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Tactical Philosophy: Paulo Fonseca

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Miles Olusina writes about Paulo Fonseca, the talented manager of Roma.

Portuguese football has long been experiencing a resurgence with the success of the national team in recent years and a new crop of emerging young players, ushering the country into a potential golden era. However, long before the current generation of players, the Iberian nation has seen an emergence of world class coaches, some of whom have gone on to manage some of the biggest clubs in the world. With a heavy emphasis on coach education from a tactical and academic perspective, it is no surprise that world renowned managers such as Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas Boas, Marco Silva, Nuno Espirito Santo and Fernando Santos have made a significant mark on European football in the last decade. One of the latest to emerge from the Portuguese school of coaching is former Shakhtar Donetsk boss and current Roma manager Paulo Fonseca. After an incredibly successful 3-year spell in Ukraine and a promising start to life in the Italian capital, many are tipping him to be in the hot seat of one of Europe’s elite clubs within the next few years.


Born on the 5th March 1973, in the former Portuguese colony of Mozambique, Paulo Fonseca moved to Portugal at the age of 14 where he began playing as a central defender for local sides in the city of Setubal. His professional career began at Barreirense, in the nation’s third division. After 4 years he then transferred to Portuguese giants FC Porto, but would fail to make a single league appearance, being loaned out to various clubs within the Primeira Liga. Following a 2-year spell at Vitoria Guimaraes, he then moved onto Estrela Amadora where he spent five years before finishing his playing career aged 32.

He moved into coaching immediately after his retirement, coaching the youth teams of his former club before going onto coach a number of semi-pro teams in the following years. He would then be given his first opportunity in professional management at CD Aves in the second division, leading them to a third-place finish, just shy of promotion. This caught the attention of Pacos de Ferreira in the first division, who subsequently appointed him manager in 2012. It was at the Porto-based club where he would really make a name for himself as he led the unfancied club to a third-place finish, the highest in their history and the first time they had ever qualified for the Champions League.

FC Porto appointed him their manager the following season, however he was dismissed midway through the 2013-14 season with the club sitting in 3rd place. A return to Pacos de Ferreira followed and after another solid season with his former club, he was on the move again to Braga, enjoying a successful solitary season as they finished 4th in the league and won the Taca de Portugal, beating his former employers Porto in the final to claim their first domestic trophy in 50 years.

In May 2016, he stepped into his first role outside his native Portugal, succeeding legendary Ukrainian manager Mircea Lucescu at Shakhtar Donetsk, who won eight league titles in 12 seasons with the Donbass outfit. It was here where he really made his mark, winning the league double in each of his 3 seasons and enthralling fans across Ukraine and Europe with his attacking, high energy style of football. After respectable showings in the Champions League also, he was on the radar of many European clubs, opting to take over as Roma manager on the 11th June 2019.

Tactical Philosophy

Fonseca has typically preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation or a hybrid 4-4-2/4-2-3-1, which he used predominantly at Shakhtar. His teams have been known for their fluidity, with wide players often dropping deeper or moving into central areas to create overloads and exploit space. Advanced full backs have also been a staple of his side, providing the width to allow his wingers to move into the centre and half-spaces.

At his two most notable clubs, he has always favoured a patient approach, focused on short passing and a controlled build up through the thirds. His teams have been well known to construct play with the centre backs and also to heavily involve the goalkeeper in the build-up. As a result, it is imperative to have centre backs comfortable in bringing the ball out of defence and breaking the lines with forward passes.

Patient build up

In the image above, his Shakhtar side are constructing their attack with centre-back Khocholova in possession and Krivstov offering a lateral option and potential to recycle possession on the opposite side. His two 6s have dropped into the space occupied by the opposition striker to create a 2v1 overload and offer a forward option. Their positioning is also key as it inadvertently creates triangle shapes, which facilitates their ability to play through the Lyon pressure.

Ball progression through midfield

In his Shakhtar side, deep lying midfielder Maycon was key to his side’s ball progression due to his ability to drop deep as well as his press resistance and close control. He would frequently break the lines either with a dribble, attracting pressure to create space between lines, or with defence splitting passes. Here, he is in possession and sees a potential line breaking pass to Kovalenko who has dropped deeper to receive between lines. The two wide men Taison and Marlos are also important here, their movement in the half space offers a potential lay off option for Kovalenko should he opt to play a first time pass upon receiving from Maycon.

Fonseca’s sides, particularly his Shakhtar side, have shown a great versatility in their ball progression and construction of play in midfield. This can be accredited to their fluid style and unorthodox movement patterns of the midfield three behind the lone striker. At Shakhtar, the build-up in midfield was reliant on the movement of hybrid 10 Kovalenko, who often dropped into the space between the midfield and defensive lines, and sometimes deeper if an overload was required to play through midfield pressure or a stubborn defensive block.

Kovalenko dropping deep

Here, we see Kovalenko (red) dropping deeper than usual just in front of the midfield line to offer Stepanenko the opportunity to break the lines with a pass. His central positioning is key here in that it allows a viable connection opportunity between the centre and the half-space and the potential for a gradual switch of play to the opposing full back on the weak side. Again, their attacking shape is very well structured with connections across all 5 columns of the pitch and every line of the opposition block being occupied by a Shakhtar player. This is key in allowing them to play through pressure and always presenting the ball carrier with multiple options in possession and a variety of directions.

Stepanenko is in possession here with Maycon being marked by the Lyon striker. Taison and Marlos have both dropped deeper into the half space with the full backs balancing the movements of the Shakhtar wide men by occupying a high and wide position. The position of the two full backs is key in potentially opening up space in the channel by drawing out the Lyon full backs. It can also allow greater room in the half space for Taison and Marlos if the opposition wingers decide to track the full backs.

Fluid attacking midfield

Here, we see another example of the fluid movement of the attacking midfield 3. Kovalenko drops between the lines with Marlos in possession. Taison’s movement from the left-hand side deep into the central area allows Marlos two options; he can play between the lines to Kovalenko or eliminate 4-5 Lyon players laterally with a pass into Taison. In the end he opts for the latter and Tyson can either drive at the Lyon defence or play into left-back Ismaily.

The movements of Kovalenko and Taison are vital in the versatility of their midfield construction as they have the option of breaking the lines with Kovalenko or switching play to the weak side with Taison. Against more rigid and compact defences, the second option can be more effective as it forces the defence to have to shift rapidly to the other side of the field.

Full back overload

The use of the full backs is even more vital in this game as Lyon opted for a back 3 with wing backs. This meant that the advantage was in Shakhtar’s favour due to the natural overload in the wide areas. The penetrative run of Ismaily beyond the full back is effective in not only breaching the Lyon back line but creating space for Taison in possession as the Lyon wing back is unable to press Taison. As a result one of the Lyon midfielders is required to step out and press, creating space centrally for the Shakhtar midfielders.

Full back overload.

In this image, we see an example of the switch of play and the high and wide position of the full backs being used to great effect. The Lyon block is forced centrally due to Shakhtar building through the central area of the field. The narrow position of the Lyon block allows left-back Ismaily to receive in high amounts of space and pick out a low cross from the edge of the 18 yard box to Junior Moraes who opens the scoring.

Much of their chance creation is heavily reliant on their full backs to provide the width, as well as movements into the box from the wide midfielders and runs from deep from the 6s. Moraes initially makes a movement towards the near post with Kovalenko occupying the far post. Taison positions himself on the edge of the box for a potential cutback as does Maycon. This variation in positioning and movement increases the difficulty with which the Lyon players can mark Shakhtar players within the box and allows the full back to have a variety of options be it a near-post delivery, a far post cross or a cutback.

With teams in their domestic league tending to have a less organised structure and a weak tactical set up, Fonseca’s side scored a number of goals through chances created more centrally or in the half-spaces. Combinations and one-twos between Kovalenko and the wide men were much more common in games against weaker opposition with central areas much less congested, therefore more space in these areas to combine.

Chance creation centrally

Taison sets up Junior Moraes for a goal in this scenario with a penetrative pass through the centre of the pitch. With minimal pressure on the ball he is able to find Moraes fairly easily, despite the opposition having the defensive overload. In the more high profile games in the Champions and Europa League, such space in the final third and through the centre is much harder to come by, therefore using the full backs is much more essential as majority of space in those games is found on the wings.

The physical dimensions of their striker and primary goal scorer Junior Moraes is key also as he does not possess the physical qualities of a traditional target man, standing at 1.76m (5’9). As a result, their chance creation is much more focused on low crosses as well as passes to feet and in behind the opposition defensive line as opposed to crosses for headers.

Compact defensive shape

Defensively, his sides have always shown outstanding levels of compactness when defending in a medium block. Against stronger opposition, his team always applied a proactive but sensible approach, not ceding ground with a very deep defensive line but also choosing not to press the first line or occupy a very high line so as to maintain compactness and not be vulnerable to a team with pace in behind. Against Lyon this was the exact approach they used due to the potential of striker Memphis Depay to make penetrative runs in behind.

Here we see them in a narrow 4-4-2 shape with minimal space between the lines and a huge focus on organisation and shifting as a unit to the active side of the field. Instead of an aggressive press in an attempt to force transitions, they opted to patiently wait for pressing triggers, forcing the opposition out wide and then aiming to recover possession. Kovalenko has moved onto the same line as Moraes, forming a 2-man first line of pressure, while the wingers Taison and Marlos are narrow to ensure Lyon are unable to play through the half spaces. With this set up, they control the space well, dictating what areas Lyon are able to progress play through.

Forcing play wide

Here Shakhtar as set up in their usual medium block against Manchester City, occupying the half spaces and forcing City to play through the wide areas. In this game, the triggers vary slightly based on City prefer to build out of defence. As Stones attempts to drive into the midfield through the half-space, Fernando vacates his LM position to stop his progression, forming a situational 4-3-3 and forcing him to play a backward pass. As a result of the backward pass, the entire block moves up to condense the space and force City away from goal.

Press and counter

Counter attack

Again, they set up in their mid block in this scenario with City playing the ball out wide to Mahrez. When the ball is in wide areas, they tend to opt for an asymmetrical, slightly staggered shape, meaning that they do not defend with a flat line when the ball is out wide, instead as the wide man presses Mahrez, the rest of the defensive and midfield line form an additional line of cover. This is highly effective as it reduces the space between the lines and creates another line of pressure should Mahrez beat the full back. The other players around the ball are providing support in the press, blocking off passing lanes and cover shadowing potential receivers. The rest of the block shifts across to the active side, ensuring they maintain the overload.

Upon winning possession with Kovalenko, they attack directly in attacking transition as Junior Moraes makes a penetrative run into the RB-CB channel left vacant by John Stones, Stepanenko (arrow) is making a run from deep in support to add additional penetration and another option for Kovalenko. In addition, this would distract the City centre backs temporarily as another runner in behind would force them to make a decision as to which they should cover, simultaneously creating more space for Kovalenko in possession.

Proactive pressing

With this being his first season at the Stadio Olimpico, his Roma side are still very much a work in progress, with many of his principles and characteristics of his ideal set up still yet to be fully implemented. He still prefers the proactive approach out of possession as we see here in the Rome derby against Lazio, as stated earlier his sides tend to opt for a medium block and aim to avoid conceding high amounts of space behind their defensive line against teams with the threat of pace in behind.

In this case, Lazio do not possess such a threat, therefore he instructs his side to press the first line with striker Edin Dzeko leading the press and blocking off the passing lane into the two Lazio 6s with his cover shadow. Lorenzo Pellegrini is positioned just behind the 6s, ensuring that should either of them receive they are unable to turn and play. Cengiz Under is closely marking the opposite centre back, while Justin Kluivert positions himself intelligently between the centre back Luiz Felipe and the wing back Lazzari. It is clear to see the progression in terms of their defensive intelligence in the opposition build up as they control the space, forcing Lazio long despite the overload being in Lazio’s favour.

Structured build up

Here Roma are building out of the defence against a stubborn Cagliari mid-block. Mancini is in possession with Smalling in support. Spinazzola offers an additional lateral option at right back, ensuring they have the spare man against the Cagliari 1st line of pressure. Cristante is also in support, dropping deeper into the half-space to provide an option to break the first line of pressure.

Build up between the lines.

Roma are constructing play this time with Cagliari pushing up higher and pressing the first line. Despite additional pressure, they are still able to play through the block as the Roma players occupy intelligent positions between the lines to bypass pressure. Cristante and Diawara position themselves between the first line of pressure with Pellegrini and Kluivert dropping deeper to offer progression into the next line of play. Similar to what was seen with his Shakhtar side, they occupy the spaces between the lines and the 5 vertical columns of the field effectively, allowing them to play through pressure and giving the ball carrier multiple options through the triangle shapes formed around the pitch.

Overloading one side.

When constructing play through midfield, his Roma side looking to draw and switch also as they attempt to overload the active side of the field. Mancini is in possession here as Cagliari look to overload the midfield area. In response to this, Kluivert drops deep from his position on the right into the half-space, providing the opportunity for a 3rd man combination between himself Mancini and Spinazzola. With the overload still in Cagliari’s favour, Dzeko drops off from his striker position into the 10 space along with Zaniolo, who drifts from the wide area into the centre. Fluid movement from the attacking players once again essential in helping to bypass pressure.

One aspect in which they differ is their final third chance creation and their style of assist. The dimensions of their attacking players play a big role in this as they are more physically imposing and dominant in the air than Junior Moraes at Shaktar, with Dzeko standing at 1.93m (6’4) and Nicolo Zaniolo at 1.90 (6’3). As a result, low crosses are much less common when creating chances in the final third, instead playing to the strengths of their attackers with high crosses for headers. This is reflected in their stats as they have the highest accurate number of long balls per game in the league with 34.9. The stats of their top scorer this season, Edin Dzeko reflect this as 6 of his 12 league goals (50%) have come from headers and lofted crosses.

Three career defining games

Braga 2-2 Porto (Braga wins 4-2 on pens) – 22nd May 2016

Following a failed stint in charge of his opponents in this fixture 3 years previously, the Taca de Portugal final of 2016 would offer Fonseca a chance at redemption and the opportunity to get his hands on his first major piece of silverware in his short managerial career. Porto came into this game as favourites due to their superior league position, however Fonseca’s side played like anything but underdogs, opting to press high in Porto’s build up and halt their progression out of defence. Their intensity paid off as early as the 12th minute when Rui Fonte, the Braga striker seized on a mix up in the Porto back line to give Braga the lead.

Their lead was then doubled in similar fashion on 58 minutes when midfielder Josue forced another mistake in the Porto build up to dispossess the Porto centre back and slot past Helton. The game looked firmly in their control until a more direct approach from Porto allowed them to evade the Braga press and play between the lines more easily. Andre Silva slotted home a rebounded effort 3 minutes after Braga’s second to halve the deficit before drawing the game level in injury to send the game to extra time. The sides were unable to separate each other during extra time, sending the game to a penalty shoot-out. Two excellent saves from goalkeeper Carlos Marafona and a game winning spot kick from full-back Marcelo Goiano secured the victory Fonseca’s men, their first triumph in the competition for 50 years.

Dynamo Kiev 0-2 Shakhtar Donetsk – 9th May 2018

This was to be Fonseca’s second consecutive Ukrainian Cup final against Shakhtar’s eternal rivals Dynamo Kiev. Having struggled in previous encounters against the Kiev side, losing all three of their league fixtures in the league season, again a Fonseca side would go into a cup final as underdogs despite being runaway league champions for the second consecutive season. In what was an even first half, Shakhtar’s dominance began to show after 30 minutes as Dynamo keeper Boyko was forced into a number of saves. Their dominance then paid off striker Facundo Ferreyra gave them the lead on 47 minutes. The back and forth continued following Ferreyra’s opener with Shakhtar keeper Pyatov then being forced to make a couple saves of his own. The game was put to bed not long after however, as Rakitsky put the game beyond doubt in the 61st minute. Unlike his first cup final at Braga, there was to be no late comeback for the opposition as his Shakhtar side held firm, maintaining their lead until the final whistle to retain the Ukrainian Cup and overtake their rivals with their 12th triumph in the competition.

Shakhtar Donetsk 2-1 Manchester City – 6th December 2017

Fonseca’s Shakhtar side faced a huge test of their credentials in what was the final game of their Champions League 2017/18 group stage. Up against them were Premier League giants Manchester City, who were unbeaten for 29 games going into this fixture, and had secured qualification to the knockout stage of the competition with a perfect record in the group prior to the game. Needing a win themselves to secure their own qualification, Shakhtar put Manchester City on the back foot from the off, playing their usual brand of fluid, high intensity football and disorganising City’s defensive structure with the movements of their full backs and wide midfielders.

Their first goal came in this fashion as Marlos, in possession, receives the ball in the central area having drifted from his wide right position. His qualities in 1v1 situations attracted pressure from multiple City defensive players, however his inward movements created confusion for the City defensive block as it created a lack of clarity as to who
would press him. His drawing of pressure created space centrally and in the half-spaces for Bernard to receive and score a wonderfully placed shot past goalkeeper Ederson to give the home side the lead in the 26th minute. A penetrative run from left-back Ismaily and a mistake from Ederson in the 32nd minute gave Shakhtar their second goal and looked to have sealed their place in the last 16 of the Champions League. City continued to put pressure on the Shakhtar defensive block and salvaged a lifeline in the 92nd minute through an Aguero penalty. In the end though, Shakhtar managed to hang onto their slender lead and booked their place in the knockout rounds.


A positive, attack-minded and forward thinking coach who has shown his ability to adapt and evolve not only game by game but also at the different clubs he has managed, Fonseca has the potential to become one of Europe’s leading coaches in the next few years. Having learned harsh lessons from his time at Porto in particular, he has resurrected his managerial career over the last 5 years, learning from his mistakes and developing a distinct style and philosophy which is adaptable and well suited to the modern game.

He has built quite a stellar CV, starting with his Taca de Portugal victory in 2016 and his trophy laden 3-year tenure at Shakhtar, earning plaudits from some of the best coaches on the continent, a Europa League trophy and a deep run in the Champions League may be all that is required for him to potentially manage one of Europe’s elite. With his Roma side still very much in its embryonic stage, time will tell how they develop over the coming seasons. Should he continue to adapt and purchase smartly in the transfer window, Roma will be more than capable of becoming a regular Champions League side and possibly mounting a title challenge within the next couple seasons.

Read all other articles from this series here.

Miles Olusina

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