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.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

FC Porto 3-0 Marítimo tactical breakdown

Starting elevens

After Sporting's dream start to the season with yet another wonderful result and performance and Benfica's hard-fought win against Gil Vicente a few minutes earlier, it was up to FC Porto to show just what they were capable of. To maintain their three-point lead ahead of Benfica, the Dragons had to win Paulo Fonseca's first match in his new stadium, in order to keep the momentum going.

Unlike the expectations of this reporter, the matched turned out to be an absolutely one-sided event, with Marítimo never looking like they were capable of threatening the home team, despite the sheer speed from the three forwards - Sami, Derley and Artur. Their pace, which had proved so devastating against Benfica, was never on display at the Dragão.

This is why, instead of chronicling the incidents of the match, we will be taking a somewhat closer look at the differences and similarities between Paulo Fonseca's team and his predecessor Vítor Pereira's.

  • 1. Attacking organisation
This perhaps complex-sounding phrase just refers to the moment when a team are attacking when the other team are arranged in their intended defensive shape, the phase of play where FC Porto spend most of their time. There are plenty of similarities in this category, namely with Otamendi taking charge of the first build-up stage. However, not only has his involvement been enhanced, but there is also much more cooperation from all midfielders. But we'll get to that later on.

On the wings, things have also changed a bit. Even though there hasn't been a significant change in personnel (Danilo and Alex Sandro remain the full-backs and Varela should reclaim his position as soon as he's fit), the inclusion of Licá has given a different array of solutions to the team. In the initial build-up phase, Licá tends to drift inward, opening up space for Alex Sandro, but, as the play evolves, he often gets wider, proving hard to mark - he can try to get to the goal line or drift inside to use his right foot (you can watch his assist from last night here and his goal here).

With Vítor Pereira, the task of starting out attacks usually befell upon João Moutinho, who would drop back alongside Fernando and work his magic from there. With Paulo Fonseca, Lucho González's initial positioning is significantly higher up the field, but he often drops back at the same time Defour advances, causing defensive uncertainties.

Furthermore, Josué, starting out from the right, plays much narrower than a usual winger tends to do, forming a square in midfield - Fernando alongside Defour in a first line, Josué alongside Lucho González higher up. This organisation often resembles the shape Fonseca imposed on his previous team, Paços de Ferreira.

Also, the chance-creation setup seems rather different from last season. Even though the pressing (more on that later) and ball circulation remain similar (at least as far as the results they produce), there now seems to be a more objective intention to instill the team with greater urgency upon attacks, rather than biding their time for an opportunity to come up.

The dynamics with which that takes place is quite interesting, since it seems mandatory that there is always someone playing in the hole (i.e. on the edge of the penalty box or in the vicinity) at all times - either for an assist or for a shot. Nevertheless, the wings are now much more of an option than last year, either with crosses or penetrations.

  • 2. Defensive transition
This is the few seconds when the team with the ball gives it away for some reason - and how they react to it, before they manage to get into the shape intended by their manager for the defensive phase. Different coaches ask different things from their charges, from pressing immediately to dropping back straight away and forming two banks of four, for instance.

Paulo Fonseca has picked off where his predecessor left off and, if anything, has upped the tempo and intensity with which the team try to get the ball back the second they lose it. Perhaps knowing that a staggering amount of opportunities created stem from balls won back in the opponents' midfield, FC Porto coach has imposed the imperativeness to get the ball back as soon as possible. While it didn't work as well against Setúbal the week before, matches against Guimarães and Marítimo lead us to believe that that is the master plan.

  • 3. Defensive organisation
Because FC Porto have dominated most of their latest opponents, it's still hard to extricate all the differences. However, this is the game phase where the Dragons seem least comfortable. Whenever the attempt to win the ball back in the immediate seconds after giving it away fails, Fonseca's men often look poorly positioned and in numerical inferiority (not unlike Jorge Jesus' Benfica, at times). While this may not be a problem against domestic competition, stay tuned for possible problems FC Porto may encounter when facing tougher opposition - the Champions League immediately springs to mind.

  • 4. Attacking transition
This is perhaps one of the areas in which FC Porto have changed the most. Much more direct and voracious, the team immediately try to look for their opponents' weak spot and proceeds to exploiting it whenever possible. Last night, Licá's goal constitued a perfect example of the Portuguese champions can also be effective on the counter-attack, especially now that they can count on a goal-scoring winger to finish off moves. If one looks at the whole play, one will be able to see how quickly FC Porto pounced on Marítimo's blind side (the side where the ball is not), causing an imbalance in Marítimo's defence (credits must go to Ricardo Pereira for noticing this during the match).

All in all, it seems a tremendously dynamic system of play, one which may not be certain to yield the same results when the going starts to get tough(er). However it turns out, it should be quite interesting to watch how it all pans out.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

How not to defend 101: FC Porto x Guimarães

While the analysis of last Saturday's Portuguese Supercup has been detailed elsewhere, there are still a few things to ponder, particularly as far as Guimarães are concerned.

The club from northern Portugal are admittedly operating on a very tight budget and have therefore been forced to resort to free transfers and blooding youths from their own B team - possibly too soon. Even though one match is obviously too little to extrapolate, there are still some mistakes that do not bode well for Rui Vitória's men, particularly due to their repetition. After all, the purpose of pre-season resides (or should reside) in drilling precisely these sorts of behaviours.

In the video below, you can see how FC Porto got their first goal, barely five minutes into the match, following a simple throw-in. As Danilo threw the ball toward Jackson Martínez, his marker immediately followed the Colombian, forcing everyone to re-shuffle accordingly. Martínez's fake left Lucho in the clear - chased by the remaining centre-back - and it was up to the full-back from the opposite side to close up the middle. Starting off a yard or two behind, Licá proved just what he has to offer by easily sprinting past his marker and connecting with Lucho González's precious assist.

A typical match event five minutes into the first of the season and Guimarães found themselves 1v1 while the ball wasn't even in play.

For the second goal, the Guimarães defence once again found themselves at a loss, occupying barely reasonable defending positions. Worse still, not only did the right-winger Varela have all the time in the world to pick the target for his cross, the Guimarães defenders were again presented with a 1v1 situation. Jackson Martínez's aggressive move would do the rest.

While last season's successful cup run was just reward for a spirited second half to the season, Guimarães will need to offer much more than what was on display last Saturday (both defensively and offensively), at the risk of following up a successful season with a more troubled one.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

FC Porto 3-0 Guimarães: Dragons pick up where they left off

Starting elevens

The Portuguese Supercup is usually a time where the two strongest teams meet as something of a taster for the upcoming season. This year, thanks to the strong second half of their seasons, Vitória Guimarães booked a well-deserved place against champions FC Porto via their success in last season's Portuguese Cup. However, any chance of an evenly-balanced match subsided after a mere five minutes.
After the early departure of João Moutinho and James Rodríguez, FC Porto displayed a rather usual eleven, with Defour playing in what used to be Moutinho's position and Licá surprisingly taking his place on the left, with Varela stationed on the right (and Iturbe oddly not even on a bench with newcomers Herrera, Quintero, Ghilas and Josué). Guimarães' resistance lasted all of five minutes, when Lucho González provided the assist for Licá to score for the club he supported since he was a child.

  • Lucho runs the show

While the opposition was rather feeble, to say the least, in the play that led to the first goal of the match (a huge no-no in professional football at such a high level), its most interesting aspect was actually Lucho's positioning. Paulo Fonseca seems to have abandoned the system (4x3x3) that the Dragons have favoured for a decade and a half (Co Adriaanse's experiences notwithstanding).

Indeed, Defour would start alongside Fernando and move further up while starting the first build-up phase. Lucho, rather than completing the midfield threesome, started off much closer to Jackson Martínez, often combining with the Colombian striker in interesting one-twos and effectively running the show throughout the match.

Rui Vitória's men played an important role by not managing to find a way to mark the Argentinean captain or keep the passing lanes closed, which meant Lucho had all the time in the world to make the best decisions - whether by peeling off his marker or vacating the space for others to occupy. The neuralgic area in front of the Guimarães defence was never duly taken, with centre-backs afraid to come out and press Lucho or Jackson and midfielders leaving acres of space behind them.

Adding insult to injury, the deployment of the skilful Barrientos on the left provided little (if any) defensive coverage down the wing, a wing that FC Porto kept ramming down to their heart's content. No wonder, then, that all of FC Porto's three goals should stem from that side, with neither Addy nor the midfielders looking to offer the necessary cover.

  • Licá's impressive start

While the new formation allowed Lucho to do what he does best, there were several other points of interest, the most interesting of which was Licá's positioning and movement. If Iturbe's absence was rather conspicuous, Licá's inclusion in the starting line-up was not less surprising, particularly considering he showed a few signs of restlessness, probably from trying too much too soon. The Portuguese offers a somewhat dfiferent perspective as far as FC Porto wingers go, since he adds a striking dimension to the team's skill set.

Rather than just playing out wide, Licá often moved inside, overloading the centre area of midfield (for instance, when Lucho drifted away and dragged his markers with him), leaving the wing to Alex Sandro. More importantly, he effectively acted almost as a second striker whenever the ball was being played on the other wing, not far off Jackson Martínez. His goal (the first of the match) offered good evidence when Lucho spun behind Jackson and Licá appeared on the far post burying the ball into the net.

While his skills may eventually come up short against stronger opposition, this sort of threat may well prove all too important for FC Porto when facing smaller teams, especially in their own turf.

  • Paços de Ferreira all over again?

In a less interesting second half, there were however a few details that could allows us to take a peek into Paulo Fonseca's ideas and plans for the future of his team. Fonseca's previous charge at Paços de Ferreira Josué came on and his presence immediately mirrored Fonseca's former team formation and movement.

Indeed, an almost perfect square almost instantly formed, with Fernando alongside Defour and Josué drifting inside from the left the second the ball got to the feet of Alex Sandro or Mangala, further enhancing FC Porto's dominance as far as ball possession is concerned. Whether that means FC Porto will resort to the first-half's plan or the second-half one remains to be seen as the season progresses, but the signs of the coach's work and the several formation alternatives seem to be a relevant issue.

As for Vitória de Guimarães, the need to work once again with a short budget and therefore with a squad filled with young and new players means that Rui Vitória will have his work cut out, even though which game plan Guimarães' leader will choose (the sight during the second half of balls being bombed forward towards the promising Maazou) remains to be seen.