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.

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