Honeymoon over for Fonseca as Roma loss to Milan raises questions of system

Roma fell to their first defeat since Serie A resumed on Sunday, as AC Milan beat them 2-0.

Individually, there were some decent performances, but as a collective, something wasn’t quite right.

Roma only managed one shot on target in a game of few clear-cut chances. Milan, on the other hand, made the most of the slightly greater number of opportunities that came their way.

While the return to action gave Roma a chance to make a fresh start after their mixed form before the break, there were recurring themes that emerged against Milan, which will need fixing. But some of them aren’t easy to explain.

Just like in the first few months of the New Year, Roma look like a different team from one game to the next. It seems the only thing that has been consistent in 2020, is inconsistency.

The defeat to Milan means Roma have now lost more games than they have won in the calendar year. Some criticisms that the team could face have logical explanations after a break that lasted nearly four months. But overall, Roma have picked up where they left off – as a team struggling to recapture the persevering identity they displayed earlier in the season.

Particularly in the Autumn months, Roma were gritting their teeth and grinding out results. Even with limited resources, Paulo Fonseca was making the most of what he had. His use of Gianluca Mancini as an emergency midfielder was one example of how he was impressing with his initiative.

Those first few months of Fonseca’s tenure outlined him as a shrewd appointment, one who could take Roma to the next level with the right time and resources. Just over a year since he became the club’s head coach, though, it’s fair to say his honeymoon period is over.

Now the hard work really begins. A manager can make a positive start at a new club, before it catches up with them. Who can forget Rudi Garcia winning his first 10 games in charge of Roma? Ultimately, the Frenchman struggled to recapture that initial magic, and was dismissed midway through his third season.

While he is not under pressure now, Fonseca will be eager to avoid a similar fate in the future. And to ensure the long-term success he appears to be capable of, there must be questions in the short-term. First and foremost, is he using the best system?

That’s a question only he can truly answer. However, Roma’s two games since the resumption have shown signals of a team struggling to make his tactics efficient. The performances of Edin Dzeko and Jordan Veretout illustrate this.

Against Milan, Dzeko – a hero in the game before – cut an isolated figure. He worked hard in the first half and had Roma’s biggest chance, with a misplaced header. In the second period, though, he seemed cut adrift from his 10 teammates.

Dzeko is Roma’s best outlet for a goal, and with 104 of them in his career with the club, it is not a question of his ability. But he needs support. In the same week that Fonseca claimed the team were not over-reliant on their Bosnian captain, what happened on the pitch suggested otherwise.

Despite the best intentions of Henrikh Mkhitaryan – the most direct of Roma’s attacking midfielders – the team could not connect with Dzeko often enough. The Giallorossi captain managed just 23 touches before he was taken off.

The system should be built around the best players, and Dzeko is undoubtedly Roma’s. He has, admittedly, excelled in similar structures before, and has been in good scoring form since becoming captain. But if Fonseca could find a way to get him even more involved, that output could increase drastically.

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Maybe it’s a problem of what’s behind him. With Lorenzo Pellegrini’s inconsistency in the number 10 role, Roma need to find a way to get him to produce his best regularly. Because when Pellegrini is at the top of his game, there is no better provider for Dzeko. When he isn’t, as against Milan, Dzeko has very little to work off. In turn, does Pellegrini need help as well?

Tactically, similar questions must be asked about the role of Veretout. The French midfielder epitomised Roma’s never-say-die attitude earlier in the season, when he was the only fit natural central midfielder. At the time, he was playing with freedom – but since the re-start, he has seemed to have the shackles on.

Veretout has occupied some peculiar positions in the last two games, covering spaces very deep when off the ball. It seems unusual for his dynamic game, so it is possibly from Fonseca’s instruction.

To get the best out of Veretout, his coach needs to allow him to dominate the territory. Against Sampdoria and Milan, he worked hard, but he has not been able to get in the areas he normally thrives in.

The reason for this is unclear. Is it a result of the full-backs pushing too high up, leaving spaces at the back which he has to cover? When the attacking output from those full-backs has been limited, perhaps this is a balance Fonseca needs to reconsider.

Indeed, the manager needs a plan B. Against Milan, all his substitutions were like-for-like. Nikola Kalinic replaced Dzeko and encountered similar problems. Carles Perez struggled to get on the ball after coming on for Justin Kluivert. Javier Pastore replaced Pellegrini, all too late to make an impact.

It showed that Fonseca was perhaps not using his substitutions to full effect. It’s a theme that all managers will have to deal with, now they have two more changes than usual at their disposal. After such a long time away, substitutions are necessary to preserve fitness. But they still must benefit the team in that game.

For example, Pastore’s best performances for Roma have all come when he has had time to influence things. He did relatively well as a starter against Sampdoria, and impressed in his run of four consecutive starts in the Autumn. Brought on with just nine minutes left, though, he could not get into the rhythm of the game in time.

Another strange decision in terms of substitutions was the decision to keep Davide Zappacosta on for the full 90 minutes. The right-back was making his first start for the club after months of injury struggles. To leave him on for the whole game was not just questionable when related to his performance – he was at fault for the first goal by giving the ball away – but especially from a physical management point of view.

Players have enough of a workload on their hands at the minute without having to play more than they have managed all season in one game. It’s not like Roma didn’t have players on the bench who could have replaced him.

Something similar occurred against Sampdoria, when Roger Ibanez was thrown in at the deep end for his first start for the club. The centre-back wasn’t too bad, but took a share of the blame for the goal Roma conceded in that match. And elsewhere, he sometimes showed a lack of understanding among his teammates.

Gonzalo Villar’s impressive full debut in the last game before lockdown came after a string of substitute appearances. It showed how important it can be for someone to acclimatize to their new teammates first. Perhaps Fonseca should have given more opportunities to Zappacosta and Ibanez from the bench before he wanted them to start.

Coincidentally, Villar has not featured since the resumption, and he could have made a difference at San Siro. He plays somewhere between being a number eight and a number 10, with his creativity and dynamism making him an intriguing prospect. The Spaniard could have been a better impact sub than Pastore, for example.

So, if tactics are to blame, will Fonseca be able to change things? He was experimenting with a back three in training before the Sampdoria game, and perhaps this is a system he should try and revert to. It would suit a Roma side who like to play out from the back, and would give extra cover that would allow Veretout to be unleashed.

It may need more time to implement – there clearly must have been something that Fonseca wasn’t fully keen on after trying it out – but any kind of change to benefit Roma’s biggest players would ensure a stronger end to the season.

Alternatively, why not return to the tactics Fonseca was using when he deployed Mancini as a midfielder? Out of necessity due to an injury crisis, Fonseca switched to a 4-1-4-1. It was a subtle change from his preferred 4-2-3-1, but it was effective. In that part of the season, Veretout thrived, while Mancini also impressed. Could it work again?

Overall, it’s too early to draw conclusions. It’s been two games back – one was a good performance overall and one wasn’t. But looking at the bigger picture, Fonseca needs to find a way of using his assets most efficiently.

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The loss to Milan has left Roma looking down the table, rather than up it. Catching the top four seems unlikely now, while Milan have cut the gap behind them. Roma remain in fifth, though, and they must seek to defend this position. That’s a realistic aim now, and one that Fonseca’s side can achieve with the right application.

So, there are now things for Fonseca to iron out. It means his honeymoon period is over and now the tougher questions can begin to be asked. But he deserves support – he should be critiqued, not criticised.

Since the departure of Fabio Capello in 2004, only two managers – Luciano Spalletti in his first spell and Garcia – have entered a third season with the club. A lack of stability could be one of the reasons Roma have had to wait so long to win trophies.

One only needs to look back at Roma’s parting of company with Luis Enrique after a disappointing 2011-12 season to realise that sometimes coaches need patience after a mixed start. He went on to win nine trophies, including the Champions League, at Barcelona.

Enrique’s exit may have been a mutual decision, but with more encouragement, his Roma could have grown. Fonseca’s can as well – he had a better start than the current Spain boss – but he will surely be striving to make minor improvements in the weeks ahead.

Fonseca worked well for the club in 2019, so even though 2020 hasn’t been as positive, it’s far too early to suggest he isn’t the right man going forward.

There’s every chance he is. Indeed, there has been very little pressure on him from the fanbase so far. And that must continue – but now he must accept that the real test has begun.

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