How Daniele De Rossi outwitted Stefano Pioli to give AS Roma a Europa League advantage

AS Roma coach Daniele De Rossi caught the eye for his impressive tactical display against AC Milan in the Europa League, and now it's up to Stefano Pioli to respond.


When AC Milan and AS Roma faced off in Serie A back in January, there was little the Giallorossi could recriminate about after falling to a 3-1 defeat, such was the gap between the two sides throughout the full 90 minutes.

Even when Leandro Paredes‘ penalty took them back within touching distance midway through the second half, the then-Jose Mourinho side never looked able to match the Rossoneri’s level and find an equaliser without the help of a stroke of luck. They lacked the character but, first and foremost, they lacked a game plan.

Fast forward to the Europa League quarter-final first leg meeting between the same two sides, which ended with Roma‘s first win at the San Siro since 2017, and the difference with Daniele De Rossi‘s team looks staggering.

While three months and a change at the helm are hardly enough to bridge the gap between Milan and Roma, who are still separated by 14 points in the Serie A table, their 1-0 victory certainly speaks to their mental growth as well as of the ability of a coach who knew how to maximise what he had to go toe to toe with an on-paper better team.

Roma away Europa League
AS Roma players celebrate. [@OfficialASRoma]

De Rossi’s plan to limit AC Milan’s strengths

One of the most in-form teams in Serie A since the turn of the year, Milan had found the net in each one of their 20 games played in 2024 across all competitions before hosting Roma in the Europa League.

As is often the case in their best-performing periods, Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leao had been in fine form, contributing to plenty of the goals that Stefano Pioli’s side were scoring.

But Milan‘s attacking quality and reliance on their left flank was something Daniele De Rossi had taken into account. From there, he decided to move Stephan El Shaarawy to Roma‘s right side to exploit his endless running and help Zeki Celik keep track of Milan‘s best players.

The Giallorossi’s compact set-up did the rest, by often closing the passing lanes to Milan‘s frontmen, which ended up hindering the hosts’ creativity, notably on a night in which alternative attacking routes such as Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Christian Pulisic were not at the races.

How Dybala’s role helped AS Roma with the ball

Beyond taking care of his side’s defensive tactics, De Rossi also had a plan with the ball, which arguably outlined the main difference with Mourinho‘s team on those last days in Rome.

Paulo Dybala‘s deep-lying position triggered a series of events that the Rossoneri struggled to find an answer to, as it helped the Giallorossi retain a good share of possession throughout the game, preventing Milan from forcing them into their own half for long spells.

In addition, the Argentinian’s involvement in the build-up forced the opponents to leave their positions and open up gaps that, further helped by Romelu Lukaku‘s hold-up play, were exploited by the likes of El Shaarawy and Lorenzo Pellegrini, making Roma a constant threat on the break.

Roma Milan Europa League
AS Roma’s Stephan El Shaarawy and AC Milan’s Theo Hernandez. [@ASRomaEN]

What does Pioli need to change in the second leg?

While Roma needed a set piece to claim a narrow victory, the precise execution of their plan allowed them to limit the strengths of a Milan side that couldn’t establish their supremacy on the pitch as they have in so many recent meetings between these two clubs.

Yet, beyond Roma‘s merits, Stefano Pioli will have his own concerns after watching his most important players come up short in what was probably their most important match of the year so far, with a European semi-final at stake and no league title to fight for.

Notably, after a series of promising performances, Leao once again came under the spotlight for the wrong reasons, piling up a number of misplaced passes before being subbed off in front of a crowd that made no secret of their discontent, with heavy boos coming from almost every corner of the San Siro except for the Curva Sud.

The return leg at the Stadio Olimpico will present both the coach and players with a test, the outcome of which will inevitably affect the assessment of their seasons. While Pioli is called to find a tactical countermeasure to De Rossi‘s first-leg display, Milan‘s most prominent players are urged to make that 14-point gap visible on the pitch when it really counts.


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