On 11 June 2019, 46-year old former Shaktar Donetsk manager, Paulo Fonseca, was appointed as manager of AS Roma, a managerial change that has a lot of possibilities for the Giallorossi.
It's official – Paulo Fonseca will be the new head coach of #ASRoma!
Welcome Paulo! 🐺
— AS Roma English (@ASRomaEN) June 11, 2019
Paulo Fonseca, an ex-defender, began coaching immediately after his retirement from football in 2005, remaining in the club he retired as a youth coach. He kept rising in his career and eventually got his first chance at senior football in 2009 with Pinhalnovense. Nine years later, he is at one of the biggest clubs in Italy.
After the sack of Eusebio Di Francesco midway through the 2018/19 season and the short caretaker stint of Claudio Ranieri, the club contacted Fonseca, whose feats at Shaktar had taken the club to even greater heights in Ukrainian football in only his first spell abroad (he won the domestic double two seasons in a row), even beating Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the 2017/18 Champions League as well as outplaying Maurizio Sarri’s Napoli, who were the hottest property in world football at the time. These feats earned him a spot on FourFourTwo’s top 50 coaches of 2018.
This managerial change brings a lot of possibilities for Roma as earlier stated, because Fonseca’s football is a departure from the type of football usually seen at the club. What’s most interesting about his football is how similar it is to Sarriball – the style introduced and perfected by Maurizio Sarri at Napoli. This season, both coaches will be going head to head in the league against each other and against the rest of the league, playing an almost similar style of football.
WHAT IS SARRIBALL?
This term was popularized by media houses attempting to classify Sarri’s unique style of football. Sarriball is an open, attacking and, more crucially, fluid type of football which closely resembles the Spanish tiki-taka first implemented by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
The similarities between Sarriball and tiki-taka are in the way both styles increase the tempo of a match, high pressing and holding on to possession throughout the match while building from the back. When played right, it usually results in beautiful and entertaining football, as evident in Pep’s Barcelona and Sarri’s Napoli.
The differences between both styles, however, lay in the shape in which the attacking contingent of Sarriball is set up. At Napoli, Sarri’s attacking trio (he was fond of the 4-3-3 formation in a league where 4-1-4-1, 4-4-2 and other closely knit tactical formations is popular) was usually set up narrowly (unlike in tiki-taka where the width of the field is used by every player) to make way for the overlapping full-backs who were his main width providers. This means that inverted wingers were key to Sarri’s attack formation.
In the 2017/18 season at the peak of Sarriball, Napoli racked up impressive numbers to back up their style of football. They ended the season with 1.64 xG (0.8 conceded) with an average of 57.68% possession and had 40.8% shots on target (an average of 15.98% per game).
In defence, Sarriball relies on the fluidity of the defence. This means that the defence changes according to the opposition, unlike in attack where positional discipline mattered (wingers inverting and fullbacks marauding down their wings). The off-the-ball movement of his defenders is key in this aspect and this aided the high-press, blocking the passing channels of the opposition and forcing them to go long or risk having the ball stolen. When Napoli played Sarriball, the formation changed to 4-1-4-1 from 4-3-3 as the two inverted wingers would be required to drop into the midfield and the pivot falls a bit deeper into the defensive line, all the while moving fluidly to prevent the opposing team’s attack.
However, Sarriball is a high-risk style much like and also unlike tiki-taka, as it is susceptible defensively (tiki-taka defence is less fluid and more positional because of the need to start an attack immediately the ball is recovered). In the peak period of Sarriball at Napoli, they let through an average of 8.7 shots with 36.4% being on target.
In general, Napoli and Sarriball were a force to be reckoned with in Serie A, as it was an offensive strategy that resulted in lots of goals, mostly for Napoli, but also for the opposition as well.
PAULO FONSECA’S SARRIBALL
Calling the new Roma manager’s style “Fonsecaball” would be a drag, so we would stick to calling it Sarriball as it bears a very strong similarity to Sarri’s brand of football.
In an interview granted to Il Romanista following the announcement of Fonseca as Roma’s new manager, Abel Ferreira, current Sporting Braga manager said of the 46-year old,
“No matter the formation, his philosophy and way of thinking remain the same. I think Italian coaches often wait on their opponents’ mistakes, but not Fonseca. He always tries to take charge of the game through possession. As has been said, his philosophy is very similar to that of Sarri. His teams, whenever they don’t have the ball, are driven to attack the opponent high up the pitch and win it back.”
Fonseca has spent the last three years fielding some of the slowest but toughest defenders seen to maintain that high line which is characteristic of this style of play. He drills into his teams the need to stay tight so much, that they’ve played some matches with all 11 men taking up an average 23 metres of the pitch over 90 minutes.
That’s just under a quarter of a Champions League pitch length!
This is because Fonseca likes to control the space between midfield and defensive lines of both attack and defence, similar to how Sarri’s formation goes from a 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1 when defending. In Fonseca’s case though, his formation can go from a 4-3-3, a 4-1-3-2, or a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 formation off the ball, and he is always happy to concede wide spaces to opponents.
In attack, just like Sarri, Fonseca’s teams always come in from the wings. However, they try not to spend much time on the ball (much like tiki-taka) and take two-touches max, before passing. Another difference in between the styles of both coaches is that with Fonseca, his defenders are only required to defend. The midfielders pick up the ball and begin the attack. Sarri’s style was more similar to tiki-taka in that sense, as the defenders had to be able to play out from the back.
Under Fonseca though, the keeper is required to join in the possession game as they are supposed to be able to keep the ball with the defenders until a midfielder can come and pick it up, or sight a good pass and play it long. This is why former Real Betis goalkeeper, Pau Lopez, was brought in as Spanish goalkeepers are among the best in the sweeper-keeper role.
Fonseca’s Roma is going to be the most attacking Roma side in a long while, and we have seen the results already in the first two match weeks.
NOW THAT SARRI IS AT JUVENTUS…
We are expecting an even more attacking version of Sarriball, and one which will have fewer defensive lapses due to the phenomenal defence of Juventus, who also acquired Matthijs de Ligt in the summer to back up Georgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonnucci.
Like he did with Jorginho at Napoli, he will attempt to use the central midfielder (most likely Miralem Pjanic) as the core of the team and attack the opponent’s goal by overloading the flanks with the fullbacks high on the pitch, pushing the winger in the midfielder’s space, while the midfielder choose what to do depending on the positions of the aforementioned players. It will surely be exciting to see Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala or Douglas Costa play combinations like these.
On paper, the Juventus squad trumps the Roma squad, but Fonseca is no stranger to playing AND beating a Sarri team (Champions League 2017/18 group stages), making this another fixture to look forward to.
However, Roma fans will not have much to cry about if they lose to Sarribal 2.0 courtesy Juventus – the firepower is almost incomparable.