“We all know where we were two years ago. Are we satisfied with where we are today? Absolutely not. We need to turn it around. We need that success on the pitch now. My view is that we’ve got unfinished business.”
Those were the words of chairman Daniel Levy, speaking following the appointment of former Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici on Saturday.
Two years ago, Tottenham Hotspur were in a Champions League final, propelled by a talented, exciting crop of young players, and a manager who was clearly so in love with the football club.
Fast-forward 24 months, they are managerless, having sacked both the man who loved them and the subsequent man who loved nothing but chaos and division, all the while staring into mid-table abyss.
Something has to change. After sounding out serial winner Antonio Conte and deciding against it, Levy has seemingly opted for Paulo Fonseca – the man sacked by AS Roma to make space for Jose Mourinho, the man sacked by Spurs – as the man to turn this aimless ship around.
Interesting tactic. North London supporters will study the Serie A table and see Roma’s seventh place finish, their semi-final hammering at the hands of Manchester United in the Europa League, and wonder what on earth they’re letting themselves in for.
So, what are Spurs letting themselves in for with the appointment of Fonseca? Here’s the perspective of one suffering Roma sympathiser.
One criticism that can never be hurled at Fonseca is that he doesn’t like to attack. Because my word, this man gets his team playing some fantastic offensive football.
Take a peek at some of Roma’s best goals of the season, and you’ll see glorious team moves, with every outfield player touching the ball before it’s squared across the goalmouth for a hungry striker to tap in.
Fonseca loves to play football the proper way. The Spurs way. Passing out from the back, working the ball wide and then cutting it into the box where his players have overloaded to get onto the end of the cross.
It’s a bit BTEC Guardiola, but when it works, it’s a joy to behold.
Another positive is that Fonseca likes to work with the best players available to him. He squeezed the best form of Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s career out of the Armenian, and completed Jordan Veretout’s transformation into one of the most impressive combative midfielders in Europe.
He also proved Chris Smalling is still an excellent centre back – with or without the ball at his feet – and turned Leonardo Spinazzola into the most sought-after left-back in Italy.
A cautionary anecdote, however. He did fall out with captain Edin Dzeko, isolating him and almost losing his job over the incident. Both men lived to tell the tale, but Dzeko is still in the Italian capital, unlike his former coach.
Another major criticism of Mourinho was his lack of trust in young players. That cannot be said for Fonseca. The Portuguese coach often utilised local teenager Riccardo Calafiori when Spinazzola was in need of a rest or was injured, and then went youth crazy towards the end of the season.
Having possibly given up on a decent league finish, Fonseca turned to the Primavera, and handpicked the likes of Ebrima Darboe, Nicola Zalewski and Edoardo Bove to join the senior side.
20-year-old Darboe particularly impressed during his stint in the starting lineup, and is now the talk of Europe for his calm and classy displays at the heart of the midfield.
This might not necessarily be a positive or a negative for Spurs, but if his two years at Roma are anything to go by, they’ll be playing a back three for the foreseeable future.
The formation and system which Fonseca deploys implores the wing-backs to push as high up the pitch as possible, thus allowing the wide players in the front three to tuck in and float around the final third.
It was no surprise then that Roma’s two star players last season were left-wing back Spinazzola, who enjoyed his offensive duties much more than his defensive tasks, and Mhkitaryan, who profited from the space created by the marauding Italian.
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While three at the back is not necessarily a negative, Fonseca’s reliance on that system certainly is. He decided at the start of his tenure in 2019 that this was the right formation for him and Roma, and it remained that way until his final days.
No matter how badly a game was going, or how clearly a change in the system was needed (even when Roma only had one fit centre back), Fonseca moulded his team around that 3-4-3 setup.
The only time he reverted to four at the back was when his departure was announced, and Mourinho reportedly called him to ask for the change to a back four, laying the foundations for his imminent arrival.
They looked better for the switch, too. Blinded by his philosophy?
Another worry when watching Roma was their tendency to mess up when playing out from the back. I Giallorossi gifted at least one golden opportunity every game with a misplaced pass from the goalkeeper or by playing a midfielder into a cul-de-sac.
That desire to play the right way cost Roma big time. Fonseca’s side conceded 58 goals over the course of the 2020/21 campaign – more than any other team in the top ten.
There’s always a layer of stress when watching your beloved club take to the field, but that anxiety is heightened ten-fold with Fonseca’s insistence on playing with ‘courage’.
One major frustration with Fonseca, along with his insistence to stick to a particular game plan no matter how the match was panning out, was his hesitancy to make substitutions.
Victories so often slipped from Roma’s grasp during the campaign, when their opponents would switch up their style or make a game-changing substitution, and Fonseca simply wouldn’t react.
The former Giallorossi boss would wait until well beyond the 70th minute to make his first switch, by which time the damage was well and truly done…
Except one Coppa Italia clash with Spezia, when he made one substitution too many and ended up forfeiting the match – a tie they lost 4-2, anyway. So there’s that.
For Tottenham supporters, this might be the most worrying statistic of all. Despite clubbing some of the lower teams in the division and playing stunning football along the way, Roma just couldn’t replicate that success against the big sides under Fonseca.
In the 2020/21 campaign, Roma finished seventh. Against the six teams above them and Sassuolo, the side which finished one place below them, I Giallorossi won one game out of a possible 14. One. They lost seven of those clashes, drawing the other six.
That inability to overcome their direct rivals eventually cost Roma a place in the top four, and saw them slump to seventh in the league. Fonseca will be crucified if that record leaks into his Premier League adventure.