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Dr. Strange Hire: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Fons

I talked myself into Paulo Fonseca and so can you.

Spezia Calcio v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

After flirting with Antonio Conte and getting back together with Mauricio Pochettino, settling for the soon to be hired Erik Ten Hag Paulo Fonseca feels like a disappointment. The manager of a seventh place Roma team, swapping with Jose Mourinho? No thanks.

But Spurs might have found a diamond in the rough, who was hurt by a double whammy of bad luck at Roma in two ways: an injury crisis and bad finishing. Below, I’m going to put forward the analytics-based case for thinking Fonseca is legitimately good. I don’t know if I believe it completely, but it’s a plausible story that I am talking myself into because I am sick of being sick of Tottenham Hotspur.

My interest was first piqued when I saw this tweet from Smarter Scout, Dan Altman’s somewhat black boxy (but probably good given Dan Altman is smart) analytics site:

Similarly, another analytics-based method shows Fonseca improving Roma and being an above average manager:

Fonseca does not seem to have a particularly distinct coaching style, but he made Roma better pretty immediately by xG. In 2018-2019, before he joined, Roma had an xGD of about +10. In his two seasons, it was +24 and +17. He did this despite no majorly impressive signings and with Roma reducing their wage bill and roster size over that time. Smart people quite liked his time at Shakhtar, and I found him pretty impressive on this video as well, where you can see him break down his training for a match against Manchester City, and show how training led to them working a goal out of the back (plus bonus Pep commentary discussing how well-managed Shakhtar were):

Even more importantly, you’ll see him discussing how he’ll never defend in a low-block. Sweet sweet relief.

So, what the hell happened at Roma last year where a supposedly good manager ended up in 7th with a pretty expensive squad? You can see it in the chart Nathan shared as well, where Roma just tailed off last season. In short, they got Liverpooled.

Through 19 matches last season, the first half, Roma were really good and deserved to be near the top of the league by expected goals.

Roma were near top of the league half way through.

Had the season ended then, I don’t think Fonseca would be our manager to be. The defense was even quite good, belying his reputation as a poor defensive coach. Roma conceded as many expected goals as they scored the rest of the way and fell to 7th. Relatedly, here is a chart of their injuries to players who played meaningful minutes:

Red means injury

In addition to what you see here, Leonardo Spinazzola’s backup Riccardo Calafiori was hurt. Roma played with three at the back and of their four regular center backs, three were often hurt at the same time to end the season. Federico Fazio(!) played six matches in the back. It got bleak.

Does he deserve a complete mulligan for what happened at the end of the season? Who is to say. If he had been there a couple more years, perhaps it would have been easier to give him a pass. Let’s say we do though, and take a look at Roma’s performance in the 1.5 seasons he was there before the injury crisis:

Roma’s xG was not far from Juventus in Fonseca’s 1.5 seasons before the injury crisis.

I really have no idea if this story is true, but I do think Fonseca is an above average manager who plays possession-based attacking soccer, which will match our talent. I also think there’s a reasonable chance he’s a diamond in the rough of a compressed schedule and an injury crisis. We can hope at least.