Mourinho has gradually switched Roma to playing with three defenders, something his predecessor Paulo Fonseca had already used, but the three-man defensive line under Mourinho is used differently. The 1-3-5-2 system with two attacking midfielders or 1-3-4-1-2 (with one AM) provides Roma with a much more offensive style of play than those familiar from Mourinho’s previous teams.
In defense Roma typically use individual marking, where each player is assigned a specific opponent. While the tight marking scheme is rigid the players receive different instructions each match depending on the opponent.
When pressing Roma’s formation usually looks like 1-5-3-2 or 1-3-5-2, depending on how high the opponent’s wingers are positioned. The task of the wing backs is to press their rivals in the high block phase, which involves the key role of the wing backs.
Central defenders are also extremely important in this phase. Being the last line of defence they try to provide the link with the second line by creating a tight and compact zone that the whole team is committed to press. The central defenders must also defend the space in front of the back line quite aggressively.
Because Roma’s pressing is disciplined and rigidly structured, it can sometimes cause midfielders to be drawn into their half by their rival, leaving a large space between themselves and the defenders. The central defenders must therefore be ready to close the gap and go higher up, especially if the opponent tries direct plays coming out of the pressure.
When defending with a high block Mourinho’s players are very aggressive and coordinated with the apparent intention of winning the ball back as early as possible. When forced to defend deeper the wing backs move back to the line of central defenders and the formation changes to a tight but narrow 1-5-3-2.
The rules for medium and low block are simple: keep the ball out of center, force the opponents to the wings and there win the ball with the help of the central midfielders. To seal the center the players create a compact zone between the lines to limit possible passing angles, but also to make it easier to tight-marking rivals. If the ball nevertheless penetrate the second line through the center, effective regain is entrusted to the aggressive pressing leaps of the defenders.
In a positional attack Roma looks like a 1-3-1-6 with a frequently used manoeuvre being the high forward movement of one of the wing backs while the opposite one moves back to form a back three (!), as one of the central defenders moves higher up the midfield, coming gradually up to the opponent’s first line of pressure. When the ball nevertheless cannot find a free player in the rivals’ half and the action returns to deep play, then both wing backs go quite low and the formation in this phase resembles 1-4-2-2-2. This movement serves to draw the rivals into their own half.
Nevertheless, Mourinho wants his team to play directly and the high pressing in the first phase after a loss is to serve the highest possible positions to regain the ball. The central attacking midfielders in this system are extremely important when Roma use “counter-moves” trying to break through the opponent’s defensive block. This is because their job is to position themselves in half-space and run in behind the defensive line while the opponent’s side defenders are pulled back by the attackers.