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A deeper look at Paulo Fonseca

Let’s take a look at who Paulo Fonseca is and what he will bring to Tottenham Hotspur.

AS Roma v FC Crotone - Serie A Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Over the past few days, the Tottenham Hotspur rumor mill became inundated over Paulo Fonseca potentially becoming the next head coach of the north London side. On Wednesday, per Fabrizio Romano, it has been reported that Fonseca will officially be announced as the next head coach, marking their third manager in as many years. Just two weeks ago, the rumors surrounding Spurs ranged from reappointing Mauricio Pochettino to appointing Antonio Conte as head coach after the latter left Inter Milan.

With new Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici in place, Fonseca became Paratici’s top choice after talks broke down with Conte. The news of Fonseca to Spurs has not gone over particularly well with Tottenham supporters. After all, Fonseca has spent just two seasons in the ‘power 5’ European leagues, he has had issues in bigger games and most of his success came in a league that is historically known to be dominated by the team he coached.

The appointment of Fonseca has somewhat of a ‘he would not be our first choice, but we liked him anyway’ feel to it. However, perhaps one of Tottenham’s more successful managers in their history was also not their first choice. A few years ago, it was reported that Tottenham wanted Louis van Gaal to be their next coach. The club instead opted for Southampton boss Pochettino and what followed happened to be Tottenham’s best Premier League tenure in the modern era.

Pochettino brought together a club that needed serious repair. Under the Argentine, Spurs ridded out the players that needed to be moved on and developed a playing style that emphasized progressive, attacking football. Now a few years later, Tottenham find themselves in a similar situation:

  • In need of a refresh
  • In need of a new look/identity/feel

The same sentiments were shared in chairman Daniel Levy’s final homeday match program when he had mentioned that the team must get back to playing the style of football that the club would stand for. Under Fonseca, Tottenham has surely signaled that they are giving Paratici all of the keys to get back to just that.

Since the news broke of Fonseca’s links to Tottenham, I took some time to dig into his Roma sides to take a look at how they operated in a variety of different games and in different playing styles. Before we jump into how his teams tick, let’s take a brief look at Fonseca’s background.

Although only 48 years old, Fonseca has been a manager for sixteen years. Immediately after retiring from his playing career, Fonseca started coaching at Estrela da Amadora’s youth academy. After tenures at smaller Portuguese sides such as Odivelas and Pacos de Ferreira, Fonseca took over at Porto. Not even a year into his two-year deal there, Fonseca was sacked from the biggest position in his managerial career up to that point.

Despite largely failing at one of Portugal’s most historic clubs, Fonseca had successful spells for two more seasons in Portugal before making the move over to Ukrainian juggernaut Shakhtar Donetsk. In three seasons in Ukraine, Fonseca transformed the already-strong Ukrainian side into an even more formidable force. Fonseca’s biggest accomplishments in Ukraine were winning the domestic cup as well as the league each season. However, his trademark result as well as the game that really put him on the map occurred in the 2017-18 Champions League when his side reached the round of 16 after a 2-1 win over Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. After the 2018-19 season, Fonseca pursued his biggest challenge yet in Italy at Roma.

At Roma, Fonseca entered a club that a year prior went to the semi-finals of the Champions League. After their memorable comeback win against Barcelona in the quarterfinals, Roma lost to Liverpool 7-6 on aggregate. In hopes of replicating the success they had the season prior, Roma invested a ton of money that summer across the squad. However, Roma did not receive a productive return on their investments, which led to the sacking of head coach Eusebio Di Francesco. The following day, sporting director Monchi stepped down from his role, citing a different vision between ownership, and that the club had gone somewhat into a tail-spin.

In 76 Serie A games under Fonseca, Roma had a record of 39-15-22. Over that same period, Roma scored 145 goals while conceding 109 goals. Over that time, Fonseca had success implementing his style of play. However, the club took a step back in the following season, as Fonseca was left with a stale side that had not been refreshed as well as one that suffered a ton of injuries to their most important contributors. On top of this, a new ownership group ultimately led to the club choosing to go a different direction by refusing to renew his contract and pursuing Jose Mourinho after the club finished seventh in the most recent campaign. We’ve said it before, but all in all, Fonseca endured somewhat of a raw deal in Italy.

Looking at some of Fonseca’s sides dating back to his time in Ukraine, he mainly deployed and lined up in a 4-2-3-1/4-4-2 formation with the sole purpose of creating goal-scoring opportunities. But last season, perhaps in large part due to the injuries at key positions, particularly Nicolò Zaniolo in the middle, Fonseca flirted with a 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 formation. Regardless of the type of system Fonseca and his teams used, Roma consistently emphasized the importance of controlling the middle of the field, both in attack and in defense.

Perhaps the most important player in the 3-4-2-1/3-4-3 formation was trusty veteran Edin Džeko. In this attack, Džeko was set up as a target man where he was utilized for his height and strength to gather the ball in the middle and invite defenders to come up and play at him. From there, Roma’s attackers would play on the overlap, with the sole focus of moving the ball into more encouraging areas to attack.

In comparison to other Serie A clubs, Fonseca’s sides consistently attacked the middle of the pitch. By utilizing a quick, free-flowing possession-based attack, Roma’s plan was to navigate the ball up the field with a lot of short passes to take advantage of the opposition when they were exposed. Fonseca asked his attacking forwards to play somewhat narrow, perhaps due to the hope that it would help keep the formation less exposed on the counter if they were to lose possession. In asking his wide players to come in, Fonseca’s forwards basically acted as two attacking midfielders, giving his fullbacks the ability to advance up the pitch to create overlap in the space left behind by the drifting-inward wide players.

Defensively, Fonseca’s sides have shown to be a problem and something to look into. Fonseca asked a lot of his wingbacks in the 3-4-2-1 formation. Offensively, they were encouraged to play up the field, looking to create overlapping chances. Defensively, they were asked to get back and be positioned in a back-five when not in possession, giving the centerbacks some level of comfort to come out and engage attackers and to push the ball towards the flanks. As Fonseca’s defense is aggressive and purposefully looks to win the ball back, once they retain the ball, players are encouraged to move the ball quickly up the field, giving fullbacks license to move up the pitch, and making them somewhat vulnerable on the counter-attack.

All in all, Fonseca is a positive coach who has shown that he is not attached to playing in one specific way. At Porto and even at Roma in his second season, Fonseca’s tendency towards attack-heavy play often resulted in a bevy of goals where opponents pushed the ball on the counter and into the areas that were left exposed, i.e. out on the wide areas of the pitch

Looking ahead, Tottenham need serious investment across the defense if they are to play the way Fonseca has shown he likes to play in recent seasons. Spurs knew going into the summer that they would need to address the centerback position. However, with the way Fonseca will like to play, they will likely need two new centerbacks brought in.

Tottenham’s current CBs tend to struggle in the wide areas and instead are more adept in aerial duels. Fonseca’s preference has been centerbacks who have ball-playing capabilities. With this being said, Spurs will need to bring in an aggressor, a defender who has the athleticism to come out and engage with attackers. With Paratici’s familiarity with Merih Demiral dating back to their time together at Juventus, perhaps the Turkish international would suit this role well. Or, if Fonseca wants to bring in a defender who he is a bit more familiar with, Roma’s Gianluca Mancini could make sense as well.

On top of centerbacks, Tottenham will need serious investment into the right back position. We discussed above the importance of a multi-dimensional skillset that Fonseca asks of his fullbacks. At left back, Tottenham have decent options, especially with Sergio Reguilon and talented Ryan Sessegnon coming back from loan. However, the same cannot be said at the right back position. It appears that Serge Aurier’s time at Spurs is ending and while Fonseca’s approach may be to the benefit of Matt Doherty, Spurs could benefit from bringing in a more traditional right back who also has an attacking skillset. Zeki Çelik from Lille and even Max Aarons from Norwich would slide right into this role and prosper.

Of course the move for Fonseca may not enthuse Spurs supporters. He did not quite exceed expectations at Roma, but there were other factors to consider as well. Fonseca was obviously high on Paratici’s list and it will now be up to the discretion and ability of the Spurs board if they can operate within the budget afforded to them to bring in prerequisite set of players Fonseca will need to have success. This appointment is by no means a slam dunk, but at least it signals the identity shift back to the aggressive DNA that Levy had spoken of.

In a future article, I will take a look at a few players who could benefit greatly under Fonseca.