Roma's ascent to the top of Serie A, off the back of nine wins in nine games, has become one of the stories of the season. When considering just five months ago their arch rivals, Lazio, held a mock funeral in their honour, and Roma since sold their top scorers from last season and appointed a Frenchman who couldn't speak Italian, the resurrection of the side under Rudi Garcia is remarkable.
Dig a little deeper and you'll find something truly astonishing. In their nine league games this season, Roma have conceded one goal. Just one -- to Parma's Jonathan Biabiany, and the lead only lasted eight minutes anyway. It's a truly stupendous statistic - one goal! They conceded fifty-six last season: almost a quarter of the way into 2012-13, the contrast is staggering.
You don't even need to exaggerate it: it's just simply one goal conceded in nine games, unmatched certainly in the current league season and rivaled only by a few clubs in the past decade. As my colleague Kevin McCauley put it to me on Monday, "They've done that with Morgan De Sanctis, Leandro Castan, and Maicon in their defense, which is super triple insane."
It sums it up nicely. Roma's defence is currently playing well and truly beyond the sum of their parts. De Sanctis's wild penchant for racing furiously out of his box whenever possible at Napoli made him less-handsome, more-beserk version of Hugo Lloris, while Leandro Castan scarcely inspired confidence in his flitting appearances after signing in 2012 from Corinthians. Maicon, meanwhile, has seen his career hit a downward trajectory ever since Gareth Bale infamously tore him to shreds in the Champions League: a move to Manchester City did little to curb the fall. That's all without mentioning Federico Balzaretti, who is hardly the epitome of consistency.
Yet all four combine to create what has proven a near unbreakable back four. At first, you could partially explain Roma's solidity at the back to their consistency in selection, with Rudi Garcia's first choice defence obvious from the opening round win against Livorno. Certainly, there was an obvious cohesion and understanding between the players which beggared belief, considering the individuals comprising it.
However, gone are the days when defending was only associated with the defence and for Roma it is certainly a whole team effort. Central to it all is the deep-lying midfielder, Daniele De Rossi, who could sometimes be mistaken for a third centre-back given the way he sits in front of the defence. After fickle form in recent years, he's returned to something approaching his best in Garcia: combining calm distribution with an aggressiveness and bite that complements Roma's new system.
He's assisted, too, by his companions in the midfield triangle: Miralem Pjanic and Kevin Strootman are clever going forward, but perhaps more importantly is their combativeness and energy. Against Napoli, they were instrumental in driving Napoli's holding midfield duo back, which in turn opened up space for Francesco Totti to dictate the game.
Recent weeks, however, have seen injuries challenge the squad's depth, particularly in the full-back positions. Maicon's injury against Sampdoria saw Dodo enter the fray, and despite a solid performance he didn't start when the Brazilian's absence extended to the following match against Bologna. Instead, Vasilis Torosidis played for the first time this season, but Roma's defence didn't skip a beat - in fact, Bologna only managed three shots on target as Roma's attack scored five.
Torosidis started the following week against Inter, but Maicon was always going to return once fit - although in a curious twist of fate, his return coincided with Federico Balzaretti's suspension for a red card against Inter. That meant after starting the first five games together, it took another four games until they would be reunited, for last weekend's fixture against Udinese. Unsurprisingly, Roma kept another clean sheet, although it was hardly a showing of defensive solidarity.
Instead, this game was perhaps Roma at their most vulnerable this season, the second week in a row where they've been saved by both the post and a goal-line clearance. The build-up for the former moment particularly highlighted the weaknesses in Garcia's approach. No matter what formation there will always be space somewhere on the pitch and often in Roma's 4-3-3 it appears in the gap between the wide players and the full-backs, particularly in transitions. There was a moment when Udinese won the ball in midfield and it took a series of just two passes for them to counter-attack into the channels, giving Luis Muriel the time and space to hit a well-driven ground shot across the face of goal, only to be denied by the far post.
Later, Maicon earned a yellow card for a tactical foul necessary to break down another rapid Udinese counter, using his body to block Muriel's powerful running that the full-back would have otherwise been powerless to stop. Both incidents illustrate the fallacy associated with Garcia's instruction to the full-backs to get forward quickly, and with their narrow formation off the ball it was obvious how often the full-backs had acres of space in front of them to run into. Every move in football comes at a price and fittingly as Udinese allowed Maicon and Balzaretti to move forward they wrote their own invitations to counter-attack down either side of Roma's centre-back duo.
You feel in the context of the Italian league, which tends not to favour wingers, this is probably the area Garcia is most sensible in sacrificing to the opposition. The problem, though, is exacerbated by the fact that in a 4-3-3 the wide attackers naturally play higher up the pitch than in any other formation and so naturally there is more space for them to have to cover when Roma do not have the ball.
Indeed, tracking back saps at players' energy and it is rare that both Alessandro Florenzi and Gervinho, first choice starters on the flanks, finish a match. The replacement in most instances is tricky dribbler Adem Ljajic, but he particularly tends to leave his full-back isolated. It wasn't a coincidence that he was nowhere to be seen when Mattia Cassani, of Parma, had all the time in the world to whip in a cross for the only goal Roma have conceded this season.
It could be that though this is more design than accident considering the way that Gervinho often tends to stop at a certain point when tracking point, almost as if he is positioning himself to be ready for the inevitable counter. Still, a side that plays with genuine width high up the pitch could thrive by breaking quickly down the sides. Roma's defensive solidity will not last forever and it feels almost inevitably that this will be the manner in which it will finally be breached.