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What Can We Expect From Paulo Fonseca’s Roma?

An in-depth look at the man looking to bring control of the ball back to Roma.

Feyenoord v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

‘No matter the formation, his philosophy and way of thinking remain the same. I think Italian coaches often wait on their opponents’ mistakes, but not Fonseca. He always tries to take charge of the game through possession. As has been said, his philosophy is very similar to that of Sarri. His teams, whenever they don’t have the ball, are driven to attack the opponent high up the pitch and win it back.’

- Abel Ferreira, current Sporting Braga coach speaking to Il Romanista

I. Defending (Off The Ball)

What Stays the Same?

  • Blocca squadra compact team shape
  • High line defence

What Changes?

  • 4-4-2 formation off the ball - happy to conceed wide spaces to opponents
  • Roma looks to control space in between the lines in both halves of the pitch

Defensive Shape: Blocco Squadra and High Line Defence

AS Roma v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: Second Leg Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Yes, it’s another high-line coach who likes to push all the way to the halfway line. And Fonseca spent the last three years fielding some of the slowest defenders seen mantaining that high line. Ivan Ordets, Yaroslav Rakitskiy, Serhiy Kryvtsov and Davit Khochovla, to name them all.

That will be comfort to Federico Fazio, but poor consolation to Roma fans recalling Ordets’ professional foul and straight red card against Roma at the Stadio Olimpico. On that occassion, the lack of pace in Fonseca’s backline was found out by none other than Edin Dzeko.

On the positive side, Fonseca’s Shakhtar teams have been so well-drilled at staying tight that they’ve played some matches with all 11 men taking up an average 23 metres of the pitch over 90 minutes. That’s just under a quarter of a Champions League pitch length.

Blocca Squadra Defence - all 11 men taking staying compact to block off passing lanes

So why the rigirous need for a condensed team shape high up the pitch? Fonseca likes to control the space between midfield and defensive lines - the zona di rifinitura - of both attack and defence.

As far as Shakhtar’s defensive zone goes - Fonseca wants his teams aware of the inherent risk of losing the ball when recycling possession among his two deep-lying midfielders.

Defensive Shape Case Study: Beating Sarri’s Napoli for Control

SSC Napoli v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Maurizio Lagana/Getty Images

How dogmatic is Fonseca about pushing up the field?

A Champions League duel with a rival possession-obsessed coach (one who may well be facing Fonseca from the Juventus bench next season) can give us a glimpse into how far Fonseca is willing to adjust his defensive lines.

In a September 2017 home win over Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, Fonseca surprised everyone with the manner of Shakhtar’s victory - racing towards a 2-0 lead and dominating Napoli off the ball for the best part of the first half - and his reaction in the post-match press conference (no, not the Zorro one, that came later):

“In the second half we dropped deeper and that gave them a way to find several chances,” Fonseca said. “But I liked the way my team played and I have to thank them for what they’ve done.”

His assessment was accurate.

In the first half, Napoli were reduced to 7 shots on Shakhtar’s goal; 3 from outside the box and 2 missed headers from corners. All in all, Fonseca reduced Sarri’s Napoli to one shot from open play inside Shakhtar’s box up until half-time. That’s from a team considered to be the underdog.

Fonseca knew to keep Napoli’s creative long-range players - Koulibaly and Diawara - from getting space on the ball, leaving Sarri with only Lorenzo Insigne from the wing. As long as Insigne wasn’t allowed to cut inside, Shakhtar left as much space behind their backline as they pleased. Those 40 yards of space to run in behind would mean nothing to Sarri’s men on the night.

Then came a very different approach against yet another possession-obssessed coach two weeks later; Shakhtar faced Guardiola’s Manchester City in the same Champions League group. We’ll look at that game later on, to see how Roma’s new coach is open to dropping back his defensive lines when it supports his counter-attack.

First, let’s take a finer look at Roma’s formation off the ball, where the real defensive changes come in for 2019/20.

Defensive Shape: Fonseca’s 4-4-2 Defending Off The Ball

As a Di Francesco fan myself, Paulo Fonseca has big shoes to fill in this area for me.

Gone is EDF’s work of perfection - the 4-1-4-1 defence off the ball that brought some of the best team coordination I’ve seen from any Roma side - and in steps Fonseca’s preferred 4-4-2 when his side are out of possession.

Off the ball - 4-4-2 defending in two banks of four and a two-man press up front

Note: It might be to confusing to have drawn them inside Roma’s half. We’d expect the Lupi to be way further up the pitch, but the formation off the ball is the same no matter where on the pitch. We focus on the two-man press up front.

We’ve marked off the defensive zones that Fonseca asks his team to defend - only in some ultra-attacking matches were his backline asked to man-mark high up the pitch instead - while showing the three defensive lines Roma will hold in extended periods off the ball.

The focus is on three defensive objectives:

  • Blocking all passing lanes through the middle
  • Trying to trap the opponents on the ball in wide areas before winning the ball back
  • Forcing the opponent back between their own midfield and backline, where Roma’s front two try to win the ball.

Fonseca’s Two-Man Press Case Study: Winning the 2016 Portuguese Cup

Pedro Fiúza/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We’ve mentioned Fonseca’s sides are happiest when the opposition is forced to play it back between their own lines. This worked to great effect for Braga a few years back, as Paulo Fonseca led his side to victory in the 2016 Portuguese Cup Final.

It was Braga’s first major trophy in 50 years, and arguably happened thanks to their strikers’ effective pressing from the front alone. And Braga did this against heavyweights Porto.

The triggers for pushing up and pressing high are standard fare:

  • Press high when the opponent on the ball turns to face their own goal
  • Press high when the opponent passes the ball back behind their last line of defence (usually this means passing back to the keeper)
A two-man high press where the opposition backline is cut off from their midfield support

But what happens once Roma win the ball back?

The offensive transition is where Fonseca’s routines look very similar to Eusebio Di Francesco’s own of yesteryear, yet with even more emphasis on possession and 1-2 touch passing on the break once Roma win the ball back.

II. Attacking Transition (Possession)

What Stays the Same?

  • Roma use wing play on the counter as a first instinct

What Changes?

  • Maybe we’ll finally see a Roma team that believes in 2-touch-max, rapid passing

Fonseca’s Ukrainian outfit repeatedly did one thing on the ball without hesitation: blind-pass it out wide. They take it for granted that two wide men will be there, high up the field. Always.

The team never fails to give width to any play when needed (though there are some impressive Shakhtar counter-attack goals done through the middle of the pitch too).

Roma have spent the last 2 seasons looking to spread the play out wide as soon as the ball is won back. This won’t change under Fonseca.

However, one of Fonseca’s favourite training drills to open up each team session is far more possession-based than Roma are used to right now.

It’ll be a welcome change if Fonseca’s training methods can raise the overall technical quality of Roma’s play from the lethargy of seasons gone by, especially in finding courage to thread the ball through the middle of the pitch.

III. Attack (Possession)

What Stays the Same?

  • Playing the ball out the back
  • Roma’s goalkeeper is expect to help Roma’s back 3 on the ball
  • Roma’s DM should be prepared to launch first-time balls over the top to the frontline
  • Roma’s fullbacks provide the width
  • Roma’s inverted wingers cut inside

What Changes?

  • Roma’s central defenders no longer expected to make vertical passes to frontline
  • Patient buildup on the ball - Roma’s midfield can drop deeper to build ball out the back when needed
  • Hold onto the ball at all costs
  • Both Roma fullbacks push up to occupy both attacking flanks at the same time
  • A lot more use of cross-field balls to hit opponents on the weak side

Attacking Shape Case Study: Patience Against Guardiola’s City

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

We questioned Fonseca’s dogma over occupying the opposition half and maintaining a high line. Here’s a different approach showing Fonseca’s pragmatism in controlling the ball and counter-attacking. We could have included this match in the defence section as much as it belongs here. This is a coach who sees possession as his team’s best tool for both defence and attack.

Never had this been more evident than a September 2017 away game at the Etihad Stadium. Fonseca trained his backline to sit deeper in a league game - and through training that week - before the big Champions League clash against Pep Guardiola’s City side.

Fonseca would later explain in detail how he noticed Guardiola using his 4 front men for ultra-offensive pressing, in City’s search to win the ball back high up the pitch. Fonseca reasoned he could hit City on the break if Shakhtar dropped deeper, holding onto possession around their own 18 yard line.

Manchester City v Shakhtar Donetsk - UEFA Champions League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Though this was a change in tact from Fonseca, his ultimate aim never changes. And it’s one you’re tired of us repeating by now: controlling the ball.

This game was no exception, leading to high praise from the likes of Gab Marcotti. The journalist’s column asked ‘Did Shakhtar Donetsk show teams how to play against rampant Man City?’ the day after, despite the 2-0 away loss to City on the night:

‘The other thing Shakhtar did very well -- and which likely caught Guardiola by surprise -- is take care of the ball when they won it back. City defend by pressing (it’s no secret), and pressing is most effective against teams that try to break quickly and “vertically.”

Shakhtar chose a different approach. When they won the ball back, they kept it. Even if meant moving sideways rather than forward at first, they were happy to do that and happy to invite City to press.

In this sense, Fonseca’s team were extraordinarily patient. It unraveled after the break partly because Shakhtar declined physically and largely because of Kevin De Bruyne’s long-range ballistic effort. It wasn’t very Guardiola-like (just two of City’s 19 league goals this season have come from outside the box) but at that stage, working the ball closer to the opposing goal was proving to be very difficult.’

Moral victories, and all that.

But Shakhtar would do themselves justice by winning the return game 2-1 over City in Ukraine, eventually making the knockout round of 16 (to face Roma) by finishing ahead of Sarri’s Napoli. Cue Zorro masks for all.

The Etihad performance exemplifies how Roma will be expected to be far more patient on the ball next season.

Possession out the back with Roma’s web of 3 players and the keeper

Fonseca’s Roma will expect one midfielder to drop back on the ball between the central defenders. Roma have done this through Daniele De Rossi for the past two seasons; we’ve put Steven Nzonzi on the board (above) as the man to step into those duties.

Roma’s keeper should join in the possession game, helping the Roma back three to break the opponent’s first line of defence. This is where Alisson Becker’s presence is missed.

Sweeper keepers aside, Roma have been begging for a deep-lying midfielder with long-range vision on the ball for a while. Fonseca’s aim to control the zona di rifinitura in both halves of the pitch will not work without one. Fred was his man at Shakhtar to do this ahead ahead of the back four. Lorenzo Pellegrini may or may not be that man in Rome.

But you need that long-range threat from deep, to plant doubts in the opponent on when to move forward and try closing down Roma, thus drawing out and opening their defensive lines.

Attacking Shape: Hold Onto Ball At All Costs

One major step away from the Di Francesco era here.

Fonseca’s Roma will no longer be - in Marcotti’s own words - a team insistent on playing “quickly and vertically”, which means much less failing at this below:

EDF’s Roma had struggled to make the above work for the Italian’s entire stay on the bench. It lead to accusations that the middle of the pitch was useless, since Roma often failed to use the ball through that midfield space the mezzali worked to create for Manolas and the backline.

Be that as it may, expect it to be a thing of the past under Fonseca.

The Portuguese coach has sometimes favoured dropping BOTH deep-lying midfielders to use short passing here. Midfield is not an area where Fonseca looks to fight for space, other than between the opponent’s last two defensive lines.

Fonseca looks to build up play through midfield, using the wide channels if needed.

I feel these changes in Roma’s attacking style all point towards much less pressure on Kostas Manolas to come up with something he’s not confident enough to do in possession, and a lot more support to bring out the Greek defender’s strengths.

If there is anyone who would enjoy a career second wind in the capital under Fonseca, it is Manolas here.

What About the 18-Yard-Line Wall of Death?

Recent Roma sides struggle against teams sitting back

By now, we’ve mentioned possession so much that thoughts draw back to Rudi Garcia’ days in charge of the team. Garcia typified the struggles inherent to the last few Roma sides: failing to penetrate teams who sit back on the edge of their box. What’s stopping Paulo Fonseca from meeting the same fate?

The honest answer is: Roma’s transfer market will weigh in more than the coach’s influence. That’s always been the case, no matter how many coaches get hired and fired. But there are still a couple of differences between Fonseca’s play and the likes of both Garcia and EDF.

Unlike Rudi Garcia, Fonseca extends his positional play to fighting for control of opponents’ wide space up the pitch, on and off the ball. That makes the Mozambique-born coach far more offensive than the Garcia days, looking for supreme confidence in his fullbacks committing to the battle to control wide spaces in the opposing half.

It’s no coincidence Roma are already linked with signing Fonseca’s trusted on-pitch general, Ismaily, in this area. But the fullbacks Roma have on the books are already capable of buying into the task.

Unlike Eusebio Di Francesco, Fonseca commits more players to possession on the flanks when needed. Not even Di Francesco used to post both full backs up the pitch at the same time, in phases of non-possession. But it doesn’t end there.

Under EDF, we saw 3 men - Kolarov, Strootman, Perotti - often work the ball up Roma’s left wing in 2017/18, but that was more for lack of better options than by design. For Paulo Fonseca, using the flanks is something he’s wiling to encourage his teams to do in bigger clusters of possession out wide.

His Shakhtar sides have often committed as many as 4-5 men to wide play at any given time, using short distances between them to build a “trap” drawing out defences to try and press Fonseca’s men on the ball.

Again, a lot of this boils down to the famous ‘Brazilian confidence’ on the ball in Fonseca’s Shakhtar sides. It’s a precursor to them switching the ball to other wing, where 2 Shakhtar players often wait off the ball to hit opponents on the weak side.

IV. Defending Transition (Non-Possession)

What Stays the Same?

  • Immediately look to play it wide when the ball is won back
  • Full backs use entire length of the pitch to give the team width

What Changes?

  • Ultra-reactive counter-pressing whenever Roma lose the ball
  • Counter-pressing is entirely focused on the opponent in possession

Roma’s Fonseca is set to be the most attacking Giallorossi side seen since Zdenek Zeman was last in charge. Fonseca is willing to commit more men forward - both on and off the ball - than almost anyone in world football besides Guardiola or Klopp, with Fonseca pushing his players to fight for control of the flanks and/or between the lines at all times.

These principles mean Fonseca’s teams wind up being vulnerable to the counter, especially against opponents who directly hit Roma’s weak side or pass over the top next season. This is nothing new for Roma fans watching the team of last season, only the risk has increased. Fonseca’s defence against this is simple: full-on counter-pressing when Roma lose the ball.

Some prefer the term gegenpressing, owing to Jurgen Klopp’s recent success. Fonseca shares the same approach, instructing his men to immediately close the opponent on the ball, without worrying about blocking off passing lanes or covering the opponent’s teammates.

This means Roma’s players will have to be in top shape all season long. If there is anything like the 50-strong injury list of last season on Fonseca’s watch... yeah, no.

Strap yourselves in for next season’s Roma; this could easily end in Fonseca labelled the motivational genius to bring the Maggica back to Rome. Or it ends with Pallotta firing him by winter time.

Fonseca built his reputation on three aims: fighting for the ball, fighting for space between the lines, and fighting for space up the opponents’ flanks. His teams are willing to give up control of the ball out wide, whenever his men need to reset themselves for a defensive breather.

It’s not a given that Fonseca will carry on with the 4-2-3-1 setup from his Shakhtar days, as he sometimes used 4-4-2/4-2-4 on the ball, both in Ukraine and back in Portugal. He’s earned impressive results.

Fonseca led Portuguese minnows Pacos de Ferreira to the Champions League qualifiers in 2013. That’s the Portuguese equivalent of guiding Frosinone to a top 4 finish in Serie A.

That Pacos team had keeper Antonio Filipe playing the ball out the back against bigger European names like Zenit in those 2013 CL qualifiers, where Fonseca’s team ran straight into an 8-2 beatdown on aggregrate. We’ll take it that Fonseca has learnt, the hard way on the biggest stage, when to reign it in without feeling like his team are throwing in the towel before the fight’s begun.

FC Pacos de Ferreira v FC Zenit St Petersburg - UEFA Champions League Play-offs: First Leg
The 2013 Pacos de Ferreira team crash out to Zenit St Petersburg in the Champions League playoffs
Photo by Miguel Riopa/EuroFootball/Getty Images

We’ll have another post on the current Roma players and their fit with Fonseca’s style of play, later in the week. For now, we hope we’ve justice to a man leading a football life of international intrigue.

Paulo Fonseca is not only born in a time of Mozambique civil war but, over forty years later, tasted 3 consecutive years of sporting success around the Donbass Area - a corner of the globe looking to live on in spite of war. It also takes a lot of courage to follow a cult football-hero like Mircea Lucescu, who himself built the foundation of his career in Italy decades ago. It’s noticeable in Fonseca’s pre and post-match conferences against Napoli, that the Portuguese coach did not need a translator to explain the Italian press’ questions back to him.

The only thing missing on his CV is experience in a top 4 league. Fonseca’s been open about his aim to coach in the Premier League, and he’ll have to satisfy himself with the Serie A bush league for now. Fonseca has amassed experience by applying his football style against all calibre of opponents across Europe, achieving both expected and unexpected results in kind.