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Premier League’s Next Great Managers: Paulo Fonseca

 • by Blair Newman
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Paulo Fonseca is a man of his word. He’d promised that, if his Shakhtar Donetsk side made it through the Champions League group stages, he would dress up as Zorro.

So there he was, following a 2-1 win over Manchester City that sealed progression to the last 16, with a mask and cape on, answering serious football questions in a serious post-match press conference.

His costume made headlines across Europe, though tactics lovers were already well aware of the 45-year-old’s work. Having moved to Ukraine in 2016, Fonseca has enjoyed an extremely successful two years, attracting attention for his results and style of football.

This season his Shakhtar side have beaten several of the continent’s finest teams. Drawn in the same Champions League group as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, Serie A title challengers Napoli and Dutch champions Feyenoord, few predicted that they would make it through to the knockout rounds.

But, thanks to their win over City and an equally impressive victory over Napoli, they sealed second place.

In the last 16 they drew Roma, who had also surprised by topping a group that contained Chelsea and Atlético Madrid. This is where Fonseca’s men bowed out, but not before they had defeated the Italian side 2-1 in the home leg.

Domestically, the Portuguese is set to lead the club to a second straight Ukrainian Premier League title. While some will point out Shakhtar traditionally compete for top spot, it’s worth noting they had finished second to Dynamo Kiev the two years prior to the manager’s arrival.

In his debut campaign they won a league and cup double, achieving their best points per game tally since 2013. They then added the Ukrainian Super Cup early in 2017/18.

Fonseca hasn’t had it easy in management. He had to fight to make it to the highest echelon of the European game, gradually working his way up the Portuguese footballing hierarchy. Starting out in the lower leagues, he surprised many in his first top-level job, taking Paços de Ferreira to third place and a Champions League qualification berth.

A move to Porto didn’t quite work out. Expectations were incredibly high, while transfer spending was low. Key players such as James Rodríguez and Joao Moutinho departed and Fonseca was sacked with the club nine points off Benfica. But, returning to Paços and then on to Braga, he was able to resurrect his career before joining Shakhtar.

Succeeding Mircea Lucescu was never going to be an easy task, but Fonseca has successfully handled the challenge by refining the attacking style laid down before him. Tactically, he favours a 4-2-3-1 system and wants his players to retain and utilise possession effectively.

When building from defence, his centre-backs split to take up wider starting positions on either side of the goalkeeper. His two central midfield pivots then drop deeper to position themselves centrally between, and slightly higher than, the centre-backs.

This unusual build-up structure, shown below, is deployed so as to attract pressure from the opposition, freeing up space behind for Shakhtar’s more advanced attacking players to exploit.

This structure appears risky at first, as it encourages pressure centrally while the centre-backs have pulled wide. The danger here is that, should one of the midfield pivots lose possession, the opposition have a clear run at goal.

However, the risk is worth the reward, as will be shown later. And, if the opposition pressure effectively, there are a number of solutions.

One solution is passing back to the goalkeeper, Andriy Pyatov, who is highly competent on the ball and thus is comfortable receiving and distributing under pressure. Another is simply to go outside to the full-backs, who take up high and wide positions to act as out-balls. Finally, if all else fails, lone striker Facundo Ferreyra is an apt target man for direct balls over the top.

Fonseca’s system enables the formation of triangle and diamond shapes in build-up that help to progress possession through the middle third.

The two nominal wingers and No.10, Taison, often shift their position to form these shapes and combine with the centre-backs, full-backs and central midfielders.

An example of this is shown below, where forming a triangle allows Shakhtar to pass around Napoli pressure and free up the left-back, Ismaily, for a forward run into space down the left flank.

When describing Fonseca’s wingers, the word ‘nominal’ is vital. This is because, in reality, these ‘wingers’ don’t actually operate in the wide areas. With both full-backs pushing high down each flank, the widemen tuck inside to form a trio of attacking midfielders. In truth, Shakhtar play with three No.10s.

The objective of these movements is to get in behind the opposition’s midfield line. The possibility of this is enhanced not only by the presence of three players in this area, but by the aforementioned build-up structure’s enticing the opposition midfield forward to press centrally.

The following two graphics demonstrate how effective this particular tactical ploy is. Both full-backs push high and wide, allowing the two ‘wingers’, Bernard and Marlos, to join Taison in and around the centre and inside channels.

Above Bernard receives a pass from centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy, drawing pressure from the Roma midfield line. Bernard and his nearest attacking midfield teammate Taison distract their opposition, allowing Marlos to wander into space between the lines on the blind side.

Bernard then passes inside to Manchester United target Fred, one of the central midfield pivots. Fred penetrates Roma’s midfield with a pass to the unmarked Marlos, shown below. Marlos is then able to turn and run directly at the Roma defence.

Fonseca has crafted a fine attacking force, though he does not neglect defence – his Shakhtar are also difficult to break down. They take up a medium block and deploy a midfield press, looking to harry the opposition whenever they threaten to enter their half.

They form a compact 4-4-2 shape with little space offered between the lines and apply man-oriented pressure. Their pressing is helped by the ‘backwards pressing’ of the forwards. All of this is seen in the below graphic, taken from their win over Manchester City.

The above showcases how Shakhtar defend in a major European tie, though they do have a tendency to defend more aggressively in matches they are expected to win. Domestically, they often press in a similar manner but do so higher up the pitch, with the defensive line sitting on or around the halfway line to support the press.

Tactically, Fonseca’s ideas are concise, aesthetically pleasing, and demonstrably efficient. And his ideas are backed up by an ability to develop individual players and maximise his resources. These aspects of his management have been especially important in trying circumstances.

Shakhtar have seen a number of their star players depart in recent years and have also had to move since the war in Ukraine began. They no longer play their home games in Donetsk, and have spent less than £2million net on players since Fonseca arrived.

His response to this has been to get the very best out of what he has, with individuals such as Bernard, Fred and Ferreyra reaching new levels of performance.

Prior to 2015/16, Ferreyra had hit double figures in a single season just once and was best known for a one-season spell with Newcastle United that ended without him playing a single minute of football for the club. However, in the last two seasons the Argentine has scored 44 times in 63 outings across all competitions.

Evidently, Fonseca is a good coach and a fine tactician. So it shouldn’t surprise many to find out that he is being linked with a move to the Premier League as a potential replacement for Sam Allardyce at Everton. The good news for Toffees fans is that he seems keen on the concept.

“I have this dream. I have a big, big passion about the game and the atmosphere in England is amazing. I hope one day to live it. It’s the biggest league in the world,” he told The Telegraph last year.

“For any coach, to work in England can be amazing.”

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