Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Atlético Madrid 2-0 FC Porto: Predictable exit for Dragons

Starting elevens

FC Porto followed Benfica's lead from Tuesday and bowed out of the Champions League, but forgot to observe the Eagles' example and at least win the match, particularly after Zenit did their part and made things harder for themselves.

It seems unfair to blame a team that hit the woodwork three times, had a deflected shot against a post and missed a penalty. Paulo Fonseca will most likely be heard complimenting his team's play and pinpointing bad luck as the chief reason for the side's premature exit from Europe's top competition.

However, PortuGOAL alerted to some of the key aspects that were changing under the former Paços de Ferreira coach and this reporter went as far as saying that the groups draw had been far from fortunate for FC Porto, given how Fonseca had been moulding his team. As it were, a paltry record of no home wins (for the first time in the club's history) and just one victory in six matches was hardly unpredictable, given the abandonment with each the team attacked.

Yesterday was a bit different, but not by much. Atlético Madrid coach Diego Simeone chose to rest some of his players, but still fielded an XI that had Raúl Garcia, Gabi, Miranda and the gem that is Óliver Torres. Simeone stayed true to his beliefs and his team were deployed in an expectant (not to be mistaken for passive) 4x1x4x1 while defending, sitting compact in front of their 18-yard box.

The Dragons were more expeditious in attack and could in fact have scored with just 7 minutes gone, Jackson Martínez connecting with Danilo's left-footed cross only to see the shot rebound off the crossbar. Seven minutes later, Atlético Madrid would score through Raúl Garcia from an impossible angle. While Helton could certainly have done better, the whole defensive positioning in a simple throw-in left a lot to be desired as well.

Lucho González was asked to contribute more in midfield during the build-up phase, but there was not much going on in central areas, an issue proven by Fernando's need to try to provide airborne through-balls or even a shot from way out. 

As a result, FC Porto kept looking to the wings to create danger, and it was from there that Varela headed against the crossbar 7 minutes after Atlético Madrid's first goal. Despite the apparent good signs, the fact that both these good opportunities came from individual approaches spoke volumes about the team's approach for the season.

Adding insult to injury, Josué missed his first penalty in an FC Porto kit, after Jackson Martínez had single-handedly won a foul from Aranzubia, Atlético Madrid's 'keeper. In Fonseca's words, luck was having nothing with his side.

  • Irony on the wings
For a team that keeps insisting on playing down the flanks, the reason why there is so little support to the player that receives the pass on the wing is hardly fathomable. The team clearly resents the lack of a central creator and invariably gets the ball out wide, but no player apart from the full-back and the winger (at best) ever seems inclined to get close to those positions. Not only does the team struggle to get past opponents, but they also suffer from the distance between the ball and the position of central midfielders (in this case, Defour and Fernando).

With that approach, opposing defenders have time and space after winning the ball back to pick their pass, which in turn allows the forward (in this case, Diego Costa for the most part) to receive the ball and turn to goal. 

The defensive transition is clearly the (main) Achilles' tendon of this FC Porto side. Atlético Madrid's second goal proved just that, when Jackson Martínez' deflected shot met the post. The subsequent corner was typical of this season, when a potential attacking opportunity quickly turned into a wide avenue for Diego Costa to round off Helton and expertly bury the ball in the back of the net.

The departure for the Europa League may not necessarily be the worst scenario for FC Porto, but Paulo Fonseca's position as the team leader is fast approaching untenable levels, with just 2 wins in their latest 9 matches. The adjustments Fonseca had talked about in the past seem not to have been implemented and the dip in the team's confidence will not help the least bit, in all likelihood.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

FC Porto grab crucial 2-0 win

Starting elevens

After Benfica's draw against last-placed Arouca the night before, FC Porto had yet another reason to get a much-needed win against Braga, something Paulo Fonseca's team eventually did.

There are always (at least) two ways to look at something. Case in point, the increasing difficulties both FC Porto and Benfica are having to get past opponents. On one hand, one could argue it's the big two that have been playing below par. On the other hand, one could say that the remaining teams are becoming stronger (at least domestically). The bottom line is that this season's Liga Zon Sagres has been getting more and more interesting, with Sporting playing dead and discreetly climbing their way back up the national ladder once more.

Last night's match between FC Porto and Braga was hardly one of those matches to go down in history, but it was entertaining nonetheless. With a mere win over the past 6 matches, Paulo Fonseca was heard claiming the team were playing well and the only thing missing were goals, and surprisingly demanded "more attitude from his men", which hardly looked to be the issue at hand, since the most pressing problem seems to be the side's lack of ideas while attacking.

For someone that has kept insisting over the past few weeks that he believes in his abilities and that he won't be changing his mind, Paulo Fonseca threw a half-surprise by shuffling the line-up once again, with Josué deployed on the wing (left for most of the match) and Defour and Herrera in the centre. Jesualdo Ferreira, in turn, stayed true to the XI he has been naming over the past weeks, with the exception of Ruben Micael. Alan was interestingly introduced to the middle of Braga's 4x3x3, with Pardo on the right.

During the first half-hour, the match was everything that was expected - a trembling FC Porto and an expectant Braga. In fact, the initial 30 minutes might even be described as textbook Jesualdo Ferreira: A team calm and collected while defending and waiting for their opportunity on the break. Braga's goalkeeper Eduardo was hardly ever forced to blemish his white kit during that initial period, with the Dragons always looking vulnerable to any balls given away and unwilling to shift the ball around (often insisting on the direct, and often misplaced, pass). Braga were definitely throwing a spanner in FC Porto's works, but the home team were being their own worst enemy, as so often has been the case so far.

35 minutes into the match, Josué forced a huge save from Eduardo with a close-range shot. Despite FC Porto's lackadaisical efforts, Braga were now less and less able to play on the counter and the home supporters eventually found a way to get behind the team. Half-time came and went with not much to register.

Paulo Fonseca decided to change things immediately and boldly replaced captain Lucho González with Carlos Eduardo. The time to assess said change was not enough, as the Dragons scored shortly afterwards through Jackson Martínez's deflected shot into Eduardo's top corner. The ill-concealed anxiety from home supporters finally had given way to long due celebrations and the team responded in kind, playing more fluidly and making Eduardo work a bit more.

As for Braga, if the initial 30 minutes had been textbook Jesualdo Ferreira, what happened next was too - as so many FC Porto supporters will remember -, with a disturbing lack of attacking intent or a plan B, something that happened frequently during his time at FC Porto against bigger teams. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that FC Porto enjoyed the best chances during the second half, with Braga offering nothing but timid displays of intent to get a better result.

In conclusion, while it may be tempting to have this pinned as the moment when FC Porto came back from the ashes, the team's display was still miles away from their dominant displays from last season (for instance) or the first two matches of the current season. It was undoubtedly a crucial win for Paulo Fonseca in particular, as the noose around his neck was getting tighter and tighter, but there is clearly still a lot of work to be done if the champions are to retain their title. Cue Sporting tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dragons' woes linger on

After Zenit St Petersburg's 1-1 draw against Atlético Madrid earlier in the day, FC Porto had a glimmer of hope of getting through to the knock-out stage of the Champions League. Instead, they found themselves trailing after 12 minutes and could not muster anything better than a draw.
Paulo Fonseca will likely have thrown some numbers around, whether it's shots, possession percentage or some other statistical measurement. And while there is indeed some truth to to the dominance those figures reveal, they also conceal systemic flaws that have been undermining FC Porto's displays, something that Paulo Fonseca himself appears completely oblivious whenever he's asked about it.

The line-up's major surprise was the conspicuous absence of Otamendi, with Mangala and Maicon both getting the nod ahead of the Argentinean, who seems to spark some lively debates about his proneness to err and his importance as the first man responsible for starting out attacks. The coach seemed to have reached the limit of his patience and benched the usually starting centre-back, probably to get him motivated and show simultaneously that nobody is above anyone else on status alone.

  • Do FC Porto have a build-up phase thought out?

Even though discussing the importance of Otamendi in the team's attacking phase might be entering the realm of tactical minutiae, it bears mentioning, particularly since João Moutinho's departure. With Fernando unable to do that job properly, Defour a bit more intermittent than usual, Herrera not being the solution and Lucho González asked to play much higher than usual, the Dragons often put themselves in dangerous situations when playing out from the back, since there is vrtiually no player movement to circulate the ball.

Therefore, Otamendi proves more crucial than ever with his ability to find team-mates with good vertical passes. However, that is not to say that his season has been perfect - far from it. The fact that Paulo Fonseca insists on a formation that clearly does not work, starting off with the team's inability to find simple passing options to shuffle the ball around and constantly insisting on direct play, leaves centre-backs exposed.

Most supporters have been blaming the Argentinean centre-back for his mistakes, but last night it was Danilo who gifted the Austrians with an unthinkable pass right into the centre of midfield - and while it would be easy to blame the Brazilian full-back, it would be far more interesting and useful to try to understand why he made that option in the first place. It was also easy to spot last night's starting centre-backs facing the same difficulties Otamendi usually faces, with the team broken in two and most of their team-mates way high up the field ahead of the ball, which makes it virtually impossible to play the possession-based football FC Porto have been used to for the past few years.

  • Poor results are the direct result of poor displays

Anyone who has listened to Paulo Fonseca's press conferences may have been surprised by his insistence that FC Porto have been playing well, apart from the few goals scored. Still, the team's poor results (against Zenit twice, Nacional and Austria Vienna, to name but the latest) have not been a coincidence, rather a direct consequence of the side's poorly coordinated efforts.

Last night, as has often been the case, the pressing was disjointed, without any clear references, whether spatial or situational. The defence was once again quite dodgy, but mainly because there seems to be no idea as to what to do and how to react once the ball is given away, and - more importantly - in what areas and circumstances it is acceptable to give the ball away. As it were, despite their hard work and commitment, FC Porto's all-out, almost brainless approach made Austria Vienna look good in attacking transitions, much like it was the case with Nacional just a few days earlier.

On the other hand, the lack of ideas while going forward is nothing short of appalling, with the team's credo now seeming to be "just give it to Alex Sandro and throw it in the mixer". Fonseca himself admitted the wings were the right option and that the centre is usually just too jam-packed, which resulted in FC Porto's predictable forays, with frequent (often pointless) crosses into the box.

  • Players aware of what is wrong

One of the most striking things about the players interviewed last night was the fact that they all brushed some common subjects - to wit, the need to be more patient, to vary their approach and, most importantly, to shuffle the ball from side to side in order to drag opponents out of position. However, given that basically all players insist on the same patterns and repeating, predictable moves, it is fair to assume they're following orders from their coach, which makes it all the more baffling.

Lucho González, for instance, was the player that ran the most during the first half, in a deliberate effort to try to link up play and the team, clearly broken in two distinct sides. The team captain was seen several times yelling at team-mates, something completely out of character and that speaks volumes about the Dragons' lack of emotional control and their inability to cope with pressure.

After the recent run of results and displays, it remains to be seen whether Pinto da Costa, traditionally loyal to his coaches (sometimes beyond the limits of reason), will stand behind the man he chose for the job, since the team are apparently entering a downward spiral of poor football and lack of solutions for the problems that have been coming up. The matter is not helped by Paulo Fonseca's insistence that things are going well and that all that is needed is just a bit more luck. FC Porto could have won the match last night, but it wouldn't help supporters get the feeling that things are going in the right direction

Friday, November 15, 2013

Portugal 1-0 Sweden: Tactical notes

Halfway through the play-off, Portugal seem to have the upper hand to get to next year's World Cup in Brazil, which is a far cry from claiming that the place in the finals is as good as booked. Let's delve a bit more into the tactical side of the match.

  • 1. 4x3x3: An innovative formation?

Both teams played their expected XI and formations, but there were certain nuances to the tactical clash. On the Portuguese side, both Ronaldo and Nani seemed to have clear instructions to drift toward the centre, which meant that Portugal did not display the usual combination of one striker and two wingers, but rather one striker accompanied by two forwards. With both men inside and Sweden trying to remain as narrow as possible, the wings were paved in gold for both full-backs and/or midfielders João Moutinho and Raúl Meireles.

However, the players that managed to get close to the goal line were hardly in good crossing or passing positions, which often forced them to a backward pass only for the man behind to hoof it into the box, a threat with which the Swedish defence managed to cope with no major scares for the better of the first half. That was indeed one of the reasons why Portugal benefitted from 14 corners (8 of them in the first half). On the other hand, it was clear that Portugal coach Paulo Bento was trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo into scoring positions by having the team attack predominantly down the right, with the Real Madrid star effectively acting as a second striker. That alternative, while hinging on Ronaldo's impressive physical attributes hardly paid off, since no one else on the team thrives on that brand of football.

  • 2. Defending in numbers does not equal good defending

In a rigid 4x4x1x1, with Elmander slightly off Ibrahimovic, Sweden's intention was to keep the Portuguese midfielders from getting the ball while facing their goal and then sit back a few yards ahead of the penalty box. With two compact, narrow banks of four, both Elmander and Ibrahimovic were allowed to remain ahead of the ball, which meant that Portugal often had numbers-up situations. Nevertheless, Sweden looked incapable of countering the simple triangle-shaped passing combinations so typical of a 4x3x3, with dreadful spatial awareness and their players frequently looking more interested in following the man than adjusting their positioning according to the ball.

  • 3. Virtue lies in the centre

Even though Portugal did struggle to get into promising positions to shoot and provide killer passes, every time Moutinho (most frequently) or Meireles invaded enemy lines, Sweden's defensive approach immediately looked dodgy. Given the rigidity with which the Swedish team tend to play, a more aggressive approach in midfield might just do the trick in four days' time, but for that to materialise, Meireles (in a lower and lower cadence over the past couple of seasons) and Moutinho (a yard off his usual pace) must bring a greater sense of urgency to their attacking forays, even if it means a more conservative positioning from both full-backs, so as not to unbalance the team.

Furthermore, given their positioning high up the pitch, neither Ronaldo nor Nani put any effort in tracking back throughout the first half (the second period was a non-event as far as the Swedish attacking threat is concerned), thus exposing João Pereira - usually as good going forward as he is poor at the back - and Fábio Coentrão on the flanks. In short, greater investment down the middle may prove beneficial both at the front and at the back.

  • 4. The perfect pair to stop Ibrahimovic

As so often happens with the talented, yet mercurial striker, Ibrahimovic went largely anonymous over the 90 minutes. Usually a player that thrives on open spaces - such as those Portugal were leaving behind, especially during the first half, in Bruno Alves and Pepe the PSG star seems to have met his match. On one hand, he is forced to get into high-powered, intense aerial duels with Ronaldo; on the other hand, should he manage to get free from Alves, Pepe is probably the best partner to cover up for his team-mate, largely due to his speed and ability to sweep up behind. If Erik Hamren insists on such predictable attacking manoeuvres next Tuesday, Paulo Bento may well thank him for not putting Alves and Pepe to the test on the floor, where they struggle the most.

Even though a 1-0 result offers a great advantage in such a cagey contest, Portugal can ill afford to sit back and let the clock run. However, a greater offensive balance from Sweden might be ideal for Postiga, Ronaldo and Nani, with Moutinho or Veloso spreading passes for the break. For that Portugal will have to convey a more assured sense of defending than they did last night, in the few times Sweden managed to attack.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Manchester United x Arsenal - Tactical notes

In a match that could have offered the visitors a very comfortable lead, Manchester United and Arsenal met at Old Trafford and offered a quite interesting display - for loads of reasons. Below we'll be looking into some specific issues.

  • Arsenal struggle against a more physical United
Tomas Rosicky was bang on the money when he offered "resiliency" as one of the key factors for Arsenal's win at Dortmund last week, something that according to the Czech might have been missing over the past few seasons. In fact, while the tactical improvements in Wenger's side cannot be overestated (namely the failure to unbalance the whole team while attacking), the steelier heart of the team has to be taken into consideration - something that an older, more experienced eleven might help explain.

However, while United's physical approach lasted, Arsenal found it quite hard to get into their passing rhythm, a flaw that has been found many times over the past seasons, particularly against stronger sides. The two teams' different approaches was evident, with the physical, defensively disciplined Jones, Valencia and Jones all getting the nod from David Moyes, while Arsène Wenger kept his trust in the soft-shoed Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil.

Arsenal struggled to progress to more advanced areas while United were able (and interested) to keep their pressure up.
During the first half, the attacking threat offered by Wenger's charges was restricted.

  • Özil goes missing in action
As so often has been the case, the German wizard was anonymous for most of the match at Old Trafford. Even though no player has accrued more assists than Özil during the past five seasons, his contribution is frequently small when he's faced with opponents that insist on being physically aggressive and that leave little space to exploit. Arsenal's no. 11, so important to the team's displays thus far, was a shadow of himself and failed to give the team the world-class boost he so often brings in most matches.

  • United prove faithful to Moyes
For all that has been said and written about David Moyes' time at the helm of United, the players' dedication and commitment seem not to have wavered. The Scottish manager finally got a win against top-calibre opposition by reverting to several of his methods while at Everton. The intense physical pressure in order to stifle Arsenal's midfield gave way to his preferred expectant two banks of four, with Rooney and Van Persie (particularly the former) putting in impressively hard-working displays as far as defending was concerned.

On the other hand, the resort to long balls (more frequent than usual under Sir Alex Ferguson) also seemed to show that United will be looking increasingly like a gritty, result-oriented team, rather than the side that so often threw caution to the wind and attacked in successive waves.

It is hard not to detect some patterns as far as United's building-up stage is concerned.

There is a stark contrast between United's approach before and after Van Persie's goal.
Even though Arsenal surely improved as the match wore on, it was clear that United were will to soak up pressure.

  • Centre-back vs midfielder: Who's more effective in the middle of the pitch
Phil Jones' deployment alongside Michael Carrick was surely meant as a strategy to keep Cazorla and Özil from dominating the centre, by making sure the centre-back got stuck to the skilled midfielders and stopped them from facing United's goal. Moyes' strategy effectively worked for the better part of the first half, but things changed when Jones had to replace the injured Vidic in defence, with Tom Cleverley taking his place in midfield.

While Jones' defensive contribution might have looked far more intense to the naked eye, a quick look at Cleverley's dashboard shows how important the English midfielder was in such a crucial position.

  • The Rooney conundrum
One of the hardest things of being your nation's most promising footballer for ages is that his every move, shot, word and mood swing are analysed under a magnifying lens. Wayne Rooney is no exception and he alone has put food on the table of many a reporter. 

In spite of all of that, he managed to put in a monster of a display, working tirelessly and selflessly, effectively resembling the version of Rooney that every football fan seems to remember. He pressed, he defended, he kept his passing crisp and simple, he vacated the space for his team-mates to exploit - in short, he was United's spirit personified, leading the team from the front. After all the reports of his less than warm relationship with Moyes, it is encouraging to see him give so much of himself to the cause.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Benfica 4-3 Sporting: Tactical notes

In a typically high-octane match, Benfica needed to go to extra-time and some poor goalkeeping from Sporting no. 1 Rui Patrício to progress after being in front up until the 93rd minute. Rather than looking at the game as a whole, the focus will fall upon specific tactical issues.

  • 1. Jesus finally gives in

In a match that confirmed Jorge Jesus' latest change of hearts as far as tactics go, Benfica appeared in 4x3x3 (even though Jesus himself denied it in a press conference earlier this week). The 4x3x3 formation now seems to be Benfica's default option against strong(er) teams, after being often overrun through the middle over the past years. Although the coach was always reluctant to adhere to a more conservative approach, both the match against Olympiacos and the match against Sporting offered a Benfica more capable of controlling proceedings.

Jesus might have a point when he claims that this formation is not a 4x3x3 (at least, not the purest one). Gaitán, nominally deployed on the left wing, often drifts inside, while Markovic seems to have clear instructions to come to the centre whenever Cardozo gets the ball with his back to goal. That move is further compensated by Enzo Pérez' lateral movement to the right, so as to stretch the play. All of this is capped off by Cardozo's impressive ability to offer the right passing option at the right time, allowing the team to progress while he holds the ball upfield. Without it, this particular game plan would be that much harder to implement successfully.

However, it's Ruben Amorim that may be the most important clog as far as match control is concerned, by playing out the simple pass and always being present to make necessary the interception as soon as the teams gives the ball away. Arranged like this, Benfica look more the part of an organised, dominant side, rather than repeatedly betting on the "vertigem vertical" - literally vertical vertigo, as André Villas-Boas would put it.

  • 2. André Martins is being played out of position

If you just kept your eyes on André Martins up until the moment he left the field, you would probably think that you were watching his game against FC Porto a few weeks ago - if it weren't for the red shirts, of course. Once again Sporting coach Leonardo Jardim insisted on deploying the young midfielder as a no.10 off Fredy Montero, rendering him virtually useless in a position where the player is not particular proficient.

The carbon copy of his display went as far as repeating the timings of the changes: After a whole half of wandering somewhere upfield, it was when he dropped back and Adrien Silva finally broke the siamese pairing with William Carvalho - in the second half - that Sporting looked more dangerous. It should be clear by now that Martins is not the perfect fit for the rarefied environment in front of his opponent's penalty box, against centre-backs and holding midfielders. His game improves exponentially as soon as he has team-mates to combine plays with and is facing towards the other team's goal, and not the other way around.

Given that Sporting are constantly being run over in the centre (much like their cross-town rivals were) against stronger teams such as FC Porto or Benfica, it might not be a bad idea to allow the 23-year-old back into the midfield fold - both for his sake and the team's. As it was, Sporting struggled to break through Benfica's defensive wall and to create any significant chances from open play for as long as Jardim insisted on his seemingly outdated system.

  • 3. The privilege of being wrong

Sporting have looked weak in the middle throughout the season. That much has been plain for everyone to see in several matches, and even more so at the team's first real test, at the Dragão a few weeks ago. That is indeed one of the reasons why the Lions always seem more at ease when they play away from home, where the opponents are a bit more open and willing to get a positive result other than a draw based on bus-parking and time-wasting.

Last night's match offered yet again clear evidence that the team struggle to create opportunities from open play, particularly when Adrien is asked to help William Carvalho patrol the midfield area and André Martins is left ostracized up front. All of this means that the centre-backs (not the most technically gifted players to start with) often have to resort to long balls to the hard-working Montero, bypassing their own midfield altoghether.

What's worse, this forces both midfield and defence to keep readjusting over and over again as soon as the team give the ball away - which usually doesn't take that long, since Montero hardly has any support near himself. Here Sporting once again found themselves trailing early on after some poor defending, found a way to level the score only to concede a second goal just moments later. The third goal would soon follow in both matches after a less than perfect transition into defence.

Below you will find some images that may help understand where Sporting's biggest problem seems to lie, starting with the first goal.

In a normal run of play, Sporting are already in a numbers-down situation.
The circle represents the area of constant problems for Sporting.

Markovic intelligently drags Rojo and Jefferson out of position.
As above, even the referee seems to have a better understanding of the best positioning.

Again, the circle stands for the most important area in football,
one that Sporting keep neglecting. Notice Rojo's feet, still pointing the wrong way.

A few precious seconds have elapsed and not only Rojo is stil adjusting his position,
but Maurício is also wandering elsewhere.

The second goal was a little less obvious, but a more thorough analysis shows how far Sporting's defence (let's leave the central midfield area for a while) lags behind FC Porto or Benfica's, for instance.

The initial deficient positioning stems from an aerial duel.
Enzo Pérez wins the second ball back and Sporting immediately look unbalanced.

Maurício comes out to pressure Pérez, Piris is on Gaitán,
while Jefferson and Rojo are both marking Markovic.

Instead of readjusting accordingly,
Jefferson and Rojo's reference is the man, rather than the zone.

Markovic once again drags the same two defenders as before
with his simple yet intelligent movement. There's no attempt to control the space.

By now, both Rojo and Jefferson are hugging the goal line
and Cardozo has all the time he needs to pick his spot.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Olympiacos 1-0 Benfica: Insurmountable Roberto frustrates Benfica

Starting elevens

Benfica's best display of the season thus far was not enough to overcome the Greek champions and the night ended in defeat, thanks to Benfica's own alumnus Roberto. The goalkeeper put on a one-man show and delivered the result singlehandedly, frustrating the Portuguese team's numerous attempts on goal. The night ended in defeat and an almost certain early exit from the Champions League.

Even though the Eagles were far superior in every aspect of the game, Roberto's incredible display was the difference in the final result, ensuring Olympiacos' first clean sheet in nine matches in Europe's major competition and a fourth home victory on the trot against Portuguese teams. On the other hand, it meant that Benfica have now won just three of their last 20 away matches, although even the most demanding supporters will find it hard to point a flaw in the display from Jorge Jesus' men.

Jesus seems to have decided to go with a more evenly balanced formation for European evenings, this time playing a clear 4x3x3, with Matic as the sole holding midfielder and Ruben Amorim and Enzo Pérez ahead of the Serb. On the wings Gaitán took to the left and Markovic (nominally) to the right, with Cardozo up front. Comparing to last season, when Benfica traditionally defended in two banks of four, this was a much more organised side and the match - if not the result - in Athens seems to prove Jesus' confidence in the team's evolution.

  • Benfica profligate in first 15 minutes  

Even though Benfica did not start the match pressing high up, they did however showed tremendous composure and timing with their pressing. With Olympiacos arranged in a 4x4x1x1 (with former Benfica forward Saviola off Mitroglou), they reverted to the traditional two banks of four, but seemed incapable of doing anything to build out attacks from the back. Therefore, Benfica allowed the Greek team's centre-backs time on the ball and pressured the midfielders instead, waiting for the long balls aimed at Mitroglou and Yatabaré.

Olympiacos right winger was in fact one of the main reasons why Benfica spent most of the time attacking down their left, particularly throughout the first half. Yatabaré would often leave his place on the right to try to pressure Sílvio, but that action left an easily circumvented hole in the Greek four-strong midfield band. The society of Sílvio, Ruben Amorim and Gaitán contributed numerous passes and assists for what should have been Benfica's advantage, only for Roberto to frustrate all of those endeavours (much to Jesus' despair), effectively redeeming himself from the late, soft goal he conceded at the Luz a fortnight ago.

Deployed on the left, Sílvio looked fit and sharp
and headed the two most frequent passing combos of the match.

There were several reasons for Benfica's dominance. For one, Matic played in the role he excelled last season. As a sole holding midfielder, he was able to dictate the tempo of the match and act as the revolving door in Benfica's build-up play, making simple, piercing passes towards his team-mates. Compared to when he plays higher up (usually when Fejsa plays as the team's anchor), Matic finds himself too crowded in a sea of legs, with less time to make up his mind.

On the other hand, Ruben Amorim offered the definitive piece of evidence that he may just be the missing piece in the side's puzzle, offering an incredible work rate and invading enemy lines with his slick movement and wonderful passing. Together with Gaitán and Sílvio, they terrorised Olympiacos' right flank almost through the whole match.

Playing left from centre, not only did Amorim offer a passing option,
but he was also discerning with his passing.

Gaitán was a constant threat, either through his dribbling or his crossing.

  • Olympiacos score against the flow

Having already forced Roberto to two great saves on 5 and 8 minutes, Benfica looked a bit vulnerable down the right. With Markovic seemingly uncomfortable stationed on the right, the Serb often drifted inside to look for more time on the ball. Consequently, he was often nowhere to be found, which meant Máxi Pereira sometimes found himself too busy. While the goal stemmed from strange zonal (a term mistaken for static, on this particular instance) marking in a corner kick, it was only natural that the play that led to it was a direct consequence of Benfica's (few) struggles down that side. In fact, even though he managed to improve during the second half (by virtue of playing nearer the centre), Markovic was often somewhat anonymous, the odd zigzag notwithstanding.

Despite his improvement during the second half,
Markovic did not play his best football last night.

Despite the blow, Benfica stayed positive and went on playing their best football thus far, with neat combination play and well-drilled moves. Contrary to what had happened until Olympiacos' goal, Cardozo started leading the pressing higher up, trying to catch the opposing centre-backs in possession. Along with the Greeks' less than impressive defensive display - namely between the lines, where Amorim and Gaitán often appeared totally unmarked -, it allowed the away team to create chance after chance, albeit to no avail.

The difference in the teams' approach could not be clearer.
Olympiacos were never able to build anything from the back.

Benfica were clearly the dominant side here.

While listing all of Benfica's chances would be tiresome, suffice to say that the Lisbon-based side did more than enough to bag the much-needed three points. On the back of this display, Benfica supporters must feel a whole lot more confident about what the season has to bring, and maybe the Europa League (if the worst case scenario does come to pass) can offer a better setting for the team to reveal their full potential. As far as the league is concerned, a side firing on all cylinders like they did last night will definitely be a nuisance for dithering FC Porto.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

FC Porto 3 - 1 Sporting: No room for midfield

Starting elevens

It had been a while since a FC Porto v Sporting mattered this much for both teams as far as the Portuguese league was concerned. In fact, both teams sat atop the table, ahead of Benfica. Following the Eagles' 2-0 win a few minutes earlier, Dragons and Lions knew that a slip-up would allow Benfica to get closer to at least one of the teams.

Neither coach sprang that many surprises, Paulo Fonseca choosing Varela ahead of Licá and Piris on the left wing of Sporting's defence the only difference. There was some curiosity as to what Paulo Fonseca's strategy would be, since the new coach was still to pass an important test, following back-to-back defeats at the hands of Atlético Madrid and Zenit in the season's most important matches so far. The way the team lost those matches and have struggled to put in good displays had left more question marks than the club's league form per se.

Varela's inclusion will probably have had to do with Fonseca's intention to stretch the play on the wings, forcing Sporting out wide and taking advantage of the Lions' rather light midfield. A more conservative approach from the visitors was to be expected, but oddly enough Leonardo Jardim chose to play André Martins higher up than the team's initial versions. In fact, when the season started, André Martins would be stationed on the right, occupying the wing to defend and to allow Wilson Eduardo to act almost as a second striker diagonal runs from the right. As it were, Sporting were a bit less fluid and FC Porto had some more space in the middle of the park, simultaneously nullifying Eduardo's threat.

  • Space down the left

With Josué deployed on the right and tending to drift inside, it was down the left that the Dragons found happiness. With Alex Sandro and Varela often able to interchange passes (often due to Carrillo less than stellar defensive performance), it was hardly surprising that the first goal of the match stemmed from a foul on Alex Sandro inside the penalty box. No wonder either that was the side from where FC Porto would score the third goal.

In a game of pairs - Lucho González & William Carvalho, Herrera & Adrien Silva, and Fernando & Martins - Adrien Silva was often miles away from his ideal positioning, failing to offer the necessary coverage for the second balls that followed the aerial duels between Jackson Martínez and both Sporting centre-backs. After their first goal, FC Porto immediately dialed down the pressure, allowing Sporting time on the ball. Simultaneously, André Martins started dropping back in order to help with the initial build-up phase.

Sporting marginally dominated the events between 15 and 30 minutes, most likely due to FC Porto's strategy. However, the champions' unsure defensive footing made way for some uncomfortable situations, particularly because the passing of Paulo Fonseca's charges still looks not as crisp. Herrera's decision-making did not help matters either, with several mistakes in possession, not unlike Otamendi. Like Barcelona, FC Porto did not look comfortable or well-equipped for an expectant brand of football.

  • Josué the key

40 minutes into the match, Josué definitely started playing on central areas. With William Carvalho following Lucho González almost everywhere, the Argentinean's forays towards the wings left loads of space for Josué to exert his domination. FC Porto's superiority towards the end of the first half was a direct cause of that option. As mentioned in the preview, dominance in the centre against this Sporting equals dominance over the match.

While it was hard to fathom why André Martins was still playing that high up instead of helping out in midfield (particularly given Adrien Silva's lesser performance), FC Porto did not seem to be dictating the tempo of the match. If Vítor Pereira was watching, he must have been fuming following the sheer amount of long balls and passes gone astray.

Sporting would end up equalizing on 59 minutes, after Helton's poor handling of a corner kick, but FC Porto immediately took their intensity up a notch and scored their second just two minutes afterwards. While Danilo's movement is to be praised, the zonal (?) marking inside Sporting's penalty box leaves much to be desired and speaks volumes about the difference in quality between the centre-backs and the rest of the team.

  • Fonseca shows his true colours

Immediately after FC Porto's second goal, Paulo Fonseca drew the clearest contrasting line between himself and his predecessors at the club. Whereas Vítor Pereira, André Villas-Boas or Jesualdo Ferreira might have shut up shop with the introduction of an extra midfielder, the former Paços de Ferreira coach opted to replace Josué for Licá. Unsurprisingly, the match entered a frantic stage, with numerous balls being given away far too cheaply.  FC Porto's third goal was a direct result of that state of affairs, where either team could have scored. Sporting's greater exposure to risk ended up costing them dearly, as so often is the case.

  • Final notes

In a frantic match towards the end, with little coordination and strategy - particularly in the closing stages -, Sporting put in a timid display, the goal scored notwithstanding. As for FC Porto, the victory still does not make them better equipped for the crucial upcoming challenges (namely in the Champions League). Better teams will punish the Dragons for their failings in possession and disjointed defensive efforts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Will Sunday be the next step up for Sporting?

After an international break that confirmed the inevitable play-off spot for the Portuguese national team, a cup weekend that further enhanced the idea that both FC Porto and Benfica are not yet firing on all cylinders and a disappointing week in the Champions League, the Portuguese league is finally back for what is now being touted as a very important match - FC Porto v Sporting, at the Dragão.

After yet another disastrous season - with numerous coaches at the helm - that yielded a mere sixth place in the final table and the absence from European competition, Sporting seem to have found last March the president the club were looking for in 39-year-old Bruno de Carvalho. The latest chief executive has indeed tried to steer the Lisbon-based club in the right direction and negotiate the several ill-fated pieces of business from the previous management(s).

Following Godinho Lopes' ruinous transfer wheeling-and-dealings, it was necessary to "limpar a casa", as the Portuguese saying has it - to clean the house up, discarding hefty, unnecessary wages and investing in cheap players with something to prove, as well as tying up the contracts of young promises of the renowned - but lately dismissed - club's academy.

That is why Sporting parted ways with Miguel Lopes (who had just been purchased from FC Porto in exchange for the perennially absent Marat Izmailov), Evaldo, Tiago Ilori, Boulahrouz, Bojinov, Pranjic, André Santos, Onyewu, Schaars, Gelson, Elias, among several others. Cash-strapped for a few years now, it was now surprise that their transfer expenditure was as little as €2.8m (according to the reliable, including bargains such as Vítor from Paços de Ferreira and goalscoring machine Fredy Montero from Seattle Sounder, but also the excellent Jefferson from Estoril.

  • A systematic approach

More importantly, Carvalho hired Leonardo Jardim as the man to pave a (hopefully) luminous way for the team. The Madeira-born Jardim was unemployed at the time, after getting the sack at Olympiakos - despite the very good results he was getting - and was just waiting to be grabbed by one of the grandes.

Jardim, of course, had already been at Braga, where he had achieved great results on a shoestring budget, when compared to the usual three powerhouses in Portugal - including a streak of 15 league wins, before leaving in the wake of a quarrel with the mercurial club president António Salvador. His trademarks consisted of an almost impermeable defence and quick breaks. The final third place in the table was totally deserved.

The coach was also brought in for his praiseworthy work with youngster, something the club were teeming with. After getting rid of much of the deadwood (mostly to free transfers, admittedly), Sporting finally had a well-balanced squad, filled with young players with great potential and some others that had previously been around the block a few times. The usual eleven that Sporting play nowadays includes former academy graduates Rui Patrício, Cédric, William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, André Martins and Wilson Eduardo, most of whom were traditionally undesirable, in one way or another. 

As it turns out, not only do these players manage to fend for themselves and get the necessary results, but they also act as evidence that the academy is heading towards the right direction and gives young wannabes something to aspire to - not neglecting the fact that it is much cheaper and less risky for the club.

  • The curse
During Paulo Bento's reign, Sporting were something of a bête noire for FC Porto, particularly when it came to cups. Jesualdo Ferreira, the Dragons' coach for most of that time, surely must feel relieved to see Paulo Bento ruling the Portuguese national team and away from league duties. However, since Bento resigned, Sporting's successes against FC Porto have been far and between - with just one win (Izmailov's one-man show back in 2010) in the past ten league meetings. At FC Porto's turf (whether the Dragão or Antas), things get even worse, with a single notch chalked up on the win column over the past ten years - way back in 2007, a match where Miguel Veloso staked his claim to fame with a spectacular display. The trip to Porto is usually fraught with perils, as far as Sporting is concerned.

Despite the latest sub-par performances, FC Porto still sit atop the league, two points ahead of Sporting and five from Benfica. While the draw in the Lisbon derby cannot be considered a bad result, it's the draw at home against Rio Ave that helps explain the difference between Jardim's men and the team led by former Paços de Ferreira coach Paulo Fonseca. However, it may take a few years for Sporting to enjoy such an advantageous set of conditions.

  • The numbers
Sporting's first match of the season seemed to be following an all too familiar plot : Playing at home against recently promoted Arouca, the team quickly found themselves trailing after Bruno Amaro's goal. However, unlike previous seasons, Jardim's charges did not put their hands down and romped to a comfortable 5-1 win, setting the tone for the matches so far. Indeed, Sporting now boast the best attack, with 19 goals scored, and the best defence, together with Sunday's opponents.

Interestingly enough, the Lions have won all their matches away - scoring at least twice when playing away from home -, whereas FC Porto have won whenever they have played at home so far (Champions League not included). 

  • The tactics
The stats presented above may well be explained by Leonardo Jardim's usually reactive approach. When playing in front of their supporters, Sporting are still considered a grande, and a draw at the Alvalade is usually a good result for smaller teams. Conversely, when those same teams play in their own grounds, they tend to be more proactive and therefore open up a bit more, which usually plays right into Sporting's hands. With Paulo Fonseca's FC Porto in something of a predicament following negative results and pale displays, a win against Sporting is a must and the Portuguese champions will surely want to wrest control of match from the hands of Sporting - with Jardim probably be all too happy to oblige.

In this particular contest, Sporting seem to have the upper hand in more ways than one. Contrary to what happened under Vítor Pereira, FC Porto now often look more inclined to attack down the wings, through Licá, Alex Sandro and Danilo, a trait that they share with the Lions. Since the Dragons will most likely be tilting forwards in search of the crucial first goal, Sporting will probably benefit from a lot of free space behind FC Porto's full-backs. 

This means that FC Porto's former strong suit - the dominance down the centre - should not punish Sporting, who still look a bit light in the middle of the park, with Adrien Silva and William Carvalho often looking insufficient for the tasks at hand, particularly given the team's clear weak spot: The centre-backs.

As the match against Zenit clearly showed, FC Porto centre-backs struggle with mobile forwards such as Montero. To make matters worse, Carrillo thrives on open spaces down the wings and Wilson Eduardo's diagonal runs towards the penalty box should mean that Otamendi and Mangala will have their hands full.

If Josué (usually deployed on the right and lately apparently unwilling to drift inside) ends up getting permission to invade the centre, Sporting could be facing some difficulties, even more so if FC Porto pressure Sporting's initial build-up stage (both centre-backs and William Carvalho are not the swiftest movers of the ball). On the other hand, the Lions will be looking to find acres of space whenever FC Porto's pressure fails (as has often been the case) and will likely have their chances to be happy.

All of this should make for a very interesting match, with FC Porto desperate for a win and a convincing display, and Sporting probably playing for two results. Still, a better chance to beat the Dragons at their own ground might be hard to come by in the near future.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

FC Porto 0-1 Zenit: FC Porto close to Champions League exit

Starting elevens
Out of a possible 12 points between them, FC Porto and Zenit had only managed to get four points in their Champions League group prior to this match. Given that the home team would be playing the second match in front of their own crowd, a win was imperative.

Still, the need wasn't as great as to merit the inclusion of star Juan Quintero in the starting line-up, with FC Porto coach Paulo choosing to go with Fernando, Herrera and Lucho instead, with Licá and Josué on the wings. Zenit, in turn, went with Danny, Arshavin and Hulk up front, with Shirokov ahead of Shatov and Fayzulin, Luciano Spalletti abandoning the team's usual 4x3x3 blueprint.

In spite of the change in formation, Zenit still maintained their habitual cautious approach away from home - no longer arranged in a 4x1x4x1 while defending, but rather in two banks of four. However, the curiosity that enveloped this particular tactical clash was not to be sated, because FC Porto midfielder Hector Herrera found a way to get himself sent off after just 6 minutes.

While the second booking resulted from a few steps taken forward while he was part of the wall, the play that led to the free kick (a foul committed by Herrera himself) spoke volumes of where each team's strengths and weaknesses lay. FC Porto had a corner it their favour, did not manage to get a shot on target - a simple transition led the ball to Hulk, who would end up blaze a trail right down FC Porto's middle with no one able to catch him except for Herrera (illegally).

  • Zenit stick to the plan

Even with a man up, Zenit did not look the least bit interested in exerting pressure higher up, opting to allow their opponents time on the ball and break quickly as soon as they recovered it. After Herrera's sending-off, Josué dropped back alongside Fernando, leaving the wing for Danilo, with Lucho remaining just off Jackson Martínez. In fact, it would be the captain hitting the woodwork on 19 minutes after Alex Sandro had drawn everyone's attentions to himself. 30 minutes into the match, FC Porto still had twice as many shots as Zenit (8/4).

However, it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be physically possible for FC Porto to keep playing their possession-based brand of football, and indeed the team started resorting more and more to a more direct approach as the match wore on, particularly because Hulk was starting to constitute a greater threat by being permanently stationed behind Alex Sandro, looking to drift inside toward his best (only) foot.

As the teams went back to play the second half, the Dragons were now playing something that resembled a 4x2x1x2, with Lucho forming two triangles - one ahead of Fernando and Josué, and another one behind Jackson Martínez and Licá (subsequently Varela). As the home team started to tire out, the away team piled on the pressure, with FC Porto incapable of responding for most of the time (Varela's powerful shot against the woodwork notwithstanding).

  • Fernando the man for the job

Former Real Madrid and Argentina holding midfielder Fernando Redondo used to say that playing alongside someone was like playing with one eye closed. Fernando would probably agree. With Josué somewhat lost in Herrera's role and trying to provide the necessary compensations on the left wing, it was up to the Brazilian to prove his mettle and show the inattentive European (as well as Luiz Felipe Scolari's) scouts just what he's capable of, sweeping everything in front of him.

Yet, the Brazilian's efforts were not enough for FC Porto to get a draw - let alone the result they were looking for. The sub Kerzhakov came on 72' to replace Shirokov, taking his place in the centre and forcing Hulk out wide (despite the forward's best intentions, it is rather clear that the striker role is not one that allows him to excel, making him spend too much time with his back to goal).

Five minutes from time, Kerzhakov ended up scoring from a well-placed header from Hulk's pin-point assist, thus putting a huge dent on FC Porto's hopes to qualify from their group. It remains to be seen what consequences - both physical and psychological - this result and effort will bring for next Sunday's match against Sporting.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Austria Vienna v FC Porto

After yesterday's preview of Austria Vienna v FC Porto for the first match of the Champions League group stages, the tactical report is now available at PortuGOAL.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Sporting 1-1 Benfica: Sporting seem transformed, Benfica look shaky

Starting elevens

Lisbon derbies are usually high-octane contests and last Saturday's match was no exception (at least for 65 minutes). There was great curiosity surrounding this match, on the back of Sporting's excellent run of results and displays, but also due to Benfica's struggles over the first few games. The fact that both teams met on the competition's third round contributed to an avid crowd, both at home and at the Alvalade.

While Sporting presented a very different line-up from last season, with several new faces, Benfica's starting eleven was almost identical to 2012/13, bar the inclusion of left-back Cortez instead of Melgarejo and the conspicuous absence of Oscar Cardozo. Since Jorge Jesus remained at the helm of the team, there was expectation to confirm which was the real Benfica - the one from the past couple of weeks or the one from last season.

  • Sporting impress down the flanks

Sporting's new leader Leonardo Jardim offered us numerous reasons of tactical interest, namely in midfield and attack. The central part of the pitch was taken up the the young and serene William Carvalho - who seems to have displaced team captain Fito Rinaudo for good - and Adrien Silva. However, Adrien would play a bit more advanced than his team-mate, with André Martins stationed to the right, a few yards up from Adrien.

Things only got more interesting when Sporting attacked, since André Martins would immediately drift to the flank, exchanging positions with Wilson Eduardo - who, in turn, came inside and made diagonal runs into the edge of the bok, acting almost as a second forward. On the left, Carrillo remained closer to the touch line, forming a good partnership with the energetic Jefferson.

In fact, it was by exploiting the flanks that the Lions created the most dangerous chances, often confusing Benfica's defensive duties. Jardim's men often found joy in playing simple long balls behind Benfica full-backs, namely through Jefferson toward Carrillo.

This was a typical move from Sporting, with Montero checking away from the centre-backs to collect Wilson Eduardo's pass and forward it to a team-mate (in this case, André Martins, who had drifted right, in the pocket of space behind Benfica's left-back.

Despite Sporting's good move, there are simply too many mistakes from Benfica to list thoroughly. Cortez is nowhere to be found, while Matic cannot be everywhere. The centre-backs are further isolated by Maxi Pereira's baffling decision to advance (notice his feet and his body stance). Benfica's defensive organisation often seemed to be all over the place.

By making the previous decision, Maxi Pereira left Luisão and Garay exposed, with the circle suggesting an alternative positioning for Benfica's right-back - in line with his manager's zonal-marking instructions throughout the last few seasons.

Therefore, Montero had the time - and the intelligence - to immediately look for Luisão's blind side after passing the ball to André Martins, eventually scoring the first goal of the night.

  • Sporting a different (defensive) beast

If we set aside Jesualdo Ferreira's period for a minute, there can be no comparison between this Sporting and the team led by Ricardo Sá Pinto or Franky Vercauteren. There is now greater defensive discipline, even when attacking, and the team look a lot more balanced and exposed to mistakes in possession, for instance.

Defensively, André Martins would start up front in a central position, closer to Montero, leaving the right wing to Wilson Eduardo. The diminutive - but amazing - midfielder's ability to exert intense pressure under Benfica's back line often forced them to throw long balls toward Lima and Rodrigo, neither of whom excel with that particular brand of football. 

Still, this approach was not without its perils, with Benfica looking the most dangerous whenever the ball got to the space behind William Carvalho and Adrien Silva.

Despite their good pressing most of the times, it is hard to understand why Benfica took so long to attack the space behind William Carvalho and Adrien Silva, particularly since the centre-backs keep struggling with the control of defensive depth. The circle represents how much space there was for Gaitán and co. to exploit.

A simple pass from Matic to Rodrigo immediately bisects Sporting's lines and the chance is almost automatic. The left-back Jefferson is more worried about his man than providing proper coverage - notice the space between him and Marcos Rojo (orange lines).

Rodrigo instantly plays Lima in and Benfica would have a good opportunity here.

This is another example of how exposed Sporting's back-line was whenever their first pressing phase failed to win the ball back. William Carvalho and Cédric approached the play in questionable fashion, leaving acres of space for the centre-backs to cover.

  • Benfica's forced substitutions pay off

Despite a bland display, it's worth noting that the Eagles did not have luck on their side, with Salvio, Gaitán and Enzo Pérez all limping off. The latter was replaced with the discreet, but ever-effective Ruben Amorim, while the other two were replaced with Markovic and Cardozo.

The forced changes started paying off almost instantly. With Cardozo on the team, Benfica finally had someone to hold the ball up and link up play, allowing Lima to do what he does best, i.e. run at opposing defences. Markovic, on the other hand, always looked dangerous, particularly because he insisted (and rightly so) on coming inside and take up the space behind the now less flamboyant Sporting midfield. While it's true Benfica's sparkle faded 20 minutes later, Jorge Jesus and the supporters will surely find comfort in the Maradonesque Serbian's abilities.

Benfica's goal was yet another example of how they could have exploited Sporting's defensive approach. Markovic collects the pass well in the centre of the Lions' midfield, with William as good as beaten - he is already late and his positioning is not the best, since he is not goalside of Markovic, as he should have been. Cardozo's simple lateral movement (red circle) is enough to leave Eric Dier undecided about what to do and open a boulevard for his onrushing team-mate.

Finally, Rojo proved once again that he has serious difficulties reading the game by sticking almost irreducibly to his man, instead of providing coverage and placing himself between Markovic and his goal. The positioning suggested by the green circle would at least offer a greater challenge to Markovic. 

  • What's hot and what's not

The highlights of the evening were Fredy Montero, William Carvalho and Lazar Markovic. The striker keeps impressing supporters, coach and pundits with his great work rate and movement. The midfielder managed to accomplish more than just get by the derby unscathed, proving his coach right with calm passing and good defensive positioning. Benfica's wizard, in turn, showed once again that Jorge Jesus must find a way to play him from the start, since he seems to operate at a different pace from everyone else.

Conversely, notes should be taken about Rodrigo, Cortez and Carrillo. Benfica's forward insists on failing to impress, even though part of the blame must be shared with his coach, who keeps playing the Spaniard out of position. His decision-making is hardly the best, something that is key in that specific role. The Brazilian left-back has proved to be light-years (at least for now) from what Benfica need, looking too slow and absolutely unaware of defensive responsibilities. As for Carrillo, his potential is clearly huge, but there always seems to be one too many flicks or nutmegs, often endangering his team when they need a simple(r) solution.

Friday, August 30, 2013

PortuGOAL Vodcast 1 - 2013/14

PortuGOAL's first vodcast for the 2013/14 season is already available here. Tom Kundert and I discuss tomorrow's Clássico between Sporting and Benfica, as well as FC Porto and Braga's unthinkable exit from the Europa League.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Braga get the win, Belenenses still out to learn

If Braga were serious about sticking close to the Holy Trinity (a phrase first coined by Stephen Gillett) of FC Porto, Benfica and Sporting, they couldn't afford wasting any points in the match against newcomers Belenenses, particularly in front of their own crowd.

The match-up was particularly interesting since Braga, despite coming off two wins, were in need of the win so as not to let Sporting leave their sight. Belenenses, in turn, were quite interested in getting at least a point, following their less than auspicious home 3-0 defeat at the hands of Rio Ave.

  • Symmetrical movement

One of the most interesting things about last night's match was the sight of two ways of combining the 4x2x3x1 and the 4x3x3. Rather than sticking to the usual rules for each system, both coaches chose to mix the two.

Jesualdo Ferreira has favoured the 4x3x3 for many yeares now - and it didn't look like he would innovate at Braga. However, perhaps due to Ruben Micael's particular traits, the team defend in a typical fashion for the 4x3x3 (basically, 4x1x4x1, with Mauro behind a line formed by Pardo, Luiz Carlos, Ruben Micael and Rafa, in this specific match), but they attack in something more resembling the 4x2x3x1, with Luiz Carlos staying not too distant from holding midfielder Mauro (one of the most underrated players in the Portuguese league so far) and Micael advancing almost as a second forward.

Conversely, Mitchel van der Gaag's team attacked in a 4x4x1x1 of sorts, with Luís Silva just off Deyverson, and Diakité and Fernando Ferreira (who had a nightmare of a match) as more positional midfielders. Even though Luís Silva would remain near Deyverson for the first few seconds while defending, it Braga's attack went on, he would drop back, forming a triangle with Diakité and Fernando Ferreira, the latter retreating to a holding midfielder position.

  • Belenenses: A steep learning curve ahead

Belenenses won last season's Portuguese second tier at a canter, putting numerous points between them and their rivals. Therefore, expectation ran high ahead of the new season, with coach and players forced to emphasize that this would be a learning season, and not one to fight for European competition.

If that was not a wake-up call, Rio Ave's win (and the margin of the win) certainly raised a few eyebrows. Belenenses were hoping to pick themselves up straight away with a good result at Braga, where their previous results had not been exactly favourable.

However, the impressions they left on Monday evening at the Quarry did not exactly offer reason for excitement. Despite the coach's words that he had seen a team in their latest match, unlike the previous weekend, there seems to be a lot missing in their game plan. In what will probably be a very tight relegation battle, every point matters and there's hardly any time left for readjustments mid-season - just ask Moreirense, whose excellent form late in the season did not stop them from being relegated.

What left the greatest impression on this reporter was Belenenses' apparent inability to initiate attacks, either in attacking organisation or transition (for more on these concepts, please check the previous article). The wingers did not seem quick enough to get past most full-backs in the league and both Diakité and Fernando Ferreira seem more devoted to defensive roles. The team from Belém also looked quite vulnerable through simple passing combinations down the middle, something that does not bode well for the future.

Fortunately, there was more than just troublesome signs. This is a team that look especially dangerous from set pieces, which is one of the competition's biggest source of goals - particularly in hard-fought matches against teams "from their own league" - to borrow a phrase from the Portuguese language - namely via Diakité and Kay.

Still, this is only round 2 and any conclusion may prove extemporaneous and/or flat out erroneous. Perhaps Mitchel van der Gaag has apllied more intense physical loads upon his team early on, a work that may take some time to bear fruit. Also, this may well be a team still trying to get familiar with their new, more demanding surroundings and one who will thrive when they find their feet. Whatever happens, we'll be here to watch it and report it.