[Editor’s note: this piece was written and submitted just before Tottenham Hotspur abandoned their pursuit of Paulo Fonseca for the botched attempt at Gennaro Gattuso. We were going to scrap this piece, but I hate wasting contributor work. After consideration, Ryan and I both decided that we’d like to run this piece anyway, with some tweaks. Consider this an alternate history, perhaps. Or maybe a requiem for what might have been.]
It has been a quite a few days if you’re a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. After being linked to Mauricio Pochettino to Antonio Conte, it was quite a shock when rumors circulated that Paulo Fonseca had moved into pole position to become the next head coach. After being linked with two of the better coaches in the world, going to Fonseca was somewhat of a hard pill to swallow for myself as well as most Spurs supporters.
But after awhile, curiosity started flowing and I started studying up on what made Fonseca’s teams tick, how he set up and how he liked to bring his philosophies and influence from the touch-line to the playing field. After researching over Fonseca, I was not extremely impressed, but I understood that his attacking mindset fell right into the hands of what Daniel Levy and company were looking for in their next manager. Prior to the Fonseca deal falling through, I had written the below article regarding players I was excited to see under Fonseca.
Prior to us jumping into this article, I discussed in detail some of the tactical analysis and approach Fonseca showed in recent years. You can find that article linked here. For those who did not get a chance to view that article, we can shortly sum up Fonseca’s tactical approach below.
Preference of formation/shape:
Historically speaking, Fonseca has mainly deployed a 4-2-3-1. However, last season at Roma most likely due to injuries to key contributors, Fonseca tinkered with a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 approach. Regardless of the types of formations, what was clear was that Fonseca looks to create overlapping facets of play by pushing his fullbacks in attacking positions up the pitch.
When in attack:
Given that Fonseca liked his fullbacks to play up the pitch, he asks his fullbacks to basically act as wide players, which gives his wide players the license to play a bit more inwards and basically act as two number tens. In this shape, he liked to have a target man inside while also having the overlapping play from his fullbacks and wide players on the outside to get in behind.
Additionally, history showed that Fonseca preferred to play through the middle of the pitch. His sides took a liking to quick, short passes to stretch the opposition thin and move the ball up the pitch to pin the defense back, giving time for his fullbacks and wingers to advance up the pitch and move into those overlapping areas to ask questions to the defense.
When on defense:
In my research, there had been something of a lack of deference with Fonseca towards his defense. Due to the tendencies of his attacking-style methods, his defenses were quite leaky. Because his fullbacks played higher up the pitch, it left his centerbacks to be on their own sometimes within wide areas to defend against counter-attacks when they were stretched.
When Fonseca did have his defenses set up, a la not on the counter, he typically asked his fullbacks to play in a makeshift back five. His defensive approach seemed to be predicated on retaining the ball back and getting back in attack. Due to this, he asked his centerbacks to come out and engage attackers in hopes of getting the ball outside to the flanks. When the ball was out on the flanks, the near-side fullback was aggressive in trying to win the ball back, while the far-side fullback tucked in and formed a back-four. If the opposition switches play, the roles of the fullbacks interchanged.
Noting the above, we now have a better idea of the type of football we would have expected to see under Fonseca. Thinking of how Fonseca liked to set up, I had thought that there was not one centerback, perhaps outside of Davinson Sánchez, that would have been in his plans concretely.
In terms of attack under Fonseca, we could have expected Tottenham to be playing a style that they really have not been accustomed to in recent memory. If Fonseca were to play in a similar matter to how he played last season with Roma, with the idea of fullbacks moving up the pitch and attacking wingers moving inwards to act as two number tens, it would have been uncommon in the Premier League.
Spurs never really entertained playing in this matter in large part due to Son Heung-Min and his influence being more impactful out wide. As is the case with any coaching change, some players would have benefited more in comparison to others under Fonseca. While this is somewhat revisionist history now that the Fonseca-Spurs deal is off, I wanted to discuss five current Spurs that I thought had the potential to improve under his philosophy.
Towards the end of the season, Reguilón went through a complete tailspin, conceding an own goal at home to Aston Villa and being involved in numerous shocking performances. However, he is still one of the best young left backs in the world and at 24 years of age, this is still a player that can do big things for Spurs.
Regardless of which head coach will come in, Reguilón will have one more offseason and year of his experience in the league underneath his belt. Under Fonseca, I imagined that his energy and his attacking-nature could have brought him to the next level. This past season under José Mourinho and Ryan Mason, Spurs consistently attacked through the left channel due to the Spaniard and Son down that flank. However, he was not fully given the ability to roam forward as he was asked to return in defense.
In many games, Reguilón looked completely exhausted and oft-times out of position due to playing in a role where he was basically asked to play two positions. In playing in the role we discussed above under Fonseca, I expected that Reguilón would have been given the ability to freely play forward. With Ryan Sessegnon coming back as well, they would have a player who can bring that same attacking threat that Ben Davies simply cannot should Reguilón need to rest.
Giovani Lo Celso
We spoke above about the preference and importance of Fonseca’s sides attacking through the middle. Tottenham’s best ball-carriers as of this current writing are Lo Celso and Ndombele. However, of the two, Lo Celso seems to be the one who takes less risks and knows when the forward pass may not be there. When Fonseca was expected to come in, I anticipated that there would be times where Spurs’ alignment would have been set up in certain ways that would have left them susceptible to easily concede goals if they were not careful in their build-up play. In comparison to Ndombele, Lo Celso is a bit more patient, knowing that he does not have to push the ball up the pitch at every chance given.
While the consistency and ability to stay healthy have not been there for Lo Celso, this is still a player who was seen as the eventual ‘maestro’ replacement to Christian Eriksen when he came over to Spurs. Signed initially on loan in the summer of 2019, Lo Celso has endured two different coaches and coaching styles and has yet to take hold of a starting place with either one.
Under Fonseca, Spurs were definitely going to become more threatening with the ball. Lo Celso is one of Spurs’ best current options to pull the strings in midfield. Still just 25 years old, it was not so long ago that he had double-digit goal contributions in La Liga at Real Betis. Of course health is an important factor, but Lo Celso was a player who Fonseca would have definitely appreciated.
I touched upon Ndombele above, but want to write about him more in detail here. Since transferring from Lyon two years ago, Ndombele has shown little bits of brilliance in a variety of roles. Similar to Lo Celso, health and scheme fit have likely been the primary reasons that he has not taken quite off yet.
In Ndombele, there is obviously a player. Not many players in the Premier League or even in the world can play a ball through or pirouette past two players at the same time like he can. While there are those bits of glamor, there are the inconsistent parts of his game that have shown as well. As mentioned above, he has shown a tendency to cheaply give the ball away and his work-rate has come into question numerous times during his tenure in English football.
In a league that is predicated on goal-scoring and statistics, Ndombele’s goal contributions will never jump off the charts. However, Ndombele is so strong and demanding on the ball. Due to the above traits, Ndombele was certainly a player that Fonseca would have utilized in a deep-lying playmaking role to dictate the middle of the field.
I think many on this site are expecting Spurs to engineer a move away for Lucas this summer. Going into this offseason, I thought Lucas would be a player who would be sold in an effort to create some funds to pursue elsewhere. However, after thinking more and more about the way Fonseca showed he liked to play last season paired with some of Moura’s best performances in the 2020-21 season coming up in the middle of the pitch, it got me thinking that perhaps Moura would have been a decent option in Fonseca’s attack.
Let me also add in here that I firmly believe Spurs, on top of addressing centerback and right back, should be in the market for new reinforcements upfront. With Gareth Bale’s future up in the air, Spurs need more goals that do not come from the boots of either Harry Kane or Son.
We spoke earlier about Fonseca’s liking to pushing his attacking forwards inwards to act as two number tens, thus giving his fullbacks the license to operate within that opening of space. As shown by his ability to play in the middle last season, Lucas’ versatility could have played a role into Fonseca’s plans despite his inconsistent end-product and final ball. But now with the Fonseca deal off, I am going back to the thinking that Moura will be a player who will be moved on to increase funds elsewhere.
It really does feel like the entire world has forgotten about how good of a player Sessegnon was and can still be. Still just 21 years of age, Sessegnon has such a bright future ahead of him. When Tottenham signed the London-metro area native, he was identified as a player who could operate really anywhere down the left flank. With Son and Reguilón patrolling the left side this past season, Sessegnon was sent out on loan to Hoffenheim where he was played predominantly in a left wingback type of role.
On loan, Sessegnon adjusted quite well. He looked much more comfortable with the nuances of the position and showed more of an ability towards the end of the season to understand his defensive assignments in more complex situations.
It has never been about athleticism or talent with Sessegnon. It has always been about him being somewhat of a “tweener” and not having a true position. Because of his ability to play as a left wingback and even as a left forward, he is certainly going to garner attention. To me, Sessegnon is ready to stay and contribute to the first-team. I truly thought that Fonseca would have seen Sessegnon’s potential usage and ability on the entire left side of the pitch.
As mentioned above, this article was written prior to the news of Fonseca being out and even Gattuso being in. There is still a lot of moving parts in this manager search. I have been pulling my hair out reading and studying up on a variety of different managers. As soon as it was reported that Gattuso was the frontrunner for the position on Thursday, I had been building up my knowledge on his tenure in Serie A to put together another piece for you all. I am happy I waited though!
Once we actually see the new manager holding up the shirt and the badge, I will jump more into their tactics and put together some more pieces similar to the ones above.