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.