For a hot minute midway through last June, former Roma boss Paulo Fonseca looked locked on to be Tottenham Hotspur’s next football manager. It was something of a weird, out of left field appointment, but there were reasons to think that it might actually work, especially in contrast to the overly defensive and reactionary football seen under former manager Jose Mourinho.
Within hours of a meeting between Fonseca and Spurs’ new Managing Director of Football Fabio Paratici, the whole thing had collapsed. Nobody was quite sure why, with conflicting reports that ranged from disagreements over tactics to tax rates in Italy.
For the first time, Fonseca has now spoken publicly in the Telegraph about how close he came to signing for Spurs and why things fell apart. To hear him tell it, things were nailed on, only for Paratici to pull the plug over concerns that Fonseca wasn’t willing to focus enough on the defensive side of the ball.
“The agreement was done. We were planning the pre-season and Tottenham wanted an offensive coach. It wasn’t announced but we planned pre-season players. But things changed when the new managing director arrived and we didn’t agree with some ideas and he preferred another coach.
“I have some principles. I wanted to be coach of the great teams but I want the right project and a club where the people believe in my ideas, my way to play, and this didn’t happen with the managing director.
“It’s what the chairman and the sporting director (Steve Hitchen) asked for. To build a team who can play attractive and offensive football and I was ready for that. I cannot be a different way. All my teams will have these intentions. In Rome or Shakhtar in the Champions League against the biggest teams, I’m not sending out my teams to defend near their own box.”
This seems to track with some of the ITK and even some reporting that emerged in the days following the breakdown in talks. However, it doesn’t track with all of it. Notably, Fabrizio Romano tweeted initially that the breakdown was due to a tax issue related to Fonseca coming from Italian football.
Paulo Fonseca to Tottenham is 100% OFF. Deal collapsed because of taxes issues despite contract already completed and set to be signed - Fonseca had tax advantages from an Italian law which is not applicable in the UK ⚪️ #THFC— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) June 17, 2021
Spurs in talks with Gattuso now, as per @DiMarzio.
Now, there’s no actual reason to discount Fonseca’s recollection of events here. In fact, while we don’t know where Romano got his information, I find it easier to believe Fonseca that Paratici had a different vision for what he wanted from his head coach than I do that the whole thing fell apart due to an obscure tax provision. It’s also possible that Romano was fed information from a source that was trying to obscure what actually happened between Spurs and Fonseca.
If we take Fonseca at his word, this is going to provoke an interesting discussion over Spurs fans, especially considering how Nuno Espirito Santo has set up Tottenham to play thus far this season. With the usual caveats that injuries and [gestures vaguely] EVENTS have no doubt affected what Nuno has been able to do thus far, Nuno has notably improved Tottenham’s defensive efficacy over Mourinho, but the offense has been significantly lacking compared to last season.
And there does appear to be clear differences between Nuno’s approach to tactics and how Fonseca believes the game should be played. In the same interview, he talked a little bit about his approach to football tactics and boy howdy is it ever progressive!
“All players want to have the ball. They want to dominate. They want to participate. They don’t want to run to recover the ball. They don’t want to run without the ball and defend. The best way to defend is to have the ball.
“We have an obligation with supporters to create a spectacle, a good show. That is the obligation of the coach. I want to win every game but just winning is not enough for me. I have to be offensive and dominate the games and have an offensive midfield and show courage in the game. These are things which will die with me.
“It happened so many times when I got home after winning a game and my wife asked ‘why are you unhappy?’ And it is because I didn’t win the way I wanted to. It is not enough. I have to create a good show for the people who pay the tickets and love football. At least I try. I cannot be a coach in another way.”
Was Paratici correct to go in a more defensive direction? It’s impossible to say. Maybe Fonseca could’ve unshackled the offense (or kept it unshackled), and based on his quotes it sure seems like Spurs would’ve been fun to watch under him, but the defense was an obvious problem after last season, and Paratici might have been correct to want to focus his energies on a coach who could shore that area up.
However, if you wanted a coach that lived up to Daniel Levy’s post-season comments about progressive football being in the club’s “DNA,” Fonseca sure does seem like a coach that fits into that mold. That said, as soon as Levy appointed Paratici and handed him the keys to the managerial search, he effectively ceded all control. From that point, it was all Fabio, and Paratici ended up with the manager he wanted.
The Fonseca vs. Nuno choice feels like a real sliding doors moment for Tottenham. These were two very different men with two very different approaches to football, and it came down to a choice by the person who was entrusted to make the decision. Whether he made the right choice will no doubt be endlessly debated by fans for as long as Nuno remains in charge.