When José Mourinho was hired at Manchester United, the slogan was he’d never failed to win the league at any club. By the time Mourinho was hired at Tottenham, that slogan was downgraded to a promise that he’d never failed to win a trophy. Then came the pointed, wordless statement from Spurs’ chairman Daniel Levy just before this season’s League Cup final: Mourinho was fired before he would get the chance to maintain any of the above.
Tottenham preferred their odds of going into that League Cup final under the unproven caretaker-manager Ryan Mason. But more than that, Tottenham wanted to relay the message that they were bigger than the Portuguese household name and vanity project now departing their bench. You couldn’t help but feel Levy was trying to put his own clothes back on in a huff, after getting in bed with Mourinho.
As our very own Q & A with Cartilage Free Captain painted in vivid emotion, Spurs felt like they’d been charmed, and ultimately conned, in Mourinho’s interview for the Tottenham gig. The grand speech about José taking an eleven-month sabbatical from the game, re-thinking his philosophy, and approaching club management with fresh ideas now looked like a farce, given how short-tempered Mourinho was still proving to be since his burnout at Real Madrid back in the middle of last decade. Never mind the slogans or promises. Mourinho’s actions in his time on the Spurs bench said it all.
There were no innovative tactics from Mourinho in a Premier League that had long since adapted to the 4-3-3 revolution he’d brought to English football during his first stint at Chelsea. Instead, just like his latter days in Manchester, Mourinho chose to take shortcuts and find the cheapest route to power. That route, in footballing terms, is the classic mid-season move of taking the team captain, club star, or players’ figurehead and throwing them under the bus without warning to the rest of the dressing room.
It’s one of the oldest moves in the managerial book (literally written by Rinus Michels) and can galvanize the squad to get behind a manager—under the right circumstances. But too often it backfires when players feel there’s no legitimate reason behind the coach’s gambit.
See Spalletti getting fired at Inter Milan after freezing out Mauro Icardi. On the surface, it looked like an easy kill for Spalletti at the time, especially given Icardi’s prior reputation. But no dice. Also, see Paulo Fonseca stripping Edin Dzeko of the Roma captaincy. Sure, Dzeko is an antagonistic and aging player whose leadership and playing style wasn’t to everyone’s liking even in his prime years. But the reasonable move was to simply bench Dzeko, not fly off the handle and go as far as taking the armband off the star player in full midseason.
It was one of the rare moments that Paulo Fonseca let emotions get the better of him, and the problem was Fonseca’s “cool” factor and level-headedness was his meal ticket in Rome. Once that was gone, out went the team’s faith in Fonseca from that point, followed quickly by the team shape and Roma’s league form taking a nosedive. When a manager gets exposed for a cheap man-management tactic gone wrong, it leaves the lingering suspicion that he’s lost the patience to actually put in the work solving problems. In that instance, why would you bother putting in the hard yards working for his way of football?
That question has tailed Mourinho ever since his Manchester United days: Is José legitimately still into club football? Does he have the energy to keep antagonizing players, opponents, referees, linesmen, ballboys, and even team medics on the route to victory? Or is Mourinho in the phase of his career where he’s woken up to the fact he’s left money on the table?
And is Mourinho now taking clubs for a ride and simply cashing in before retirement? For a club the size of Roma right now, it turns out the answer to the latter question doesn’t matter. At least not on a commercial level.
Roma Signing Mourinho Helps Beat the Football Recession
Since 2005, José Mourinho has been brand unto himself. It’s only this week that Calcio e Finanza revealed Roma would have to go through Chelsea if the Italian club wants to put out Mourinho merchandise for next season. Roman Abramovich’s club remains the commercial-rights holder to Mourinho’s name until 2025—that’s just how sizeable the Mourinho signature has grown in football over the last two decades. Therein lies the first truth behind Roma signing their new manager for the 2020-2021 season: It’s just damn good business.
It’s one thing for Tottenham Hotspur to make a statement by ridding themselves of Mourinho before a cup final, but we can’t realistically (at least not with a straight face) compare what Tottenham have to lose—a club with a brand value of €1.8 billion in 2021 according to Forbes, helped by having the €1 billion asset that is the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on their books—with what Roma have to lose in this credit-crunching football season.
Roma’s current brand value is a quarter the size of Tottenham’s. Roma doesn’t have Amazon knocking on their door to film an All or Nothing edition. Roma doesn’t have a removable pitch that gives way to a second, under-soil pitch reserved exclusively for hosting NFL games, coupled with an executive office for their NFL partners. Instead, Roma has mounting losses, an operating income in the negative, and owners forced to plunge around €150 million (and counting) of their own money (above the initial fee paid to buy the club) just to keep Roma floating in 2021. So when Tiago Pinto gets on the phone to Dan Friedkin, in late April, and lets his boss know there’s an immediate chance to start putting an end to the losses off the pitch? Of course, Friedkin is going to tell Pinto to go ahead and try signing the star power of Mourinho.
Not only was signing Mourinho the right move for business but, in the words of Ari Gold, risking the danger of ‘Brand Mourinho’ falling into the hands of Roma’s opponents, let alone in the middle of this pandemic, would have been very, very bad for business. This summer could see the biggest clubs prey on Roma’s biggest talents like never before and, in turn, Roma prey on the biggest names at the likes of Torino, Verona or Cagliari. So it would have been even harder for Roma to galvanize themselves off the pitch had a club like AC Milan or Napoli signed José Mourinho to their bench for next season. And there’s also the matter of Roma’s new shirt deal with New Balance.
On the face of their new kit sponsor deal, the decision to give up front-end money for a larger potential slice of the backend looked unwise from a Roma perspective. When money is falling out the bottom of football, you’d always want to get paid upfront. But the glamour of Mourinho at the club now makes Roma negotiating a bigger percentage of their jersey sales with New Balance look like the high risk, even higher reward that it’s meant to be for the club.
This is what swinging for the fences is meant to look like, providing some much-needed enthusiasm around Rome in the process. But this is all money and politics. What about the actual football? Because I’m not at an age where giving three more years of my life to sitting down and watching Roma every weekend (let alone midweek) is a decision I take as lightly as I once could do. So far, public interest and enthusiasm surrounding the club aside, all that’s been achieved is the Friedkin boosting their portfolio, while Mourinho continues his Vegas-like tour of contract signings around club football.
Mourinho now has a further guaranteed €21 million worth of salary to see him through to the summer of 2024, on top of his €39 million previous deal with Tottenham Hotspur. It was only around six years ago that Mourinho’s net worth stood at around €40 million. In that small time since he last left Chelsea, and through less than a quarter of his career in club management, Mourinho has more than doubled his reported personal wealth. So the rich guys are getting richer off the field. But does that mean the rest of us will want to watch what happens on it?
Roma Are Steering Away From System Coaches Once Again
I agreed with Daniele Lo Monaca at Il Romanista when he wrote, for three sentences in a row, that Fonseca’s Roma loss to Manchester United in Europe this season wasn’t (only) a question of tactics. Wasn’t (only) a question of tactics. And wasn’t (only) a question of tactics. Now I’ve got to agree with Lo Monaco’s column this week once again: Talking about tactics when it comes to Mourinho would be largely missing the point.
Mourinho is a brand first, and a proud man-manager second. The general thinking from those who’ve made it a career to follow Mourinho’s own is that José really did take his “eleven months out of the game” to double-down on studying psychology, apparently even more determined to win over the hearts of his players, and seducing the wallets of club owners in job interviews, too.
Of course, some tactics will come into every game of next season, but Roma are—once again just like when they shifted from Enrique and Zeman to Garcia and Spalletti—moving away from coaches who train a team that collectively shares the decision-making power among all eleven (or eight or nine, if you want to be more realistic) roles on the pitch, to a coach who relies on individual player quality to settle the final score. If you could call coaches like Paulo Fonseca and Eusebio Di Francesco system-based coaches, then someone like Luciano Spalletti or (to a slightly lesser extent) Rudi Garcia would fall on the other end of that spectrum as prescriptive coaches. Mourinho falls somewhere plum, smack dab in between.
We’ve covered the pros and cons of prescriptive coaching in our multi-part Spalletti feature; in short, every player is given a set of instructions to memorize in detail. The coach tells the team what to do in every phase, every situation of the game according to his playbook. That’s a great upside for players who lack confidence and don’t trust themselves to make their own decisions, but the tradeoff comes when young, talented players are expected to sub in for experienced stars and interpret the exact same role on the team, with the exact same intuition to the exact same level of performance.
Prescriptive coaching falls short when you expect a young Stefano Okaka to debut in Serie A and interpret forward play to the same effect as team captain Francesco Totti (it falls even flatter when you tell Okaka that if he turns up to training driving an Audi R8 then he’ll never play for Roma again—another Luciano Spalletti inspired drama). To say nothing of the gap in experience in those situations, there’s also the fact that the Tottis of the world inevitably end up carrying the emotional weight of the teams on their shoulders.
That same weight can break a young player, or it can even break the career of an experienced, foreign signing who’s not yet dialed into the pulse of the club. And that emotional gamble also weighs on in the coaching side, as prescriptive coaching often relies (rightly or wrongly, but usually rightly) on the coach’s charisma; if you want them all to carry out your playbook, you need greater intuition for where you really stand with your players in your working relationship with them. When you really have the disposition to pull it off, this isn't a bad thing by any means. But it can pull the plug out the bath of a team just a strongly as the coach had his finger on the pulse of their emotional wellbeing.
We recently featured the highs and lows of every coach in the American era of Roma, including the drastic turn of fortune for Rudi Garcia’s Roma, where his great strength was his sheer force of belief in Rome as a club, city, and in his players. You couldn’t find a greater club stalwart than Rudi Garcia. He is a die-hard, adopted Roma lifer. But once Rudi Garcia’s football was “found out” by Bayern Munich in a Champions League thrashing handed out to the Giallorossi on their own Olimpico turf, in Francesco Totti’s view, Garcia never emotionally recovered from the defeat and took his team’s morale at the door with him.
Now his players saw Garcia visibly shaken out of his own conviction as a coach, and the team started to slide from predictable (yet unstoppable) football to a series of turgid and seemingly endless 1-1 draws that were an absolute pain to sit through as a watching fan. How could something so beautiful turn so ugly in such a short space of time? That’s overly-instructed, tilted football for you; one where only really Miralem Pjanic and Francesco Totti were given license to kill, and Gervinho (or, later on, Salah) given license to roam, as far as Roma’s search for space and creativity went. Then there’s the fact that prescriptive coaching can look like a stitled team in action, whenever its outdone by dynamic teams who place the decision-making in the collective hands of their own players.
Yet while collective coaches like EDF and Fonseca look to spread the responsibility between roles (rather than players) on the team, the valid criticism leveled at coaches like Fonseca, Di Francesco, and others in their mold, is that your team will inevitably end up emotionally-reliant on individuals anyway! By pretending that all roles on the team are divided equally, you’re preaching nothing more than a vanity exercise that puts the coach on a pedestal, when we know credit belongs to the players.
We’ve seen, with our very own eyes, EDF’s Roma become emotionally reliant on Aleksandar Kolarov and Edin Dzeko to make the bulk of decisions that led Roma to important victories. That was never part of EDF’s plan, whose teams put more emphasis on the ball-playing centreback and the inside forward on each flank (depending on whether you’re building the ball up the left or right) to make the key decisions before the team pulls the trigger on that final move to goal.
We also saw EDF’s team overly dependant on Diego Perotti and Alisson at times, though that WAS by design in both cases. Yet, you can always argue whether Perotti really had the skill to carry out such an important role in the team. Much like Leonardo Spinazzola under Paulo Fonseca, Perotti was an excellent ball carrier to advance the team up the pitch and run out the clock, but fatally lacking in his final-third decisions.
That was a huge flaw for an EDF team that was essentially modeled around the impression a young Francesco Totti (playing as an inside forward on the left flank under Zeman) left on his teammate Di Francesco, with Totti’s own rifinitore skills in the final third proving the difference-maker both yesterday, today and tomorrow.
EDF carried what he saw on the pitch as a player into his ideas as a coach, and he even managed to push Joao Pedro to unseen levels of achievement at Cagliari this season because of the vision that young Totti imprinted into EDF’s psyche. But eventually, that player’s creativity will (usually) run dry over a long enough schedule, having been put excessive pressure to make the team click. Because neither Perotti, Spinazzola nor Joao Pedro are Francesco Totti.
And so Roma began to slide down the table under EDF, from their record-breaking 2016-2017 season led by predecessor Spalletti—despite showing better form and more confidence on the continental stage in a way that was alien to Roma sides of the 21st century. And Cagliari slid right into the relegation zone over that same fundamental contradiction of EDF’s football: As much as Di Francesco practices the collective, it’s by leaving one more full-back in defense and one less player to join in numbers and width in attack that Di Francesco’s football lives and dies by individual quality in the final third.
You might get away with signing six scrubs or promoting six academy youth players, but if you don’t sign two top-class ball-playing center backs and two world-class inside forwards, then you’re not qualifying for the Champions League with Di Francesco as a coach. And does that really make for a cheaper budget—in the long-term—over a Luciano Spalletti team? To be very honest, I’m really not so sure anymore.
I’ve had a weird year where I’ve realized I’ve been too hard on Spalletti and bought into too much of EDF. Yet it all took Sky Calcio Club interviews with Max Allegri (and a touch of Fonseca) to get me to this point. Long story.
The short version of it is this: EDF fan I may be, but his managerial-career results (so far) speak for themselves. Let alone how much responsibility Edin Dzeko, back in the 2017-2019 years, had to take upon himself to move the chains in the final third and create space for young or ineffective teammates around him during EDF’s Roma tenure—again, not by design, as Dzeko’s role was never meant to be so complete, but both coach and player made it work on the fly. Meanwhile, you could always argue Monchi deciding that Patrik Schick was the inside forward EDF needed was a gamble gone horribly wrong. And so, Roma sought to address this balance by going even more offensive, even more collective, and putting even more focus on spreading the decision-making skills of the team under Paulo Fonseca from the summer of 2019 onwards.
If Gasperini and Di Francesco’s build-up play on the wings was part of a radical revolution of Italian football in the mid-2010s, then Fonseca’s football completely pushes a Serie A team out of its comfort zone and, whether desired or not, inherently attracts xenophobic sentiment from Serie A purists.
In Di Francesco’s defensive department, you could still recognize shades of Italian football: one full-back instructed to hold back and not go beyond the halfway line (unless you’re desperate for an equalizer in the 90th minute) while the other full-back pushes forward. An EDF defense plays a high line, so the full-back who chooses to stay back then moves infield next to his two center-backs (or sometimes, when one center-back had pushed up, then he finds himself slotting in next to De Rossi and another-centreback) making for a three-and-a-half backline that is common to Italian football’s most-favored “asymmetric” formation, except for the aggressive offside trap all the way up to the halfway line—which made for beautiful stuff seeing Roma lock opponents inside their own half, if you ask me! But where EDF was very Italian in his preventative marking, he sought to break free from Italian convention in the opposition half.
And yet Roma went even more radical still with EDF’s (eventual) successor: Paulo Fonseca was a departure from Italian tradition in both halves of the pitch. It was one simple tweak, but the transition between EDF and Fonseca football tilted the balance to full-on attack and eliminated the over-reliance on individual quality in the final third that sunk EDF in Rome, making for a better fit with Roma’s transfer budget.
Fonseca was the answer to the lack of quality or lack of experience (sometimes both) that Roma has faced with the departure of Salah and the aging Edin Dzeko. Instead of praying that gambles on raw talent like Patrik Schick would pay off, Fonseca simply took more bodies away from defending against potential counter-attacks and threw those bodies further up the pitch to join in Roma’s possession of the ball.
That translated, on a tactical level, to Fonseca’s Roma almost always instructed to keep both flanks free for wide-backs Spinazzola and Karsdorp (or Florenzi, Kolarov, Peres) to roam up and down the flank together in unison, giving Roma the width wherever needed in all phases of play: transition, defense, and attack. We say “almost always” because there will be exceptions; tactics could never dictate the better part of circumstance in a game of chance (and industry of ego) like football.
Sometimes a player like Pedro arrives at the club, and Spinazzola finds himself better served by Pedro moving into the left flank to drag a marker wide with him, opening up a space infield for Spinazzola to run into and seek out an easier through-ball to the striker. Sometimes Roma are shorthanded or low on confidence when it comes to organizing themselves after losing the ball, and that’s when Davide Santon steps into the side to become that three-and-a-half makeshift fullback/centreback while leaving most of the attacking responsibilities to Spinazzola down that left flank. The common denominator here is most teammates’ destiny revolved around Spinazzola’s willingness to take on responsibility, for which Leo deserves full credit on a character level.
Fonseca saw a lot of success in tasking the lion’s share of responsibility to his chief LWB interpreter Ismaily at Shakhtar, and nearly found a hard-fought understanding with Spinazzola in Rome along the same lines. Faced with an aging Kolarov on one flank, and Alessandro Florenzi often finding himself at a disadvantage when it came to up-close, physical duels on the opposite flank (Fonseca’s wide backs inevitably have to be able to cope with the physical demands of trapping the ball outside and driving it upfield themselves), it was left to the Man from Mozambique to eventually reach a middle ground with the enigmatic ego of Spinazzola; an Italian right-footed wide back who was more motivated to join in the team from the left side of the field. The contradictions didn’t end there.
Despite Spinazzola showing he has an excellent defensive read of the game when put under pressure (as well as a willingness to counter-press that is second-to-none in this current Roma side), he’s a player who’s far more enthused at attacking rather than defending. Spinny is a strangely wired player, motivated to overcome his own limitations rather than playing into what looks like his strengths. In many ways, off the football pitch, that’s an admirable quality.
He even found a kindred spirit in Fonseca in that sense, given that Fonseca admittedly “has problems with delegation” in his personal life and routine, yet Fonseca chose to embark on a coaching career based on the principle of entrusting decisions to others on the pitch. To put it short and sweet: In an alternate universe where both Spinazzola and Fonseca were less brave and more self-satisfied, then Fonseca would have chosen to be a prescriptive coach, and Spinazzola would have settled for playing as a right-back in a three-and-half-man defense.
As fate would have it, sometimes Spinazzola was called to do this in the 2020-2021 season, where injuries ravaged Roma’s backline and Spinazzola played as an emergency center-back yet, unsurprisingly, never looked like a fish out of water in doing so. For the most part, however, once Kolarov left in the summer of 2020 that meant Spinazzola was free to make the left flank his own personal dominion—both by his own will and Paulo Fonseca’s design. Coupled with the rejuvenated fitness and form of Rick Karsdorp down the right, Fonseca saw the moment to press ahead with his atypical style of football on the peninsula.
Whether done in a 4231 formation or 3421 formation, the implications were the same: Give or take some responsibility from the wide players here and there, but Roma were now committing a minimum of five players (and often more) in attack. This is where football fans who believe in Italian tradition claim that Fonseca’s team simply “cannot play like this” and expect good results over the course of a Serie A season.
It’s said that players who graduate from Italian academies (whether those players are Italian-born or otherwise) are schooled to take pride in winning their individual duels, and their ability to win the ball back in danger areas of the pitch. You can imagine how that runs contrary to a Fonseca team that leaves sometimes as little as two or three players to stay behind and guard against a Roma turnover of the ball. Like almost all things Fonseca Football©, however, the solution to that conundrum was simple. And I promise you, Roma will never see football as simple as Fonseca’s in a while—“simple” being a compliment in this context, because it’s often incredibly hard to boil down a game of chance to its most simple expression.
The simple solution to never being outnumbered at the back was to throw out zonal marking and throw out man-marking... though not always. There were some games where Fonseca deliberately sent out one of his midfielders to go man-mark an (on paper) weaker individual opponent if that meant it would emotionally kill the spirit of the opposing team. For example, in 2019 Genoa’s ambitions lived or died by the glamour signing of Lasse Schöne (fresh off a feelgood Champions League semi-final run with his former side Ajax) playmaking at the heart of their midfield.
Fonseca would send Lorenzo Pellegrini to man-mark Schone and shut him down, often to great success but sometimes with momentary lapses of concentration like Schone’s long-range assist to Goran Pandev in the 1-3 loss to Roma at the Marassi in early 2020. There were other games against mid-table to lower sides, like Verona, where Pellegrini or Gonzalo Villar would sometimes be tasked with man-marking. But against teams of equal or superior individual strength, Fonseca’s ethos was to ditch any individual marking instructions and collectively press the ball (call it gegenpress if you need a buzzword to tie it all together).
When done correctly, that makes leaving two or three defenders at the back a non-issue, since you’re theoretically defending as 10 (or 11) men all over the pitch. But when done wrong, it just makes for the opposition flooding into your half and winning the numbers game on their route to scoring yet another goal past Pau Lopez. What’s important to emphasize here is that, either way, we’re not absolving Fonseca of his responsibilities as a coach.
If your players show that they fundamentally don’t know how to back each other up and work together in pressing the ball, then you’ve still got coaching problems on a man-management level all the same. And that begs the very same question we asked of Mourinho’s time at Spurs earlier: Would players want to carry out your orders and start supporting one another in any other formation, or any other philosophy instead? Or have you simply lost the dressing room?
Losing the dressing room has more serious implications under collective football. Because, fundamentally, if you don’t work for one another under Fonseca Football© then you just don’t work together as teammates, period. You’ve been asked to share responsibility as players, but someone in that picture has an ego shouting (whether silently or in full voice) to be recognized as an individual. And there’s no use hiding from that truth.
The second thing to emphasize is that we’re not saying Fonseca (or collective) Football© is somehow superior to all other footballing faiths, especially when it leaves a team lying 7th in the league. What use is that? But there are several, legitimate reasons why Fonseca Football© is a great fit for a club the stature of Roma.
For starters, now Roma had eight roles in the team (as opposed to EDF’s six) with lower barriers to entry, meaning even Primavera players can step in the side and look impressive on the day, whether it’s on a weekend game in the peninsula or scoring on your senior football debut in the Europa League—just ask Tommaso Milanese or Nicola Zalewski. What’s more, Fonseca’s training routines emphasize fast and rapid technique on the ball, meaning you can motivate offensive-minded players like Rick Karsdorp to join in the defending. Because the sooner you help one another get the ball back, the sooner you can get back to playing with the ball. There’s more emphasis on a style of defending based on being in the right time and the right place to cut out the ball before it even turns into a one-on-one physical, defensive duel.
This budget-saving element in defense was also present (to a slightly lesser degree) under EDF’s football, but less so under the likes of tough-guy football practiced with Spalletti or Garcia. The physical football wasn’t Spalletti’s choice in his second tenure as Roma manager, however, and part of the reason why he walked out on the club for a second time. And it certainly won’t be present under the football of Mourinho with this current Roma squad (unless there’s a huge spending spree ahead that we don’t know about). But all this being said, there is still some individual quality needed to make Fonseca’s teamwork.
Jordan Veretout’s ability to time his runs off the ball and join in the attack around the opponent’s penalty area were pivotal, often giving Roma that width and space in attack to break through even the deepest-defending Serie A minnows. Thanks to Veretout and Spinazzola, Fonseca’s Roma became even more fixated on playing for width on the opponent’s 18-yard line before they felt comfortable to finish off a move. Nonetheless, there’s another point where Fonseca Football© was highly compatible with a club the stature of Roma’s in the current footballing climate: You didn’t need 40m+ gambles on Patrik Schick like you did under EDF.
Getting top-notch individual talent that can cope with the pressure of pulling off final-third play is literally the most expensive talent sought out on the global football mercato; and that’s if you can even find available, in-form forwards that other clubs are willing to sell to Roma in the first place. It’s great that EDF lowered the barriers to entry for six or seven roles in a Roma first eleven, but you’d still have to balance that out with big gambles (if not club-record fees) on the cool heads needed up front, all the same. Unless you just want to keep bashing your head on the wall of trying to convert Perotti to playing inside forward. Fonseca compensated for the learning curve among Roma’s young (or sometimes merely above-average mid-to-late-20s) forwards by putting more bodies up front, to create more runs and more space for Roma’s attacker on the ball.
That meant the key individual roles in a Fonseca side were within Roma’s budget: signing an athletic yet astute wide-back was doable for Roma (and yet still Roma managed to spend above market-rate for Spinazzola, which isn’t Leonardo’s fault), signing a midfield with an intuition for runs-off-the-ball, in Veretout, was doable for Roma. The only area where Fonseca arguably got lucky was the club’s incredibly astute signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan; an intelligent and modern number 10 who could turn Roma’s defensive team shape into a split-second counter-attack with one touch, one key pass. That was the lone, outstanding example of Roma’s management doing Paulo Fonseca a solid.
Roma tried to double down and repeat the low-budget trick by signing Pedro, but that involved asking Pedro to play a deeper, more central role in the pitch that the ex-Barca and Chelsea wide man wasn’t really used to. That move has failed, and failed badly, but these gambles were all well within Roma’s budget, making Fonseca’s ideas a good dating partner for Roma’s ambitions. But sometimes that ambition—expressed through an increasing Roma fixation for camping out on the wings of the opponent’s penalty area and playing square passes from Spinazzola’s side to Karsdorp’s flank—was ruthlessly turned against them by opponents.
The highlights of Juventus’ 2021 counter-attacking win over Roma in Turin don’t show the beginning of Juve’s breaks up field, but Juve coach Andrea Pirlo’s post-game comments tell the story. Pirlo took credit for Juve’s win, asserting that he knew the mood in the Roma camp was one where the Giallorossi would feel the need to come play for superiority in Turin (perhaps with the “Roma never beat big sides” newspaper headlines living like a monkey on the back of Fonseca’s Roma at the time), and so instructed his Juventus team to sit back and defend deep from kick-off. Pirlo was right.
It wouldn’t matter if Roma matched up eight for eight with Juventus players in the Bianconero defensive third; Juventus held the innate assurance that their players were simply better... in everything. Borja Mayoral stood no chance against the gamesmanship of Giorgio Chiellini on the night, and if Juventus weren’t first to absolutely every ball sent into their own penalty area, then you could be damn sure a Juventus player would clear the second ball instead.
Fonseca’s Roma huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow the Juve house down, which unmasked another contradiction in the “high-minded” aspirations of Fonseca Football©. If Fonseca’s Roma were so fixated on lining up with five or more Roma players spread across the length of the opponent’s penalty box before pulling the trigger, then didn’t that, in fact, make Fonseca Football© overly-prescriptive in the final third?
We’ve gone full circle to why I’m personally no big fan of possession-based football, even if I do thank Fonseca’s interpretation of the game for helping me to realize the contradiction of EDF’s (my favorite coach’s) own vision. I hate the moments when people preach tiki-taka is God’s gift to football, or that the Ajax sides of the 1970s achieved something that was “that cut above” the rest. That kind of bohemian, coffee-shop snobbery in tactics is something I avoid with a large stick. I understand that, when done in good faith, it's a way of promoting a football team as greater than the sum of its parts, and that the spirit of grassroots football can overcome the greatest odds and most fearsome of big-budget rivals. I still buy into that message wholeheartedly and banged on the drums of it myself. But when it strays into snobbery, it's just another pretense that the coach (or anyone of us playing on Football Manager) can be the most determinant factor in the game, the star of the show.
In that sense, Fonseca Football© (and all its variants) have managed to cross back over its own footsteps. I don’t like football philosophy that overlooks the element of chance, nor a school of thought that takes away credit from the chief actors on the pitch: the players.
The 1980s Roma players achieved something very similar to what Ajax did in the 1970s, with less effort on the pitch, less worrying about decisions, and a comparable budget. Why try harder when you can achieve great results more efficiently? The 1980s were a time where Italian football had a very valid point to drive home against the tide of the “beautiful game” on the continent, just like German football made a similar point against the Spanish wave of Furia Roja in football’s third century.
The 2006 Italy team drove home a very similar point by winning the World Cup, though it helps that they were galvanized (as any international trophy-winning Italy side unfortunately is throughout footballing history) by scandal, fear and loathing at home. But I love it when the bad guys win and shut down the high-minded pretentions of the beautiful game. So you should think I love José Mourinho just as much as Italian football itself fondly remembers Mourinho.
Mourinho now forms part of an elite few coaches to have taken up the challenge of the Roma bench from bigger clubs elsewhere: There’s Helenio Herrera (unloved as he was in Rome, still undeniably a major signing for the Roma bench at the time), Nils Liedholm in the heyday of the 1980s, and Fabio Capello at the turn of the Millenium. All coaches accused of being too defensively minded in their football, yet all lauded in Italian football folklore. All coaches (except for maybe Herrera) who didn’t let their superstar quality overshadow praise for the individual quality of their players. At least that was true back when Mourinho’s public persona was that of a winner.
How much do we reckon we’ll be saying any of this about Mourinho in his current guise?
For all that José is really just about José on the bottom line, there is one area where I respect Mourinho over idea-driven coaches like Fonseca or even Klopp, and that’s Mourinho’s outright recognition that football is a gamble at either end of the field. Mourinho may be prescriptive in his defensive half of the pitch, but he’s a full-fledged liberal when it comes to trusting his attack entirely at the feet, and minds, of his star forward players.
Mourinho doesn’t believe in drilling attacking moves or team shapes into his sides because, in his view, that would fundamentally overlook how much the element of chance has a role to play in any given team’s successful route to goal. Mourinho’s match preparation wants to limit that chance falling unfavorably for his defensive end, and worry about the other details later. He’s a reactive coach, focused on in-game management. More than that, Mourinho’s management is focused on striking up relationships within his team, rather than being wed to the tactics board. That’s a great view of football...when you have the budget to justify it.
Is it a budget the size of Friedkin’s Roma right now? Unlikely. But you can bet Inter Milan remember the days when they had the budget for it.
Those were the days where Mourinho’s Inter side showed up Pep Guardiola’s aspirations to footballing perfection as momentarily pathetic, on one unforgettable night at the Nou Camp in the spring of 2010; a night where defensive, reactive football reigned supreme in its unapologetic, single-minded determination to win.
Roma’s Call to Romance and Rearguard Action
The video feature above does a much better job detailing the first-leg Inter win over Barcelona in that Champions League semi-final, but it will always be the 1-0 loss away to Barcelona in the second leg that goes down as one of my favorite-ever games to watch. And watch over again. Inter played the larger part of that game down to ten men and yet proved you don’t need fancy, sleep-inducing, tiki-taka football to get a result.
The bad guys won, and ripped the pretentious “Mes Que Un Club” slogan right off the back of Barcelona’s collars in the process, while a sheepish Pep Guardiola was left to shake Samuel Eto’o’s hands in front of the cameras—the politics behind that gesture explained from Eto’s no-holds-barred point of view years later. Anyone who can put an end to Barcelona in that manner has a place in my heart for the rest of my life. So I’ll always have at least one fond memory of Mourinho’s footballing sides. But things have changed since those days, for everyone involved in that match. And not least of all for Italian football.
Conte, Di Francesco, Gasperini, De Zerbi, and the rest of the Serie A new wave have changed the way Italian football is expressed domestically. Pride is still taken in winning the ball and emphasizing good defense, but now Serie A teams are proudly winning the ball all over the pitch, no matter how high and early they have to push up the field to do so. That means today’s Serie A sides—even from midtable and below—are willing to risk flooding more players into Mourinho’s defensive half than his Inter side would have been used to back then.
In Mourinho’s own words after taking over from Roberto Mancini at the San Siro in the late 2000s: He felt Inter needed to move their play 30 yards further upfield over the course of the season in order to achieve Inter’s true ambitions. Massimo Moratti wasn’t satisfied with merely winning Serie A back-to-back (the Italian league title simply isn’t prestigious or rich enough to justify the amount of spending that went into that Inter Milan side - which is even more true of Serie A today), but now wanted success on the European scene.
Mourinho achieved that success by breaking away from the 4-3-3 that had earned him such a crucial advantage for the ill-prepared Premier League rivals of Mourinho’s nascent Chelsea days. Not many people choose to remember that Mourinho began his Inter venture by trying to copy-paste 4-3-3 on the peninsula, signing wingers like Ricardo Quaresma and Amantino Mancini, who would soon be cast aside just as quickly as Mourinho had given them a chance to step up to the big time. It’s an expensive about-face that has followed Mourinho throughout his club career, but the reasoning was simple: Inter could defend their way to another league title by remaining deep, but they would never really taste Champions League success unless they gave themselves a greater chance at the freedom of expression in attack.
That belief was reinforced by Inter’s patchy 2008-2009 form throughout the Champions League group stage. Losses and draws to comparatively lesser sides like PAOK, Werder Bremen, and even dropping points away to Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta, meant Inter barely scraped a second-place finish in their group and fell on the unfavorable end of the Round of 16 draw against first-place group finishers Manchester United.
That Round of 16 game against United came too early in Inter’s season for Mourinho’s tastes. After all, like Paulo Fonseca, José Mourinho is from the Portuguese school of tactical periodization, where you break down players’ training regiments into personalized individual work schedules, and plan several games ahead, if not planning over the course of an entire 38-55 game season ahead of time. A lot of coaches and clubs have adopted that ethos as their own today, so Mourinho has lost the great edge he had from his Chelsea and Porto days, where he was arguably the best coach in world football when it came to preparing his players ahead the kick-off whistle.
Now we have Ultra HD footage, homogeneous football games played in homogeneous football stadia. Football is increasingly an open-information game—arguably as open-information as it's ever going to get. Some coaches feel that means there’s more competitive edge to be found by playing irresistible football, rather than trying to mold your team into the immovable object. Some part of Mourinho’s footballing soul disagrees with that idea, but his career track record doesn’t really unmask his beliefs towards one direction or the other, at least not on a tactical level. Least of all that Inter Milan treble success of 2010.
It was that season that Mourinho and his staff won the ear of Inter legend Gabriele ‘Lele’ Oriali, whose upper-office role opened the checkbook for Inter to sign Lucio, Sneijder, Eto’o and give Inter a greater sense of individual freedom on the counter-attack for the 2009-2010 season. The rest is history. Will Mourinho be given the same level of financial backing at Friedkin’s Roma? Can he make a big enough impression on Tiago Pinto to spend for overnight success?
Early rumors suggest that’s unlikely, if not nigh-on impossible in this pandemic-struck football environment. So we have to assume, for now, that Roma will go ahead with Mourinho guiding the same (or similar) level of playing talent that was enjoyed under the latter days of Eusebio Di Francesco and throughout Paulo Fonseca’s tenure. We’ve featured the current Roma squad’s prospects of making the Mourinho shortlist, player by player. But we’ll end this installment with a look at the tactical implications this Roma squad faces when moving from Fonseca’s instructions to a traditional Mourinho setup.
On the face of it, the football that Mourinho is likely to bring with him to Rome ticks pretty much all of Serie A’s traditionally favored boxes. And so Mourinho will politic his way around the xenophobia, even welcomed back by some as the champion mandated to restore the fundamentals of past Italian success. The mood around Italian football right now is a lot like The Big Short’s deadpan voiceover summary of what often happens when the world is facing uncertainty and economic crisis: “They blamed immigrants and poor people. And this time, even teachers.”
Dzeko has been blamed for being a primadonna captain, despite Roman-born and legendary captain Francesco Totti’s last official act with his hometown club being a public press conference at CONI that amounted to no more than a two-hour complaint that Roma wouldn’t let him be carte-blanche technical director of the club. Hometown hero Lorenzo Pellegrini has gone onto captain a series of bad results and putrid league form for Roma, despite his visible heart and effort on the field. But do Pellegrini’s intelligent runs off the ball in the final third spare him for gratuitous offenses in Rome? Not if the recent calls from some Roma fans (and radio personalities) to strip Lorenzo Pellegrini of the captaincy—for choosing to be by his wife’s bedside in the delivery room over turning up to a football game—have anything to say about it.
And then there’s Paulo Fonseca, who’s accused of not understanding Italian football.
This is the same Paulo Fonseca who’s also accused of not giving enough respect to Alessandro Florenzi’s prior status in Roma. But that’s a very convenient retrospect to spare Roma from the responsibility of its own toxic environment, given Alessandro Florenzi had fake money thrown at him by Roma season-ticket holders in pre-season friendlies back in 2018, and so understandably chose to take a move to Paris just over a year later. Everywhere you look, Roma is a footballing ambiance where people are frustrated at the lack of success and throw crap on its own academy players, then blame outsiders for the mud-slinging and frustration. These times are rife for Mourinho’s pantomine, sometimes borderline-abusive politicking to make hay while the Roma morale is down.
There was a time when Mourinho risked being more than a mere persona, but I can’t blame him for wanting to keep his private and public life very separate ever since he’s climbed to his own brand of stratospheric success. Mourinho speaks of the importance of courage and honesty in his Tottenham half-time team talks on the All or Nothing series, the importance of which I only learned myself very, very late in the day in my own life. So I’m certainly in no position to judge. But where it once did legitimately take Mourinho courage to speak out and upset the odds in the face of European superpowers, it takes no courage—and unfortunately shows disregard and dishonesty—to settle into the schoolyard bully role that Mourinho has adopted since those days.
Recent seasons have seen Mourinho take credit for the brief upturn in form of players that Mourinho himself had worn down to a point where they’d inevitably find a dead-cat bounce either way.
Eventually, if you criticize, cajole and grind down a player long enough, you’re going to see the moment where he gets bored of believing he’s at fault, and simply finds form and enjoyment in playing ball again; even for a short lived moment mid-season, if only because he’s bored of the same old, same old.
That Mourinho chooses those moments to step in and take credit for the element of chance (he plays well again! Because he’s chosen to do things the Mourinho way now!) is a perverse transformation of Mourinho’s own beliefs. And you can bet, at some point next season, Mourinho will take credit for Roma sitting higher than 7th place in the league.
That will be credited to Mourinho’s mere presence at the club, of course, even though historical form dictates that Roma rarely finish below 6th in Serie A history, so you could place any coach in charge of next season’s Roma team (even Paulo Fonseca) and you’d be smart to bet in an upturn in Roma’s league form all the same. But Mourinho won’t let that be the story, as he knows when to grab the opportune moment to tell the traditionalists and “winning mentality” enthusiasts exactly what they want to hear.
Paulo Fonseca and José Mourinho may both natively be outsiders, but Mourinho’s style knows how to play to the lowest denominator of expectations, both on and off the field.
Mourinho emphasizes zonal defense in the crucial areas of the pitch that need defending if you’re going to keep a clean sheet, often calling for his defensive wingers to double-up with fullbacks in holding fort within the halfspaces, and his defensive midfielders to use a mix of man and zonal-marking to shield the space in front of the 18-yard area. But we may be surprised by how that changes the fortunes of today’s Roma players.
What Will Changing from Fonseca to Mourinho Mean for Roma’s Current Squad?
At the outset, players like Marash Kumbulla and Jordan Veretout now become gambles in the Roma team.
Consider Jordan Veretout, who’s defensive performance ranks below the likes of much-maligned players like Roberto Gagliardini this Serie A season. Veretout even puts in defensive performances below the likes of technical player Fabian Ruiz at Napoli—a guy who you might expect to rely on his supreme-ball playing skills to make a career of it and call that a day. And yet Veretout can’t count himself a better defensive player than the Spaniard, let alone the rejuvenated, ball-winning Gagliardini at Inter.
Look, I might have a more favorable opinion of Gagliardini than some, but the point is Veretout’s star could fall under Mourinho unless the Frenchman competes for an attacking midfield spot next season, where Veretout’s ability to make runs into the opponent’s box would be valued, and his defensive weaknesses won’t come become a factor.
In the collective pressing of a Fonseca side, the French player’s weaknesses are masked and he looks like a star. Veretout only has to worry about defensively ushering the ball for a Roma teammate to make the crucial intervention. But Veretout is simply not a good individual ball-winner. Under Mourinho, I wouldn’t want to ask Veretout to man-mark, or even risk the Frenchman getting outnumbered in zonal defending just outside the Roma penalty area. We could see Veretout revert back to his Fiorentina form if he was forced to fill in at a deep-midfield role under Mourinho, where the Frenchman bailed himself (and his team) out of defensive trouble by hitting (awesome) long-balls over the top to the Fiorentina frontline.
That in itself set the hearts racing around Veretout’s game in a very different way at Fiorentina, but that Viola side still just barely avoided relegation all the same. Not a long-term, viable plan for the ambitions of Mourinho. We could end up with midfielders the likes of Veretout, Cristante, and Pellegrini (and Mkhitaryan if he stays at the club) effectively competing for game time in the central attacking midfield role within Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1—making the club, once again, over-subscribed in one position yet undersubscribed in many others. Then also consider the likes of mini-Fazio A.K.A. young center-half Marash Kumbulla.
Would you ask Kumbulla to drop deep and defend an opponent tight for 90 minutes? Would you trust Kumbulla on the ball when Roma no longer have any short-passing options to get out of the pressure in their own half?
Back at Verona (and at Roma when their morale was high enough to make the plan work), Max had the safety of knowing the compact shape gave him several immediate, close-range passing options. Verona also pressed the ball high and played the offside trap whenever they felt they could (realistically it’s not always easy to stay mentally strong enough to do it when you’re the underdog), which gave Kumbulla the benefit of using his anticipation to play the offside trap and avoid a footrace back to goal. Kumbulla can look like a complete talent in the making under the right lens of football, but that lens disappears under Mourinho’s field of view.
In Mourinho’s setup, completely different questions are asked of Kumbulla’s defensive makeup. Kumbulla’s pace might, on paper, be protected by sitting deep and having two defensive midfielders shielding him at moments in the game. But football has moved on, the open-information game showing that you can isolate a defender into mismatches—especially in defensive football. All the opponent would have to do is double-up on Kumbulla in his zone. Or if Kumbulla is sent out there to man-mark, then the opponent can achieve the same outcome in a different way.
Whoever Kumbulla is marking would work on pulling Kumbulla out of position, then a faster opponent could run into that space behind Kumbulla. Not to mention, we’re not worried about flat-out pace here, but explosiveness from a standing position. That is critical to playing deep-lying defense because, by inviting pressure onto your rearguard for the better part of the game, the focus shifts to whether you can physically stay on top of an opponent for 90 minutes. In that sense, the irony here is that Roma are missing an athlete like Kostas Manolas—a guy who I felt, for years, had the best chance of reaching his peak potential under a Mourinho set up, and a guy who should have taken that move to Manchester United back then.
Aside from the physical and mental demands of dueling within a deep-lying defense, you’ve also got to ask: Where is Kumbulla’s out-ball to escape the pressure once he’s won possession back? That’s the problem when you’re a high-anticipation defender.
Your ability to win the ball back early can be used against you, as a means to turn over the ball even earlier still. Fazio knew this from a young age, so he honed the technique needed to dribble past opponents as well as using his physique to protect the ball. Kumbulla is still only 21, but all the reasons above are generally why Mourinho prefers experienced center-backs who with the will to handle the mental pressure that Mourinho’s football invites onto them.
Young Kumbulla hasn’t shown (so far) he has any long-range passing instincts or technical prowess to drive the ball himself, preferring to play it short and simple. Max will have to answer a different set of challenges now, in order to prove himself a first-team regular by the end of next season to justify his annual cost on the club’s budget. But where the likes of Veretout and Kumbulla could be running against the Mourinho tide, there are guys who become more of a sure thing as they move away from Fonseca’s football.
A good example is Gianluca Mancini, who could thrive if Roma shifts away from collective pressing of the ball and moves back to the man-marking Mancini was used to doing at Atalanta. Then there’s Mancini’s versatility when it comes to linking up Roma’s rearguard the midfield and attack play.
That was the same kind of versatility Mourinho enjoyed at Inter with Javier Zanetti, which can be seen with the vision on the ball that Mancini displayed just last week with his pass out to Santon for Roma’s winning goal in their 3-2 victory over Manchester United. Mancini may yet have more to learn in terms of becoming a top defender, but he certainly is a top baller in possession. So who’s to say that Gianluca Mancini, free of his Euro 2020 worries after this summer is done with, can’t be convinced to play in midfield under Mourinho?
Mourinho’s arrival should also be good news for Stephan El Shaarawy, whose return to Roma looked like a tanto per signing within the context of Fonseca’s final third play.
If SES is going back to a career on the wing—where he’d be asked to help join in the defending but also rely on his own considerable talent of crafting goals out of nowhere in attack—then you’ve got to fancy SES’s star shining bright next season.
The possibilities—both positive and negative— run amock for this current Roma squad.
But more than anything, we hope the differences between collective and individual football are obvious by now; at least in the context of Roma’s prospects to sustain and grow itself as a club. One thing you can be sure of is Roma couldn’t afford to let the chance of signing Mourinho slide on a commercial level.
It may not be the same commercial boost as signing a CR7, but José Mourinho is the coaching equivalent, and one who belongs to the same clique within football’s current panorama. He has the contacts, the protection and the appeal to help Roma assert itself in negotiations, much like the club had hoped by previously engaging Monchi’s services.
But more than any foreign import in Roma’s recent history, Mourinho knows how to make his football palatable to both Serie A and continental expectations in a single season. And while I’m not a fan of where Mourinho’s public persona has (d)evolved to, that’s the very combination this American era of Roma management has searched for over the last decade.
Just pray that the football is worth tuning into.