As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve played alongside José Fonte in central defence, the chances are you will have had or are going to have, a career at the very pinnacle of the game.
Now 37, Fonte has played in all but one of Lille’s 26 Ligue 1 games this season and his rock-solid partnership with the talented young Dutchman Sven Botman has been integral to the club’s charge to the top of standings ahead of PSG.
Lyon moved to the summit after their 3-2 win over Brest on Friday night, but Lille responded on Sunday in a 4-1 triumph over Lorient, with Fonte netting the decisive goal that put his side 2-1 up, before holding firm at the back alongside Botman as Les Dogues struck twice more to reclaim top spot.
Botman is the latest in a long line of central defenders to have flourished while partnering Fonte. Virgil van Dijk, Rúben Dias, Toby Alderweireld and Botman’s predecessor at Lille, Gabriel Magalhães are among those to have benefited from his expertise.
Although Fonte is coming towards the end of a career that has spanned almost two decades and taken him from Portugal to England, China and now France, it is evident that he is still very much a student of the game.
“I certainly take an interest in stats and it has helped me a lot,” he tells Squawka’s Jake Entwistle. “If I see that Thiago Silva has above 90 per cent pass percentage and I see that mostly his passes are forward or his long ball accuracy is really good, that makes me want to beat his stats and focus even more on small details that make the difference.
“I know some other players like them as well, they are aware of them. They check them after the game all the time, the scores, the pass percentage, passes forward, key passes, whatever, or the duels you won, the tackles you won, the interceptions you made.”
Fonte has every right to be pleased by his own statistics this season. He has won 73.3% of his aerial duels in Ligue 1, averaged 1.2 interceptions per 90 minutes (2.4 per 90 in the Europa League) and completed 89.86% of his passes, a total only bettered in Lille’s squad by compatriot Xeka (91.15%) for players with five or more appearances.
Such information isn’t made readily available to Fonte or his teammates at Lille by members of the club’s coaching staff, he explains. Instead, the club’s data analysts keep track of the players’ physical performance during training and in matches.
“No players do it by themselves, to be honest,” he reveals. “It’s like word of mouth, you know, people just ask ‘can I see the stats?’ or ‘where do you get this app from?’ and stuff like that.
“We have some stats but it’s mainly like effort, how much you run, how many high-intensity sprints have you done, what’s the maximum velocity that you reached. Acceleration and deceleration. We have these kinds of stats. The club doesn’t give us the individual stats, not in Lille at least.”
Having played alongside some of the best central defenders in world football over the past decade, Fonte has an appreciation for what is required to make it at the top. He is particularly complimentary about his international colleague Rúben Dias and the impact he has made on Manchester City’s back four since joining from Benfica in the summer.
“It’s very simple. In my opinion number one is concentration,” Fonte responds when asked what is the key attribute for a central defender. “If there’s a guy who keeps his concentration the whole game – for example, you see Rúben Dias he’s one of the guys that can keep his concentration levels at the max all the time -it’s really impressive and you can see the difference he’s had at Manchester City.”
He added: “[Dias] he very rarely makes a mistake or a bad decision. He’s already one of the best. It’s not easy to go to Manchester City and impose yourself like he did so credit to him. He makes everyone else better too, John Stones improved, by playing alongside Joao Cancelo he improved as well. He’s made everyone better and that’s really good.”
Dias is the latest in a growing list of Portuguese defenders to have thrived in the Premier League. Before Fonte, there was Ricardo Carvalho who won three league titles in six seasons at Chelsea, including in 2004/05 when the Blues conceded just 15 goals.
“Carvalho was the most intelligent player at reading the game that I ever played with,” said Fonte, who won Euro 2016 alongside Carvalho. “Even at 38 or 39 when we were in the national team, he was just incredible with the anticipation, the interceptions he used to make. Unbelievable. He wasn’t big, he wasn’t very strong but to succeed at the level he did, you’ve got to be really outstanding in those areas.”
Fonte spent over a decade playing in English football, initially for Crystal Palace in the Championship before dropping down to League One when signing for Southampton, with whom he won back-to-back promotions to reach the Premier League in 2012.
It was during his time in England that Fonte learned the value of being a strong communicator from the back — a skill he passed on to Van Dijk amongst others.
“When I arrived in England back in 2007 in the Championship, I was 23,” he recalls. “I arrived by the hands of Peter Taylor at the time but he got the sack one and a half months later and Neil Warnock came in and it all started basically with him and Keith Curle, his assistant manager.
“They were always saying ‘centre backs have to talk’, you have to be the leader, you have to give information. And then by observing other players, I used to watch John Terry a lot, when I played against Rio Ferdinand and players like this, you start to hear and you see that they’re always talking.
“Pepe is quite communicative, he’s one of the guys that talks a lot. Bruno Alves as well. Dias is young but he talks a lot, at least in Portuguese I don’t know if his English is already good! Toby Alderweireld didn’t talk much but he gave the important information. Virgil Van Dijk started talking a lot by the end.”
Aside from the mental aspect of the game, Fonte also outlined the technical requirements for a defender. Although there is a greater emphasis on defenders playing more expansively in the modern game, winning duels remains a key part of the job.
How Fonte’s centre back partners – past and present – have performed per-90 this season (via Squawka Comparison Matrix)
“If he’s really good in aerial duels and really good in tackling, that’s a big attribute. Bruno Alves and Pepe were very aggressive players but if we’re talking specifically about duels I have to say Van Dijk [was the best]. He doesn’t lose duels normally, either in the air or tackling.”
A common thread that links Fonte’s centre-back partners together is their ability and composure in possession.
“In today’s game, it is important to give some good balls in between the lines, to have a good diagonal or to be able to go in behind as well. Or you just play simple and don’t take too many risks because we play in a position where if we make a mistake it’s a chance for the opponent.
“Gabi [Gabriel Magalhães] managed to find many times the passes in between the lines but I noticed sometimes that Arsenal play as a three and he always plays in the middle a bit deeper, so he’s much further away from the midfielders and strikers, which makes it more difficult to give passes between the lines.
“When he’s in a two and he comes with the ball, he’s able to find good passes. I like him in that way, but also Virgil is very good, Toby is very good too especially in his long passing, they are amazing. Virgil has a good connection with Sadio [Mane] and the boys at Liverpool to go in behind as well. I would say Ruben as well, he has a good passing range and a good passing ability.”
Fonte was integral to Portugal’s Euro 2016 success, playing every game from the last-16 stage onwards as A Seleção won their first ever international tournament. He is bullish about their chances of retaining the title this summer, insisting that they are “not scared of anyone” and can “win against anybody”.
With Lille leading the way in Ligue 1 and Portugal looking in formidable shape ahead of Euro 2021, Fonte will be hoping for a glorious Indian summer to round off what has been an exceptional career.