Friday, August 24, 2012

A fair game

Starting line-ups
Contrary to popular belief, there's much more to football than the top three or four teams in any given country. Therefore, and this blog are proud to open up their scope and pay closer attention to the other teams of the Portuguese league. In fact, it's high time we appreciated in detail the work of these teams' players and coaches.

The first match of the Portuguese league's second round involved two teams with great potential, led by two bright, fiery, young coaches in Pedro Emanuel and Sérgio Conceição, enough to make many curious about this game's outcome. Indeed, the match did not disappoint and offered plenty of interesting issues to analyse - not least the fact that two teams aiming to play positively are just what the doctor ordered for the Portuguese top division.

Académica started off better and by the 10th minute, they had already had two very good scoring chances, both coming from the right wing. The Students were more aggressive on the ball and actually broke the tactical pattern that most teams abide by: rather than going with a more traditional 4x2x3x1, Pedro Emanuel arranged his team in a 4x3x3. Not only that, but he was also daring by instructing Flávio Ferreira (Académica's holding midfielder) to drop back, much like Javi García has done for Benfica, and be the linchpin for their attacks. With that formation, both Rodrigo Galo and Hélder Cabral were able to play higher up, benefiting from the intelligent moves from Cissé and Marinho.

Babanco (red) was not Conceição's safest defensive bet.
Here he does not even provide the correct defensive coverage.
By not standing between the attacker and his goal,
he exposed the team to the outcome of Maurício's aerial duel. 

With Rui Duarte stranded up front just off Yontcha, Fernando Alexandre and Jander clearly had too much on their plate. Académica's wingers would often drift inward and confuse Olhanense's marking assignments. In fact, the full-backs were not sure whether they should track them inside or leave them to be marked elsewhere, which paved the way for many attacking raids from Rodrigo Galo (in the first half) and Hélder Cabral (in the second half).

By coming inside, Académica's wingers overloaded the centre,
opening up space for their fullbacks' forays.

Olhanense, in turn, seemed a tad lost at times, particularly because their most cerebral player, Rui Duarte, was playing too far from his preferential zone and forced to play with his back to goal. Furthermore, his presence that high up the pitch meant that Académica just kept piling up the pressure and winning back the balls repelled by the men from the Algarve.

Consequently, Académica's goal was hardly surprising, given the flow of the match. If anything, it probably should have come earlier, since by then Olhanense were looking better and more like their usual selves. Conceição replaced the ineffective Abdi with David Silva, a substitution that would eventually pay off.

Despite their honorable attacking intents, Académica need to improve their transitions into defence - they often commit too many men forward, away from the ball, which tends to leave them vulnerable at the back - and learn to control a match. Even though they did try to slow the tempo of the game, they weren't exactly successful in doing so and allowed a now bolder Olhanense to chase the result.

David Silva's goal served to show that the 4x2x3x1 currently favoured by most coaches needs mobility. Otherwise, it can get too predictable and static. By being more adventurous with his well-timed runs, Silva was more of a nuisance to Académica's defence, who now could not afford to worry just about Yontcha. When they did just that, Olhanense scored.

The two centre-backs (yellow and blue) have their eyes on Yontcha.
By tracking him upfield, they left their back exposed for Silva's diagonal run.

In conclusion, this was a very entertaining match that helped demonstrate the Portuguese league has plenty to offer if we just give it the opportunity. Also, it's worth pointing out that both these teams are about more than just the (necessary) points and actually try to play attractive football.

Finally, Marinho played a great game and may be off to greener pastures, Makelele is a relentless worker and Cissé is clearly someone to follow up closely. His first touch, movement and reading of the game are there for everyone to see. He's not likely to spend more than this season in Coimbra.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Should FC Porto really offload Hulk?

Hulk is likelier than ever to leave FC Porto by the end of August, provided one of the interested clubs is actually willing to fork over the €60 million his employers are asking for. Therefore, this issue raises some interesting, pressing questions.

1. Is it worth it to keep disgruntled employees on the payroll? The example of Álvaro Pereira has been making it plain for everyone to see that there is such a thing as good timing and bad timing to sell one of your best players. Last year FC Porto's left-back was one of the most sought-after players in the market, believed to command a transfer fee of approximately €22 million. Pinto da Costa, usually a savvy trader, chose not to sell him (least of all to Chelsea, who had just hired his former coach somewhat bullishly). After a less than average season, Pereira's value plummeted to something around the €13 million, if the press rumours are to be believed. If FC Porto's president goes down the same path with Hulk, will the same thing happen to the Brazilian? If that is not enough, let us not forget about the cases of Maniche, Costinha, Derlei, Bruno Alves and Raúl Meireles, to name but a few.

2. Can FC Porto play without a star player on the wings? FC Porto have been playing some sort of 4x3x3 since Mário Jardel was offered to António Oliveira (except for a string of matches under Co Adriaanse). In fact, there aren't that many teams nowadays that are as faithful to this system as FC Porto have been over the last 15 years. António Oliveira, Fernando Santos, Co Adriaanse, Jesualdo Ferreira, André Villas-Boas and Vítor Pereira have been wary of moving what seems to be a pre-established order, from the outside. A winning 4x3x3 needs a complementing midfield - a reliable holding midfielder (which Porto have in Fernando), a high-paced box-to-box midfielder (João Moutinho) and a creative spark (which Lucho hasn't been able to provide since he returned to Porto) - but, most importantly, a good 4x3x3 must have width (Barcelona is a non-issue for this matter). If Hulk leaves, FC Porto will be almost winger-less, since James tends to drift inward, Djalma was loaned out, Varela seems to be going down Vítor Pereira's pecking order and Iturbe's real value is still unknown. Even though Danilo and Alex Sandro may be able to prove their mettle, it's a tall order for them.

3. Who will be the star all the other players will look up to? Say what you will about Hulk, but he's proven time and again that he does not shy away from matches and that he doesn't go MIA when things get tough. On the contrary, his ability to decide matches almost singlehandely often makes him try too hard and sometimes makes his team-mates to forget about creating passing lines. If Hulk actually leaves, FC Porto will miss an attacking reference to look for when matches get cagey, either in the Champions League or the Portuguese league. Despite all his improvement, James is too mercurial (at least for now), Jackson Martínez has just arrived and no midfielder has those particular traits.

All in all, FC Porto will be faced with a tough task, no matter what their option (or lack thereof) may be. Keeping a player against his will hardly ever works, even when he papers over the cracks, but on the other hand, allowing Hulk to leave may open up a hole in the squad and put down a huge burden over whoever replaces his on the team.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Welcome back!

Starting elevens

First things first: what a great start to the Portuguese league. An entertaining match, two teams aiming for the victory, uncertainty about the result, subtle tactical changes, one penalty and one sending-off. One can only hope this is but an appetizer for what's to come throughout the remainder of the competition.

One of the key aspects worth noting is the difference in Braga's behaviour. Not so long ago, most teams were expected to play a timid game at the Luz, eager to give the initiative to the home team. It was a very refreshing and positive sign to see José Peseiro's men wanting none of that and looking to control the match. In fact, Beto was probably selected ahead of Quim precisely because of his better ability with his feet, which enabled Braga to play among the central-defenderes and their goalkeeper to avoid any potential pressure Benfica might exert up front - sometimes exaggeratedly so.

On the other hand, Jorge Jesus seems to be set in his ways and his chosen eleven almost looked like a testament to his will not to give any fire power up. In matches as even as this, prudence would probably recommend a more balanced squad (as seen last season, for instance), but Jesus was having none of that and went with Cardozo, Rodrigo, Bruno César and Salvio up front. This meant that Benfica were even willing to initiate their attacks with Javi García dropping back, almost transforming the team in a 3x3x3x1.

Javi García dropped back and both centre-backs widened their positions,
with Maxi Pereira and Melgarejo pushing forward. 

Braga, in turn, had a distinct notion of where and when to pressure, usually allowing any of the three players from the back time on the ball and then pouncing on Witsel (or any other player that might drop back), meaning that Benfica were finding it very hard to play out from the back. Peseiro seemed to have instructed his players to exploit the space behind Witsel (and the other four attacking players) and it worked for a couple of times before the half-hour mark.

The strengths

One of Peseiro's qualities known to everyone is the amount of work dedicated to ball possession and combination play. Not only did Braga's back four seem quite comfortable on the ball, but we were also able to see how well the players move with the ball and in space. Furthermore, with Viana, Mossoró and Lima on the team, this is a side that can shift the ball around like few others and tire their opposition.

Mossoró often moved towards the right, trying to create overloads for rookie Melgarejo (such an unfortunate first match for Benfica from the young prospect), who had little support from Bruno César. To make matters worse for Benfica, Lima would frequently move away from his (supposed) markers and create confusion about who should be marking him, keeping Javi García from aiding Benfica's recently appointed left-back.

On the other hand, Jorge Jesus is known for his well-drilled set pieces, which have worked wonders in the past, particularly in this sort of matches. Tonight's match offered perfect evidence that even a free kick as simple as this one can offer a clear scoring chance, provided everyone knows what their job is.

Bruno César (red) provides the screening, keeping any Braga player
from tracking the run from Maxi Pereira (green).
With a simple, coordinated move,
Maxi has no opponent in front of him and almost provides an assist.

Second half

The second half brought the sizzle that had beenmissing - the goals. It started out with Benfica's first, 49 minutes into the match. Given that they had been in control for most of the first 45 minutes, it was odd to see the away team a bit detached - and, at the same time, it showed the importance of keeping the lines close to each other.

Rodrigo attracts two opponents and Ismaily (blue) correctly provides the coverage.
Oddly enough, no other Braga players seemed worried about Salvio (yellow).

As expected, the rebound falls to Salvio, who is all alone,
with Custódio still trotting back.

Benfica were in front and the team from Minho looked a bit lost for a while. Despite a stuttering performance, maybe this was what the Eagles needed to up their game and take control of the match. Nevertheless, Benfica offered yet more evidence how hard they find it to dictate the tempo and lull their opponents into submission a few minutes later. As it was often the case last season, the centre of the field remains unprotected and Javi García and Witsel are often overrun. Braga's goal was a good example.

Paulo Vinicius plays a simple pass to Lima (blue), who had dropped back.
Afraid to lose his man, Garay (red) tracks him and opens up space.
Maxi is worried about Amorim (green), who drifts inside, clearing the way for Ismaily.

Ismaily has open road ahead of him.
Garay (red) remains stranded and opens up a hole in the middle.

After that, the match slowed down quite a bit, the exception being Rodrigo and Mossoró. The two remaining goals came from almost random situations, rather than as a result of carefully thought out plays or movement. Still, it is worth noting that, while Braga coped well with the numerical inferiority, Custódio, Viana and Amorim looked exhausted as the match drew to an end, no doubt due to their presence in the Euros.


All in all, this made for a very interesting match. Even though this is just the beginning of the season, Braga looked well-equipped for the upcoming months, with very interesting notions while in possession, which will tend to improve as the competition progresses. As for Benfica, it was hard not to see some of the mistakes from last season, but Jesus is an intelligent coach and will surely know how to coax the best out of their players. After all, this was just the first of many, many matches.