Defending from the front: How Paulo Fonseca can whip Milan’s defence into shape

By Oliver Fisher -

Paulo Fonseca will be itching to get to work with his new players in Milan. The head coach has a job on his hands. The Rossoneri were, at times, excellent in 2023-24, but a goals against tally of 49 in 38 games is likely not strong enough to build a Serie A title challenge on.

Fonseca heads to the San Siro with a reputation for defensively solid football – however, that’s achieved through occupying both the ball and the opposition’s half of the field, rather than simply requesting eleven players behind the ball.

So could the Portuguese coach be the missing ingredient for Milan in 2024/25?

Defence the best form of attack?

He would have been watching EURO 2024 with interest – albeit with frustration that his players were involved in energy-sapping tournament football, as opposed to putting their feet up during the summer.

Those betting on football helped to push down the odds of the likes of France, Portugal, and Switzerland, confirming their position as fancied runners for the tournament in Germany.

Indeed, the EURO 2024 betting odds – heading into the knockout phase – made France and Portugal +500 and +600 chances respectively to lift the trophy, which revealed that Fonseca would have to wait a little longer to get the likes of Theo Hernandez and Rafael Leão back in training.

With Christian Pulisic also away on international duty with the United States at Copa América, Milan’s early pre-season training sessions were somewhat thin on the ground.

That’s certainly an inconvenience, given that Fonseca will want to get to work establishing his favored 4-2-3-1 formation as soon as possible.

Although his time at Roma wasn’t a universal success, they scored an average of nearly two goals per game with the Portuguese in charge, while a successful spell in charge of Shakhtar in Ukraine brought three consecutive league titles.

Fonseca furthered his reputation at French club Lille, where his typically-free spirited – and free-scoring – approach was tempered with a greater defensive resilience; Lille conceded just 34 goals in 2023/24, which was the third-best return in Ligue 1.

He will, of course, need to make his system work with the new players at his disposal in Milan, but many in the squad have experience of playing in the 4-2-3-1 shape already – and plenty of them will love to express themselves under such an attack-minded head coach.

Pieces of the Puzzle

One of the conundrums facing Fonseca will be getting the right balance in attack. In his different spells, he has preferred a central striker with athleticism and the pace to run in behind the opposition defense – not an attribute that the outgoing Olivier Giroud would have brought to the party.

Leão will play from the left-hand side in that 4-2-3-1 system, with Pulisic – potentially – being asked to play as a second striker in the number ten role to facilitate the involvement of Samuel Chukwueze on the right.

It’s an attack with pace and guile in abundance – but one that will need to be enhanced by a goal-scoring central striker.

Media reports suggest that Fonseca is actively seeking a new number nine, although some supporters will be hoping that Luka Jović gets a more consistent run in the role now that Giroud has departed – the Serbian has a goal in him, as he displayed at EURO 2024.

Whichever way you look at it, the arrival of Fonseca at Milan could spark an improvement both defensively and in attack. If he can sign a new striker – or aid Jovic’s development – then maybe a Serie A title bid is in the offing in 2024-25.

Tags AC Milan Paulo Fonseca
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