Wednesday, July 23, 2014

FC Porto and Manchester United: two parallel paths (part 1)

  • Portugal and England: The Background 

The historical relations between Portugal and England (later the United Kingdom) go a long way back. In fact, the alliance between the two countries (the Anglo-Portuguese alliance) is the oldest one in Europe and dates back to 1373. During most of this allegiance, Portugal was something of a protectorate of England, with the English helping Portugal several times - including the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century - and Portugal going into (I World) war for England, among many other examples.

During that period, Portugal and England celebrated numerous other (mainly economical) treaties, including one of the most important ones: the 1703 Treaty of Methuen that stipulated "English textiles and Portuguese wines were exempt from custom duties". It was one of the most innovative treaties between nations.

But a lot more than just economical agreements has endured the test of times and brought both nations a bit closer; while it is generally accepted that the Portuguese Catarina de Bragança introduced tea to the Brits, she was also critical to England's geopolitical ambitions, as her dowry included Tangiers and Bombay. In Portugal, the English presence is felt everywhere: the name of Port Wine companies line the shores of the river Douro, "snack-bar" is just another Portuguese word and the Portuguese tea-time snack (the Portuguese-spelled "lanche") is inspired by the English lunch.

On the other hand, the UK remains one of Portugal's key investors, focusing primarily on financial services and tourism. In fact, the Algarve (something of a British enclave) still accounts for nearly 70% of all destinations from the UK - so much so that anyone sitting at a restaurant in Portugal's southernmost region will probably be greeted in English and handed a menu in the same language.

  • Porto and Manchester: The Common Thread

Steeped in centuries of history and tradition, the cities of Porto and Manchester have been somewhat accustomed to playing second fiddle to capitals Lisbon and London, respectively. The latter's economic and political power was (and still is) a factor in the former's dwindling influence in some spheres, which has lent itself as a perfect excuse to harbour some less positive feelings towards the South.

The similarities don't stop there. Even though Porto played an important role in terms of intellectual leadership (such as spearheading the Liberal Revolution of 1820), both Northern cities became even more important with the advent of Industrial Revolution. With it, they suddenly became densely populated areas as the city's factories drew virtually everyone from the surrounding towns and villages.

To this day, there remain in Porto numerous "ilhas" (Portuguese for islands) - a street door that opens into a group of subpar quarters with a common bathroom and kitchen for factory workers - near ruins of old factories.

Shorn of their roots and family, these workers often found themselves stranded. As the 20th century made its way, football clubs took the place of religion - still offering a place of weekly worship and a sense of belonging. Identities were forged and allegiances were made among many a football stand. It is absolutely no coincidence that one of the features both Mancunians and "Tripeiros" most take proud on is their resilience against all odds.

  • Manchester United and FC Porto: Losing and Finding The Way

Up until a few years ago, the strongest football teams tended to hail from these sorts of places - industrial cities with clubs that had become so important that there was barely any space for any other teams of similar dimension (FC Porto, Manchester United, Juventus, Bayern Munchen, etc.). The local support was immense and the identities of these clubs and cities often blended together.

In fact, clubs from capitals often floundered, with the obvious exceptions of Benfica and Real Madrid, sides that clearly benefited of being standard bearers of dictatorial regimes (the difficulties both clubs went through when the Portuguese and Spanish regimes were overthrown should not be overlooked).

The fates of Manchester United and FC Porto have sometimes seemed umbilical tied to each other over the past decades. However, while FC Porto's history mirrors the country's political events (the club's drought took place between 1921 and 1976, an almost perfect parallel to the fascist dictatorship that ruled the country between 1926 and 1974), Manchester United were rather more successful during Sir Matt Busby's years.

The end of the both clubs' lean years was virtually simultaneous and coincided with the arrival of the two figureheads that have left their mark over the past 30 years: Pinto da Costa on the Portuguese side, Sir Alex Ferguson on the English side.

Both men were able to steer their clubs in the right direction and transform the clubs they lead into their country's dominant footballing force. During that time, the two clubs have won numerous domestic titles and twice conquered the Champions League (formerly European Cup) and one Intercontinental Cup - effectively imposing a new cycle on the national scene. Manchester United became one of the richest clubs in the world while FC Porto went from regional minnows to a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, albeit to a far lesser extent when compared to the Red Devils.

(to be continued)

FC Porto and Manchester United: two parallel paths (part 2)

  • A season to forget - or the typical Northern stubbornness

Last season's biggest journalistic scoop was clearly Sir Alex Ferguson's departure and the arrival of David Moyes, formerly of Everton. Moyes was handed a six-year contract as a sign that any poor results that might surface as a result of the changing of the guard would not do him any harm. Things were done differently at Manchester United, or so the saying went.

As the season went on, both top management and supporters showed huge constraint by not sacking the manager or booing him - the odd fly-by incident notwithstanding. United were adamant that the Ferguson-backed Scot was there for the long haul and that that wasn't the first hard spell they had 

A squad that had comfortably won the Premier League the year before suddenly looked like a withering set of players not good enough for a better standing that 7th. Adding insult to injury, the team's displays never seemed to improve. The manager's tactical grande scheme seemed to be to replicate what had previously worked at Everton, i.e. defending compactly, attacking down the wings and crossing the ball into the box. For a club of Manchester United's stature, it was clearly not enough and Moyes didn't even make it to the league's final round. So much for the "being different" credo.

Back in Porto, the Dragons were making history of their own by parting ways with the man that had brought them one of the best, hardest, most satisfying titles in the club's history - a victory over Benfica at the Dragão with a 92nd minute-goal on the 29th of 30 rounds when, just two weeks earlier, FC Porto trailed their arch-rivals by 5 points. Vítor Pereira would be replaced by Paulo Fonseca, a young tyro that had excelled at Paços de Ferreira and led them to a Champions League playoff berth.

As it turns out, the story that was unfolding at United virtually repeated itself in Portugal. Fonseca was never able to dominate the dressing room (contrary to usual proceedings, rumours flew about with the greatest of ease) and the tactics he tried to implement were baffling. More proactive than Moyes, Fonseca insisted that the team attack relentlessly, but apparently without any order or collective ideas. The poor results came pouring in and a 3rd-place finish was all FC Porto could muster.

Like at United, however, the club were doing everything they could to preserve their image of moral leaders, twice declining Fonseca's request to resign. The third time would be the charm, however. The results certainly didn't help, but, like Moyes, it was the evident inability to steer things in the right direction and take centre stage as the emotional leader that was Fonseca's undoing.

  • A similar line of reasoning

For this season, both FC Porto and Manchester United seem once again to go hand in hand. The Red Devils seemingly threw away the notion of everlasting continuity and hired Louis Van Gaal, a tried and tested victor that will, on one hand, certainly bring much-needed order to the dressing room. On the other hand, the Dutch is one of the most revered coaches as far as tactics are concerned and bears the knowledge and ability to create drills that allow players to imbibe his ideas. An European-style coach is considered to be the way forward.

As far as the Dragons are concerned, the chosen coach was Julen Lopetegui, the former leader of Spain's U21 team. Club president Pinto da Costa wanted someone who had clear ideas on how to move forward, based on a possession-based brand of football. Even though Lopetegui's career includes precious little experience at club level, his results and work methods have clearly impressed those around him.

As it turns out, both Manchester United and FC Porto will be relying on managers who are willing to bet on young players, who are on the cutting edge of the game (at least in tactical terms) and who are direct heirs to the notions of Total Football/tiki-taka - two concepts that are often blended and blurred. The clubs have also opened their cheque books as if to vindicate their respective managerial bets by any means necessary, as the signings of Luke Shaw and Ander Herrera on United's side and Adrían, Óliver Torres and Bruno Martins Indi on FC Porto's side have confirmed.

In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether the fates of Manchester United and FC Porto will go on hand in hand and whether the huge investments made are really the thing that lacked from Moyes and Fonseca's time at the helm. On the other hand, the arrival of a Dutch and a Spanish coach brings some curiosity as far as the results of both sides are concerned, at a time at a time where possession-based football looks like a concept from the past. Will it be a case of too much too late?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The fine line between supporter and writer

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  • The supporter*

As a diminutive, sickly young kid, I was never any good at sports. I went through the regular bouts of running, cycling and hide-and-seek, as well as some tennis, but sports were never a thing in my youth. On the other hand, I come from a family with precious little interest in sports as a whole. Therefore, a lack of interest in football was to be expected. It was just outside my scope.

It all changed when I was 14 - hence the "late bloomer" label. I attended my first match in a proper stadium (the first one I had been to was so bad that the home supporters mutinied when one person had the audacity of praising one of the best goals I've ever seen - unfortunately, for the away team). It was one of the first Champions League games in Portugal, no less.

I knew there were 11 players on each side, two goals and some lines, but that was pretty much it. I had no understanding of tactics or even positions. All I could remember was that a goal always seemed to be the centre-backs' fault. I couldn't really understand why nor did I know who or what the centre-backs were.

I was immediately taken aback by all of it: the roar of the crowd, the floodlights, the life-sized players, the proximity to the pitch, the seemingly endless elation of a goal, the constant singing and standing from supporters, as if by standing they would be closer to their heroes or mimicking at least part of their idols' effort, pushing them onward.

Things would never be the same. I immersed myself in the game as hard as I could and developed a profound love for the game that lasts to this day.

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  • The writer

The years that have elapsed between then and now have been spent going to all sorts of football matches, supporting, but also playing, studying and learning - so much so that I would often go to bed quite late after analysing the stats of one of my five-a-side team's matches.

Somewhere along the line, I decided to combine my love for writing with the passion for the game (which included the mandatory coaching badges). After a few years of trial and error, I started getting a few more calls, a few more requests, a few more questions. I developed a more clinical eye for specific details and started breaking the game down.

I had completed the transition from a football supporter to a football writer.

Even though I still get the same goosebumps whenever I enter a stadium, the emotion has to do with the sport, rather than any specific team. I don't think I've ever supported a team in blind fashion, but my allegiances have surely waned as I delved deeper into the game's minutiae. Every now and then I find beauty and thrilling emotion in the most dreary of matches; other times I find something of note from a purely tactical point of view and become aware of the difference of opinions between supporters and myself - and that's when I realise I'm no longer a supporter, just a writer.

  • The World Cup

The first facet allows me to understand the celebration that was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The sport had come back to its spiritual home, the country that springs to the mind of every single person when they think of football. The scenery was magnificent, the crowds were colourful, the competition was a goal feast (with the possible exception of the latter stages, including the final). There were comebacks, great goals, even better saves and nice little nutmegs. There were fascinating narratives on and off the pitch and Germany's triumph harvested a seldom seen consensus.

However, as an analyst, I can't help but find some worrying tendencies from a purely footballing perspective.

1) Three steps back. For the past 10/15 years, the death of specific positions and formations has been heralded as a certainty, whether it was the no. 10 or the 3-man defence. It also seemed football was heading down a socialist path of sorts, where everyone on the team had a specific role to fulfill. It was the times of commentators complaining how tactically shackled the Ginolas of the world were and how much better it was when players had the freedom to sprinkle their fantasy at will (or disappear altogether, in a time where hardly any games were televised). It was the advent of the 4x3x3 virtually everywhere (with the exception of the United Kingdom, where the 4x4x2 was and still is a force of nature).

As it turns out, football seems to have regressed 30 years. Or so I thought while watching the past few club seasons - teams comprised of players only instructed to defend while others seem to have the exclusive responsibility of attacking, effectively breaking the team in two. The 4x2x3x1 formation seems to strengthen that same notion, the prevalent idea being that the two men in the centre keep the team from losing their balance.

That same idea came to me once again when watching the first stages of the World Cup. I searched for the goals scored average of previous World Cups and what I found was eerily accurate:

There had never been such a high number of goals scored after the famous World Cup of 1982 - where the likes of Sócrates, Conti and Falcão lit up the pitches. The notion of artistic freedom and of the beautiful game ran rampant. (Not unlike 1982, Brazil's attacking abandonment without much defensive care ended up being their downfall.)

Unfortunately, I find it impossible to ascribe great merit to that. Given the characteristics that seem to affect most teams, it's only natural that most goals stem from balls given away and/or set pieces. That was one of the main reasons why there were loads of goals in the group stages: worse players tend to give the ball away more often and take up worse positions. As the tournament progressed, better teams were more reluctant to be proactive and there were a lot less goals. There was clearly no collective idea of organisation, no notion of strategy to attack anyone's enemy. The few teams that had those ideas were the surprises: Chile, Algeria and Costa Rica. I can't remember a World Cup when all you had to do to progress was just to be organised.

While I understand that fans and supporters alike find the tournament all the more alluring, it does not bode well for the sport. All of which segues quite well into the next issue.

2) The pop-star player. As teams become increasingly unable to collectively cope with the challenges opponents throw their way, they become ever more reliant on their figureheads. It was therefore hardly surprising to see entire nations living and breathing the fate of their stars - whether it was Neymar, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Brazil went into nationwide shock when they found out Neymar would not be involved in the rest of the competition. An entire country was discussing Ronaldo's best positioning while his team-mates didn't want to have anything with the ball. Messi is not even considered all that Argentinean in his own country - nothing short of a World Cup would suffice for the Barcelona star. Manchester City's Pablo Zabaleta went as far as claiming Argentina were "playing for Messi".

While there will always be and there will have been idols that draw crowds (the very notion of football hangs on the inspirational abilities of a team and/or player), such a one-dimensional approach to a sport that moves billions of euros around begs belief. The temptation of pinning every hope on the shoulders of a particular player turns football into an amalgamation of average players toiling so that one particular player can shine and solve matches. However, the flip side is that, by resigning from performing other duties, those very players are diminishing the possibilities of success of their best player (think Messi against four Dutch players) - and ergo their team.

* "Supporters" was used throughout the text rather than "fans". I dislike "fans", devices - and people - who blow wherever they're told to, with very little passion or personality. The secret of "supporters", on the other hand, lies in their own name: They support, i.e., they act as the foundation upon which their team is based.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Portugal's World Cup: The Aftermath

Portugal's campaign at the World Cup ended in rather predictable fashion, but is a lack of planning at the heart of it all? You can check it out here.