Positionism and key improvements made: Tactical analysis of Paulo Fonseca

By Rohit Rajeev -

Paulo Fonseca was announced as AC Milan’s new manager on Thursday, replacing Stefano Pioli, and the fans are eager to see what he can do with the team. However, what should they expect? Let’s take a look at the tactical aspects. 

Our feature writer Rihot Rajeev has done a full analysis of Fonseca on his Twitter, @keralista, first looking at Fonseca’s spells at Roma and Shakhtar. Then, he goes on to look at Fonseca 2.0 and the changes made during his tenures.

Fonseca at Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk

Like how every person has a value system and principle he believes in, coaches have a core philosophy they rarely deviate from. It is something they might have developed via various influences during playing days or it could be a very popular playstyle (successful one) rubbing off on their way of thinking.

Either way, Fonseca is a coach who believes in the ‘positionalist’ way of playing, where players adopt certain positions or exchange them in due course of the game. However, the base formation of Fonseca has always stayed as 4-2-3-1.

Out-of-possession tactics

One thing that helped Milan win the Scudetto in 2021-22 was how they played when they didn’t have the ball. Milan’s high and rather aggressive press aimed to suffocate the opposition and win the ball back as quickly as possible.

Fonseca, meanwhile, isn’t someone who presses as high as Pioli did but usually his players start their press a little further away from goal, while often pushing up to wait for certain pressing triggers. Out of possession, Fonseca teams play in a compact 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 setup.

The idea is to be centrally compact and force the opposition into wide areas. Roma also engaged in fierce counter-pressing whenever they lost the ball in areas higher up the pitch.

Whether they have or do not have the ball, Fonseca’s teams always maintained a double pivot to protect the centre of the pitch and give vertical cover.

Fonseca’s teams always try to reduce playing area by making it compact vertically and horizontally. Unlike Pioli’s system, Fonseca’s press was more zonal during his time at Roma and Shakhtar.

One of the actions that elicits Fonseca teams to press is passing to the wide areas. Once this is done, one of the wingers or the attacking midfielder will block the passing lane for the full-back back to the centre-back. Once this is done the winger on the nearside or the attacking midfield (depending on who blocked the passing lane) will press the full-back and try to win the ball back.

In-possession tactics

When Roma do have possession, they move into a 3-4-2-1. The 3-4-2-1 has various iterations which I will show now.

Usually when Roma build up from the back the 2 centre-backs split and move into wide positions allowing the full-backs to push up. One of the midfielders from the pivot will slot back into the back 3 and the attacking midfielder will move into the double pivot.

However, there are also circumstances where the full-back has sat back into the back 3 (in this case Santon) and Veretout moved wide to take his spot. Or Pellegrini who is the attacking midfielder takes the spot of the full-back out wide while Veretout stays with Cristante in the double pivot. This shows the fluidity in the build-up phase within the positions defined by Fonseca.

While the full-backs stay wide and maintain width, the wingers (mostly inverted) tuck inside and play in the half-space. Fonseca allows the full-backs to overlap the wingers.

The positionalist approach of Roma meant that the player on the ball always had multiple passing options whenever he was on the ball. Their movements meant that the defensive midfielder, full-back and centre-back could form passing triangles in the wide areas.

In case the opposition pressed Roma towards the wide areas, they would either switch wings or form passing diamonds to move out of trouble.

Third-man midfield moves were made to move the ball quickly out of the defensive third.

Roma’s build-up play starts off very slowly but once it moves from the first line of defence, the tempo of passing changes and Roma move the ball quickly from defence to attack.

Chance creation

Once the ball crosses to the middle third, Roma move forward in a 3-2-5 system with 5 attackers.

When he was the manager of Roma, Fonseca allowed Dzeko to move out from his position and drop into midfield to be a passing option, allowing the wingers to make runs behind him while he flicked the ball on or made passes.

The wide position of the centre-backs meant that they could angle in passes to the players in the half spaces which Fonseca emphasized a lot. Half spaces are extremely difficult to defend as it poses defender a lot of questions and you can see how Mkhitaryan received the ball in between two defenders in the half-space from Dzeko before he scored the goal.

Fonseca relies on his players to dismark (remove their marker) while they are in possession and make runs.

Main weakness

One of the weaknesses of Roma during Fonseca’s time was their vulnerability to counterattacks. Roma counter-pressed as soon as they won the ball but if they did not win the ball back this would mean that they were extremely vulnerable to counter like Inter’s goal below.

Fonseca 2.0 at Roma and Lille

Roma 2.0

In a video interview with Coaches Voice Fonseca explained how in Italian football, contrary to his experience in Ukraine and the Champions League, teams attacked with five players up the pitch and with a back-four defence, which created a numerical advantage for the opposition.

To lend more balance in the centre and to provide more security at the back during counters, Fonseca shifted to a 3-4-2-1 or a 3-4-3. His attacking principles stayed the same but when his teams lost the ball they moved to a 5-3-2 or a 5-4-1 depending on the pressing patterns they wanted to use.

Hybrid pressing at Lille

Fonseca touched upon how his experience in Roma gave him a profound experience of man-oriented pressing (given how Pioli, Gasperini, Juric, Inzaghi all played that way) and being someone who is a constant evolutionary he inculcated it in his style of play.

At Lille, he would press higher up the pitch using a man-marking scheme where the double pivot would mark the opposition midfielders and the wingers would mark the full-backs.

Once the opposition bypassed Lille’s first line of the press then they would fall back into a mid-block and use zonal press and be a compact block like how his Roma and Shakhtar teams used to play.

Goalkeeper acting as a third centre-back

Milan fans are used to seeing it with Maigna, but Fonseca who never had a ball-playing keeper in his previous clubs and then got a proper ball-playing keeper in Chevalier. This meant that Lille were able to play an extra man in midfield.

Like in this sequence of play, Chevalier starts play and passes it to the right and instead of the usual three at the back, Chevalier acts as the third centre-back and this meant that Andre was able to suck the Lyon press to the right which freed Andre Gomis to receive and beat the press.

Baiting the press

One of the main ideas of Fonseca to create space is to suck opponents into pressing them. It can be done while playing out from the back, or it can be done to get a team out of their mid/low block or even to play out of a high press where they suck the press to one side and then quickly pass out of the press.

Fluidity and the role of Jonathan David

One of the successes of Guardiola in his positional plays is the fluidity of his teams owing to the high-quality individuals he has. Position play only needed positions to be covered at all times as long as Pep’s rules were respected

Fonseca at Roma was quite rigid with how his players played but with a mobile striker like Jonathan David, who could drop into midfield or play out wide, it meant that Fonseca’s Lille would have players take different positions but as long as those positions were occupied.

Now you can see wingers staying wide up the pitch and full-backs cutting inside or wingers playing inside and the attacking midfielder playing wide. Players had more freedom to play in the positions they wanted.

Stats for Lille

So what do the stats look like for Lille? Using xGA (expected goals against) which means the amount of xG opponents accumulate against you (basically means the quality of chances teams create against you), Lille had the lowest xGA for the 2022/23 season (which means teams found it difficult to create chances against Lille).

This meant that using the metric of xP Lille had the highest expected points for the 2022/23 season (higher than eventual league winners PSG) but missing chances and wastage of chances in front of goal meant that Lille could not capitalise on their air-tight defence.

In 2023/24, Lille averaged a total of 84.3% pass completion rate. An interesting stat is that in terms of crosses into the box, Lille rank second last in terms of number of crosses. Lille averaged 0.11 per 90 (2nd in the league) for quality of shots in the league without counting penalties.

In terms of goalkeeping, Chevalier’s G-psxG is +5.5 which means that he has conceded fewer goals than the quality of shots he has faced.

His use of data

Data analysis has taken over football. When Lille owner Gerard Lopez could not pay back his debt to Merill Group (Elliot’s friends), they took over the club. They appointed Sylvain Armand, an ex-player of Lille and PSG. To financially reconstruct the club, Armand had the task of keeping the club competitive while raising funds at the same time.

This is where Paulo Fonseca comes in. Somebody who believes in data to support the eye test. Below is an interview with him on the matter.


Fonseca (alongside Conceicao) was my preferred choice for his ability to continue what Milan have built over the years with Pioli and Maldini. Ibrahimovic emphasised the importance of youth and the U23 team, while the recently concluded U17 tournament showed fans the level of talent Milan have with Camarda, Liberali, Zeroli and Sia. It is important for Milan not only to nurture their talent but to add value to them.

Fonseca may not be a popular choice but he seems to tick many boxes. Then again, this is the first big job in his career and never has he managed a star-studded team like Milan. It is to be seen whether he will sink or swim.

Tags AC Milan Paulo Fonseca


  1. Nice feature.
    I preferred Motta and Conceicao over Fonseca. Didn’t know much about Fonseca outside of his 2 years at Roma. His Roma stint wasn’t something to write home about but seeing that Davide Samton was one of the players he had to rely on, it makes sense.
    Just like players, coaches improve and evolve. For Milan’s sake hopefully Fonseca has improved.
    I like the compactness and the smart press talked about in the feature instead of the scattered set up and dumb high press we saw over the last 2 years.

      1. Santon grew up a Milan fan thru the inter academy, similar to Balotelli. He is 33 right now and retired, which means he played for inter during the banter era. That’s like saying that Kevin Constant and Djamel Mesbah were good back then because they played for Milan for a while.

        1. Smh, saying constant and mesbah equal fate with santon and juan Jesus is an unforgivable sin. Santon retire coz his injury keep getting worse, not because he was bad. And juan jesus actualy won squdetto with napoli and still one of napoli active player.

          1. During their scudetto season Juan Jesus was a bench player. Kim and Rahmani were the starters. Jesus played a total of 929 minutes during that year. This past season when Juan Jesus was a starter we saw how good he actually is. Napoli defense was historically awful.
            Davide Santon was a poor player just like Juan Jesus still is. Stop overrating bum players.
            Mesbah and Constant played for Milan during Milan’s banter era, Santon played for Inter during their banter era. All 3 were trash players.

  2. Wonderful thorough analysis. Yes, it all looks good on paper. He loves the 4-2-3-1, and had great defensive stats in Lille. If we get the mercato right, I would be rather optimistic

    1. I find it funny how many people DON’T comment on pieces like this. LOL!!!

      Either because they don’t understand tactics or are simply on the threads where they can disapprove of something. 🤣

  3. Basically the same problems we had with Pioli except this guys pushes the wingbacks up with the wingers to attack instead of inverting them.

    Press up high but if you don’t do it right or not everyone is doing it at the same time then we are open to counters.

    Fonseca needs to shore up our defense so he better find a balance.

  4. Nothing in these tactics seem to be different to what we did under Pioli if I’m being honest. Plus the 2-3-5 (unintuitively) is superior, defensively, than the 3-2-5 which we played under Pioli in attack.
    I presume where they sought him out is in the data/stats where it seems he had good defensive potential/best in league. However it’s kinda sus that his teams are also susceptible on the counters…the very thing which is our main weakness.
    Oh well, we’ll wait an see but this doesn’t really inspire

    1. In general bout defense was the problem, not scoring goals.

      Pioli’s defense, esp in transition, was very ad hoc. Fonseca expects discipline in forming up the shape and compacting to force th attack wide.

      Flexing the ball out wide while marshalling. The defense centrally means more.time and simpler roles for the defenders. They know where trouble is coming from.

      In short, players will know where to go in defense rather than tracking back as speed looking over their shoulders.
      What I don’t know is how this will affect our own transitions.

      To me this is how 4231 is supposed to be played.

      1. Well that is the hope. I was just saying the article points at a contradiction…Fonseca teams are susceptible to counters eg at Roma but he had the best ‘potential’ defence based on xG against in the French league.

        btw The 4231 is such a versatile formation. You can play wings wide, tu ked in, pivots back or forward it one stay back, fullbacks wide with pivot dropping to a 3 .. etc etc. would interesting to see how we play in the new season but I suspect it’s much of the same.

        I’m with u in the defense is the problem not goals. I’ve been saying as much for a long time much to the annoyance if folks here. But it’s true. Our defence, particularly in midfield was terrible this year.

  5. All of that just to finish 5th and 7th at Rome. And 4th at French League. Looks like more or less the same pattern as Pioli. Hence the same weaknesses. And how can we look for continuation of Pioli well it’s proved to be outdated and outplayed by others. If we really looking for someone, might as well someone who can revolutionize the entire team.

    1. Exactly these guys look at this and think pioli didn’t have a tactics like this. Every coach can look good when you break down there strategy but like you said they can’t execute them then what’s the point.

      This is a disaster class waiting to happen

    2. It’s enough if Fonseca would be using players on their right positions and play ones that are in a good shape, rather than eg. forcing Giroud in poor disposition while having Okafor and Jovic on the bench, or welding Adli to the bench while in a lot of moments he could have provided for Milan. Pioli’s decision making was sometimes absolutely terrible.

      1. “Pioli’s decision making was sometimes absolutely terrible.”

        This. Time will tell whether Fonseca makes better choices but at least we don’t (yet) know what will happen in each match. Who knows, maybe we’ll even draw Inter one day.

    3. Yeah, also I don’t get this “oh no Fonseca would play the same formation that Pioli played, so it’s not a change”. But what’s bad in this formation? 4-3-3 or any other variation of that, like 4-2-3-1 is currently nicely being used by many top teams, like Man City with Guardiola. Also, as we started building squad for that formation there is no need to do complete makeover to suit different one (eg with Conte), just to do another makeover 2 years from now.

      It’s more about how Fonseca would be able to implement that formation and his ideas here.

      1. Any formation is rubbish if the players in it won’t play as a team. And any formation will be awesome if the players on the pitch are perfectly suited for it. The best coaches figure out the best formation for the team they’re in charge of and not try to force the players to adapt to his “one and only” formation (like Pioli did).

      2. You really want to compare our 4231 with City? And most of the times, it’s all about the system and scheme. And to freshen up your memories, it’s Pioli’s wisdom of genius to change our formation structure to 433 all box to boxes ball carriers physical European kind of s**t. Just to see him defaulted back to our 4231 when it’s gone fiasco.

        So the way you should see it, Pioli’s last season was not even the continuation of the old Pioli. And how can we continue to build the 4231 without the key players to run the system? Kessie’s gone. And they also sold the only player that might hold the system in Tonali. And you still dare to expect the continuation? It’s already gone when Maldini left. It’s him who said we already had a proper structure, only needed few star players to perfect it.

        All in all I’m not buying into all the stuff saying that he’s the continuation of the project. He might be good with young players, yes. But to continue the project, on which resulting exactly nothing this last couple of years, is just a baloney. Sadly Ibra was the face to say that thing.

        1. the team played a 4231 all season once they realized in preseason that Loftus cheek is not an 8… If you didn’t notice, he was playing as a second striker and finished just as many games with an average position higher than Giroud in the first half of the season as the second. He just doesn’t have the mobility to play as an 8. (There were 2 games he tracked back, but then he gave himself a hernia) and with a 325 or 235 on offense. Hopefully the personnel changes…

  6. Fonseca did not say a single word yet, but we have here 15 articles already about the same thing – so nothing 🤣

    How Fonseca would play with Milan, how Milan will lok with Fonseca, how Milan can build up, How Fonseca will play

    1. They’re just looking At his past. Probably the most likely indicator of what he’ll bring to the team 🤷‍♂️

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