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An Appreciation for Paulo Fonseca’s Time With Roma

With his two-year stint in Rome officially over, we say our goodbyes to Mr. Fonseca and wish him well in his next stop!

AS Roma v SS Lazio - Serie A Photo by Danilo Di Giovanni/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Given the club's status as Italy's perceptual bridesmaid, and all the feelings of inferiority and insecurity that come along with it, managing Roma is never easy. Facing the unrelenting scrutiny of the Roman media, attempting to tame the pride, passion, and prejudice of the tifosi while also surviving the meatgrinder that is the Trigoria training grounds presents a unique challenge to anyone crazy enough to accept the post as manager of Associazione Sportiva Roma.

Now, imagine, if you will, trying to do all of that knowing full well that you weren't your employer's first choice. No-one associated with the club was cruel enough to come out and actually say that, but with the club's pursuit of Antonio Conte and José Mourinho falling flat in the summer of 2019, Fonseca was Roma's consolation prize.

And what was his reward? A woefully misshaped roster featuring a collection of aging veterans on high salaries and a gaggle of unproven U-23 players, with only a few ready for primetime players, sprinkled in for good measure, while the club's most talented player, Nicolo Zaniolo, was lost for nearly the entirety of Fonseca's tenure in the capital.

Hardly ideal circumstances for any manager, let alone in the Roman hothouse, but it got so much worse for Fonseca. No sooner had he started to win the confidence of James Pallotta and Gianluca Petrachi only to see both men leave prior to the start of his second season with the club: Petrachi after his public feud with club leadership and Pallotta, who sold the club in 2020 to Dan Friedkin.

And we've come this far without even mentioning the deadly pandemic that ravaged the entire globe, throwing the balance of the 2019-2020 season in jeopardy. Serie A was able to complete the schedule over the summer, but the resulting compact fixture list definitely took its toll on Roma's already beleaguered roster and medical staff.

Total all that up and it's almost impossible to truly assess Paulo Fonseca's time as Roma manager—there will always be what-ifs and asterisks attached to this portion of his resumé.

But, that won't stop us from offering a brief post-mortem on his two-year stint in the capital. In the wake of yesterday's draw against Spezia, Fonseca's final match at the helm, we gathered the crew together for a quick discussion on the pros and cons of Fonseca Football. Enjoy!

Paulo Fonseca’s two-year run in Roma came to an end this week. Like most managers, it was a bit of a mixed bag, but what letter grade would you give Fonseca’s two years at the helm and why?

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Bren: I can’t really in good conscience give him anything other than a C+; slightly above average. As we’ll discuss, he had to face unprecedented circumstances throughout his tenure with the club, so any discussion about his performance with Roma has to consider the pandemic and the change of ownership. But, with that out of the way, the results were neither horrible nor encouraging—just average. There were times when it felt like he was a real game-changer, someone who would actually stick around for the long haul, but in the end, he just wasn’t able to lift Roma out of this funk. Some of that was beyond his control, but we’re still looking at two years of sub-fourth place football—that’s not acceptable for a club like Roma.

JonAS: Oh no, American grades. Why can’t you just ask a number between 0 (Del Neri 2005) and 10 (Capello 2001), you know, European style? Anyway, I’ll try. I’m going to give Paulo C-, an average score.

Like Bren said, he just didn’t bring Roma to the next level. For every great game, there was a bad patch. His change to the 3-4-2-1 was a good move but then Fonseca used it too often, even if we only had 2 fit CB’s left. The change back to 4-2-3-1 was too little, too late. Roma reached a European semi-final but ends outside the top 6 this season, so yeah, hot ‘n cold. I don’t see Roma improving under Fonseca if he would stay a third season.

MEDIOCRE! As Immortan Joe would say (seriously, watch Mad Max: Fury Road if you haven’t).

ssciavillo: As much as I like Fonseca and really wanted the club to build in his vision long term the results were the results and it’s hard to give him much more than a C+ like bren. Only winning the derby last weekend in twelve encounters against the top 6 in the league is nowhere near good enough. The deep Europa League run and development of some of the individual talents like Karsdorp and Villar are what makes this a slightly above-average grade.

Jimmy Miotto: You guys saying a “slightly above average grade” is a C+ is making me realize how crazy grade inflation has gotten, but that’s a conversation for another article. Maybe the Derby win is coloring my grading a little bit too much, but I’ll give him a B-. I can’t imagine how much of a headache it was to try to manage this club through COVID, an ownership change (where funds for transfers seemed... light, to put it mildly), and the Great Pallotta-Petrachi War of 2019/2020. Add in that deep run in the Europa League this year, the explosion of Gonzalo Villar, and the renaissance of Rick Karsdorp? Yes, the league results were disappointing, but I don’t really know how much better this squad could have done given the injury issues we’ve had. So a B- feels right, with our league standing pulling his grade down and a lot of the other intangibles bringing it back above “slightly above average”.

Regardless of how you graded him, what were Fonseca’s strengths at Roma? What moments, matches, or trends will be his lasting legacy with the club?

dallagente: I’ll remember him for delivering a Roma that performed to expectations against smaller clubs. Finally a Roma you could set your watch by and not just a Roma side that showed up for the glory hunting in the big games. And I’ll remember New Year’s Day 2020 when Fonseca set up an open training session at the Tre Fontane for the team to reconnect with the fans during the winter close season. Typically, that’s a time when players start worrying about the transfer market and thinking for themselves, so it was a bold move and I hope it becomes tradition in the future. Unfortunately, that time, came just two months before a pandemic struck the world.

Bren: I look no further than the impact he had on Leonardo Spinazzola and Rick Karsdorp as evidence of the good he did over the past two years. Just think about how up in arms people were about that Luca Pellegrini for Spinazzola swap; so many of us were fit to be tied. Luca was a local kid, an up and comer and he was basically traded for a perpetual underachiever but Spinazzola enjoyed the best stretch of his career under Fonseca. And I’m not sure that Karsdorp’s miraculous recovery would have occurred under any other manager—Fonseca just has a way with wing-backs apparently!

I’d also have to point to his record against smaller clubs, at least early in his tenure. It was nice going into a match and not expecting disaster to strike against bottom-end clubs. Apart from all that, I’ll remember him for his grace, his fluidity with languages, and his ability to get the best out of overlooked players.

JonAS: In two years' time when we sell Darboe for 70m, we’ll applaud Fonseca for his rise to fame. During most of his tenure, I actually felt safe when we were playing Torino, Parma, or Bologna. You know, we’ll win this, sure. Even if we are down 1-0. Roma’s class would eventually end on top. That’s something I had rarely witnessed from a Roma manager. But then again, at least Spalletti, Garcia, or EDF would win a game or two vs Juventus, Inter, Milan, or Atalanta.

I’m just glad Fonseca got his redemption in the last derby. Also, the man could dress up like a boss. A true gentleman too, it seemed like he truly was appreciated by all the other coaches in Serie A. Mourinho? Might be less likable.

ssciavillo: I think Fonseca’s lasting legacy will certainly be in the way he developed some players during his tenure. We saw Karsdorp and Spinazzola rebound, Pellegrini, Villar, Mancini, and Ibañez all show some growth.

I also agree that the way he made Roma perform against the smaller sides (up until the last few months) both in Serie A and Europe was refreshing. I have to agree with the other guys there.

Overall, I just found him to be a very likely guy. Someone that you wanted to see succeed.

Jimmy Miotto: I think the bases are pretty well-covered here; I most strongly agree with Bren here in saying that given what he was working with, he was able to really revitalize a lot of careers and turn players who seemed like weird transfers (Villar especially) into well-known names. I’ll just add that it would be pretty hilarious for Darboe to become the equivalent of what Zaniolo was for Di Francesco: a gem uncovered by a manager, but still not enough to save that manager’s job.

Flip it around, what disappointed you most about Fonseca’s two years with Roma?

SSC Napoli v AS Roma - Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

dallagente: I think he could have shown more instinct for the matchday result. I look at Fonseca as very professional. He’s a coach who programs for the mid-to-long term, but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with gambling by throwing in a kid at the business end of the season. Or taking off Veretout and Mkhitaryan and playing some long-ball football to see out the match, instead of running your key players into the ground - and onto the injury table.

The last thing is that Fonseca’s gambit for total authority over the dressing room by changing out the team captain, in his second season, was disappointing. It was especially hypocritical given Fonseca cut a barely believable press conference, earlier in the season, where he claimed Serie A is the league that “can appreciate experienced players” in their late 30s. No one bought that promo. When you set up a team to counter-attack and sprint the length of the opposition half for the season, your experienced players know you’re setting up the team to eventually phase them out. Fonseca was a straight talker 90% of the time so maybe that made it all the more difficult for me to accept the 10% of the time he was full of it.

Bren: Yeah, those are all excellent points. I’m not going to be quite as nuanced in my answer, though. I just think the ‘21 collapse, the end of the positive results against the smaller clubs, the defensive failings, and the continued struggles against bigger clubs was the most disappointing part of this two-year run in Rome. He managed to keep the club afloat during the first year but everything seemed to fall apart in 2021 and he seemed devoid of any genuine solutions.

JonAS: His defensive game. The 3-0 Lazio loss, 4-1 in Atalanta and Napoli, 6-2 in Manchester,... I’m surprised there weren’t a lot more brain farts like those along the way. When I saw Roma live on TV, I sometimes screamed at my screen for all the space guys like Ibanez, Smalling or Karsdorp would give away.

He should have parked the bus from time to time. Play 5-3-2, throw in the bodies of Jesus and Fazio. And try to make a sub quicker than the 80’ minute.

ssciavillo: I have to say the results against the big sides were the most disappointing part of his tenure. Failing to beat those sides over and over and losing in resounding fashion hurt. The icing on the cake was being so naive against United to go into halftime up 2-1 with three key players injured and leaving the side so exposed to lose 6-2.

Jimmy Miotto: I still submit that the collapse Roma had at the beginning of 2021 (which was an echo of many, many other seasons) was largely due to injuries piling up. If anything, I think that’s on the perpetually terrible medical staff Roma has on retainer - I’m seriously beginning to wonder if they hired George Clooney after seeing ER, only to realize a bit too late that he’s not really a doctor. I do agree with Steve, though, that his Roma’s inability to hang with the big boys of Serie A was incredibly disappointing. I still believe he’s an exciting manager who can probably go far in his career, but it would have been nice to have a signature win outside of that 2-0 win over Lazio.

Fonseca had the bad luck of managing Roma through a change in ownership and a global pandemic. Free from those limitations, what would an unfettered version of Fonseca Football have looked like?

What could he have achieved without those issues hanging over his head? Did Roma’s owner’s really support him? What could they (or should they) have done differently to improve his chances of success?

Roma v Liverpool UEFA Champions League 2/05/2018. Photo by Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

dallagente: The only four major compromises I can remember Fonseca making were having to play a young backline, playing Spinazzola on the left, and having to rejuvenate Rick Karsdorp. In an ideal world, Fonseca gets another experienced (and ideally left-footed) center back and more complete wide-backs. But when it comes to the shouldawouldcouldas of transfer moves, that’s a never-ending topic.

I’ll just say James Pallotta’s Roma was never in a position to fully support Fonseca, and I don’t think they wanted to either since Fonseca was the fourth man in line to be offered the job after bigger names refused it, knowing that Pallotta didn’t have any long-term answers for them.

Bren: Well, I remember when he was first hired, our collective fear was that Roma would be involved in 4-3 shootouts every week, which never really happened, so I suppose one could argue that he wasn’t given sufficient attacking weapons. He had no use for Kluivert or Ünder and their replacements, namely Carles Pérez and Pedro, haven’t been terribly impressive.

I suppose that’s ironic because when they first signed Diawara and Veretout, I remember thinking “oh wow, those two are ideally suited to Fonseca’s tactics” so it seemed like the club learned from their panic purchases of the past.

I guess I like to think there’s a version of Fonseca Football in Roma that operated like a latter-day Sarri at Napoli: just a 4-2-3-1 formation running rampant over the competition, entertaining and winning in equal measure but he just never had his own Higuain or Mertens or Insigne.

JonAS: Yeah, you gotta feel sorry for Paulo. He wasn’t James’ first choice and the Friedkins just decided to let him stay until his contract was up (thus no financial headaches) while secretly picking a replacement behind the curtains. A human being wants to be loved, be appreciated. Fonseca never felt at home in Rome.

Who knows, a 4-2-3-1 under Fonseca with a fit Smalling, Spinazzola, Veretout, Zaniolo, and SES at full strength could have produced magic though. An owner who would back Paulo and bring in 2-3 splendid additions per summer including a better keeper than Pau. Then I’d think the top 4 would be doable. Especially this season as Juve, Lazio, and Napoli all had ups and downs. Atalanta and Inter were unstoppable machines while Milan’s second part of the campaign was a lot less stellar.

Then again, right now this Roma squad is poorly assembled with Monchi misfits, old free agents, young inexperienced guns, random Spanish players, and guys made of glass. Whoever or wherever you are, you always need a bit of luck in this world.

ssciavillo: I mean if all of the key pieces were healthy throughout the season I think we would’ve at least had a Roma that fought for a CL place. You have to take into consideration that Zaniolo didn’t play all season, plus Smalling rarely played. Throw in Veretout, Mkhitaryan, and Spinazzola all being hurt at the same time and the odds were stacked in the second half of the season. That being said, only missing Zaniolo is no reason for Roma getting shellacked by top 6 sides throughout the reverse fixtures.

I think both ownership groups could’ve done a bit more to support Fonseca. Like others have said above, he was never Pallotta’s first choice and when the Friedkins arrived, he did feel like a bit of a dead man walking even when Roma was in the top 4. Outside a few big purchases—which were never coming in a pandemic—a simple statement of support from the Friedkins could’ve gone a long way to ease some of the media pressure.

It was always going to be tough for him to truly succeed in the current circumstances though. That being said, he’s certainly responsible for some of his own failings as a manager too.

Jimmy Miotto: A Fonseca Roma that actually had a chance to play the way Fonseca wanted to would probably have been competing for a Champions League slot, maybe even hovering around second or third place. I agree that injuries aren’t a reason to get bombed back into the stone age by any other major club in Serie A, but looking back on who Fonseca lost and when, it’s clear to me that we basically never got a full-strength Roma under Fonseca. That’s a shame in my eyes because I think if the stars had aligned even a little bit more, Fonseca would be sticking around in a long-term sense.

Considering all that, Fonseca never managed to get Roma into the Champions League, so how do you think he will ultimately be remembered by Roma fans? Does he deserve an asterisk given everything he dealt with or was his record a genuine reflection of his skill as a manager?

Paulo Fonseca coach of AS Roma reacts during the Europa... Photo by Antonietta Baldassarre/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

dallagente: He’s definitely already proven he can set up a team to win against big clubs before, having beaten Porto in a cup final with Braga, qualified Pacos Ferreira into the Champions League qualifiers, and some good results against bigger names in the Europa and Champions League with Shakhtar. So I don’t think the narratives that followed him in Rome were a reflection of his career to date.

Ultimately, I don’t think he will be remembered though. Guys like Fonseca and Pirlo are too calm for Italian football’s taste. I was listening to a Daniele Adani phone-in interview this week and the general consensus is that Italian football prefers coaches who shout, yell or let themselves go when the proverbial hits the fan. If you’re going to play it cool and aim for a legacy, then you need to be winning titles like Nils Liedholm.

Bren: I don’t think we can divorce the man from the circumstances; the change in ownership and pandemic limited what Fonseca could do, or at the very least gave him an incredibly short leash. So in that light, I think his career should get a healthy “yeah, but” attached to any discussion of his legacy. But I think you’re correct, finishing 5th and likely 7th or 8th will make him pretty easy to forget, unfortunately.

JonAS: I can totally see Fonseca coaching Tottenham or Dortmund and winning a title or reaching the CL final. He has talent and football IQ, otherwise, he wouldn’t be here in the first place. But it was just a bad marriage overall. Wrong man, wrong place, wrong time.

You know, these things happen, no hard feelings. For example, in 2005 Spalletti was a good marriage since he was the right man at the right place at the right time. You can’t explain it, it’s not science. But unlike Garcia, Zeman, or Di Francesco, he does deserve those asterisks. Our brightest talent Zaniolo was injured for most of his stay, there were a bucketload of injuries, a pandemic, and global financial crisis, and new ownership. I think few coaches had such a rough patch as Fonseca in Rome.

ssciavillo: I agree in the sense that based on the results he was able to achieve with smaller clubs than Roma in the past that there’s a good chance that Fonseca can win elsewhere. This will be far from his lasting legacy in my opinion. Look what Rudi Garcia and Luis Enrique have done since leaving. It could be a similar situation. However, I agree that years from now Fonseca probably won’t be one of the first names that jump to mind as being a Roma manager.

Jimmy Miotto: He’s Luis Enrique 2.0, plain and simple. A manager who just didn’t find success in Rome, but not because of anything particularly related to him or his tactics. I definitely think Paulo will end up in the Prem, and with the right moves, I could see him winning a title with a post-Harry Kane Tottenham.

Finally, how do you see Fonseca’s post-Roma career playing out?

ACF Fiorentina logo is seen printed on the corner flag... Photo by Andrea Staccioli/Insidefoto/LightRocket via Getty Images

dallagente: That’s anyone’s guess, I’ve been wrong about this topic before. All I can say is, what was very different about Fonseca’s time in Rome is that probably 8 out 10 headlines on the topic of should-he-or-should-he-not-be-fired fell in Fonseca’s favour. Journalists, ex-footballers, people tied to Roma and people not tied to Roma… the general consensus inside football was that Roma did a good job hiring Fonseca. Now we’re hearing it’s very likely Fonseca will take the hot seat at Fiorentina next season.

Bren: I do recall seeing some “Fonseca to Real Madrid” rumors earlier this year, which is sort of like the old EDF to Chelsea stuff we saw after Roma’s run through the ‘17-’18 Champions League, which really may be more indicative of the 24/7 news cycle than Fonseca’s actual appeal as a manager. I also think, however, that the football world in general knows—for lack of a better word—how fucked up Roma is, so I don’t think he’ll be judged too harshly for his failings here.

I can see him leading a Champions League-level club but I’ll be curious to see if he has to bounce back with a slightly smaller club first. I think he’ll see more post-Roma success than EDF but I’m not sure we’re losing the second coming of Sir Alex.

At the end of the day, he’s always seemed like an incredibly honest and genuine man, so I hope he finds success...outside of Italy. I don’t want to see him leading Juve or Inter someday.

JonAS: A return to Portugal where he will win some silverware with Porto. Then he’ll try a better league again like the Premier League. He’ll pick Chelsea and will meet Mourinho’s Roma in the Champions league final of 2023.

Using a high defensive line and a 3-4-2-1, Chelsea has no chance against Mou’s counterattack plan. Zaniolo scores both goals in a 2-0 win. In the stands, Dan Friedkin smiles, lights his cigarette, and says to Ryan: “I love it when a plan comes together”.

ssciavillo: I think he’ll fall on his feet somewhere next season. Maybe at a smaller club to rebuild his reputation for a season or two before jumping to another large club. However, I think he’s more than capable of being more successful elsewhere than he was with Roma similar to Garcia and Enrique.

Jimmy Miotto: I already touched on this in my previous response, but I think he’s going to find success post-Roma, and I think he’ll find it rather quickly, too. If he’s given the proper funds and has a competent medical team behind him, I think he could end up being viewed as a top-tier coach. The reason why he didn’t find that kind of form and praise in Rome is largely because... well, Rome is Rome. When you include budgetary constraints, it’s the harshest and most unforgiving place to work as a manager in all of Europe, super-clubs included. Maybe if the seat is just a little bit cooler at Fonseca’s next job, we’ll get to see an idealized FonsecaBall. I’m certainly hoping so; I’ll casually follow whatever club picks him up next for sure.

And with that, we're officially closing our books on Fonseca Football®, a brand of calcio that produced a near even 50/50 split between wins and losses. You've heard our say, so how would you rate Fonseca's tenure with Roma?


What letter grade would you give Fonseca's two years with Roma?

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