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The Great Roma Questionnaire Extraordinaire: Fonseca's Future Edition

Thanks to some recent struggles, Roma have slipped out of next year's CL places, leading many to question Paulo Fonseca's future at the club. We sit down to discuss Fonseca's successes, his struggles and his future.

AS Roma v Genoa CFC - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Paulo Fonseca has only been Roma's manager for 21 months but his job has seemingly always been in question. After spending the summer of 2019 chasing megawatt managers like Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, Roma settled on the Portuguese tactician, inking Fonseca to a two-year deal in June of 2019. He may not have been their first choice, but with an impressive resume padded by titles in Portugal and Ukraine, Fonseca was definitely a name on the rise in European coaching circles.

The ensuing 21 months have seen their fair share of frustrations but Fonseca Football® has produced some genuinely enthralling football during that span. What's more, Fonseca has been instrumental in reviving the careers of Bruno Peres, Leonardo Spinazzola and Rick Karsdorp, while his guiding hand can also be seen in the emergence of young players like Gonzalo Villar and Roger Ibañez.

But, football is nothing if not a results-oriented business, particularly when discussing a club like Roma, who live or die with Champions League revenue. And that's really the crux of this entire debate: can Paulo Fonseca make that happen consistently?

For much of the season, Roma has been in the thick of the hunt for one of Italy's four Champions League places. But Fonseca's continued struggles against Italy's bigger clubs, as well as his recent stumbles against the likes of Parma and Benevento, have cast Roma's Champions League future, not to mention Fonseca's job prospects, in doubt.

With that in mind, we assembled the CdT crew to discuss Fonseca's tenure and future with Roma. Enjoy!

1) Let’s start with the most obvious question first: Is this it for Fonseca at Roma or is there a path for redemption for him?

AS Roma v SSC Napoli - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

ssciavillo: I’ve been a supporter of Fonseca throughout the season and while there have been faults in his ways, I’m not giving up on him yet. I do see a path to redemption for him—albeit it’s narrowing after Sunday’s loss to Napoli.

Bren: I’ve always been kind of ambivalent about him as our manager, though he seems like a wonderful man. But, when you consider the fact that he was hired by the previous administration, for whom he was maybe the third choice, he’s always had a tenuous grasp on the job. Barring a Europa League title, I don’t think he’s back next year—I just don’t see Roma securing fourth place on their own, so his renewal clause won’t activate and the Friedkins can then go out and find their own guy. Though I have no doubt that Fonseca will find success elsewhere.

JonAS: Simple: win the Europa League, a feat not even Ranieri, Spalletti or Capello could manage in Rome. That should 1) qualify Roma for the CL and 2) give Paulo some credit for next season as well. Even if Roma narrowly ends up in the top 4, the Friendkin’s are by far not impressed by Fonseca and they will quickly move for the next big thing. But a shiny European cup, now THAT is something that our proud Americans will cherish. And they would immediately surpass Pallotta’s reign with their first prize as owners after not even one full year. Take a deep bow, James.

dallagente: Well, the irony of coaches like Fonseca is they create a culture at the training ground that makes the coach even more replaceable. It costs nothing to send him packing this summer, and his football is so plug-and-play that you could get any young identikit coach in the door tomorrow to train the players in the same way instead. So I wouldn’t be surprised if this is it for him this summer in Rome, but I’d be happy if he stayed on for a third season.

Jimmy Miotto: It’s Europa League title or bust for Fonseca, I’d imagine, but even if he does lift that trophy, I wouldn’t be shocked to see him use that as a way to end up at a more prestigious club. It can’t be great for your mental health to feel like your job is as up in the air as Fonseca’s, so even with a successful end to the season, I could see him wanting out of the Roman media environment. Given that, I wouldn’t mind if he stayed on for a third season, particularly if he can do what no manager has done in Rome since 1960, back when they called the Europa League the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

2) Regardless of what you just said, make a case for Roma to bring Fonseca back even if they fall out of the European places altogether.

Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Stanislav Vedmid/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

ssciavillo: I think the best case to bring Fonseca back without a Top 4 finish would be a Europa League trophy. That would give Roma the CL place the club is craving on all levels. Otherwise, it’d probably have to take at least defeating Ajax, winning a couple of the matches against big clubs that remain, and finishing close to fourth.

Bren: I think it’s rather simple: continuity. Roma seldom has that on the bench and Fonseca has produced some genuinely exciting moments as Roma’s manager. So an added year of continuity with the team and perhaps a few genuine talent upgrades on the pitch could be just what Roma needs.

JonAS: The only constant is change, Bren. I’m not a fan, nor a hater of Paulo but I have a feeling Roma’s going nowhere if he stays. Some highs, some lows, a Coppa Italia semi-final, first place in a Europa League group, all very nice but don’t we want to aim for more? Plus he’s had a couple of disputes with players (Dzeko, Pedro and just recently Pellegrini telling the media he doesn’t agree with Fonseca) so I reckon there’s not a lot of support from the group of players either. Anyway, I can only think of one thing to bring him back: the man is suave and has style. I love his Peaky Blinders look. I haven’t had a real man crush in Roma since Marco Borriello. Does that count as an argument, Dan and Ryan?

dallagente: My argument is a purely selfish one: The Across the Romaverse podcast, and writing for CdT in general, is becoming challenging the more and more the coach and team stays the same. Without player sales and without a change of manager, we don’t have as many tropes we can rely on week to week. It’s an odd feeling, but a good one that’s pushing me to look for things to write about Roma in a way I’m not used to. In fact, I think we spend even more time collaborating and planning content ahead of time, now than ever before. So long may Fonseca continue. Whereas if we get a new coach or make big sales this summer, I promise you copy-paste jobs from circa 1927-2019 era.

Jimmy: I agree with Bren that actually maintaining a sense of continuity is the reason you keep Paulo around for a third season. Roma is generally horrific at this whole continuity business, and if you look at clubs like Napoli and Atalanta, one of the reasons they’ve found more success is because they keep the faith with players and managers longer than any Roman owner ever has. There are certainly some signs that Fonseca might not deserve that extension of faith; his horrid record against larger sides doesn’t seem like an easily-fixable problem. Nevertheless, if you’re trying to win titles, it helps to have brought in a manager who is there for the long term.

3) It’s been a while since we’ve seen a manager so capable of producing beautiful football one week yet so prone to a breakdown the next. To what would you attribute these inconsistencies? Can they be fixed or is this an innate Roma problem?

Shakhtar Donetsk v AS Roma - UEFA Europa League Round Of 16 Leg Two Photo by Stanislav Vedmid/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

JonAS: Mentality. Then again, it has been Roma’s Achilles heel since 1927 (yeah, I’m that old and have been a fan since loooong). You simply can’t ‘train’ mentality, you’re born with it. Perhaps Roma is lacking a (or multiple) leaders. You know: De Rossi, Totti, Mexes, Tommasi, Nainggolan, Aldair, Strootman etc. Guys like Villar, Pau, Pellegrini, Spinazzola, or Cristante are too nice and not up for the task (yet) while Dzeko has been disappointing so far in his role as capitano.

Bren: I don’t like the “mentality” excuse or debate simply because it’s impossible to actually prove. The fact of the matter might just be that Roma isn’t that good and maybe sixth place is where they truly deserve to be. The inconsistencies are, to me, equal parts the youth of the roster and Fonseca being slow to adapt either in the match or on a week-to-week basis. I know there’s also a new debate about the nature of his training sessions, whether or not they’re intense enough to truly prepare the squad for the match. Injuries to key players like Smalling, Veretout, and Mkhitaryan haven’t helped either, nor has Pedro’s disappearing act, Dzeko’s sullenness, and Borja’s inability to score in the league, but that really all falls on the men who put the roster together more than Fonseca. So in that sense, he may be a victim of circumstances, but if we look at the loss to Napoli as an example, why did he wait so long to take a more proactive approach?

ssciavillo: I agree that it’s a combination of factors like bren said, including the youth, injuries, tactics, and the roster in some ways not being as strong as some of the direct competition. However, I do think there’s something to the mentality piece. I don’t see how a team can come out flat so often against rivals like Lazio and Napoli and other big sides in matches that mean so much on the table. Even some of the individual mistakes in some of those big matches seem to come down to mental aspects of the game and poor decision-making. I’m not saying it’s all down to mentality, but I do think there is something to it.

dallagente: You’re both touching on a topic that will rage on in sports for long after we’re gone: Can mentality be broken down to a nutrition shake, or not? In one corner of the ring you’d have Vitor Frade going blow-for-blow trying to prove that it is possible, and all his disciples, of which Paulo Fonseca is indirectly one of them. In the other corner, you’d probably have people like Max Allegri saying that we (or I) think too much. If you want to watch some classic TV, you can check out Allegri losing his patience with Daniele Adani in post-match interviews on this very subject.

Anyway, to cut to the chase: I feel what Jonas has said links exactly to Bren’s question about the Napoli game. I think coaches like Fonseca set up the team to delegate decisions to players in-game (not being willing to delegate is something Fonseca himself has said is a character flaw he wants to overcome on a personal level, so it’d make sense that he’d go this route to spice up his football life and treat it as a personal challenge). Unfortunately, in reality, what we’re getting are Roma players doing a deer-in-the-headlights routine where they don’t react fast enough and don’t use the options available to them to work as a team when things get tough against physically strong opponents. It’s one thing to stroke the ball around and make supporting runs against Crotone. It’s another thing to do it against Sevilla.

Some people are going to blame the coach for that and feel he should intervene on the players’ behalf and protect them more. That’s fair enough. But where I personally blame Fonseca is I think his search for width around the opponent’s 18-yard line is too predictable by now and overdone. We almost always try to have 5 players or more, to outflank the opponent around their penalty box, before we’re comfortable going for a goal. And good quality teams can see this coming a mile away.

The way Juve last beat us with minimal effort boils down to this very reason, in my view. I think this is exactly what you’re question is getting at, Bren, because outflanking your opponent with 1-2 passes between Spinazzola to Karsdorp, then assisting to the striker looks beautiful when it goes right, but easily overdone to the point of getting sickening when it’s cut out by opponents who then go and destroy you on the break at the other end. I also think this is why I’m in Fonseca’s corner because I actually have never liked possession football. I like to watch direct football, so it was a massive relief to see Fonseca turn to more direct football in the middle of his first season already. But the build-up play from the back is still laborious, too tentative, and too cat-and-mouse on the bad days.

Jimmy: Wow, you get to writing your responses a little later than the rest of the guys and you see War and Peace already jotted down in the article. To paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, I’ll have what Dalla’s having.

4) Let’s presume Fonseca survives the season, it doesn’t have to be a specific player, but what sort of reinforcements would he need to truly be successful?

Italy Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

JonAS: A striker. And I mean a REALLY DEADLY striker genre Haaland, Lewandowksi or Benzema. A guy who has already proven himself and is a star in his current team. So no 23-year-old bench player who scored like 10 goals in two seasons. Those names I mentioned earlier are too expensive of course but why not go all out for a guy like Belotti? He knows Serie A defenses and can produce a ton load of goals if he has the right players surrounding him. I think a combo of Pellegrini, SES, and Belotti could work. Furthermore, we need another Veretout type and preferably a capable CB like Izzo. Not too expensive but a regular in Serie A who does the job. And a keeper with more than three brain cells.

You know what, let’s go back to the Spalletti days and those types of deals: Taddei, Vucinic, Cassetti, Tonetto, Perrotta, JSB, Pizarro… They didn’t come from Manchester or Real but hey, it worked out fine for us no?

Bren: I agree 100%. Between Dzeko’s dour mood and Mayoral’s inconsistencies, this team needs a legitimate in-his-prime striker, someone with a killer instinct, and someone who won’t shrink on the big stage. I think they also need to figure out who to pair with Veretout in midfield as neither Villar nor Diawara seems ready to be reliable regulars yet. I think dropping 40M on Belotti would be a tremendous signal of intent, regardless of the manager. And I’d agree that we need a more reliable keeper. If Roma were a fixer-upper house, the bones are good, so it’s not a complete tear-down job but they can’t skimp on the show-stopping elements: the kitchen and bathroom.

dallagente: Yes I want an out-and-out striker. I’m tired of Roma being the club that skims on the costs of signing a true goalscorer and has “False 9” painted on the lawns at Trigoria. At what point does False 9 stop becoming a tactic, and starts being a sign that you’re cheap? I think it’s when the wide forwards can’t be bothered to run anymore because they’re dead tired, and your center-forward has spent so long with his back to goal that he’s actually forgotten how to score. I’d love to have an Icardi in the middle of the pitch to just score a goal out of nothing. Out of NOTHING. Just one of those smash-and-grab wins where you can say Roma totally didn’t deserve to win that game, but their striker won it for them anyway (to be fair, Dzeko has done this as recently as this past spring against Sampdoria). But hell, you don’t even have to break the bank to have a striker who stays up high and offers that outlet for the long ball out wide, and outguns opponents even when he’s outnumbered. Look at what Atalanta have done with Zapata or Lazio with Immobile. Belotti can be that guy in Rome, or the best-case scenario is Zaniolo becomes that guy. I don’t ever go near any talk of Zaniolo being a False 9 because he isn’t one and likely never will be, but he’s got it in him to be a pure out-and-out striker.

Jimmy: I’m going to push back against the “we need a striker” narrative (which I largely agree with, by the way) and say what this Roma needs is a decent goalkeeper. The goalkeepers for the other top-six sides are as follows: Samir Handanovic, a long-underrated class goalkeeper, Gianluigi Donnarumma; the best young goalkeeper since Buffon; Wojciech Szczęsny, who we all remember from his time in Rome; Pierluigi Gollini, who Tiago Pinto is reportedly trying to pry away from Atalanta; and David Ospina, who is good enough to keep Alex Meret on the bench. Simply put, Pau Lopez doesn’t belong in that group, and no matter how exciting Roma’s center-back prospects are right now, having Lopez or Mirante in goal means that any growing pains on the part of Roger Ibanez, Gianluca Mancini, or Max Kumbulla is far more likely to turn into a goal. That’s a problem that has an easy solution: ditch Lopez and get a new goalie. Fortunately, with rumors linking the Giallorossi to Gollini, Meret, Alban Lafont, and basically any goalkeeper with a pulse, it seems like Roma’s management agrees with my assessment.

ssciavillo: Depending on Roma’s financial situation at the end of the season, I’m not so sure that goalkeeper is a priority if Lopez continues to perform the way he has of late. No, he’s no superstar and doesn’t instill the most confidence but he hasn’t hurt us much of late. That’s why I have to agree with the others and say striker. That is by far the biggest need on this team. I’d love to see someone like Belotti wearing Giallorossi next season to solve the striker dilemma for the next bunch of seasons.

5) Roma has conceded 42 goals this year (tied for 9th worst) and a lot of heat has fallen on the young backline. Five years from now, where are Roger Ibañez, Marash Kumbulla, and Gianluca Mancini and what are we saying about them?

AS Roma v Cagliari Calcio - Serie A Photo by Silvia Lore/Getty Images

ssciavillo: I’m going to go with the mixed bag. Let’s say Ibañez eventually explodes and moves to a huge club like Barcelona. Mancini is a fixture on Roma, Pellegrini’s vice-captain and a regular starter for the Azzurri. Meanwhile, Kumbulla moves on from Roma in a few seasons to club like Fiorentina. I’m not giving up on him. Just a gut feeling.

JonAS: In a nuthouse just outside Rome, sticking needles in a small voodoo doll of Pau Lopez, screaming PAU PATROL POW POWWW.

Bren: Man, this is tough to answer! Between the three of them, Ibañez has the highest ceiling based on pure physical gifts but he needs to reign in his wild ways if he truly wants to be a leader. In five years, I think he’s the best of those three and if all goes according to plan, Roma would likely cash in on that rumored 80M release clause in two to three years’ time. I think Mancini is only marginally better than he is now (which isn’t a bad thing necessarily) but I don’t get the superstar feel from him. Kumbulla is a bit of a mystery because he hasn’t really played consistently but I think he’ll stick around Roma as a rotational piece and hopefully as a regular starter.

I’m just trying to temper expectations for once...haha. Ibañez has the potential to be a star but I think Roma is probably the ceiling for guys like Kumbulla and Mancini, which is perfectly fine.

dallagente: I see it very differently from how I did at the beginning of the season. I saw Mancini and Kumbulla as slightly behind Ibanez, now I think Mancini is just one step away from being top class. The way he reads the game, positions himself and what he does on the ball is what you need to visibly swing games in your favour as a club. He has also always had the character to embrace a challenge like stiffer squad competition, and he’s just proven that this season. Between all of that and his ability to score from headers at set pieces, you have the closest thing to a player who can decide games by himself. The fact he can help you control possession as a lowkey DM is the cherry on top. I think Roma have the toughest job to hold onto Mancini in the next five years. I really don’t take his staying at Roma as a given. Juve, Inter or Milan could always come calling when it’s time for Mancini to think about taking a shot at trophies or getting a fair crack at Italy international duty by moving to a more influential club. Ibanez’s up-and-downs are normal for a player of his age and experience, so I’m not trying to play him down but I don’t know if he has the character to handle the big-money move that will definitely come his way. Mancini was a starter at Atalanta, where Ibanez spent a year in the wilderness and I think we can see why, whenever Ibanez plays the percentages, doesn’t really believe in the moves he starts himself, and instead takes dive and tumble on the pitch. As for Kumbulla, sometimes he has games where you can see opponents visibly afraid to attack down his side. I could see him going to somewhere like Bayern in the best case scenario, or some team that likes to go for aerial dominance at the back.

Jimmy: I largely agree with Dalla here. Mancini just has the feel of a soon-to-be-top-class player these days, and I’ve seen enough glimpses of Kumbulla’s skills to think that he might even be thought of as better than Ibanez in the long run. As for where these players are specifically? Ibanez at Barcelona, Mancini either still at Roma or at Juventus (sorry), Kumbulla either at Manchester City or still in Rome.

6) Let’s pretend you’re one of the Friedkins, how are you fixing this mess? Would you bide your time and wait for contracts to expire and older players to retire in order to implement your vision or would you spend more now to get ahead quicker?

Football Serie A Roma-Genoa Photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

JonAS: I honestly believe Roma are only a couple of additions away from being a CL regular. You can’t deny there’s an exciting and pretty young backbone already there (Mancini, Ibanez, Pellegrini, Villar, Diawara, Karsdorp, Veretout, Spinna, Zaniolo, SES). Some dead weight will leave soon (Jesus, Peres, Fazio). Keep Smalling and Mikhi from the old guard and open the wallet to buy a reliable GK and first class ST pronto. Then sniffle the market for some smart, cheap deals. We simply can’t wait for 2-3 more years to build a competitive squad, you might risk losing Mancini, Zaniolo or Pellegrini in the process.

Bren: You make an excellent point there, Jonas. If this were an NFL team, the Friedkins would have the luxury of playing the waiting game but I’m afraid that won’t do in European football. I think now that they have their DS/GM in Pinto, the next step is to install their own manager and after that’s done, I think we’ll get a better indication of what sort of project they’re really trying to build. That is to say, if they get a top manager, we can expect better players but if they go for an up and comer, then I think we’ll see more of the same. The only question left to ask would be how long a leash would this new manager get from them?

dallagente: I agree with you guys, though it’s taken a while for me to get this point. Football as a business is such a top-heavy pyramid where you have to spend money to…. well, to lose money… but stay competitive. In an ideal world, the Friedkins would sign the kind of squad to move up the table right now. But let’s also be real: It’s not up to them. There are only a handful of football clubs in the world who make enough commercial income to decide their own fate by now, and Roma isn’t one of those clubs. The quickest answers we can get are on whether the league will finally agree to the new DAZN Italia TV offer, and let’s just see where everyone goes from there. How the Friedkins make use of that potential double-your-TV-income deal is a fair way to judge them, in my opinion. Because you can easily blow that opportunity, and fast.

Jimmy: JonAS has it right here; this club is close to contention, but it needs moves made pronto to get there. Otherwise the players that are bringing the club close to contention will want to leave, and we’ll be right back where we started. It also wouldn’t hurt if Zaniolo became a bonafide superstar; you need star talent to get people to matches and people buying your kits, and despite having some serious quality in the side, nobody beyond Nicolo strikes me as having the fantasista quality necessary to become a star in Rome.

ssciavillo: I can’t see the Friedkins being able to spend too much money up front, especially considering the current economy. I agree with the others that the backbone of exciting talent is there but upgrades are needed especially at striker. Making a decision on the manager is the first step though in deciding how to build a squad. We go through managers so quickly that the current squad isn’t built for any particular managerial style, but just cobbled together from various manager requests. The Friedkins need a manager (either Fonseca or otherwise) who they will stand by for at least three seasons so the roster can be constructed properly for that manager. That’s why I really want to see Fonseca get another season with a proper striker and without players like Juan Jesus and Bruno Peres eating up the wage bill. We don’t need a tear down but the dead weight has to go.

7) Finally, let’s say that worst comes to worst and Fonseca leaves Roma this summer, who is the best case, most realistic replacement?

Italy Training Session & Press Conference Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images

ssciavillo: This is tough because we’re likely competing with Napoli and perhaps Juve in the coaching search. Is Roma a more attractive job than those? Some of the names circulating are Sarri, Allegri, and Julian Naglesmann of RB Leipzig. At this point, Roma is a step down from Leipzig with that team competing with Bayern for a league title. Meanwhile, I could see Sarri back in Naples and I’m not sure Allegri wants a team that’s not ready to compete for a Scudetto. That’s why I think a manager like Ivan Juric is more likely after Roberto De Zerbi’s star has fallen a bit. Otherwise, it’s probably a completely unexpected name from abroad. If you can’t get a Naglesmann type, is that really an upgrade over Fonseca? I’d have my reservations.

JonAS: I’m still truly madly deeply in love with Spaletti so I’m all for round 3 of his Baldness. If that is not possible, just throw a blank cheque at Ancelotti and let him fill in the numbers. Or bring back Ranieri if money is a problem. It’s time we need a real boss at the helm who fires up the players and demands their respect. Fonseca is way too passive for my taste, he just looks so dull and uninspired when coaching.

Bren: Yeah, you make a great point there, Steve. Roma won’t be the only job open this summer, so we can’t assume they can land one of the big names. I just have this sinking suspicion, and it’s really nothing more than that, but I think Daniele De Rossi is coming a lot sooner than any of us expect.

dallagente: I’ll be the first to admit I’ve made far too much of coaches and tactics as it is, so I can’t say I’m really that emotionally invested at this point. I’ve seen Roma go through coaching changes and people will say “well at least it’s something new” but it ends up turning into the same old, same old. It’s like blowing your paycheque on Amazon at the end of the month just for that temporary day’s rush waiting for delivery, but it’s already over by the next day because you just bought more stuff you don’t need. Anyway, all things being even and if Fonseca does go, then I hope it’ll be Maurizio Sarri. Or Roberto Mancini has an epic breakdown in a post-match conference this summer, gets himself fired from the Italy job and takes over at Roma with Daniele De Rossi as his assistant.

Jimmy: God, Bren, I hope DDR isn’t coming as head coach soon. It would break my heart to see him pull a Pirlo or a Lampard, and I worry that if he came in within the next year or two, he’d be doomed to be just another not-Zidane who can’t bring his old club to glory. As for who might come in this summer, I want Nagelsmann. I don’t think the tifosi are going to enjoy Allegri’s style of play, and it’d be funny to have a manager who’s younger than Fazio.

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