By Alasdair Gold: Football London
Irony is splashed across Tottenham Hotspur’s search for their next head coach right now as their two month process nears its end with Paulo Fonseca now the leading contender for the role.
On one side you have the Spurs supporters who have expressed their frustration at the length of time it has taken to replace Jose Mourinho, who was relieved of his duties on April 19, and also called for someone to take more of the decision-making power off chairman Daniel Levy.
Both of their demands are set to be met with incoming general manager Fabio Paratici wanting Fonseca, but judging by the outrage on social media the end result is not what the fans wanted.
There is of course also irony on the club side, with Spurs now looking to appoint the man who was pushed aside by Roma so they could appoint…..yes, Jose Mourinho, the man pushed aside by Tottenham.
History will decide which of the two teams got the better end of one of the strangest managerial swaps in recent years.
The deal for Fonseca is close, although not yet done, and this month has already shown that what looks likely to happen at the north London does not necessarily materialise. The reaction of the fans to the news may well also have caused alarm among the already under-fire Spurs hierarchy.
One person inside Tottenham told football.london this week that the club had “chased dreams” in their managerial search since Mourinho left.
Spurs’ top choice and their biggest dream was the return of Mauricio Pochettino. The Argentine was the reference point for their brief to find their next manager – favouring attack-minded, possession-based football, developing young players into stars and using the cutting edge sports science techniques introduced by Pochettino.
However, after positive talks with their former boss the attempts to prise him away from PSG proved futile. Real Madrid’s approach also washed up on similar rocks as the French giants flexed their muscles and stood firm.
With the Pochettino door closed, so Levy turned towards an old structure he has experimented with many times in the past two decades – the director of football role.
Pochettino is not believed to have been keen on working within such a structure at Spurs this time around, wanting more of a say in key decisions.
With the Argentine out of the picture, Tottenham turned to Paratici, the Juventus transfer guru they had eyed up in the past.
His impending appointment has certainly caused waves within the club. Spurs’ current technical performance director Steve Hitchen – who has director of football duties – is believed to have been unaware of the moves to bring in Paratici.
The treatment of Hitchen, who is popular within Tottenham, has left a number of staff and players unhappy but the club are understood to want him to remain within their new structure.
All eyes will be on Paratici now though and what power he will be able to wield.
His role at Juventus after Beppe Marotta’s departure in 2018 had been a bigger, wider ranging role than simply a director of football, more a CEO of sporting matters and it is a similar position that he is expected to take up at Tottenham.
That should in theory give him more power than those directors of football – with various titles – who have come before him in David Pleat, Frank Arnesen, Damien Comolli, Franco Baldini, Paul Mitchell and Hitchen, and struggled within the parameters set by the club.
However, many within Spurs doubt that Levy will ever relinquish too much power at the club. This is a man who by his own admission was constantly on site during the construction of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, micro-managing to such a degree that he was choosing what type of finish surfaces had in certain rooms and deciding upon the most minute of details.
One sign that points in Paratici’s favour is that the club dispensed with Hitchen’s shortlist of candidates who met the chairman’s desire for a manager who fitted the club’s “DNA” and the new man was given the power to decide who he should work with. The strength of a director of football structure does rely on the man at the top choosing the right fit for him as well as the club.
Antonio Conte, suddenly a free agent and someone who had worked closely with Paratici at Juventus, became the next dream but again it did not prove to be a reality.
The former Chelsea and Inter Milan boss did not fit the original profile Levy was looking for, but when one of the world’s most successful managers shows interest in your club, it would be folly to not at least talk.
After initial promising discussions, it became clear that Conte and Tottenham were not on the same page in their expectations for the club’s financial might this summer and talks soon fell apart. Conte had departed Inter in a similar situation and it is difficult to see how Spurs thought they could present a different project.
Paratici, who has already begun planning the summer transfer activity as well as becoming the key driver in the new head coach search, turned his attentions to Fonseca.
The Portuguese was not on Tottenham’s top candidate list in its original form although he was identified as a talented coach, but Paratici has seen enough of him in Serie A in the past two years to push him to the top of his own wishlist after the Conte talks failed.
Those inside Tottenham and within Fonseca’s camp believe a deal is close but is not yet finalised.
For the Spurs fans, following the failure to land Pochettino or Conte, the Portuguese has been labelled as an uninspiring choice, coming without the Premier League experience or sustained trophy success outside of his time in the Ukraine at Shakhtar Donetsk.
The 48-year-old, born in Mozambique, did impress at Roma during points in both his two seasons with the club.
In his first campaign he improved on their sixth-placed finish before his arrival to take them up to fifth in the table.
This season, at one point Roma were third during this campaign and seen as one of Serie A’s most entertaining sides but injuries hit them hard from March onwards as they competed in Europe as well as domestically and their season fell apart.
Roma ended up, like Spurs, finishing seventh in their final table. It had already been announced that Fonseca would be leaving at the end of season, communicated just days ahead of their Europa League semi-final second leg against Manchester United, with Mourinho to replace him.
On paper, Fonseca does fit that brief Tottenham originally drew up and he is different in style to his Portuguese predecessors in N17 in Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas.
He likes his teams to play aggressively high up the pitch but with selective pressing in the right moments as they take the game to the opposition and he is believed to be a strong motivator who connects with his players.
This season, in describing the way his teams play, Fonseca told ESPN: “No, I don’t like playing deep and waiting for the counter-attack. Sometimes it can happen in moments with my team, like against Ajax in the second leg of the quarterfinal, but it is not my style of play.”
Critics of Fonseca have said that his team can be vulnerable defensively – something that will concern Tottenham fans after their own defensive concerns season – and the Portuguese said that can be a by-product of his style of play.
“I think [when we’ve had problems] many times, it hasn’t been because other teams created situations against us. It’s because we made mistakes, losing balls in the first phase of play,” he said.
“I think we paid more dearly for those mistakes than is normal, and that has been our biggest problem, because yes, this type of game that we play can be risky, but in the long run I believe it is successful.”
His players do appear to forge a strong connection with him. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who played for Fonseca at Roma and also under a certain current Chelsea boss at Borussia Dortmund, believes there is a comparison to be made there.
“”He is similar to [Thomas] Tuchel, he is trying to put the players in the right position, giving them the freedom to enjoy their style of play,” said the midfielder.
“I’ve had the best coaches in my career and I’ve learned a lot not only about the game of football, but also about life. Even now that I am 32 years old I want to learn, because I want to know a lot about football and about life.”
On Fonseca’s style of play, he added: “We play differently depending on who we face, especially when we have the ball. Sometimes we have to stay tight, other times we have to stay wide. It depends on the game and the situation.
“It’s not about the position you start the game in, it’s about the space. We try to use the space to create opportunities for ourselves and for our teammates. The most important thing is the chemistry between the players, because if you have chemistry you can do different things.”
Even long-serving Roma full-back Alessandro Florenzi, who found game time hard to come by under Fonseca, said: “That’s something that’s fundamental for me, respect for people and their work. The coach was very clear about this.
“Fonseca is one of the greatest coaches I’ve had in football. The problem is that he might not like me in that particular role and that he expects something else from me. I have a great relationship with him and he clearly told me that he didn’t know how much space he could give me.”
Fonseca, who speaks good English, has previously admitted he dreams of working in the Premier League.
One key point for Tottenham and Levy will be that praise for the Portuguese from outside of his clubs often centres on him making the best he can from what he’s got.
Former Milan midfielder Massimo Ambrosini said this season of Fonseca’s Roma: “I like the calmness, the balance, the desire to always try to lead the games. Last year he had the ability to compact the environment with the many injuries. He didn’t manage to put his work into practice in full, but he deserved to be reappointed.
“He’s a modern coach, he doesn’t focus on a single idea, he tries to make the most of what he has available. I still think Roma are very strong. They’re well built.”
Fonseca also enjoys developing younger players, having given Diogo Jota his debut as a teenager at Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira, and he has never been afraid of using younger talents at any of his sides, which could bode well for the likes of Oliver Skipp and Ryan Sessegnon next season.
With Tottenham’s finances hit hard by the pandemic, the Portuguese’s ability to make the most of what he has will appeal to Levy.
That Fonseca comes without the need to pay any club compensation for his services will also catch the eye in a week when the Premier League announced that Spurs and the other five English clubs involved in the Super League will collectively pay £22 million, which will go towards “the good of the game”, on top of their financial commitments to UEFA after a similar decision.
The fans are underwhelmed by the potential appointment, with many struggling to see how this potential new arrival will convince Harry Kane that his future is best served at Tottenham.
If Fonseca is appointed, it will certainly be a huge test for not only him to adapt quickly to a very different league than he has been used to, but also Paratici to make the environment around him the best possible in order for him to succeed with funds brought about through sales.
All eyes will remain on Levy though even if this appointment has been driven by Paratici.
One hope to cling to for the fans could be that Tottenham’s managerial appointments in the past 20 years have been most successful when Levy has not got his man or that man he wanted has not succeeded.
In 2014 Pochettino himself was second choice behind Louis van Gaal only for the Dutchman to turn down the job. Years before him, assistant manager Martin Jol enjoyed success after taking over from the mess that came from the long wait for and then resignation of Jacques Santini.
Then Harry Redknapp hauled Tottenham up the table after the man Levy had controversially gone behind Jol’s back to get – Juande Ramos – failed in the Premier League.
Pochettino, Jol and Redknapp all advanced Spurs’ cause during their originally unlikely eras in north London and there will be hope that Fonseca can make the most of being down the initial pecking order.
Tottenham chased their dreams in Pochettino and Conte but the time was not right for either to return to London and the club and its fans must hope that Fonseca is the reality they require.