Thursday, March 27, 2014

FC Porto - Benfica: Tactical notes from the Dragão

FC Porto and Benfica played the first of (at least) four matches in three different Portuguese competitions in the upcoming weeks (with the possibility of fighting it out in the latter stages of the Europa League). With Paulo Fonseca gone (and almost as good as forgotten north of the river Douro), Luís Castro has managed to turn things around and, three weeks into his tenure, things look and feel quite different at FC Porto. Rather than having a play-by-play account of the match, let us look at the most relevant aspect of last night's match.

  • 1. Jorge Jesus' eyes set on the league

Benfica's coach was in for some heavy criticism after last season's less fortunate ending. In fact, most (perhaps all) Benfica supporters were demanding Jesus' head after defeats against FC Porto, Chelsea and Guimarães kept Benfica from putting their hands on any piece of silverware. Jorge Jesus seems less inclined to make the same mistake again and has been rotating his starting eleven with some insistence.

Therefore, Benfica's XI at the Dragão could hardly have surprised anyone paying attention to the signs over the past few months, which is not to say the Eagles presented a weakened side. In fact, as Tom Kundert eloquently put it, the fact that Jesus changed five players and was still able to count upon a potent XI is a sign of Benfica's strength and depth.

  • 2. There is only one Enzo Pérez

Ruben Amorim is perhaps one of the most underrated Portuguese players. His flare of tally of goals and assists may never be enough to astonish anyone, nor is he the sort of physically aggressive holding midfielder that gets noticed through tackles and hard-fought duels. However, his game-reading ability and versatility make him an asset for any coach fortunate to count on him.

At the Dragão, Amorim was asked to play the part of one Enzo Pérez - probably Benfica's outstanding player throughout this season, alongside the Chelsea-bound Nemanja Matic and Rodrigo. Pérez has not only been instrumental in orchestrating Benfica's attacks . seemingly capable of providing passing options for his team-mates and progressing with the ball himself - but he has also managed to lending a much-welcome helping hand in defence.

Here, Amorim was somehow caught between a rock and a hard place. Instructed to stick to Fernando should the Brazilian drop back while FC Porto were trying to bring the ball out from the back, he often left Fejsa fending for himself against the re-energised Defour and Herrera, since the Portuguese midfielder could hardly be expected to cover all that ground.

On the other hand, his contribution in attack was not on par with is expected from a player in that position in Jorge Jesus' plan. Amorim lacks the technical skill and speed to create spaces for himself and his team-mates, particularly against such an aggressive midfield as FC Porto presented today. It is then easily understandable that Jesus chose to rest the Argentinean wizard for the upcoming (perhaps more important) battles rather than wearing him out some more.

  • 3. FC Porto gradually finding their stride

For a side that looked all at sea not that long ago (perhaps even as late as the beginning of the current month) FC Porto have managed to get some good results under Luís Castro, even if a few displays have not been as solid as the results might imply. At Napoli the Dragons struggled for most of the match, but when presented with the opportunity to grab the result, they did not flinch and ground out the result they needed, like they've done so often in years past.

Here, FC Porto looked indeed rejuvenated, motivated and with an extra spring in their step. Even though it is true that Benfica were well versed in FC Porto's difficulties in their build-up phase, the Portuguese champions made the most of the early goal and slowly but steadily got into their groove. The Dragons knew this was an opportunity not to be missed and pounced on Benfica's troubles as soon as they smelled blood.

There are still some wrinkles to iron out, namely in terms of creating more chances down the centre (as Luís Castro aptly mentioned in a press conference that made unusual sense when compared to some of his predecessor's), but there are encouraging signs of reborn players, such as Jackson Martínez.

  • 4. A proper midfield

It was becoming increasingly, painfully obvious that Carlos Eduardo does not possess the necessary skills to play in a 4x3x3 like the one Luís Castro has been implementing at FC Porto. Even though his creativity is helpful in numerous occasions, he is usually far too prone to switching off defensively for such a crucial piece in such an important part of the pitch.

He was replaced in the starting XI by the Mexican Herrera, from whom good things were expected since he was first signed, but who could never find his place in the squad or a decent string of consecutive matches. With a reborn Defour by his side, Herrera was brought on to pose a greater threat both in the centre and down the wings, according to the words of Castro himself. FC Porto coach also mentioned they were willing to relinquish some control in midfield in order to get some runs behind Benfica's back line.

That mission was thoroughly accomplished as Herrera and Defour took it in turns to run at Benfica's centre-backs, who were often unprotected since their midfield (often comprised only by Fejsa, since Amorim was trying to press Fernando up front) afforded their opponents too much time on the ball, enough for them to pick their passes at will. Without properly pressing the man on the ball, a high line is borderline suicidal and Benfica could have paid dearly for that.

Perhaps the most interesting development in FC Porto's new model is the fact that their players are playing much closer to each other. The player with the ball now has several passing options at his disposal nearby (with the exception of the back four, who sometimes struggle to find a team-mate or space to progress themselves), which not only contributes to more fluid passages of play, but also - and just as crucially - to a more expeditious reaction the moment the ball is given away. Previously FC Porto were far too vulnerable to opponents' counterattacks (be it Benfica at the Luz or Austria Vienna at the Dragão) that stemmed precisely from the huge distance that separated the players. Those days seem to be gone now.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Napoli 2-2 FC Porto: Dragons march on, despite initial struggles

Despite the 1-0 lead brought from the Dragão a week ago, FC Porto did not manage to avoid their fair share of suffering, but were still able to follow Benfica's lead and knock Napoli out of the Europa League, thus offering a precious contribution to Portugal's reputation in this competition and a crucial breath of fresh air for the Northern club.

It is usually said that Rome wasn't built in a day, which often applies to football teams as well. FC Porto's new manager, Luís Castro, has tried his best to reverse some of the bad habits instilled by his predecessor Paulo Fonseca, but a few weeks in such a crucial stage of the season are hardly the required time to radically change a team's overall approach.

With Helton Maicon, Abdoulaye and Alex Sandro all unavailable, Castro faced an uphill battle and was forced to reshuffle his defence heavily. With Fabiano in goal, Reyes and Mangala formed an all-new centre-back partnership, with Danilo on the right and the right-winger Ricardo deputising as left-back.

As for Napoli, Rafa Benítez chose to play a strong team (despite benching Callejón and Hamsik), with Pandev off Higuaín, and with the bustling Mertens and Insigne on the wings, shielded by Behrami and Inler in midfield.

  • FC Porto struggle, Napoli thrive

The match's plot seemed bound to be rather one-sided and constant. With a midfield redesigned in a 4x3x3 formation under Castro, Fernando is now back to his favourite sole holding midfielder position. However, he's been at times oddly lethargic, allowing opposing teams to penetrate FC Porto's lines. Furthermore, both Defour and Carlos Eduardo replicated their behaviour at the Alvalade last Sunday and seemed oblivious to their defensive duties.

The (still) Portuguese champions looked unsure about what to do when the ball was in Napoli's possession: They didn't look interested in pressing up front but they still chose to play a rather high defensive line. Without pressing the man on the ball, FC Porto defenders did not step back and were therefore unable to control the team's depth and were vulnerable to balls over the top throughout the match.

To make matters worse, FC Porto defensive unit (not necessarily just defenders) keep being unbelievably lured into man-marking duties, leaving gaping holes all over the place for opposing teams to exploit (Danilo had a nightmare in that respect). The Portuguese side had a Bermuda Triangle on the left: Ricardo's inclusion at left-back (a player who has rarely been on the bench, let alone playing actual matches) was bound to be a liability in itself, but the fact that he was playing on the side of Carlos Eduardo (hardly the most defensively aware player) and Quaresma did not help matters much.

Napoli eventually scored the first goal on 20 minutes through Goran Pandev in a play that encapsulated the match almost to perfection. FC Porto were attacking themselves, near Napoli's penalty box, and gave the ball away for the umpteenth time. As they had so often done previously (and would keep on doing), the players got closer to the ball and didn't press, but their high positioning. A few seconds later, Higuaín had all the necessary time to turn and pick his pass, in front of a stationary defence.

Despite the difficulties when building up play out from the back, FC Porto – admiringly – kept their cool and tried to follow the new coach's instructions, keeping possession and failing to resort to the direct, pointless brand of football that had become so common over this season. However, the Dragons' initiatives yielded nothing more than a dangerous shot on 32 minutes, from a corner kick. The first half drew to an end with little hope of a more favourable scenario looming.

  • Decisive changes from the bench

The second period started out in similar fashion, with Napoli often wreaking havoc less through their own merit than FC Porto's struggles with building up play and less than adept defending. The coup de théâtre started taking shape when Luís Castro replaced Varela with Ghilas and Carlos Eduardo with Josué in almost consecutive minutes. The Portuguese side immediately looked sharper and more dynamic, particularly given Josué's higher work rate and greater willingness to make himself available for his team-mates.

Nevertheless, it would be Ghilas to make the greatest impact by levelling the score on 69 minutes. Jackson Martínez's dropped back to pick up the ball and played it into Fernando's path, decisively unbalancing Napoli (perhaps for the first time). The holding midfielder provided a wonderful assist for Ghilas' left-footed clinical finishing and lit things up for the Portuguese team.

Napoli instantly became more anxious and disorganised, which – together with Josué and Ghilas' greater sense of urgency – allowed FC Porto to enjoy a spell of domination that culminated with Quaresma's wonder of a goal on 76 minutes, after some neat passing between Defour and Josué, something that was hardly ever seen during the first half.

The runners-up in last season's Italian league were not able to turn things around and only managed to avoid defeat on the 92nd minute, through Zapata, at a time when everyone had already accepted the result.

  • Conclusion

Despite the impressive result over one of Europe's strongest teams (lest we forget Napoli were only eliminated by goal difference in a Champions League group that included Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund) led by a coach that thrives on European competition, it would not be wise to believe all's well as far as FC Porto are concerned. There remain a few important issues to address – namely in terms of midfield movement while building up play and of the defensive behaviours – particularly since the hardest, merciless part of the season is fast approaching, with another vital match against Benfica in less than a week's time.

Still, the signs of improvement are all too clear to deny and it seems Luís Castro's more level-headed approach is coming to fruition – yielding good results but, most importantly, more solid displays. If that is enough for the Dragons to reach their (secondary) goals remains to be seen.