With their midweek washout against Atalanta fresh in their minds, Roma have no time to dawdle as they head towards the heel of Italy for the first time since 2012 (at least to play Lecce). The Stadio Comunale Via del Mare—or as I like to call it, the stadium by the sea—plays host to Roma's sixth round fixture against newly promoted (and now 14th place) Lecce, a side they have not seen since the spring of 2012. Given that lack of recent history and Roma's sudden struggle to find form, Lecce could be the perfect spring board to relaunch Roma's free-flowing Fonseca football. The fact that they've won eight of fifteen matches on that ground certainly bodes well, too.
Lecce vs. Roma: September 29th. 15:00 CET/9:00 EDT. Stadio del Mare, Lecce
Following his club's 2-0 loss to Atalanta, who have suddenly become the biggest thorn in Roma's side, Fonseca was refreshingly honest regarding Wednesday's outcome:
They deserved the win and we didn’t produce a good performance. We found it difficult to deal with their man-marking all over the pitch and weren’t able to get our passing game going. It was a very tough match and although we did have our chances, we were never in control. Atalanta were the better side.
We did have some chances and it would’ve been a different game if we’d scored, but we have to be honest: we didn’t play well. We didn’t get the win, but tomorrow is another day. We have to keep working hard and learning because it’s a long and hard season.
We've been pretty fortunate as Roma fans not having to endure a litany of managers spouting out banal, PC manager speak, but I love the way he didn't mince words here: Roma weren't good enough, admitting his tactical changes, while well-intended, didn't pan out as he'd hoped.
I hadn't read the entire book on Fonseca when he was hired, but I've been pretty impressed with his calm yet resolute demeanor. He has the same Zeman-like belief in his tactics, but adds an extra layer of insight and reflection into its shortcomings. However, with his first taste of defeat, we'll finally see if/how he can coax his team out of the doldrums.
Fonseca addressed just that in his pre-match press conference:
As always, we sat down and analysed the match together to work out what didn’t work well and where we need to improve. I’ll make a few changes tomorrow because we have lots of matches in a short space of time. Some are feeling the fatigue more than others. My team selection will take all that into consideration.
Roma's headman also spoke to Roma's hot and cold defensive record between halves, particularly as it relates to their endurance:
I don’t think we have a fitness problem. Just one week ago people were praising us for our fitness levels and now people are pointing the finger because we lost one game. We’re not happy with the number of goals we’ve conceded. No one likes conceding an average of two per game. We’re working to improve defensively but it’s not just down to the defence – it depends on the team as a whole. We’re scoring lots of goals and we need to find the right balance.
In his introductory pressers, Fonseca frequently spoke of winning the right way, of playing (for lack of a better word) total football; winning while hitting on all cylinders. And in a sense, that's what he's saying here. When Fonseca Football wins, each component is working in harmony, and when it breaks down, it's the same all or nothing assessment—leaking goals is a problem for all 11 men, not just the guy in the gloves.
I didn't mean to turn this preview into a rundown of Fonseca's press conference, but he spoke so directly and succinctly to all the major issues Roma are facing ahead of this match, it was hard to ignore.
On his tactical approach:
I’ll probably make changes in every area of the pitch. The problem wasn’t the choice of formation. Sometimes people place too much importance on the formation when what really matters is the team dynamics.
The system you play doesn’t change your attacking dynamics. Against Atalanta found it hard to get moves going. We’ve analysed everything, including the second goal, when there was a lapse in focus. It was a team error.
Playing with a back three, a change we made during the game, has nothing to do with what I might have done in the past – it was a strategy we chose for Atalanta. I think we played well defensively and the goals weren’t down to how our defence was lined up. That system doesn’t alter our attacking dynamics.
We start moves with three even when we defend with four. We just need a bit more confidence at times when defending. I won’t exclude playing with three at the back in future if I think it’s a good strategy for us to use.
Fonseca's attack-at-all-costs approach has often been compared to Zdenek Zeman's, but there is a greater measure of insight and intelligence behind Fonseca's philosophies (that's a credit to Fonseca not a shot at ZZ), as his comments ahead of this match are both honest (they weren't good enough), reflective (admitting his faults and focusing on issues he can change) and appropriately contextualized (Atalanta is a good team and can do that do nearly any club). He's not throwing out the baby with the bath water, but instead remains committed to his vision and honest enough to tweak the parts that are faltering.
Paulo Fonseca wasn't Roma's first choice, but it's starting to feel like they might be onto something here. We've seen the highs and the lows so far, but if he can maintain his even keel through Roma's next three matches (Lecce, Wolsfberger and Cagliari all before next Sunday), we might see his grand ideas take fuller form.