The life of a head coach within football can be a difficult one, there are a number of variables that can affect whether you are seen as a success or a failure at various clubs you coach and for the most part, these can be outwith your control. It almost seems as though timing can be a key factor in the success and perceived status as a coach.
The Portuguese coach Paulo Fonseca is a case in point. From originally impressing as a coach in his homeland with clubs like Aves and Pacos de Ferreira he then made the difficult move to Portuguese giants FC Porto. Unfortunately for Fonseca, the squad at Porto was in flux when he joined and despite impressing in the early stages of the season he was removed from his position by the beginning of March in his first season.
So back to our original point, sometimes the success of a coach is more about timing and environment as it is about the natural talent and aptitude for the role of the coach. Fonseca was lucky in that he was still young, in coaching terms, and he was able to rebuild his reputation first back at Pacos de Ferreira and then at Sporting Braga where he impressed and once again began to attract the attention of the bigger sides in European football.
To some, the next move in the coaching career of Fonseca may have seemed something of a poisoned chalice as he made the move across Europe to take charge at Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine. The Ukrainian side have of course been enormously successful in recent years dominating domestic football as well as impressing on the European stage but Fonseca would face the prospect of replacing the legendary Romanian coach Mircea Lucescu, a coach so successful that the club decided to install a statue of him outside the ground. Not only that but the country as a whole was in flux given the ongoing dispute over territory with Russia and it seemed as though the Shakhtar project would be coming to an abrupt end.
To say that Fonseca has impressed since taking over at Shakhtar would be an understatement. He has continued to dominate domestically whilst also performing so well in Europe that Shakhtar finished second in their Champions League group behind the irrepressible Manchester City but ahead of the much-fancied Napoli, who they consigned to the Europa League.
It is arguably more important however that he has managed to improve each player at the club on an individual basis with the likes of Fred and Bernard, in particular, improving to the extent that they are now drawing covetous glances from some of the elite clubs in Europe. In this respect, there are perhaps tenuous parallels to Pep Guardiola and his reputation for man management.
In tactical terms, however, Fonseca is somewhat unique in terms of top-level European football with an emphasis on a strong defensive block as the starting point for everything that Shakhtar do. Indeed for this tactical profile of the course, the defensive block is the logical starting point.
Fonseca is very much a coach who likes to build from the back with an emphasis on a strong defensive structure. His preferred base system is 4-2-3-1 although domestically he has been known to utilise two-striker systems in order to break down stubborn deep blocks that the opposition like to use.
The key to the 4-2-3-1 of Fonseca, however, lies in the defensive or rather the controlling midfield two who sit centrally ahead of the defensive line. The reason that I changed my description of these players from defensive to controlling is simple, they are so much more than purely defensive players with each having the capacity to operate in the attacking phase as well as to destroy in the defensive phase. Indeed one of the regular controlling players for Shakhtar is Fred with the Brazilian midfielder being linked heavily to a move to Manchester City having impressed the English side enormously in his performances against them in the Champions League, that City see Fred as an option to rotate with Fernandinho then they see him as far more than just a destructive player.
The key to the defensive structure is just that, it is structured. Positions within the system are relatively fixed with the four-man defensive line staying deep and compact whilst the line of three more attacking midfielders press the ball and look to close down passing lanes.
Therefore the link between the two controlling midfielders is essential to deny the opposition access to the space in front of the defensive line in the final third. The two players rarely stray far from one another and offer cover should one of the two have to move out of position to press the ball in certain situations.
Again here you can see that the two controlling midfielders are positioned just ahead of the defensive line. In terms of pressing we tend to see this Shakhtar side look to press more in the central areas trying to force their opponents to focus their attacks out in the wide areas where the fullbacks are a strength of the side and where crossed balls into the box can be comfortably dealt with.
The controlling midfielders however also provide an attacking outlet in transition with both Fred and the likes of Taras Stepanenko being comfortable in possession of the ball. As such we tend to see Shakhtar look to build through these midfielders before the ball is progressed through either the fullbacks as they advance or the attacking midfielders who find pockets of space in the final third.
In more established periods of possession, we also see them take up positions at the base of the attacking structure as they look to offer options to allow their teammates to recycle and keep possession to change the angle of the attack.
Structure in the attack
Whilst Shakhtar are excellent in their defensive phase they are more accustomed, especially domestically, to dominating possession and playing the majority of the match in the opposition half. While some coaches, notably Guardiola, encourage an element of chaos and creativity in the final third the tendency for Fonseca is to prefer an element of structure in these areas.
As mentioned previously the controlling midfielders also play an important role in the attacking phase by providing the base of the attacking structure and allowing their teammates to shift the ball quickly to change the angle of attack.
This structure allows for comfortable possession with the opposition being compressed both horizontally and vertically as we can see above, with options to move the ball around the final third as well as players positioned around the penalty area who are able to make quick movements to take advantage of spaces that open up in the defensive line.
The Shakhtar fullbacks move right up into the edges of the final third and are able to create and retain the width of the attack, thus allowing the wide attacking midfielders to operate more in the half spaces or even centrally.
Here we see Fred in possession at the base of the attacking structure and as mentioned previously the defensive line and midfield line of the opposition are forced into a more compact shape vertically. This, in turn, opens up spaces in wide areas and as you can see from the above Shakhtar have an immediate overload in the wide area should they move the ball out wide.
These attacking structures and mechanisms make it increasingly difficult for the opposition to defend against Shakhtar the longer the attacking phase lasts, eventually they will find a way through or around the defensive block.
Interplay in the final third
With Shakhtar dominating the play in the final third against the majority of opponents they rely on quick periods of interplay in and around the final third in order to play through or around the opposition defensive block. Here the quick, technical attacking players come in to play. The likes of Bernard, Taison and Marlos, in particular, are superb at playing in tight spaces and have the creativity to find passing angles and lanes through even the most stubborn defensive block.
Of course without the width and depth provided in the attacking phase by the fullbacks and controlling midfielders.
Here the play is started by the Brazilian left-back Ismaily who is excellent going forward. As he approaches the final third the opposition midfield line shifts across to close him down. In doing so, however, they leave passing lanes into the central player completely open.
The ability to identify passing lanes and opportunities for quick combinations are evident in the way that Shakhtar attack and here the ball is quickly shifted centrally before coming back out to Bernard who has the capacity to quickly attack the corner of the penalty area.
This time the interplay and combination come on the right-hand side. The midfield line of the opposition has condensed but there are still small pockets of space between the defensive and midfield lines. The man in possession is able to find the passing angle through to the striker who has made a small movement to open up the passing lane. Key then is the timing of the run from the right-hand side as he moves past the midfield line and through the defensive line in order to collect the through ball from the striker and have a chance on goal.
It is no surprise to see Paulo Fonseca being linked to club jobs in Western Europe given how impressive he has been in his short spell in the Ukraine. His coaching methods and tactical style should translate well to a number of different leagues although the strongest links at the moment appear to be to Everton.
Having already shown the willingness and indeed the resilience to keep going after a very public perceived failure at Porto we have seen Fonseca take a real chance on the environment of a team in Shakhtar being right to allow him to succeed. He should plan his next move carefully as another impressive showing at a larger club could see doors open towards the very top tier of European club sides.