We’re back to being Paulo Fonseca for a day. I start a new Football Manager file and some regen Roma assistant coach pops up on my screen, both to welcome me to Trigoria and tell me the score. He reckons that 81.3% of all attacks ending a goal begin with key passes made from ‘Zone 14’ or, in other words, passes made from ‘in the hole’ around the 18-yard line into the penalty box.
One of my Roma forwards gets on the end of that pass and boom. Goal.
If you’re into judging a book by its cover, that’s supposedly what Robert Horn, Mark Williams and co-writers concluded when looking at France and Manchester United’s trophy success headed into the 21st century. One team was the first to lift the European Championship as reigning World Champions, and the other was riding high as kings of club football, off the back on a historic treble. I’d quite like some of that prestige for my Roma team and, on the face of it, there’s my computer-generated assistant giving me an easy choice.
The strategy promises me less than 19% chance of failure when I set my team up to play sexy, gorgeous football down the middle lane. I’ll make Lorenzo Pellegrini my rifinitore in the final third, and he’ll thank me for it when he gets license to take over Totti’s vacant number 10 shirt from all the goals raining down on the new Stadio della Roma.
Ah, Lorenzo, you’ll be up to your ears in autograph requests at the new kit launch next season.
And that’s the moment when the music stops. Hold on.
There are a few problems with this, and none of them involve scrutinizing Lorenzo Pellegrini. Let’s put ourselves in Paulo Fonseca’s more human shoes to see just what 18.7% of the doubt can really look like, film-noir style.
I’m now Fonseca in the flesh.
The local press and some fans are just dying to pin Alessandro Florenzi’s goodbye on my decisions. If it doesn’t work out in this city, I may have to up sticks back to Ukraine to land another competitive job after the stink of my failures. Let’s really spice things up and say I’ve invested my life’s savings into some beach-front property on the coast of Portugal.
It was my agent’s idea, but it’s not going too well.
I read an article about property sinking into the sea and I need that money back, but my agent has been sending me straight to voicemail (pure fiction, not based on any real-life events). I haven’t told the wife or kids, but I could really do with another year on the Roma bench to save up my salary and keep things ticking over. Because there’s a clause in there that says they can fire me, and they won’t have to pay me a thing if the team’s attack ratings for the 2020/21 season don’t climb above xG 70.00 by Christmas.
In fact, it was probably my newly appointed assistant that put them up to it. He’s after my job. That’s when Franco Baldini gives me a call; he suggests I think twice over what the staff are really feeding me here.
I mean, great, my team’s set up to play the ball down the middle of the park relentlessly. But now I’ve left nearly a NINETEEN percent door open to fans and journalists ostracizing me, getting fired with no compensation, no job prospects, and my wife and kids leaving me?
We’d better take a second look at this whole song and dance.
Using Wide Play: The Search for That 1-2 Punch
The last eighteen years of football have shown that coaches like Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola, Gian Piero Gasperini and Paulo Fonseca aren’t afraid to look failure in the face. Because you don’t waste time becoming a downright detective of failure—and how you can turn it to your advantage—when your professional livelihood at stake. What happens the other 18.3% of the time that attacks break down in the middle lane? What does it say about our overall play? What does the opponent believe it says about our play? And how can we their beliefs against them?
Guardiola and Klopp’s success in answering those questions—particularly through their teams’ use of the flanks —have captured football’s imagination to the point where, in February 2019, the web finally began to ask what we’ve all been thinking for a while: ‘Is Zone 14 Yesterday’s News?’
As little as five years ago, you would have found a plurality of football analysts still willing to argue (from dawn till sunset) in favour of playing through the middle. It was ‘the right way’ to play football. Only peasants settled for less. Studies were there to prove it. But what Fonseca et al. (2020) have found is that Williams et al. (2002) were saying a lot more than “winning teams play the ball through the middle”.
First off, they noticed that a big amount of goals scored were the result of winning the ball back high in the final third. Second, passes played out to the flanks (to the lateral side of Zone 14) and THEN played into the penalty box accounted for a plurality of goals scored, both back then and today.
We even looked at one such goal scored by Roma in Rick Karsdorp’s Roma pre-season games last week.
But to top it off, Williams’ group were transparent in letting the world know they’d only looked at two summers and one full season of football—three competitions in total. And I’m no mathematician, but even I can say ‘Thomas Bayes once showed that all trends regress back to the mean over a big enough sample size’ with a straight face.
What we saw, in Parts 1 and 2 of this feature, is that Atalanta can move their opponent into trying to press them in a way where the opponent then leaves the deepest space of their flanks wide open for Gomez and his troops to earn their payday. Atalanta make it easier for their wide men to deliver quality cut-backs into the box, setting up a nice one-touch finish into net for Zapata or Muriel.
It’s that same hunt for bait-and-switch football down the flanks that had Fonseca openly declaring a switch to a three-man backline in Part 1, shifting away from his more patient “Shakhtar”-mode approach to the build-up phase on the ball.
So Why Play With 4-2-3-1?
Pictured above is Fonseca’s 4-2-3-1 build-up phase. One of the mediani from the midfield double-pivot is asked to drop deep (a tactic known as the “salida volpiana”) and help outnumber opponents pressing the backline. One of either Lopez, Mancini, Smalling and/or Diawara/Veretout could then choose how to develop the play from there.
Their options were to either pass it up the middle, pass it up the half spaces, or recycle possession among them to draw the other team into pressing high and then hit a long ball over the top. The choice is theirs! But that was the problem.
In a team lacking confidence and chemistry still in the embryonic stage, too many options can lead to indecision, turnovers and conceding goals. So why play this way? Because options mean unpredictability, and the rival team not being able to plan against you ahead of kick off.
If a strong-tackling opponent is instructed to harass Veretout, then Diawara can drop deep, and vice versa. If an opponent fancies that they’re getting a lot of luck off pressing Smalling, then Mancini can build a trio of possession between himself and two Roma teammates to make the opponent think twice about leaving the weak side free, and vice versa.
If the other team fear the long ball over the top, Veretout and Diawara can both drop deep to try and tempt the opposition midfield into closing them down, carving open a space between the lines upfield for some balls to get launched over the top. The possibilities are endless in a confident Roma side.
And What Did 3-4-2-1 Actually Do?
Fonseca’s 3-4-2-1 build-up was about adding sharper offense, not defense, to Roma’s decision-making tree. Options are stripped away. Three ball-players are already starting from the back, without the need to wait (or even decide) for Diawara or Veretout to drop deep. And it even leaves both midfielders free to push up field before the play has even begun, if appropriate to the rest of the team’s shape and the match scoreline.
The fundamental change is in personnel: You’re trusting your centre-backs with the key build-up decisions, instead of them sharing that responsibility with the midfielders.
This can shave a few seconds off your build-up play, making it more direct and vertical. Roma won this immediate payoff with Jordan Veretout’s goal against Parma last season (though the highlight doesn’t include Ibanez’s early ball out wide, and obviously the real story of this goal is Veretout’s exquisite finish). At the highest level of football, teams like Atalanta have shown that being a few seconds faster in attacking the space can make the difference between a 0-0 draw and an end-to-end goal fest.
The trade off here is that the opponents have a greater chance of seeing where your attacks are coming ahead of time. Your offense invariably comes from angled passes out wide. Even if you were to pass it down the middle, you’d likely force one of Diawara or Veretout to pass it out wide when the possession moves past the half-way line.
More predictability means opponents know they have to be strong against your wide men ahead of time. Aggressive intimidation of Roma’s wide players was a major key to Sevilla handing Paulo Fonseca’s side a beatdown in the 2019/20 Europa League.
Hold Onto Players Who Lead You to Domination
Hustling the opponent for space is all well and good, but eventually your opponents get wise to it. There was only so long Atalanta could welcome Serie A’s best to their modest stadium up in Bergamo and give them the full works:
- ‘Schucks, it’s a pleasure to meet you. We’re so thrilled you found the time to come visit us, and when there’s Milan and Inter just up the road, too! It’s an honor. Wanna play a game?’
- ‘Oh gosh, look at us all stuck passing this ball 5 yards between each other out here on the wing, deep in our own half. Boy, I sure hope you guys give us time to figure this out.’
- ‘Oh, haha, you closed us down! Or tried. Look at Papu nutmegging you. Short little guy, isn’t he? And look at that, our five guys now outnumbering your four in defense. Lucky break, I guess?’
- ‘Zapata hat-trick and all three points in the bag. Man that was a fun game. See you next time? Don’t be a stranger!’
Eventually, you wind up humiliating the wrong Serie A or European giant. That’s when their sporting director sits up in the stands and decides they’ve had enough. They walk to the dugout, give Gasperini a menacing smile and tell him they’ll be back to sign Atalanta’s biggest players. And then who’ll be laughing?
But the beautiful thing about having players who can perform several duties (the Villars, Veretouts, Mancinis, Pastores, Mkhitaryans) is that you never really know how your team’s chemistry will change on the fly, or which player will have their finger on the pulse of the team’s play from season to season.
Atalanta have shown that circumstances can make the number 10, and always thought twice about selling off that player—one time living to regret it when they actually did.
In the 2017/18 season, Bryan Cristante (and Jasmin Kurtic) were those main men for Gasperini. They could help Atalanta adapt between defensive and attacking phases, when the opponent wised up to Atalanta’s initial act and tried to exploit the weaknesses behind La Dea’s football identity.
Sending a long ball to the flanks behind Atalanta’s backline is a typical way to take on teams who play three at the back. But the Orobici found they could even mitigate this with players like Cristante and Kurtic, helping the team to shift to a more solid 5-3-2 defensive phase. The result was a true, long-term club identity began to merge. Something you can plan around, something that lets you strategize and project into the future.
But the short-term reality hit, and all the future held was Kurtic leaving in January of 2017 and Cristante sold for mega-money six months later.
Atalanta paid the price with six months of drab football in the aftermath, capped off by Papu Gomez openly speaking on the team’s struggles to replace the void left by Cristante. Yet they did fill that void in time and haven’t made a similar mistake since. Today, Gomez can count himself as one of those spheres of influence that La Dea have resisted selling off during their rise to the Top 4.
That rise to the top of the table has seen an Atalanta team go from a counter-attacking side, playing just 23% of the ball through the middle, to a possession-based team today. Whether you intend to become that kind of team or not, your opponents make that decision for you over time. They stop underestimating you and stop giving up the spaces you’re hunting for, which means you have to do more of the work on the ball than ever before.
For Roma, the players who can work the ball are guys like the Mikis, the Diawaras, the Veretouts, maybe even the Villars in the long-term future. Atalanta have spent most of their transfer windows selling off midfield enforcers (Gagliardini), potentials who never quite convinced Gasperini to let them leave more of their mark on the team (Kessie. Mancini, Caldara), or simply wide players (Castagne, Conti).
Only two sales (three if you count Kulusevski) involved waving goodbye to players who could craft the club’s footballing identity from a passing fad into a three to five-year cycle of glory.
Experience Wins The Final Third
We now know that Atalanta’s frontline—the current envy of Serie A attacking stats everywhere—isn’t one where Zapata, Gomez, Ilicic and Pasalic met up one day, exchanged Rolexes and let the good times get to rolling.
Before them was Kurtic, who left Gasperini devastated that Kurtic asked to see other people. And throughout there’s been Josip Ilicic, who’ll continue to be Josip Ilicic regardless. Love him or leave him. But there also was the clash of styles where Zapata got in Gomez’s way, and we believe the factor that helped Atalanta’s attacking players find middle ground, and some much needed chemistry, was that Le Dea rarely fielded a player younger than 24 in their frontline.
Ilicic, Rigoni, Kurtic, Gomez, Zapata, Muriel, Pasalic were all either well past their days of individual glory hunting, or just coming into their prime with the tunnel vision of youth behind them. Only Petagna, Barrow and maybe Bryan Cristante’s runs to join the attack could be considered gambles thrown into Atalanta’s attacking unit over the last four seasons.
To be fair Roma have tried to maintain a frontline mixed with veterans and young understudies. Since Roma waved goodbye to Salah, the senior candidates were:
- Radja Nainggolan
- Diego Perotti (injury prone)
- Gregoire Defrel (just plain unlucky to shatter his knee cap against a goal post)
- Henrikh Mkhitaryan (hopefully past a short spell of recurring injuries)
- Javier Pastore (maybe it’d be more accurate to say he’s sometimes prone to playing football?)
- Stephan El Shaarawy
- Edin Dzeko
Then there are the gambles of youth:
- Lorenzo Pellegrini (injury prone)
- Nicolo Zaniolo (injury prone)
- Cengiz Under (injury prone is an understatement)
- Patrik Schick (injury prone in Rome, but hopefully past it now he’s grown up)
- Justin Kluivert
- Carles Perez
Paulo Fonseca already addressed this very topic of needing more experience up front, using springtime lockdown to openly talk about the club’s recruitment for experienced players, the ones who know how to make good decisions in the final third. The club went out (and I believe with Petrachi’s full approval too - otherwise the martyr story about Petrachi wanting to spend yet more money on a young Boga just makes him look out of touch) and signed Pedro.
An Aside: The Growing Pains of Youth in 2019/20
A common issue with Roma’s young frontline was Zaniolo, Under and Pellegrini all used to vertical football, making early runs seeking to connect with a long ball behind the backline (Pellegrini often making a run off the ball out wide to the right flank). Kluivert showed his Ajax schooling by slowing play and waiting for the opportunity to play 1-2 exchanges around the half spaces, while a gap opened between Roma’s attacking lines which Leonardo Spinazzola (not known for making key passes from the middle) saw as the opportunity to go off-script, becoming an attacking midfielder and play inside the pitch.
Meanwhile, the scenario above pictures the times when Lorenzo Pellegrini did his best to become a tuttocampista stringing it all together, but to questionable results.
It was a chaotic mix of good intentions and poor chemistry.
Are we saying Pedro is the right answer? With recurring Achilles injuries in the last year alone, no. Not necessarily.
In his own way, the former Barcelona trophy-winner yet another fitness gamble. But he is at least in the mold of what the coach is asking for, and Fonseca will hope Pedro can help him to establish the team’s footballing identity.
Keep the majority of your front 4 roles for players at least 25 years old and above. If you want experimental youth in your first-team, you’re much better off blooding them into the back 6. Which brings us nicely to our next conclusion...
You Don’t Need Pace to Win the Ball Early
It should sound obvious to the point of condescension by now, but Atalanta have shown you don’t need physically fast players to play an effective, cohesive defensive unit. You don’t even need physically fast players for a high-line defence!
What you need are defenders who anticipate and win the ball early.
Now some would point out that we’re not talking about an Atalanta team that’s won trophies, or done anything beyond just make Top 4. That’s true.
But we’re only looking for a starting point to establish the kind of defensive performances upon which you can build a head of steam, and get back to making an assault on the Top 4. Then you can go out and get the more athletic players like the De Ligts or Romeros of the world (crucially though, players who still show they have a solid education on how to defend their zone or man as required, not just players who rely on recovery pace when it goes wrong).
But on a budget, you need to start with players who aren’t necessarily great athletes but still great defenders.
Palomino, Djimsiti, Toloi, hell even a mid-thirties Masiello before he left the club. None of these guys are speed merchants. And the return of Mattia Caldara was an exercise in trying to find full fitness through a young career decimated by injuries. So how did Atalanta get away with making a backline out of these five players, all the way to a CL semi final?
Aggression and interceptions. Don’t worry, that’s the last time we’ll repeat those two words. But they’re the two main reasons that Paulo Fonseca’s Roma has been accused of coming up short in the head-to-head games against other Top 6 rivals.
The accusation is true to an extent, but then you’d be overlooking the wins against Milan, Napoli and Juventus (though the last one came in a dead-rubber fixture). And you’d be overlooking how balanced the away game was to Atalanta, as well as Roma playing Inter Milan off the park in a 2-2 draw at home. But we looked at Atalanta’s games in the big head-to-heads to make sure.
Against her Top 6 rivals, Atalanta’s play showed a red-hot heatmap when it came to touches of the ball among the backline and a high rate of fast-breaks (from both Atalanta and the opposition - basically end to end football). It’s noticeable that when Roma play other big Italian teams, the fast-break count goes down drastically compared to Atalanta. In a lot of cases, it gets halved as Fonseca’s Roma chose to slow the game down and make it more of a cat-and-mouse affair.
That in turn makes it look like a lot of Top 6 rivals out-do Fonseca’s Roma when it comes to high-octane, aggressive football. Or the fabled ‘grinta’. But you can get the right players to that picture around on a budget.
The guys who have been the best intercepting and winning the ball early, in Rome over the last few seasons, have been Federico Fazio (before 2019), Amadou Diawara, Chris Smalling. These guys know how to put Roma right back on the front foot, before the opponent has even gotten back into defensive shape. Roma have just gone and signed a young player who exemplifies this in Marash Kumbulla.
I also rate Leonardo Spinazzola highly in this category, which illustrates the point nicely (even though interceptions from a left-back shouldn’t be a big factor, unless you’re planning on parking the bus). Spinazzola is a physically fast player with pace to burn, his ability to intercept early starts from his strong mental attributes off the ball; chief among them being his anticipation.
Finally, our last conclusion from watching Atalanta...
A Smaller Group of Rotation Players
No club needs “22 starters” and, even if they did, neither Roma nor Atalanta are the kind of clubs to convince (let alone afford) 22 individual starting-caliber players to come risk sitting on a Roma or Atalanta bench. Not this season or any season.
“Lots of [our] players need to improve,” ex-DS Gianluca Petrachi told Roma’s official website this past January on this very topic, “especially in terms of reaching peak fitness [...] We’ve changed our line-up every game and successful teams tend to have the same seven or eight regular starters.”
Though I couldn’t find the separate interview that month where Petrachi outright said it, the former DS spoke used that same winter period to reveal he and Paulo Fonseca had agreed that historically successful Serie A teams only used a squad of around 13-15 potential starters, meaning (assuming you have 7 untouchable starters) a maximum of 8 rotation players added to your squad. Nothing more. Atalanta’s last four seasons are decent evidence toward that notion.
I listed Atalanta’s “notable subs used” throughout each season, in Part 2, taking a minimum of 10 games played for each sub listed. In some cases the appearance rate was even lower, and I just enjoyed listing familiar faces from the past.
So that’s already a cautiously wide net cast but, even then, the general picture over four seasons was of an Atalanta team rotating six players (on average) in and out of a team of seven or eight fixed starters, just as Petrachi claimed. In only one season (18/19) did Atalanta use seven rotations, and that boiled down to Gasperini’s indecision over whether Berisha or Gollini was to be his first-choice keeper in the long term.
Now contrast to the first day of Roma’s pre-season, late this summer, where Paulo Fonseca had to welcome 35 Roma players (albeit not all of them seniors and three of them given a leave of absence) to the training camp.
The Big Conclusion: Nike’s Kits Were to Blame All Along
So what did we learn from this three-part feature on Roma vs. Atalanta? Does it take new coach or new signings? Do we need to back to Kappa or Diadora?
Truthfully, we didn’t re-invent the wheel by the end of this three-part feature.
My wallet may be a bit lighter, and my wardrobe a couple of Joma shirts heavier while leading this double-agent life (just kidding - I haven’t bought a football jersey in years), but what few conclusions we did make are ones that Paulo Fonseca has already addressed himself:
- Winning the ball more aggressively
- More use of the flanks to score goals
- A smaller squad on the books
- Don’t play kids in your frontline (at least not all at once)
- Be sure to hold onto players who can help you change formations mid-game, and help with the fact that your success means opponents will let you have much more of the ball over time.
Not groundbreaking conclusions from us, but good for about another five years worth of footballing philosophy, before the game goes into a new cycle (personally I’m looking forward to the return of two strikers up front in mainstream football. It’s been gone for a long time but that nineties revival is coming). Meet those five requirements at your club, and they’ll make you honorary citizen with your own statue at the stadium entrance.
That may be encouraging or it may be scarce comfort to you. Football is as subjective as many things, inevitably boiling down to matters of taste. You’re more than likely decided on whether you like the baggage that Paulo Fonseca brings with him or not, after just one full season in Rome.
For example, if you’re a “Florenzi must play in Roma because it’s right” type of person, then it’s likely you’re counting the days until Fonseca gets the axe. Apparently so is Florenzi, biding his time tactfully with loan move after loan move, just waiting for that two-and-a-half-season change that’s proudly shoved Roma managers out the door since 1927.
Or if you prefer direct, vertical and fast-break football over cat-and-mouse possession football played along the halfway line, then, at best, you’re undecided on whether Fonseca is the man to build a club around. But if you’re Bren, then you believe Paulo Fonseca will become a Roma club legend, and walk away a multiple-trophy winning manager with Roma.
And there are no takebacks on that one.
No matter where you stand, hopefully looking at clubs like Atalanta opens up the discussion to recognizing the coach isn’t the problem, and splashing the cash on “international profile” squad players every summer is only ever a way to short-term thrills. It’s rarely ever the case that there’s just ONE person responsible for things not going to plan, let alone one messiah you can rush into the club to fix all the pain.
Leading a football club to success takes determination, but too often Roma have confused that search for character with the belief that determinism can be its own reward. I watched a Bobby Robson documentary—on Bren’s mention this past week—about my own childhood club Newcastle United, where Alex Ferguson summed up that very same point:
“It’s a club of confusion.”
“They should have been saying: ‘Bobby, I want you to bring the man who’s going to replace you, to continue with someone who believes in what you’ve done here, and make it an institution.’
Up in Bergamo, Gian Piero Gasperini has achieved institutional status.
When it’s Gasperini’s time to go, as it will inevitably be Fonseca’s time in Roma at some point, could you picture Atalanta calling it quits and turning the page over what Gasperini has helped build? Would they put an end to all that work just to say ‘OK, now we’ve made it’?
Now we’ve got enough Champions League money in the tank to splurge on wages, to set up our outfield players to play static all match, grind out results and call it a day? Some people would say that one title campaign, playing low-percentage football to let the tides of history pull you ashore, is worth it.
Personally, I’ve seen the Roma 2001 title win, and I’ve seen enough of the shipwrecked aftermath to know how that story has gone for clubs the size of Roma. The city may be one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, but the Giallorossi are not and have never been one of the world’s biggest clubs—except when it comes to spending. Roma could learn some of the humility woven into locales like Atalanta’s football factory, and their systematic approach to building the first team.
System-coaches like Fonseca may not be spectacular when it comes throwing the individual glory on players, but if Fonseca leaves here having added to the collective work ethic of the club, year on year, that’s a Roma story I’ve yet to read.
I don’t know how that story ends or how it would even write itself in retrospect, but I’d gladly read it.