In an exclusive opinion piece for asroma.com, These Football Times’ Will Sharp argues that the ‘colossal character’ of Paulo Fonseca makes him an ideal fit for the Roma challenge...
Despite the heady half-truths some may profess when listing qualities desired in a potential manager - an appreciation of the minutiae of their club’s unique culture; a bold, unflinching approach to the transfer market; an unyielding desire to fuse experience with youth; a penchant for pacey, attack-minded football - if fans were forced to choose their manager based on a single key attribute, their choice would ultimately be made from a pool of just one: the aptitude for orchestrating on-field success.
That is to say, at their core, fans want to win football matches. Everything else is just stage dressing.
As such, electing a manager should be the simplest job in the world: pick the man with the most impressive CV, the most wins, and, there you have it, the perfect man for the job. But no man is perfect. Even the most seemingly infallible coaches are human, inevitably prone to error, to loss, and it is long since known that the true measure of a manager is found not in surveying his immense tally of triumphs but by examining his response to adversity; by being present in his most pained moments and measuring the manner in which he picks himself and his allies up following the despair of defeat.
It is in precisely this fashion we come to learn the colossal character of Paulo Fonseca.
Though Rome is far from the furthest point from Fonseca’s birth place, the capital city of Mozambique, it has, at times, been a trying journey the 46-year-old has endured in reaching the Eternal City.
Having hung up his boots and called time on a modest playing career at the relatively young age of 32, Fonseca immediately switched his focus to coaching and made the transition from the pitch at Estrela Amadora - the club for whom he last represented as a player - to the office, appointed as their head youth coach.
It was there Fonseca first set upon perfecting the key tenets of his managerial modus operandi, fine-tuning the on-field philosophies upon which he would build his name in the ensuing years. His demand was for a high-possession, high-pressing game with patient build-ups punctured by swift, probing attacks, quick combination passing, and compact midfields assisted by high-lines set by ball-playing centre-backs and flanked by overlapping full-backs. Substance - but never at the detriment of style.
Aside from his treasured notebooks, these many interlinking facets of Fonseca’s idiosyncratic ethos each found their first home on the training pitches in Amadora, delivered in his energetic, confident style at every session. They would one day soon find themselves played out at the summit of European football.
By way of a swift succession of spells at semi-professional clubs, Fonseca found fortune in his first position as manager of a professional club, then-second tier side CD Aves, which subsequently earned him his ticket to the top table, entrusted with taking the helm at Paços de Ferreira.
Just a year later, having guided Pacenses to their highest-ever Primeira Liga position of third and into the brave new world of Champions League qualifying, Fonseca found himself sat before a battery of cameras and microphones, addressing the nation’s press with measured assurance, as he was unveiled as the manager of FC Porto. It had taken Fonseca barely two years to make the unprecedented jump from his first professional post to manager of the country’s champions.
In stark contrast to any romantic premonition he may have dreamed of fulfilling, Fonseca struggled and found himself ousted from Estádio do Dragão just ten months on from his stirring welcome, a poor spell of form leaving his side in third-place, fatally cast adrift from leaders Benfica, and with the club’s chairman intent on change.
Fonseca’s grandest climb had proved only to foster his most precipitous fall. Yet it was from here that Fonseca set about crafting his emphatic retort, aimed at those who so vocally claimed title-fights and silverware were beyond his humble grasp.
Fonseca returned to Paços de Ferreira, where an admirable mid-table finish reaffirmed the young manager as Braga’s choice of head coach. After making the move north, the following campaign, Fonseca not only lead Braga to fourth in the table but earned his first addicting taste of silverware, masterminding the club’s second-ever Taça de Portugal conquest, 50 years after their first; a victory made all the sweeter for having triumphed over the very Porto side from which he had been so impulsively repelled.
The reward for Fonseca’s historic success arrived not only in the form of adoration from Braga fans far and wide, but an invitation from Ukrainian champions Shakhtar Donetsk to take up the mantle left by legendary manager Mircea Lucescu and attempt to follow the act that had garnered some 22 trophies in 12 seasons. Fonseca dutifully acquiesced and made the first overseas move of his career.
Utilising precisely the same methods, the same ethos, he had spent the first decade of his managerial career honing - the fluid 4-2-3-1 formation that can, in an instant, stretch vertically to accommodate more width and press opponents from the front in a 4-2-2-2, or condense in defensive anticipation to a more conventional 4-4-2 - Fonseca picked up exactly where Lucescu had left off.
He utilised the existing talent at the club, blending young stars with seasoned heads to exhilarate the fans by averaging over two goals a game and conceding just nine in 22. It was a decimation of their opponents - inclusive of a strong Dynamo Kyiv - built upon his appetite for controlling the tempo of the game, retaining the ball, using width through his full-backs and countering at speed when the opportunity arose. While some have likened his football to Pep Guardiola’s, it’s far closer to Jurgen Klopp’s; raw, energetic and fiery.
In his inaugural season in Ukraine - despite the inconceivable challenges placed upon himself and his team on account of their being exiled from their home in Donetsk due to unrelenting political ruptures and war preventing their return - the Portuguese coach delivered a daring domestic double, sufficient to see him awarded the accolade for the league’s best coach.
In the two seasons since his spectacular introduction to the Ukrainian league, Fonseca has not only replicated his double-winning exploits on both occasions but gained his fair share of plaudits far beyond the reach of Eastern Europe for engineering a famous victory over Guardiola’s Manchester City.
The win ensured his team’s progression to the knockout phase of the 2017/18 Champions League, despite the considerable challenge of a group consisting of themselves, Manchester City, Napoli and Feyenoord. In aid of both the result and the astutely judicious, patient nature of their approach to besting Guardiola’s men, Fonseca earned a legion of laudatory match reports and even a glowing reflection from Guardiola himself.
Never before had Fonseca’s tactical finesse, and its suitability for the business end of the game, been made quite so apparent; even when facing the media sat dressed as Zorro, replete with a black mask, cape and Cordovan hat, as playfully promised earlier in the campaign.
Which brings us to the present day, with Fonseca having successfully countered the most exigent of challenges to date, for the first time bearing a neck-full of medals, primed for the next great step of his auspicious career.
As with any matter left for the future to decide, it is impossible to know exactly how the cards will fall for Fonseca. We can be quite sure, though, of the manner in which he’ll ask for them to be dealt.
Unlike those aforementioned, for whom three points are the be all and end all of any footballing endeavour, there’s more to the game for Fonseca.
"For me, just to win is not the only thing I want,” he told The Associated Press.
“I want to have quality in my game. I want to have the ball. I want to play all the time in attack. I want to have the courage to create something beautiful for the supporters, because I love my profession.”
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