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Opinion: Fonseca has experience, adaptability and tactical insight to thrive
Illustration by Vinnotsaurus (@vinnot86)

With the announcement that Paulo Fonseca will be the new head coach of AS Roma, our columnist takes a look at the Portuguese tactician’s career to date, and what he might bring to the Giallorossi…

Paulo Fonseca's arrival at AS Roma represents the start of a new chapter for the club, as the Portuguese tactician looks to build an exciting team ready to return to the top four and challenge for silverware.

As one of the most progressive young managers in European football, his coaching journey has seen many highs and lows - with the latter placing him in good stead to handle adversity, as he has shown how he can cope with pressure, overcome setbacks and handle unforeseen obstacles to get back on the right track. 

After a modest playing career, his first venture into the managerial world came when he was appointed youth coach at Estrela da Amadora in 2005. After two years there, he then moved to 1º Dezembro before joining Odivelas. Fonseca's next move saw him end up at Pinhalnovense, where he really began to gain some traction with the third division outfit by leading them into the Portuguese Cup quarter-finals in both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns.

These impressive achievements subsequently earned him the job at second division side at C.D. Aves, where he came within a whisker of gaining promotion to the top flight, missing out by just two points.

Switching to first division Pacos de Ferreira on the strength of that impressive job, he continued on his steady upward trajectory there - enjoying an historic campaign by securing a remarkable third place finish to lead the team into an unprecedented Champions League play-off spot.

On the move again come season's end, the Mozambique-born hotshot was given the opportunity to manage giants FC Porto. In what was supposed to be his big break, things didn't go to plan, however.

Despite starting off winning the Portuguese Super Cup, results went downhill for a side that, like almost every year, had been overhauled in the transfer market. Failing to progress from a Champions League group containing Atletico Madrid, Zenit St. Petersburg and Austria Wien, and struggling with consistency, he was removed from his post in March 2014 on the back of a four-game winless streak. 

 Fonseca didn't let those disappointing nine months at Porto deter him, however, as he returned to Pacos de Ferreira and led them to a credible eighth-placed finish, a job that saw another of Portugal’s bigger sides, S.C. Braga, come calling for the 2015-16 crusade.

There he made an extremely positive impression too. Masterminding the club's first Portuguese Cup triumph in 50 years by ousting Porto on penalties – a triumph he surely must have savoured, given the history - and finishing a fantastic fourth in the league, Fonseca's work at Braga really caught the eye.

In addition, he oversaw the team's progression to the Europa League quarter-finals - only to be defeated by future club Shakhtar Donetsk, who must have been impressed by what they saw from their opponents in that tie.

Installed as Shakhtar manager in May 2016, he quickly went about making a name for himself with the Ukrainian powerhouse. Faced with the challenging task of following in the footsteps of the recently departed Mircea Lucescu - who was a legend at the Miners having won one UEFA Cup, eight league championships and six Ukrainian Cups during his 12 seasons in charge - the then-43-year-old proved he was up to the task.

Although his tenure got off on the wrong foot by losing the Super Cup against Dynamo Kyiv and falling in the Champions League preliminary rounds, it didn't take long before he began to stamp his mark, however.

Going on to quality for the Europa League group stages, his team incredibly won all six matches in the group, on their way to winning nine straight matches in the competition. Shakhtar frustratingly fell to Celta Vigo in the round of 32, but Fonseca's class shone brightly as he guided his team to the league title and triumph in the Ukrainian Cup.

Fonseca then built on his excellent opening term by winning another league and cup, plus by taking out the Super Cup. To supplement his domestic treble, he ensured his team expertly navigated their Champions League group that contained Manchester City, Napoli and Feyenoord.

Securing statement wins over Manchester City and Napoli, there was no escaping what a quality tactician he was proving himself to be on the European stage - even though the Miners bowed out to AS Roma in the round of 16, a 2-1 first leg win being overturned by a tight 1-0 defeat at the Olimpico.

Raking up another league title and running out winners of the Ukrainian Cup, Fonseca's last season in charge at Shakhtar further demonstrated his touchline pedigree. Narrowly missing qualification from their UCL group, which consisted of Manchester City, Lyon and Hoffenheim, he illustrated his quality by once again competing fiercely against some elite European outfits, as he again drew praise from the magnificent Pep Guardiola.

Three years, three doubles – and all achieved while the team was forced to play away from its Donetsk home (relocating to Kharkiv for the majority of matches), a quite remarkable feat in the circumstances.

Preferring to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Fonseca's Shakhtar blended defensive organisation and attacking adventure nicely to ensure his team was competent in both phases. 

Balanced and superbly drilled on the defensive end, his side covered key central areas beautifully, as they remained compact to make life extremely difficult for opponents to bypass their block cleanly. Regularly deploying a high line that was accompanied by a high press and an ability to respond rapidly to pressing triggers, they did a wonderful job of condensing the pitch to hem in their adversaries. 

"The basic philosophy is to keep our team high up the pitch but also very compact,” Fonseca explained to ESPN.

“I want the distance from my last defender to my furthest forward attacker to be short, and also the distance from one wing to the other. The idea is to be high and narrow, therefore compact, with a lot of density. That makes it more difficult for them to pass through us.” 

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, the man who became famous when donning a Zorro mask after his team defeated Guardiola's City to qualify from their UCL group has demonstrated his aptitude in this area. Keen to build out from the back to progress through the thirds, his Shakhtar were always intriguing to watch.

Asking his fullbacks to provide width, his wingers to venture infield to occupy central areas nearby the trequartista and his central forward to provide depth, they persistently asked questions of their opposition. 

Having an excellent central presence between the lines, with players capable of combining intricately in tight spaces and dribbling past opponents, his teams could hurt opponents in so many ways. On top of meaning his team had strong connections to build play and disrupt their foes' stopping structures, his ideal spacing also enabled them to counter-press effectively once the ball was lost.      

Tactically flexible and adaptable, Fonseca has shown he can alter his setup depending on the opponent, as he's used 4-2-2-2, 3-4-3, 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 variations at different stages. Moreover, the way so many of the current crop of Shakhtar players have improved immensely under his tutelage – including, but not limited to, Taison, Ismaily, Marlos, Alan Patrick, Dentinho, Junior Moraes, Marcos Antonio, Viktor Kovalenko and Bohdan Butko - is a credit to his coaching. 

A further testament to his capacity to get the best out of his players comes from the fact plenty of his former players have earned big transfers such as Fred (Manchester United), Bernard, (Everton), Facundo Ferreyra (Benfica) and Yaroslav Rakitskiy (Zenit).

Counting Guardiola, Maurizio Sarri and Jose Mourinho as coaches he admires, he speaks glowingly of their influence on him, insisting: "At this moment, I can highlight Maurizio Sarri and Pep Guardiola as the coaches I admire the most because they are bold, they have their own ideas, they are brave enough to play their own game and attack.

“Now, we can’t forget that José Mourinho has marked a generation of coaches in Portugal and marked Portuguese football. He completely changed the mindset of Portuguese coaches and he’s obviously been a great influence.”

Wanting his players to be brave and courageous with the ball, plus operate with conviction and initiative in both phases, his methods have clearly worked wonders at Shakhtar both domestically and in Europe. 

Studying his opponents vigorously to boot, he's always up to date and well researched in preparation for his next match, thus allowing him to find any weaknesses to exploit so he can gain every possible advantage. 

Having decided it had become “impossible to do better” at Shakhtar, now Fonseca moves to the Italian capital in search of the next step up in his burgeoning career.

Ready for the challenge and keen to stamp his mark at Roma, Fonseca is an intriguing choice to drive this young and extremely talented team forward.

 
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