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.

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