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SPAL Match Points to Better Days Ahead for Florenzi and Fonseca Relationship

After captain Florenzi turns his season around against SPAL, the pair have time for a laugh over dinner.

Football Europa League Roma-Wolfsberger

From the outset this past summer, Fonseca remained non-committal to fielding Florenzi in his side. The Portuguese coach acknowledged Florenzi’s position as club captain, but Fonseca insisted he would pick the best eleven available to him. Months have gone by and it’s since become clear that Fonseca considers Florenzi’s training performances physically too slow for what the coach ideally wants from a marauding full-back. Unfortunately for the Roma coach, this club isn’t one that can indulge in luxury (probably something that will eventually cost Roma watching Fonseca move on to the Premier League) and the best Roma sides are forged from the best compromises.

For me, the Fonseca-Florenzi relationship is only interesting when Fonseca is under the microscope here. Can Fonseca get the best out of every player under his stewardship?

AS Roma v Real Madrid - Friendly Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Aleksandar Kolarov and Leonardo Spinazzola both possess the top-line speed that enables them to be the spare man in all phases of play on the flanks, like Fonseca wants. However, the big doubt lies over Kolarov’s stamina, and how much he can afford to let his topline speed rip over 90 minutes at 34 years of age. Spinazzola, while holding all the speed and technique any football player could ever hope for, struggles with concentration and end-product. Then there is Davide Santon, whose performances in Rome would merit a permanent place in the first team under Fonseca, if it weren’t for his own lack of natural pace that conflicts with the coach’s demands.

Santon strikes me as a guy who could have gone on to write history as a centre-back, in line with the ‘future Maldini’ tag that once trailed him back in Milan. His absolute refusal to let an opponent get past him is exactly what you want from a stopper on the defensive end, and Santon’s natural sense of adventure in driving the ball up the field fits well with the modern demands on centrebacks to draw opponents onto them in playing the ball out the back. But you can’t legislate for where players see their own role on the pitch.

Borussia Moenchengladbach v AS Roma: Group J - UEFA Europa League Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images

Just like Diego Perotti baffles everyone with his heart invested in playing wide left instead of in-field, Santon grew up believing his best shot at top-level football was as a right-footed left-back. I mean... figure that one out. Among all these compromises (not mentioning the injured Davide Zappacosta), it was only a matter of time until Florenzi got his shot at full-back once again.

And yet things had to get even worse from Florenzi before they could start getting better.

Against Wolfsberger in the Europa League, Florenzi’s season hit rock-bottom with a performance that was beyond explanation or common sense. And then came to man-of-the-match performance against SPAL, with Florenzi showing everything Fonseca would want from a full-back. Sure, some will forever point to the idea that Florenzi’s positioning and style isn’t made for the position but, to me, that’s a vague excuse to denigrate without specifics.

Maybe I’m naive, but as long as a full-back stands in line with the half-space when defending the far side, pushes up on his flank when defending the near side and is open wide to support his teammates on the ball, then the rest is left up to the player’s own interpretation (and his actual performance) in my book. Florenzi’s own interpretation of defending is, as often, a matter of taste rather than outcome. Because he often delivers on the defensive end.

AS Roma v SPAL - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Roma captain knows he’s often at both a height and physical disadvantage in one-on-one matchups against opponents, so tries to be first to cut out the danger before it becomes a bigger problem than he can handle in one-on-ones. In a more conservative side with a backline dropping deep, Florenzi relying on anticipation would be a serious problem. But he’s playing for a coach who has shown he likes both his centre-backs aggressively pushing up field, and so Florenzi’s style is a decent fit in Fonseca’s battle to control the ball, time and space.

Lofty ambitions often come to reality in small packages.

Against SPAL, Florenzi’s anticipation was flawless; Bren himself pointed out the Roma captain won 100% of his aerial duels on the right flank. This from a height disadvantage of over 10 cms, and giving up nearly 20kgs to SPAL’s wide man. And then there was the patient build-up in the first two thirds, combined with Florenzi’s execution in the final third.

This was a far cry from Florenzi’s performance against Wolfsberger, on a Thursday evening nightmare where he treated the ball like he was for a spot of golf at the driving range. Instead against SPAL, Florenzi’s passing is no more or less than a neat series of short exchanges, between himself, Cetin and the Roma midfield, in order to try and draw out SPAL’s men. And when Florenzi found himself with the ball at his feet in the final third of attack, you only have to look at his assist for Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal as evidence for Flo’s execution when it matters most. Another three key passes in the final third, to add to his three against Wolfsberger.

The detractors will say this was all done against SPAL. But tell me how many times you’ve seen Roma sides, in front of the Olimpico crowd, hold both the patience and nerve to systematically wear down an opponent sitting back for all ninety minutes on the way to a home win? It doesn’t happen as often as we want, and it often boils down to countless Lupi sides since 1927 lacking that exact performance from positions like both Amadou Diawara’s and Florenzi’s.

Football Europa League Roma-Wolfsberger

Diawara looks unassuming, but is actually responsible for making park-the-bus teams like Lecce, Brescia and SPAL run that extra few kilometres from side-to-side with his constant switches of play, before he exposes their lapses of concentration with a killer vertical ball. Florenzi, in turn against SPAL, provided the killer balls from out wide and took the most touches of the ball out of any 22 players on the pitch.

The club’s confidence in this current Roma side’s ability to play football that meets crowd expectations is high enough that Roma announced an open-door training session at the Tre Fontane on New Year’s Day for the fans to attend. Would we have imagined such a thing happening 12 months ago?

Fonseca has more work to unlock that kind of confidence in players like Spinazzola, but the coach’s machinations may have brought out the best in a familiar name: Alessandro Florenzi. And that really should be the point. Bench a guy, play him, loan him, sell him. Do what you want, as long as it’s in the name of getting the best performances out of his career.

Fonseca and Florenzi may be on their way to achieving that, and they had time to laugh about it over Roma’s Christmas dinner held for all the club employees.

AS Roma v Wolfsberger AC: Group J - UEFA Europa League Photo by Silvia Lore/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It was the first where Florenzi himself, as the club captain, did the honours.

“I’d prepared a big speech while I was arriving here in the car,” Florenzi opened up his on stage yesterday evening. Before the captain could even get out his next line, he couldn’t help noticing Paulo Fonseca lean past Guido Fienga and grab the spare microphone to his side. “You know,” Fonseca interjected, “everyone is waiting for you to talk about the coach.”

Everyone understood the levity Fonseca brought to the moment, and no one looked more relieved than Florenzi. Hopefully a corner has been turned, and the performances on the pitch reflect the synchronicity found off of it.