Friday, November 27, 2015

Goal's Anatomy: Gegenpressing

Ever since Jürgen Klopp arrived at Borussia Dortmund the word "Gegenpressing" started to make its way around the media and specifically tactical websites (such as this one). Klopp's arrival at Liverpool, in particular, fanned the flames even further, but it's sometimes hard to define just what the term comprises.

Gegenpressing can be translated literally as counterpressing and it is basically a method that some coaches think to be a very efficient approach to hurt your opponents. Usually, a team either relied on numbers at the back when they gave the ball away and immediately retreated into their own half or they would press high when they didn't have the ball. The gegenpressing's innovation is that one's opponents are most likely to get hurt when they have just won the ball back and are therefore still looking for the right way to turn it into attack - which can sometimes lead to confusion and the unexpected opening of spaces.

A few weeks ago Barcelona and Villareal met at Camp Nou and showed just how useful and effective this weapon can be. This edition of Goal's Anatomy will focus on it in some more detail.

  • 1. Normal defensive organisation.

This is in no way a surprising picture. Barcelona have the ball (Andrés Iniesta does, to be more accurate) and Villareal defend in numbers with everyone behind the ball apart from Roberto Soldado, in a not that atypical 4x4x1x1. There is quite some distance between Villareal's right back Mário Gaspar and the centre-backs and also a lack of coverage in between the lines, but that will be covered elsewhere.

  • 2. Dynamic shifts

Numbers and layouts are, of course, nothing in football, because it's how dynamics work that make or break the lovely ideas one might have drawn on the board. In this case, Iniesta tries to connect with Luís Suárez via a long ball while Munir El Haddadi tries to make an inside run, as so often is the case. Notice the shaded circle where Sergi Roberto is almost by himself in one of the most important areas of the pitch.

  • 3. Villareal win the ball back

Iniesta's hopeful long ball doesn't yield much as Víctor Ruiz heads it clear and the Yellow Submarine win the ball back. Villareal midfielders do a poor job of patrolling their midfield, as indicated by the shaded circle. Now would be the time where Villareal should start deciding how to turn this ball recovery into an attack of their own. Also, notice that there aren't that many Barcelona players around where the ball is lost at the moment.

  • 4. Barcelona pounce while Villareal dillydally

While the Villareal players try to keep the ball down from Ruíz's header, Barcelona react extremely fast and immediately swarm around their opponents in the area of the ball, robbing Villlareal of the necessary time to decide on their next move. Roberto and Sergio Busquets get closer to Iniesta and, together with Dani Alves, force Villareal's mistakes.

Because Villareal were already thinking about transitioning into attack, most of their players abandoned their defensive (body) positioning and most of them even took a step or two forward. Compare, for instance, how almost every Villareal player had his feet facing their own goal in the previous picture and how, on this one, their midfielders are almost in line with the ball, rather than behind it.

Because most players were considering opening up the pitch (namely the right-back), spaces opened up all of a sudden where, in Barcelona's normal attacking phase, there weren't many.

  • Conclusion

Therein lies the beauty of the gegenpressing: By surrendering control of the ball for a few seconds, one can actually befuddle their opponents (sometimes) more easily than when having supreme control of the ball. By allowing the opposing team to win the ball back, one also allows them to lose their balance as they turn their inner chip into attacking mode, ergo making them less prepared to defend in case they give the ball away.

If used wisely, the gegenpressing can have devastating effects and provide a very useful way to tear more defensively solid teams apart in just a few seconds. You can see the whole play just below.

José Mourinho: Involution After Success?

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As so often was the case when he graced the football pitches in Spain and the rest of Europe, leave it to former Barcelona midfield maestro Xavi Hernández to hit the nail on the head about José Mourinho: "He was the assistant coach, someone who understood the philosophy of Barça and who shared many of the same characteristics of Van Gaal. He was very respected by the players. He trained us sometimes alone at Barça B and he was excellent. I'm surprised that he became known for another type of football, more defensive, because he wasn't like that with us."

And therein lies probably one of the most fascinating aspects of The Special One's trajectory thus far.

Much has been said and written about Chelsea's misfortunes this season. But the truth is that, in fact, this downward spiral was not that hard to envision - that is, if you pay some attention to more than just the immediate results. What was once a coach with a great eye for detail and tactical innovation (albeit a more subtle one) has become a shadow of his former self, relying exclusively on his dressing room management skills - à la Luiz Felipe Scolari.

  • 1. The Beginning

Mourinho was given his first chance at a marauding Benfica and he immediately transformed the team, at every single level. However, the fact that he didn't stay there for more than a couple of months didn't help us understand just what he was capable of.

He needed to get to União de Leiria, by then an average mid-table club in the Portuguese top tier, to really make his mark. By December 2001, his team were already flying as high as third, two spots ahead of his eventual employers FC Porto, who rushed to sign him before anyone else would. But what impressed a few (including this column, admittedly) the most was not necessarily the table standings, but rather how he had got there, with proactive football, unafraid of anyone and eschewing altogether the tenets of the typically reactive football played in Portugal in the early seasons of the century. He was a breath of fresh air. The players loved to play for him. Some of them shone like they had never done before (and some of them never would again).

Despite some revisionism laid out by a few football writers as of late, both União de Leiria and FC Porto played much more than just controlled, run-of-the-mill football under a very inspirational coach, like some would have you believe. Mourinho paid excruciating attention to detail (as the famous leaked report by then-opposition scout André Villas-Boas) in an attempt to always get the upper hand on his opponents.

He was indeed inspirational for other coaches, as he seemed to bring a fresh new approach to football and its coaching. Even though he didn't preach anything revolutionary, he seemed to be one of the few who represented the entire package - not only was he able to preach possession-based football and training sessions where the ball was ever present, he also had a penchant for press conferences and soundbites, a supreme confidence in his skills and the air of someone who was going places, all rolled into one.

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What impressed this column the most was however the fact that his approach seemed to be based on a philosophical approach. Interviewed and queried for books and PhD thesis, he was able to show the reasoning behind his decisions on the pitch and in the dressing room. Despite winning the Portuguese league, the Portuguese Cup and the then UEFA Cup in his first full season at FC Porto, Mourinho knew he couldn't just rest on his laurels and went in search of something to motivate his players and keep them in check - hence the intense work on the 4x4x2 diamond that was a relative rarity back then and that proved so successful in Europe, yielding the Champions League in 2004.

Mourinho always had the collective, the group in the back of his mind. In one of the best books written about his career and approach, the Portuguese coach explained how zonal marking was the only option to defend set pieces, since it held the whole team responsible for the play's outcome - once again the group before the individuals. He went on to talk about the principle of complexity (how the relations between the different individuals in a team changed the team dramatically and how any coach should pay attention to it).

On another book, he talked about the Guided Discovery, i.e. how the coach had the responsibility to lay clues for the players to find out the best answer to a specific problem was, Mourinho himself knowing all along what he wanted the answer to be. He bragged about how he wanted to dominate matches or at least control them, if domination was not an option. He talked about how he wanted his teams to press high and then rest with the ball. Players were delighted with his innovative sessions. In short, he sounded much more like the coach Xavi had got to know at Barça.

  • 2. Top of the World

Everyone knows how the story goes by now. After winning the Champions League, Chelsea's new owner wanted Mourinho to lead his team and wouldn't take no for an answer. The Portuguese was an instant success, from his very first press conference. He won his players over in a heartbeat and indeed, in the first matches of the off-season, it was already possible to see many of the movements that Mourinho had implemented at FC Porto.

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According to this column, that Chelsea side was probably vintage Mourinho, the place and time where he sublimated all his skills and honed his qualities even further. He was clearly enjoying himself and everyone (opponents included, sometimes) was basking in his presence. That was the time where his side steamrollered the opposition, sometimes shutting up shop at 1-0, sometimes running rampant. Players like Damien Duff, Arjen Robben, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Eidur Gudjohnsen, Paulo Ferreira and so many others enjoyed some of the best moments of their playing careers in what seemed to be an almost unstoppable Chelsea. All of the main tenets were there and it seemed Mourinho was the alchemist that had come across the definitive winning formula.

  • 3. Always Brightest Before The Night

Mourinho decided to go to Inter Milan as the luminary that would set the oft-floundering Massimo Moratti's club on their way back to glory. And that Mourinho did. But that was also where you could sense things starting to fall apart a little bit, a very hard proposition to sustenance when everyone knows Inter ended up winning the Italian League and the Champions League in the two seasons that the Portuguese coach spent in Italy.

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However, there seemed to be more than just the adaptation to a new country, culture and club (all the best coaches do it, just look at what Pep Guardiola has done at Bayern Munich since joining in 2013). The focus on keeping the ball was much less present. The single holding midfielder started giving way to a more solid doble pivote, man-marking started to be interspersed with zonal marking at set pieces, the team were more dependent on individual players. Some of the football was admittedly poor, while some was clearly scintillating. Inter might have deservedly won the Champions League, but, to some followers of his career, Mourinho seemed to be missing a step or two. The fact that he won the Champions League based on a more reactive brand of football might have been a strong reason for what has been happening since.

  • 4. The Tipping Point 

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It is hard to qualify José Mourinho's time at Real Madrid. Some will call it a success, while others would have a harder time doing it. Even Mourinho himself labelled the 2012/13 season the worst of his career, at the end of a very tough, politically-ridden 3-year cycle at Real Madrid. In this case, the most important aspect is not the loads of silverware he piled up or that should have grabbed for his club, but rather how things unravelled from a tactical point of view. While the 5-0 defeat against Barça five years ago almost to the day was clearly one of the toughest days in his professional life, things should not be based solely on that particular result, especially because he managed to do so much more while he was at the helm.

On the contrary, this is about how he got to those results - often times with a much more reactive brand of football, resorting to have his team play exclusively to the strengths of Cristiano Ronaldo, even when it had costly implications on the rest of the squad and their playing style. It seemed Mourinho was involving, going back on all the principles that had brought him such a high level of success.

Man-marking at set pieces became the norm everywhere. Transitions became the team's livelihood. Ceding initiative to opponents soon became the traditional way for Mourinho's side to have the upper hand. Sérgio Ramos or Pepe (neither of whom excel in the build-up phase of play) as the team's holding midfielder was not an unusual sight and denounced the team's focus. Controlling matches with frustrating underhand tactics was not uncommon either. A man so steeped in his principles of positive football and collective thinking seemed to have sold his soul in exchange for more and more trophies.

  • 5. The Return to England

It is hard to fathom matches that are more made in heaven than Mourinho and the United Kingdom. Each party delivers what the other one wants, craves, loves and hates - in equal parts. And because Mourinho came back with a vengeance amidst claims of being The Happy One, it was even harder to get the point across that this was a different Mourinho, more interested in managing things from his tower and less willing to impose his football on his adversaries.

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While the spirit in which he surrounds his team might have been enough to get past a befuddled Manchester City, a David Moyes-led United and the typical Arsène Wenger's Arsenal, all the signs were there: Chelsea were not playing top-class football, either offensively or defensively. Man-marking was now spread to open play, which left the team (and particularly John Terry) much more exposed to anyone who was able to envision the blind spots. The ball was now clearly something to give away (the elimination at the hands of 10-man Paris Saint-Germain at Stamford Bridge being the ultimate example) and ideas to attack opponents' goals seemed to be limited to "give the ball quickly to Hazard" and "Let's see if Fàbregas is capable of pulling a through-ball".

Clearly Chelsea will bounce back from this stupor and will probably progress from the group stage at the hands of FC Porto themselves. The 7 defeats were clearly a statistical blip. But blaming all of that on a thin squad or the typical 10-year cycles of successful managers seems to be a lazy exercise of reasoning, of a certain blindness to what had been taking shape beforehand. It remains to be seen just how far José Mourinho can take this squad and how he will be able to mend some of the fractures that already started to appear in the dressing room.

  • Conclusion

This piece is no way destined to draw attention on all of José Mourinho's falls, but rather how his path has been a slippery slope and how there has been some evidence that such a blip might not be too far off. The siege mentality that the Portuguese usually implements on the clubs he manages tend to work, but it's a scorched earth approach that often leaves many of its members burnt - particularly at a time where player power is at its height and it's increasingly difficult to confine footballers in a "one for all and all for one" mentality for too long.

It is this column's opinion, however, that unless Mourinho reverts his recent trajectory in terms of pure footballing approach, the titles that seemed to be coming his way so thick and fast will tend to spread out eventually, maybe sooner rather than later, as he fails to innovate and make his football as dominating as the approach Mourinho himself adopts at press conferences, where he is still "el puto amo". If he does not step up his game, players will soon catch up with it and start losing faith in his skills and it will be increasingly hard to see his players weep over his departure.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 conclusions from Bayern Munich 6-1 FC Porto

Bayern Munich and FC Porto met once again last Tuesday, six days after their previous contest - the six days that Pep Guardiola kept claiming would be enough to correct some mistakes and make the difference. And that they did, as shown in the final scoreline. Similarly to last time around, here are five things we should take from Tuesday's drubbing of FC Porto.

  • 1. Football is about much more than just footwork

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There is one aspect that should be highlighted before any other: While the return leg will be a sad reminder for all FC Porto supporters of the gulf that now exists between their team (and any other Portuguese side for that matter, something that will tend to worsen as UEFA cracks down on third-party ownership) and Europe's big dogs, this was a match that offered one of the best pieces of evidence of how football will probably be played in the future.

Both sides kept adjusting their positioning and tactical formations throughout most of the match and both sets of players were able to interpret the changes and different tasks and movement that different positions required. Apart from the goalkeepers, centre-backs and the centre forwards (and even so...), virtually every other player had to keep reinterpreting the diverse challenges the match insisted on posing as both managers fine-tuned their teams in search of the advantage point. In comparison to, for instance, last weekend's Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, it becomes clearer and clearer why the Premier League is falling behind the European wagon.

  • 2. Tactical (in)flexibility

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There is probably a reason why Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is hailed as one of the best coaches in the world and is always in such high demand. At the press conference in Porto a week earlier, the Spanish coach made no mention of the weekend Bundesliga fixture, repeatedly focusing instead on the six days until the return leg and how those six days would be important to correct a lot of the things he had perceived as wrong.

On the other hand, FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui made the odd-sounding claim that his team held no surprises and that everyone knew how the Dragons played. Sure enough, the first half was the perfect mirror for both coaches' stances.

While Guardiola kept almost the same starting XI (Holger Badstuber taking Dante's place), the side had little to do with the eleven men that took to the pitch at the Dragão. The Spaniard even went as far as saying that Bayern were not ready for Jackson getting so tight to maestro Xabi Alonso on the first leg, but that they were ready for it when the second leg came around.

Indeed, Xabi Alonso hardly ever got himself in between the centre-backs and for most of the first half his role resembled a simple game of shadows, making sure his movement dragged Jackson Martínez out of the way so that Jérôme Boateng and Badstuber had the necessary space and time to progress with the ball or pass it with some purpose. FC Porto went through the whole first half without being able to adjust to that simple manoeuvre.

Furthermore, the Spanish coach played his full-backs Rafinha and Juan Bernat in a narrower position, rather than hugging the touchline - with Phillipp Lahm and Mario Götze providing width. This allowed Bayern to have significantly more passing options and bamboozled FC Porto's men, who were unable to understand whether to mark their supposed direct opponent or the one that kept popping near them.

  • 3. The coach's hand

Julen Lopetegui will have been doing
a lot of this last Tuesday.
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In last week's match report from the Dragão, a reference had been made to just how important coaches are and how their work is sometimes plain for everyone to see. At the Allianz Arena, Lopetegui did himself no favours by stationing Mexican centre-back Diego Reyes on the right side of FC Porto's back four, which meant that a man with hardly any playing minutes during this season was deployed out of position, at one of the toughest stadiums in Europe, facing one Mario Götze.

Given the Portuguese side's need for technically skilled players at the back so that the team had time on the ball when they got it back and the fact that facing Bayern hardly ever calls for a less mobile player stationed out wide, it was hardly surprising to see the Mexican player being replaced with Ricardo half an hour into the match.

On another note, it is equally hard to ignore the fact that FC Porto came out like a deer in headlights, afraid to use the third way between pressing or parking the bus that had worked so well last week. While it's true Bayern were much more accomplished with their pressing when transitioning into defence and effectively stifling the Portuguese side, it is undeniable that the Dragons were a bit further back than at the Dragão, which yielded a huge distance to Bayern's goal whenever they had the chance to win the ball back.

Whether by design or the inability to put his players at ease before such an important match, Lopetegui's European reputation took a serious dent here, as anyone curious enough about the first leg's result to tune in for the return leg won't have been impressed with FC Porto's first half.

  • 4. The vulnerabilities of 4x3x3

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One of Pep Guardiola's main trumps is his rejection of one definitive tactical formation. While he has perhaps been most successful with the 4x3x3 during his Barcelona stint, he has proven more than adept at chopping and changing his tactical formations in order to keep opponents - and sometimes his own players - guessing.

Even though Bayern seemed positively outmanoeuvred at the Dragão, the Spanish coach clearly learnt his lessons and went with a very different approach this time around, drilling holes in what seemed a very static strategy from FC Porto.

In fact, Guardiola stretched FC Porto out wide with Götze and Lahm, but made sure there were plenty of passing options in the middle. As mentioned on the first leg's preview, Óliver Torres and Herrera can sometimes take too long to occupy the necessary positions in front of their defence and Guardiola surely noticed it. With Robert Lewandowski often dropping back with his back to goal, there was also Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Müller lurking around, which meant FC Porto's holding midfielder Casemiro was much less sure of whether to press or cover the space.

Last night's match was surely a definitive reminder of just how vulnerable the 4x3x3 formation can be if the opposition knows how to pick the pockets of space that invariably form around the holding midfielder and behind the interiores - or shuttlers. The time FC Porto took to take notice of those changes was crucial to Bayern's incessant pounding.

  • 5. What does it all mean?

The problem with analysing results rather than processes in football is the instant bipolarity this option presents. Last week Guardiola's head was to be served up on a silver platter and his Bayern project was going nowhere. Today he's being heralded as one of the big names in coaching history. Conversely, Lopetegui was last week being touted for the Real Madrid coaching position (the rumour mill at its best) and this week he's under an enormous amount of pressure as he is forced to defeat Benfica at the Estádio da Luz if he harbours any hope of winning the title and therefore keeping his job with his current employer.

For Guardiola this emphatic win was most definitely a sigh of relief. With last season's debacle against Real Madrid in mind, crashing out against Europe's minor opposition, for all their history, would have deepened the sense of perceived crisis in Bavaria and truncate the Spaniard's wiggle room. While they seem under control, success in domestic competitions would no doubt be insufficient for the club's (almost impossibly) high demands and might bring Guardiola's project into question.

Therefore last night's win - and the way it was accomplished - will serve as the perfect panacea for Bayern's ailments and provide Guardiola with the much-needed time to bring some of the key players back, rather than being forced to watch the rest of the Champions League on the telly. On another note, the demolition of FC Porto will serve as notice for anyone that might think - at their own peril - that Bayern were already with one foot out Europe's door.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

5 conclusions from FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich

Following yesterday's night match (memorable for FC Porto, inescapable for Bayern Munich), it's now time to dwell for a bit longer on what lessons can be learnt from the result and the display from both sides. Here are five bullet points.

  • 1. Xabi Alonso marked out of the match

Xabi Alonso's frustration
was on display throughout the match.
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A coach can sometimes drill his players to exhaustion and ask them to do a specific thing or set of things on the pitch and never actually see it come to fruition. Therefore, it's not often that a coach gets to see it materialise on the second minute of a very important match.

As it later became evident, Jackson Martínez had clear instructions to sit close to Bayern's maestro Xabi Alonso and thus frustrate the team's passing rhythm (the Spaniard came in behind the likes of Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Juan Bernat, Sebastian Rode and even Jérôme Boateng as far as passes in the attacking third are concerned). FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui couldn't have dreamed that that very strategy would yield the match's initial goal as Xabi Alonso was caught out in possession by the same man that would come to deny his extraordinary passing skills. If Bayern could never get into their passing groove, much credit should go the month-long absentee Jackson Martínez.

  • 2. Moments and areas for pressing: the key

FC Porto players gave it their all
in the attempt to close down Bayern's passing options.
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Contrary to Thomas Müller's words, FC Porto did not win last Wednesday by parking the bus. In truth, they did the exact opposite at first by playing a relatively high line and then pressing Bayern's centre-backs and/or Xabi Alonso, in order to disrupt the Bavarians' rhythm. Even though they have been used to being the ball hogs themselves throughout the season, Lopetegui's charges adapted well to the fact that they would see less of the ball and were willing to take a step back and press only when it was deemed necessary.

Rather than pressing their opponents all over the place, FC Porto accepted Bayern's superiority in terms of ball possession, but rather than sitting deep, forced the Germans to play under the Portuguese's own terms. And that is perhaps the biggest lesson of them all for players, coaches and supporters alike - perhaps more than whether to press or not to press, the most important thing is to know what to do when it's time to do it. That way, FC Porto were able (most of the time) to condition Bayern's play towards the areas they felt most comfortable in.

  • 3. Holding the ball up: crucial to breathe

Quaresma might have
provided his trademark finish,
but his work rate impressed the most.
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Despite the final scoreline and the Bayern obituaries that have been written following their capitulation at the Dragão, FC Porto struggled quite a bit after the first 20 minutes up until the half-time whistle. During that period Bayern successfully stifled the Dragons and forced them to retreat to their penalty box and misplace several passes when they won the ball back.

If things didn't pan out as badly as they could have, it was in large part due to the ability displayed by Jackson, Yacine Brahimi and Ricardo Quaresma to hold the ball up and either wait for the foul to come or solve the situation by themselves - thus giving the team some much-needed time to breathe. Without that skill set, FC Porto would probably have succumbed to Bayern's pressing, even if the Germans never looked quite their best at the Dragão.

Quaresma and Jackson's goals will stay in the club supporters' mental highlight reel for a long time, but it was their work rate, willingness to track back and numerous good, yet less visible decisions that allowed FC Porto to thrive.

  • 4. Ball possession: blessing or curse?

Bayern had to wait
until the 28th minute to unleash their celebrations.
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Any time a team that bases their football around ball possession loses, the knives come out to criticise the approach and the judges use the latest defeat or poor display as ultimate evidence that holding on to the ball in and by itself is an ill-advised approach. This is not intended to be one such case.

The main theory sustained by those who prefer a thriftier approach when it comes to sharing the ball around claims that when one's team has the ball, the other team cannot score. The main hole in that theory is that no team in the world - not even Pep Guardiola's Barcelona or World Champions Spain in their prime - was ever able to keep their opponents from having the ball for several minutes, however few they were. The other pressing countenance is that a quick break or getting caught in possession only takes a few seconds to yield at least a scoring chance.

This is in no way a hark back to more cynical times where Serie A teams excelled, but more of a starting point for a discussion about how it's much more important to know what to do when a team effectively has the ball, rather than whether they have it for a short or long time. Ball possession in and by itself offers nothing as an end product, but may well be the best way to keep your opponents from hurting you. The only problem with that is that you need huge amounts of confidence to make it work - and definitely better centre-backs on the ball.

  • 5. Knowing one's strengths and weakness

Dante and Boateng were hardly ever given a moment's peace.
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The position of centre-back could actually be one of the best starting points for any analysis of yesterday's proceedings. On one hand, Lopetegui was humble enough to realise Robert Lewandowski presented a clear threat, particularly given Bayern's recent, more direct way of playing as a result of so many dribblers missing. Therefore, he made sure that the Pole was almost always doubled up on whenever the ball was contested in the air, but also that the areas around him were duly occupied with FC Porto players.

On the other hand, the Basque coach admitted that his centre-backs could not run the risk of being dispossessed near their own penalty box and that was why both Maicon and Bruno Martins Indi had no qualms hoofing it up towards Jackson Martínez (whenever possible), rather than exposing themselves to being caught in possession against the likes of Götze or Müller.

Guardiola, in turn, saw Boateng and Dante (and even Manuel Neuer) put in some gasp-inducing passes and moves, and not only ended up chasing the score but was never sure enough anything similar wouldn't happen again either. For a team that is so dedicated to ball possession, it seems baffling that, with so much money spent all over the pitch, Boateng and Dante are still the go-to centre-back pairing.

In purely defensive terms, both centre-backs showed once again that they are from comfortable when dealing with physically imposing strikers (or forwards, for that matter) and high balls, which was why Jackson managed to give FC Porto some wiggle room up the pitch and how the third goal came about.

FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich: Dragons Work Their Magic

Previews had been written. Podcasts had been recorded. Stats had been analysed. And yet nothing quite seemed to lead anyone to believe FC Porto were about to add another incredible chapter to their already success-laden book of European nights.

Not even the most optimistic FC Porto supporter would have hazard such an adventurous guess: A 3-1 win, resulting from such an incredibly valiant display. With the second leg coming up at the Allianz Arena in less than a week's time and without both Alex Sandro and Danilo, though, the story will be far from over and FC Porto players, supporters and coaches will have to brace themselves for a bumpy ride.

  • To Be or Not to Be: A Third Way?

But how did this all come to pass? That is probably the question going around the head of most journalists, if not every FC Porto supporter on their way home. There had been some discussion about what exactly Julen Lopetegui's approach would be and whether it would be better to hold back and afford Bayern Munich the initiative or, on the contrary, pounce on the Germans' perceived vulnerabilities.

It turns out FC Porto's Spanish coach had something else on his mind and went with an alternative option. Rather than pressing heavily - and indiscriminately - from the front, his charges had clear instructions to keep their lines compact (the Dragons did not start out with the proverbial bus parked), allow the ball to reach the centre-backs and pounce on them when they looked most exposed - a mishit pass, getting the ball with their backs to goal, etc.

The approach worked wonders and by the tenth minute FC Porto were already leading 2-0 via similar passages of play. On the first instance, Jackson Martínez caught Xabi Alonso out in possession and charged towards goal and got around Manuel Neuer, only for the German goalkeeper to bring the Colombian down. Ricardo Quaresma coolly scored the ensuing penalty and, five minutes later, repeated Jackson's actions by intercepting Dante's underhit pass and provided an even cooler finish to put FC Porto in the driver's seat.

  • Physical and mental yo-yoing

The German champions effectively looked shaken by the worst start they could have imagined, but they gradually grew into something that looked closer to their best. In fact, as the match wore on Bayern forced FC Porto backwards more and more and increasingly put the Portuguese under pressure. (By the end of the first half, Bayern had accumulated 70% of ball possession, a statistic that Lopetegui is used to seeing under his own team's column and that reflects how little of the ball FC Porto had seen.)

By the time Bayern scored through Thiago Alcântara's first goal in more than 450 days, things were starting to look shaky for FC Porto, as their players seemed to grow physically tired as a result of their incessant pressing, especially through the centre in an attempt to close down Bayern's passing options. Coverage started to arrive a bit later than usual as the first half drew to a close and the out-balls were not getting to their destination. This column wondered during half-time just what Lopetegui would fine-tune in the dressing room to avoid what seemed to be the impending German attacking barrage.

As it were, the exact opposite happened. Bayern took to the pitch and almost immediately looked ill positioned, particularly in central midfield, oddly awarding FC Porto acres of space into which to break, rather than attempting to stifle the Dragons. When Jackson Martínez delicately received Alex Sandro's long diagonal pass and once again got around Neuer for the third goal, Herrera had already forced the German 'keeper to make a wonderful save and the feeling at the stadium was that FC Porto's third goal was somehow more likely than Bayern's second.

  • The coach's hand

It is sometimes hard to perceive - or to explain - just what a coach does in the background to help increase his team's performances and results. Here it was rather easy to assess just how well Julen Lopetegui had drilled his team as his players kept pressing under the same circumstances and adapted almost miraculously to what the match asked of them - something very different from what they are used to on most matches.

There was Casemiro's excellent positioning throughout the game whenever Bayern got to the goal line and tried to cut a pass backward, the incessant coverage provided by the wingers to their full-backs and the awareness of where the out-ball had to get out through. A team that plays with such confidence and panache even when facing one of Europe's fiercest sides necessarily means his coach has to be awarded some credit.

  • Thiago, Götze and the diamond

Guardiola made some subtle changes to his team's tactical layout, chiefly the forwards' positioning. Most of the time, Bayern seemed to be playing in a diamond 4x4x2, with Mario Götze often behind Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. While it was one of the reasons why the Bavarians managed to put FC Porto on the back foot throughout the latter half of the initial 45 minutes, it also backfired spectacularly throughout the first half of the second period, as Götze became more unaware of his defensive duties and Lahm and Thiago were not enough to protect Xabi Alonso.

When Sebastian Rode came on for Götze, Thiago was allowed to move higher up the pitch. And while Rode actually did very well for himself, Thiago stopped being the threat he had been posing for the first hour of the match as his new positioning now meant he was much closer to Casemiro and the Portista defence, forcing him to often receive the ball with his back to goal.

Despite Rode and Lahm's best intentions, it was clear FC Porto were being allowed too much space to break into. Even though Pep Guardiola would later come to say that in his opinion the match was never out of their control, the fact of the matter was that it remains rare to see any Guardiola side offering so many chances to their opponents with so little control down the middle.

  • Football: A Game Played with One's Head? 

Perhaps more than any tactical tweak, however, it may have been the mental approach that Guardiola mentioned at his press conference that did the trick for both teams. As far as Bayern were concerned, the Germans looked more and more baffled and dispirited as the match wore on, particularly after FC Porto's third goal, and never resembled the assured team they were during the first half of this season (and no, this match does not constitute enough reason to celebrate the end of tiki-taka).

As for the Dragons, the same team that was starting to look a bit lost as the half-time whistle blew suddenly found themselves awash with fresh confidence 20 minutes later as they realised beating Bayern (if not on the aggregate of the two legs, at least in front of their own crowd) was eminently doable. Danilo might have laid on the ground with cramps while Casemiro couldn't bring himself to get his hands off his knees after the final whistle was blown, but they had been zipping around just seconds earlier - a case of mind over matter if there ever was one.

  • Quaresma: A Wizard Coming into His Own?

Anyone familiar with this column(ist) will have come across some of the doubts surrounding Ricardo Quaresma's contributions to the team. As it were, today was definitely one of the best matches from the Portuguese winger, not (only) because of the goals he scored - and the two cool finishes would be enough to stand on their own - but also because of the stupendous amount of work (defensive and otherwise) that would have seemed impossible not so long ago.

Quaresma held the ball when he had to, dribbled when he should and kept showing himself available to team-mates in need of an out-ball. And that - in the middle of such a memorable night from most players - should be highlighted above anything else.

FC Porto may be in for a tough match at the Allianz Arena, but they have at least made Europe sit up and pay attention to the only undefeated team in the competition so far - even after playing the dreaded Bayern Munich.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

FC Porto x Bayern Munich: The Preview

With such a monumental match coming up as far as FC Porto are concerned, PortuGOAL had to step up and provide a thorough preview of what can only be described as a David-vs-Goliath sort of clash. This time there's room for an in-depth analysis and also a short podcast for anyone that feels more inclined to listening rather than reading. You can find both pieces here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

FC Porto 4-0 FC Basel: The pictures

Last Tuesday night FC Basel were comprehensively beaten by FC Porto, a match that was analysed soon after the end of the match. But sometimes words fail to paint a proper picture that helps explain where exactly the difference lay between the two legs. An attempt to put it into context follows below.

  • Jackson who?

There's always a risk while praising a player for one isolated performance but here Vincent Aboubakar was certainly a linchpin for FC Porto's attacks throughout the match. Whether acting as a wall off of which his team-mates could bounce their passes or getting himself into scoring (or at least finishing) positions, the Cameronian's ability - and willingness - to make himself available to open passing lanes meant that Jackson Martínez was not as sorely missed as one might think. Whether this was a one-off evening or just a taste of just what Aboubakar is capable of remains to be seen. If Jackson Martínez leaves, as expected, the former Lorient man will certainly have lots more opportunities.

  • A different attacking approach
At the press conference, Julen Lopetegui claimed that the team adjusted their strategy according to their opponents - something that is not exactly groundbreaking, but that has sometimes been hard to notice when FC Porto are concerned. Last Tuesday there was clearly a change of tack and the centre was a much more fertile ground for scoring chances. The wings were still the starting point for attacks, but more as a decoy - usually through the seemingly unshakable Brahimi - so that FC Basel's centre could become vacant.

Contrary to what has been the norm so far, decent chances came from the middle, rather than the wings. The Dragons kept wreaking havoc with an approach that worked wonders throughout the whole 90 minutes.

Just in case there remained any doubts, the chalkboard below compares the number (and origin) of crosses over the the two legs and certainly helps explain FC Porto's different approach against Paulo Sousa's FC Basel.

Another noticeable aspect was how less involved Cristian Tello was when compared to his counterpart down the left, Brahimi. Without space to run into, the Spaniard winger is sometimes frustrated all too easily (even though the run that drew the foul for the first goal was his). Even his team-mates seem to be aware of that and, consciously or not, tend to seek Brahimi for the out-ball. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how many dribbles (stars) the Algerian attempted and how he invariably sought his team-mates with passes inside.

  • Evandro comes into his own

It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for former Estoril man Evandro. With Óliver Torres and Herrera in front of him in the pecking order, he's been usually limited to come on for the last 10-15 minutes of matches. Here, however, he was able to make the most of a few consecutive starts following Óliver Torres' injury in the first leg against Basel and his silky touch and intelligent positioning enabled him to find pockets of space to receive the ball in, as well as distributing it calmly and wisely. Playing mainly left of centre, he combined well with Martins Indi and Brahimi, and was able to keep FC Basel's midfielders guessing.

  • Compactness in midfield means greater solidity at the back

One of the knock-on effects of the proximity between FC Porto players while attacking was that they were able to immediately get close to the ball when it was lost and stop FC Basel from getting their counterattacking groove on. Therefore, the defence consequently looked more solid, even though it was comprised of (almost) the same players doing the very things they've been doing so far. The difference was in the much tighter shielding.

Casemiro was one of the key players for that effective shielding, patrolling the area in front of his defence when necessary, but - more crucially - playing closer to his midfield team-mates, which allowed him to exert counterpressing and winning the ball back on numerous occasions (green diamonds stand for ball recoveries and green crosses stand for tackles won).

FC Porto were on one hand much quicker to react to giving the ball away. But, on the other hand, they were also able to time their pressing much better than in times past, successfully pinning FC Basel at the back and robbing them of the necessary time to breathe and impose their own passing, high-pressing game.

When compared to the first leg, it's not exactly hard to see the different approach in defence as well, with the centre much less exposed and the number of ball recoveries (green diamonds) and tackles in the centre increasing dramatically. By winning the ball back in such advanced, central positions, FC Porto were able to create danger simply through better positioning - thus proving once again that the game's fluidity makes it hard to tell attack and defence apart.