a thirteen year-old than a nineteen year-old who has played more than 2000 minutes of Bundesliga football. Early on in the match, a pass went back to the Leverkusen keeper, his clearance hitting a Dzeko (going out for a goal-kick) that Tah was close enough to have blocked off. Later, a long ball was played to the same Roma man, Papadopoulos going up for the header, Tah failing to drop off the yard or so that he should to collect a possible loose ball.

Bayer were just generally terrible, looking like a team who just heard five minutes before the match that it was being played with a shot clock and hadn’t worked out how to play the game that way. They should have been down by four at half-time. As it was, it was only two, the 2nd coming in the 29th minute, Papadopoulos completely unaware of a Dzeko run beside him, a through-ball easily threaded through from Nainggolan just inside the Leverkusen half which the Bosnian duly converted.

Papadopoulos was responsible for several breaks being sprung by charging out to the halfway line, only for a pass to be played around the corner and the Roma player he was going to challenge sprinting past him in the other direction. He did, however, have one good moment in the first half, shepherding Salah well to the edge of the box following yet another Roma break, directing his defence with a wave of the arm to cover the spaces behind him, instead of going over to ‘help’, advice that it’s highly likely they needed.

The second half started with a Leverkusen goal, a ball cut back from the byline on their right and fired into the top-right corner, neither Roma centre-back really negatively involved in the passage of play.

Bayer generally looked more organised in the second period, and Roma slightly less so, and the equaliser came six minutes later in the 51st. The ball with Leverkusen on their right, Manolas stepped up to play Javier Hernandez offside, however the right-back was playing him on, the pass was played, and the chance converted. The Roma back line hadn’t been Bayer bad, but neither had they looked super organised either during the first half, but they were unfortunate that one of the few chances they gave up was taken, especially as it involved Chicharito – a man not only born offside but actually conceived there – springing their trap.

The rest of the second half was fairly slow and boring, players visibly tired very early on, and by the last five minutes it looked like they’d been playing for 120, not 90. Neither Roma centre-back had large amounts to do, but both did fairly well with what was required. Both had good positioning and decision making, both holding up an opposition player to prevent the kind of break that Roma themselves were enjoying so much. Rüdiger particularly improved from their last meeting, where he had a shaky game.

The deciding goal came in the 80th minute, a Roma penalty converted by Pjanic. It had come from a jumbled up mess in the Leverkusen box, the defending side struggling to clear the ball and the attacking struggling to get a decent shot away. Eventually, one was taken, deflecting off the Bayer keeper and squiggling towards the right-hand post, Salah steaming in to nab himself a tap-in, until Leverkusen captain Toprak lunged to nudge him tumbling into the net. Toprak was sent off, the penalty scored, Alessandro Florenzi – the right-back who had played Chicha onside for the equaliser – unable to watch from the bench, holding on to a coach, child-like, burying his head in the older man’s shoulder.

It was a child-like moment on the Roma bench and it had been a child-like defensive performance from Leverkusen on the pitch. Neither of their centre-backs were good, in stark comparison to the relatively assured display of their opposing team.

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