Paulo Fonseca says it’s “Year Zero” at Roma, which isn’t necessarily something new. It was “Year Zero” when the Sensi family sold the club in 2011 and when, a year later, Jim Pallotta acquired full control, promising a new stadium and a bright future because, as he liked to put it, “It’s f—— Rome!”
It was “Year Zero” in 2017, after Francesco Totti played his last game for the club he served for 28 years. (No, that’s not a typo: twenty-eight.) And it may well be “Year Zero” soon all over again, when (if?) American billionaire Dan Friedkin completes his due diligence and buys the club, whether for the reported $872 million we first heard about in December or for somewhat less thanks to some kind of coronavirus discount. But all Fonseca can do is tell you about his version of “Year Zero,” the one he experienced landing in the Eternal City after three years at Shakhtar Donetsk, where he did the Ukrainian League-Cup Double three times and turned in enough impressive performances in the Champions League to become one of the hotter commodities in coaching circles.
“We brought in 15 new players [12 in the summer, 3 in January], plus a new CEO [Guido Fienga], a new sporting director [Gianluca Petrachi] and me, a new coach,” he says. “We’re creating a new team from the beginning and that is never easy. But I’m very satisfied with the work we’ve done so far, we’re improving a lot and I think in a short time we can be one of the strongest teams in Serie A.”
As he walked into the club, two veritable icons were walking out. Totti, who had been in an executive role since retiring, quit after falling out with the club, while Daniele De Rossi ended his 19-year association by going about as far away as possible — literally to the other end of the Earth — to end his career at Boca Juniors. That’s nearly 1,400 professional games, 47 years and two Rome-born, bred and buttered semi-deities out the door, just as you walk in. Those are Godzilla-sized shoes to fill just in terms of mere presence, not to mention institutional memory. Roma is known as “La Lupa” (the she-wolf) and, to many, she had just eaten her cubs.
“I never worked with Totti and De Rossi — they left just before I arrived — but I have no doubts about their deep love and passion for this club and I fully understand them,” he says. “If I was in De Rossi’s position, I couldn’t even think of choosing another Italian club to end my career. Impossible. Just as I understand how Totti wouldn’t want to work for another club in Serie A. Their love is too big, too all-consuming.
“I am feeling some of the same things, and not just because I’m a little bit romantic.”
Fonseca’s rep is based on enthusiasm and tactical nous. He needed to draw deep into his reserves of the former to light a fire under a fan base that, in recent years, has seen boatloads of talent leave the club: Totti, De Rossi, Kostas Manolas, Radja Nainggolan, Kevin Strootman, Stephan El Shaarawy, Alisson, Leandro Paredes, Mohamed Salah, Antonio Rudiger… all in the last three-and-a-half years. But before football (and real life) ground to a halt, Fonseca had the giallorossi up to fifth in the table.
Despite a weary and initially diffident fan base, despite “Year Zero” and the 15 newcomers, despite a Financial Fair Play regime that curtailed spending, and despite a frightening string of injuries that meant just six players had started more than 70 percent of Roma’s league matches in 2019-20.
“The injuries were a big problem and, of course, you can’t control that,” he says. “But apart from that, the biggest challenge was simply building a new team.
“In the past, I would always focus on my team and let others worry about us. I realized here I couldn’t do that. I had to find a balance between my principles and the reality of what is required to play in Serie A. Here, you have to think about how the opposition plays. The quality of the coaching and the tactics of each opponent is so high, you can’t just focus on yourself. You have to continually adjust to your opponent.”
“It surprised me,” he added. “Every game is draining, a real challenge tactically. Each match is its own story, you can never relax. We never know what will happen with the other team. You prepare but it’s difficult to know exactly how they will play.”
His countryman, Jose Mourinho, said the same thing about his time at Inter, calling it the most demanding spell of his career when it came to tactics.
“He’s right,” Fonseca says. “And what’s different too is that every team wants to play, nobody only thinks about defending, though they all know how to defend. Teams at the bottom can beat teams at the top on any given day and that’s a positive. It’s exhausting, but it’s also stimulating. I feel like I’m learning and improving every week.”
“For example, at Shakhtar we were the dominant team and we played most of the game in the opposition half, every game,” he adds. “Here, it’s different. One minute the other team will be pressing us high, trying to force mistakes, the next they’ll be defending low. You can’t play just one way against that. You have to adapt.”
In Fonseca’s world, adapting doesn’t necessarily mean changing formations, though he has done that in the past and is comfortable with various schemes. Rather, it’s about getting the same players to interpret their role in different ways.
Two of his bigger success stories this year went into the 2019-20 season as entirely different propositions. Nicolo Zaniolo enjoyed a breakout season last year that saw him anointed as a generational talent and win his first caps for Italy. But it took him a while to find his feet this campaign as he was shuttled from midfield to the wing. By October, he was flying before suffering a season-ending injury in January.
“He’s not just a wonderful natural talent — he’s a player who improved considerably this year,” he says. “I used to say he was like a wild man, following his instincts, but now he understands the game, understands the space, understands the decision-making. He’s only 20: I have no doubt that in a few years he’ll be one of the best players not just in Italy but in Europe.”
Chris Smalling, on the other hand, arrived almost incognito after several difficult seasons at Manchester United. He was 29, injured and on loan, looking like little more than an emergency patch, a body to make up the numbers. Instead, he’s been one of the best defenders in Serie A this season.
“He’s an amazing man, so humble, so professional,” Fonseca says. “He soon became one of the leaders of the dressing room and is adored by fans. It is amazing how well he adapted. It’s not easy for an English central defender to adapt so quickly to Italian football, the record there isn’t good. But he has been amazing and I will do everything I can to keep him at Roma next year too. I know he wants to stay, let’s see what happens.”
Fonseca also cites striker Edin Dzeko and winger Cengiz Under as two examples of adaptation: players who have adapted their game and players to whom Fonseca has adapted. At 34 years of age and 6-foot-3, Dzeko is in some ways a classic target man, which is what he’ll play against teams who defend deep. But when they press Roma high, his task changes and he’s often charged with dropping deeper, helping to break the press and finding the pass into the space behind the defenders.
Under is a quick, tricky winger and Fonseca loves for his wide men to come inside and find space between the lines, where they’re able to be most disruptive. But in some situations, he’ll have him stick wide and attack the fullback, exploiting one-one-on situations.
“Dzeko is only ever going to play centerforward, but there are many different ways to play the position,” he says. “Similarly, Under can hurt opponents when he comes inside, but if there is the opportunity beat a man one-on-one wide, you want him to take it. I value two qualities above all else in a player. The ability to find the right moment, the right space to find receive the ball and, after that, the ability to make the right decision.”
“As a manager, you’re always wondering whether your system of play robs players of freedom to invent and create,” he adds. “Fundamentally, I think a strong organisation gives players more opportunities to let their quality shine through. But it’s a fine line and you also have to trust your players and that they can interpret the situation on their own.”
It’s football’s equivalent of a quarterback audible in the “other” football and it’s something that can be taught, though it’s best when you let it emerge naturally.
Fonseca talks freely about tactics and you sense he’s happiest talking football in its purest form. For the past decade or so, one of the buzzwords has been “breaking the lines” — finding those spaces between midfield and defence that force the opposition to lose their shape. It’s the reason why almost everyone plays with inverted wingers — left-footer on the right, right-footer on the left — who can burst into the middle and wreak havoc.
It has also meant the demise of the traditional chalk-on-the-boots, flying winger who went to the by-line and delivered crosses. Now that job belongs increasingly to fullbacks.
“I’m a believer in the interior game, capturing the space between the lines and I’m not the only one,” he says. “It’s how you force the opposition to make choices and when they have to make choices, they make mistakes. The old-school winger game was somewhat predictable, but there’s a knock-on effect. If your winger comes in, you need somebody out there. And that’s why having fullbacks who can attack is so important.”
You see it with Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool (“we haven’t seen anything like it before”) but also with Atalanta, whose wide men aren’t quite as well-known but are masters at occupying space and delivering service. Fonseca’s eyes light up when he talks about the football he’s seen.
“I don’t believe everything has already been invented, there is innovation and change all around us,” he says. “Atalanta, with their man-to-man press all over the pitch, or Liverpool or Pep Guardiola, who is constantly offering something new and different or Sassuolo, maybe not such a famous team, but with a very clear, creative idea of football.”
Another idea that is no longer in vogue — and you sense Fonseca doesn’t miss it — is the old-school “little man/big man” front two. Inter are one of the few top sides to regularly play two up and even then, what they do is very different.
“You need specific players to do it and it’s not going to be what we used to call “the tree” and the “little guy” because that is predictable,” he says. “Inter don’t do that. Yes, Romelu Lukaku is big and Lautaro Martinez is small, but the way they play is very modern, very sophisticated. Lukaku is a totally different player than what he was at United, he’s much more dynamic, he moves so much and is always looking for the combination or the mismatch with the defender.”
Fonseca says all the right things about being in Rome and at Roma and if you were a cynic, you’d be tempted to say that after three years at Shakhtar Donetsk, that’s not surprising. What is surprising, though, is how upbeat he remains even in the face of one of the most wearying, high-pressure jobs in Europe — “yes, the media and the fans are very intense here, but if you want to coach a big team, it’s part of the job and if you’re respectful to them, they will be respectful to you” — and while coping with the madness of the pandemic. (His fitness coaches are working double shifts, delivering exercise equipment and ready-made athlete-friendly meals to their players.)
“I dreamed of this and now I’m living it, so of course, it’s a big pleasure for me,” he says.
Having navigated Year Zero, he’s looking forward to Year One next year, even if it turns out to be yet another Year Zero at Roma…