Eight years after the conclusion of his two-season stint at Fiorentina, coach Paulo Sousa has returned to Serie A with the delicate task of steering Salernitana to safety, as the Granata hope to extend their unprecedented two-year stay in the Italian top flight to a third consecutive season.
However, several years of struggle and a series of controversial choices have seen the Portuguese manager’s reputation erode, as he went from being one of the most talented emerging coaches on the market to a boss that desperately needs the fitting team to revitalise his career.
Back in the 2015/2016 season, Sousa clinched a 5th-spot finish in his first season at Fiorentina with a team that somehow pioneered a new way of playing in Italy – the possession-based and high-pressing football played at the Artemio Franchi was just a sneak peek of a broader trend that would hit European football in the following years.
A series of jobs leads to Salernitana
However, Viola’s decline was just as rapid as their rise, and the former Inter and Juventus player has never really managed to bounce back since leaving Florence, as troubled stints at Tianjin Quanjian, Bordeaux and the Poland National Team followed, before Flamengo decided to sack him after as few as 10 league games in June 2022.
It took Paulo Sousa more than six months to either be called or decide to accept another job – he took over from Davide Nicola in the midst of a roller-coaster season that has seen Salernitana close in on the Serie A top 10 before dangerously plunging through the rankings, amid chaotic management from owner Danilo Iervolino.
However, a deep squad that mixes internationally experienced players such as Guillermo Ochoa, Antonio Candreva and Tony Vilhena with some talented prospects like Lorenzo Pirola, Emil Bohinen and Matteo Lovato, could provide Sousa with the right tools to take Salernitana to unexpected heights.
Paulo Sousa’s peak at Fiorentina and subsequent decline
A former midfielder that peaked during his days at Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, Paulo Sousa was nothing more than an unproved manager when Fiorentina appointed him. In spite of having cut his teeth by winning national titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Basel, he still needed to prove himself in a much more competitive league like Serie A, notably one that hardly gives emerging coaches the time and patience required to give shape to their ideas.
Furthermore, the Portuguese hadn’t left particularly fond memories during his early coaching experiences in the English Championship, as he was sacked by Queen Park Rangers and Leicester City, managing to complete his only full season with Swansea.
However, his bold start at the Stadio Artemio Franchi could hardly go unnoticed — Sousa’s debut season in Serie A saw his Fiorentina side win six of their seven first league matches, including a 2-0 win against Milan on the opening day and a 4-1 thrashing of Inter at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza.
But it was Viola’s modern and eye-catching style of football to impress more than anything else. Usually shaped in a 3-4-2-1 system, the players were quick in absorbing their coach’s playing principles – a central midfield duo composed of two between Milan Badelj, Borja Valero and Matias Vecino made Fiorentina a team that loved to control possession and take hold of their opponent’s half, but they also boasted an unprecedented aggressiveness for Italian football.
Fueled by a quick back-three, which felt at ease leaving wide portions of the pitch behind them, Fiorentina performed an impressive collective high-pressing aimed at winning the ball back high up the pitch, in a position that allowed them to pose threat as quickly as possible.
As a result, Sousa’s side kept their backline very high, piling constant pressure on their rivals – once the ball was won back, the polished feet of the likes of Josip Ilicic, Nikola Kalinic, Federico Bernardeschi and Marcos Alonso made sure the Viola had plenty of solutions to find a breakthrough.
As the months went by, a lack of consistency became the most evident issue for an inexperienced team that seemed to struggle to perform at their best level week in and week out. This didn’t stop them from qualifying for the Europa League via a 5th-place finish, but the following season didn’t bring the hoped-for improvements.
In spite of amassing one point more than in the previous year (48), Fiorentina finished 8th in Serie A in 2016/2017, with the club deciding to part ways with the Portuguese manager, putting an end to a bittersweet experience.
It is not known how Sousa imagined his career to unfold after leaving Florence, but it is fair to say it didn’t go as planned. He was sacked after 11 months in charge of Tianjin Quanjian, left Bordeaux before completing his first full season at the helm and fell out with executives at the Poland National Team when he decided to leave the job he had taken 11 months before in order to join Flamengo.
His stint at the Rio de Janeiro giants was arguably his lowest point, as he never managed to win the hearts of an overly ambitious fanbase and follow in Jorge Jesus‘ footsteps – instead, he was even taunted for his methods, which included installing a giant screen in Flamengo’s training centre, before the club decided to dismiss him following a poor start to the season.
Can Paulo Sousa keep Salernitana in Serie A?
As much as his reputation may have been affected by his latest experiences, since his very first days at Salernitana, Paulo Sousa made it clear that his love for football is still intact. He spent his first press conferences talking about tactics, attitude on the pitch and specific game principles, and it is fair to say it took him little time to turn all of that into practice.
Following a 2-0 home defeat to Lazio in his first game in charge, Sousa’s Salernitana kept their first clean sheet in 12 matches in an emphatic 3-0 win over Monza, one of Serie A most well-trained sides, before getting three consecutive draws, two of which came against AC Milan and Thiago Motta’s revitalised Bologna.
But once again, the most reassuring signs for the wide Granata fanbase came from the pitch, as the manager’s ideas seemed to nicely fit the personnel at his disposal – while Sousa rotated several players in his first outings, his attempts to shape an intense, aggressive and efficient side were immediately visible.
Also, Sousa strived to get the most out of his players with a proactive approach – he moved Antonio Candreva into the trequartista role to exploit his flair and reduce energy-wasting runs, and he seems to be enhancing the game of a number of players, including Grigoris Kastanos, Emil Bohinen and Lorenzo Pirola. In addition to that, the organisation provided by the new tactical setup has allowed Salernitana, the worst defence in Serie A when the coach was appointed, to concede just three goals from their last four games.
A tough fixture list awaits the Granata this Spring, but should Sousa’s side replicate or even improve what they’ve shown against AC Milan or Bologna, they’d boast good odds to get the points required to stay in Serie A for a third season in a row. At stake, there’s a chance for Paulo Sousa to coach Salernitana for a full season, with time to build his team’s identity and test his ambitions, also taking advantage of Iervolino‘s penchant for investing in his club.