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

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