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Paulo Fonseca isn’t the Tottenham manager we wanted, but he might be a hidden gem

It’s a weird appointment, but it might not be a bad one.

FC Internazionale v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Sportinfoto/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

If your first response to hearing the news that broke yesterday afternoon that former Roma manager Paulo Fonseca was in negotiations to take over as manager at Tottenham Hotspur was outright disbelief, you’re not alone. Gianluca DiMarzio’s story hit like a bomb on social media, and fans’ immediate reaction... well, let’s just say the news didn’t go over particularly well.

It was my reaction too. It’s an understandable one, because at first glance the optics are pretty bad. The idea that Tottenham may have effectively traded managers with Roma doesn’t come across especially great. Roma apparently let Fonseca go specifically in order to target Mourinho, just days after he was sacked by Spurs. So you can in some ways understand a surface level fan opinion that reveals outrage at how, with a whole world of potentially good managers to choose from, Fabio Paratici’s first real act as Tottenham’s Director of Football is to pick this guy.

But as most things go in this world, initial reactions can sometimes be either simplistic, or misguided. I’m not going to say that I know a lot about Paulo Fonseca, because along with most of the people reading this article, I don’t. However, as I dig deeper into Fonseca, his tactics, his style of play, and his managerial history, I’m starting to warm to this and wonder if there isn’t a gem of an up and coming young manager here who got a raw deal in Rome.

Tactically, Fonseca certainly looks like a person who could get the most out of Tottenham’s existing team, the deeper you look. I learned a lot from this Tifo Football video from March, two months before he was let go, about his Roma team and how they set up and play.

Fonseca showed, in his stints at Shakhtar Donetsk and Roma, that he is a tactically flexible manager who is adept at using a mix of experienced and younger players, and one who is unafraid of repurposing players into different roles where their skill sets can best help the way he wants to play. He got kudos from Roma fans for his defensive organization and while few would consider his tenure to be an unqualified success, there are a lot of caveats as to why he wasn’t a hit in Italy.

A surface level examination of his departure from Roma in May seemed to come down to equal parts hard luck due to COVID-19 and injuries, an almost complete lack of funding, and new club ownership in Rome that was champing at the bit for a higher profile head coach. That head coach, ironically, turned out to be Jose Mourinho.

And yet, there’s still stuff to like here, and it’s a good question as to whether in a more stable environment and some backing with a good Director of Football Fonseca could be a solid under-the-radar manager for a club like Spurs, much like a similarly unheralded manager like Southampton’s Mauricio Pochettino. But that’s putting the cart in front of the horse.

If you want to be critical, it’s perfectly acceptable to be critical of the process that led us here. There’s a lot that we still don’t know about what happened leading up to this potential appointment — we don’t know how close Spurs actually came to the hiring of Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino. We don’t know how serious Spurs were in looking at Erik Ten Hag, Graham Potter, or any of the myriad other names that were floating around in the past 50+ days, or indeed whether any of these candidates removed themselves from consideration at any point in negotiations. The closest we may get to an actual timeline is Alasdair Gold’s article from this morning, and you can practically see the angry froth coming off of his mouth while reading.

But while we can say that the process leading up to Paratici identifying and targeting Fonseca was deeply screwed up and in many ways a disaster, what we ended up with was distinctly normal. After all that chaotic mess, Tottenham hired a Director of Football who went after and landed his top choice for the job. In fact, this very model is something that Spurs fans have been demanding for years — get Daniel Levy out of the way and let “real football men” make these kinds of decisions.

I both understand and sympathize with the view of fans who are, at minimum, underwhelmed with a potential appointment of Fonseca, and I’d never say that these opinions are invalid. It’s too early to say. It’s quite possible, even likely, that Fonseca isn’t the post-Nagelsmann manager that Levy wanted at the end of the day, but Fonseca seems to tick many of the boxes that Levy himself laid out in his letter to supporters at the end of the season: he’s young, dynamic, has managed in European competition, likes young players, and coaches an exciting, progressive brand of football that could work extremely well with the core of Tottenham’s existing team. He’s also, by all indications, not a toxic jerk with an outdated tactical system who alienates players and costs a lot of money.

And that’s why, assuming that Fonseca is actually appointed (we’ve been here before, after all), I’m going to give him the chance that I tried to give, but never really actually gave, Jose Mourinho. It’s worth noting that a large chunk of the fanbase was also extremely meh on the appointment of Mauricio Pochettino after Louis Van Gaal turned down Tottenham to take charge at Manchester United.

In a discussion of Fonseca in our Carty Free slack channel yesterday, I favorably compared Fonseca to a Caesar salad — disappointing if you were expecting a cheeseburger maybe, but tasty in its own way, and (dressing aside) probably better for you in the long run. We’ll have to wait to see whether that’s an analogy that I’ll come to regret in the future.