Friday, December 12, 2014

FC Porto X Benfica: Dragons' comeback or Benfica's opportunity?

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In a league where the two major clubs have been running away with the title with increasingly greater ease, FC Porto and Benfica now must make the most of these showdowns between the two archenemies. The old saying used to act as a cautionary tale against the importance of these matches, drawing attention to the fact that smaller teams were usually the runners-up's undoing. Not anymore.

With that in mind, Sunday evening's match will treat us once again with two very different approaches - and even though the match won't probably reach the same levels of managerial proficiency of the now memorable duels between Vítor Pereira and Jorge Jesus as coaches and personalities, there will in fact be some common traits.

  • FCP's defence vs SLB's attack

Jorge Jesus might welcome Alex Sandro and Danilo, who has probably been enjoying his best season at FC Porto, with open arms, but truth be told the Dragon's defence has looked anything but impenetrable. While Bruno Martins Indi looks more and more like a shrewd (albeit not cheap) piece of business, his partner - whether it's Marcano or Maicon - leaves something more to be desired. On the other hand, FC Porto's ever marauding full-backs often leave space at the back that can be exploited by Benfica's Nico Gaitán and Salvio, and they're sometimes left exposed by Casemiro and Herrera.

In fact, the clash of styles may well begin on this part of the pitch. Julen Lopetegui's favoured possession-based approach relies heavily on the centre-backs seeing a lot of the ball. However, none of them look particularly adept and they are frequently found wanting while executing the strategy, which has offered more than a handful of opportunities to their opponents throughout the season. Jorge Jesus's Benfica, in turn, are more fond of transition-based matches, where they can make the most of spaces vacated by adversaries - something that might just play into the hands of Gaitán, Talisca and Jonas, with the latter being particularly keen on discovering pockets of space.

Advantage: Benfica

  • The midfield battle

While nominally playing with two central midfielders, Benfica might not be at a disadvantage. Jorge Jesus usually has his teams very well drilled as far as defensive duties are concerned, even when it comes to his forwards and wingers. Moreover, the team's movement and compensations improve dramatically as the season goes on and the players get to know the coach's methods. If Óliver Torres and Hector Herrera are to play ahead of Casemiro, as expected, it will probably open up spaces for the excellent Enzo Pérez, whose understanding of the game and ability to penetrate enemy lines stands head and shoulders above Herrera's huffing and puffing.

Andreas Samaris, conversely, may well be another matter, since he still does not seem too familiar with Jesus's ideas and may find it hard to patrol his assigned spaces, with all of Óliver, Herrera and Yacine Brahimi tending to converge to his area. The other side of the coin? Look for Enzo Pérez to immediately pounce the moment FC Porto give the ball away and open up acres of space with just Casemiro shielding the side's back four (or sometimes less). As Sporting showed when they played at the Dragão for the Portuguese Cup, it may be easier to take this FC Porto down by allowing them to shoot themselves in the foot.

Advantage: Benfica

  • FCP's attack vs SLB's defence

This is clearly where things get complicated for Benfica. While Luisão still commands a huge deal of respect by remaining able to stay ahead of the inevitable curve, Jardel is no Garay and Máxi Pereira has been showing signs of a gradual but constant decline. With Lopetegui's main attacking plan relying on 1v1 situations down the wings and Jesus's willingness to often allow his team to face even-numbers situations, the individual difference between Benfica's defenders and FC Porto's attackers might just be too much for goalkeeper Júlio César & Co. to handle.

If Gaitán is effectively deployed down the left, he will have to stay on his toes during the defensive phase, since the partnership of Danilo and (most likely) Cristián Tello will certainly prove too much for make-do left-back André Almeida, with Jardel - who will surely have his hands full with Jackson Martínez's skills and sheer strength - also wary of stepping out too far from his zone against such quick opponents.

If Benfica manage to stay compact, FC Porto will have a hard time breaking them down. If, on the contrary, the Eagles take the bait and start coming out in numbers, the Dragons' forwards will enjoy a field day.

Advantage: FC Porto

Friday, December 5, 2014

Benfica's Jorge Jesus: The fine line between perseverance and stubbornness

Benfica's Jorge Jesus.
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Life is usually pretty simple for a football supporter - not easy, mind you, but simple. You love your team. You hate (or at least profoundly dislike) your city rivals and/or archenemies. When your team win, it's one of the best feelings in the world. When they lose, getting to work the next morning seems just a tad harder.

This is one of the reasons why the phenomenon that surrounds Benfica's coach Jorge Jesus is so interesting. Every club - at least in Southern Europe - is subject to these virtually bipolar fans (straying away from the loyal supporters), but the Eagles are a club that seems to be constantly riding a wave of euphoria or experiencing the hardest of crashes with reality. There is hardly ever any in-between. During the same week, it is possible to hear supporters swearing on their mother's grave that Jesus has been the best thing that has happened to Benfica over the past two decades and others who assure their conversational partner that he's only lucky he's had access to such gifted players.

  • Team identity: a blessing or a trap?

Every (future) manager taking their badges will have heard countless times that designing your "modelo de jogo" - your tactical blueprint, if you will - is crucial. If you have no idea where you're going, you'll never get to your destination - or so the saying seems to go. You're told that that blueprint has to take numerous things into consideration, from the players at your disposal to the club's ambitions or the supporters' traditional reactions to results and displays. Your identity seems to be the cornerstone around which everything revolves.

The issue comes when you take that identity to the pitch, to face reality - and what you do when results do not come your way. What do you do with that identity when your players are clearly not good enough to execute what you had in mind? What do you do when the president insists that you play two strikers? What do you do when you hit a slump of form or face much harder competition on another environment?

The average supporter could not care less about all these questions and thus it is much easier to just sing their coach's praises when their team win and blast him to hell when they lose. In this specific case, Benfica's supporters are quite happy to watch their team destroy other sides in the Portuguese league, but find it much harder to stomach when Jesus implements the same tactics in Europe and crashes out of the Champions League.

  • When to stick to the plan and when to give in?

The issue always ends up at the same stop: over their last five seasons in the Champions League, Benfica have only progressed once to the last sixteen. And that seems to be the point where black and white do not suffice to address the Jesus conundrum: his know-how when it comes to materialising his ideas is undoubtedly impressive. The new players that are invariably signed during the off-season to replace the ones he molded over the past seasons and went on to greener pastures always seem extremely raw and totally uncomfortable with the coach's ideas. Some months later, some of them are touted for higher flights and mentioned on the foreign press.

But what baffles most - including this columnist - is the apparent (or perhaps evident) unwillingness to adapt his approach and options the slightest bit to what his team find in front of them. The cavalier attitude that is on display week in, week out in Portugal seems to do more harm than good, conveying the impression that system will be able to meet most needs. Used to dictate most matches domestically, Benfica often struggle in the Champions League, because their blueprint relies heavily on transitions - both defensive and attacking. In Europe's top tier, however, other teams are much more adept at punishing them for committing so many men forward with caution apparently thrown to the wind.

  • The grey area

It would be much easier to judge coaches simply on results. In truth, that's what always happens in the end. With Jesus, however, there is one lingering question: should he be criticised for never being willing to change or should he be praised for the courage to stick to his ideals no matter what? After all, at some point all geniuses were dubbed crazy and stubborn for believing in their work. Sometimes, good or bad are not enough to describe a (wo)man's work.

A year in the life of Arsenal

Arsène Wenger might just be wondering where things
keep going wrong. Photo credit:
Anyone who follows football up close - be it supporters, journalists or pundits - experiences a feeling of déjà vu every once while throughout a season: The feeling of almost being able to guess a final scoreline, the unshakable feeling that that passage of play, that goal, that dummy was already witnessed the year before. Whether it's the top clubs finally gelling and trouncing opponents in cold week nights or a weekend of flooded pitches, there is sometimes the impression that everything has indeed already been invented when it comes to football.

But perhaps nothing leaves us with the feeling of being smack in the middle of "Groundhog Day" like good old Arsenal. Following the Gunners' fortunes is nothing short of watching sequels of bad franchises, where despite the odd change of personnel here and there, we all seem to have a very well informed guess about how things will turn out eventually.

  • Summer

The previous season has just ended. After a tottery mid-season, Arsenal managed to finish in the ever precious fourth spot and clinch their place in the crucial Champions League. Wenger, true to form, assures supporters and journos alike that lessons have been learned and that the off-season will be spent plugging the glaring holes in his squad - namely virtually any position from central midfield backward.

However, by August there have usually been few pieces of business apart from the already traditional signings of potential game-changing youths that will be supposed to evolve into powerhouses within a few years under Wenger's tutelage. By then supporters start to get restless and Wenger duly abides; over the past few years he has ended up splashing some cash on an attacking player (in previous years not even that) promising to revolutionise the team's game. Any of the previous season's troubling positions end up being ignored.

  • Autumn 

By September and early October, Arsenal seem to get firing on all cylinders. The latest acquisition - Olivier Giroud, Lukas Podolski, Mezut Özil, Santi Cazorla, Alexis Sánchez, what have you - seems to be keeping the manager's promise and rumours start flying about the possibility of this being Arsenal's year at long last, the time where all the planning from previous seasons come to fruition. This is the time when Arsenal top the league (or hover nearby) and where changes in backroom personnel are put under the microscope to explain the latest change in the team's fortunes.

By late October, early November, some worrying signs start to surface. An important player gets injured, then another, then another. Late September's initial drubbings in the Champions League gradually give way to pale performances that usually end up costing the Gunners the group's top spot in the end. The inevitable elimination from one of the cups tends to follow, as well as the first points dropped in places where title candidates cannot afford.

  • Winter

With the Premier League's busy schedule over Christmas and New Year, this tends to be the moment where Arsenal wave a definite goodbye at any illusion they may have harboured of fighting for the contest. The home draw against a midtable team, the barely comprehensible defeat away to bottom-dwellers - all of it paints the picture of a distraught team with holes throughout that are too big to ignore.

By late February, Wenger sings the tune of being involved in several fronts, only to see the league's big dogs get farther and farther away. In the Champions League, the "bad luck" draws one of Europe's powerhouses and Arsenal crash out of the competition either in the last sixteen or in the quarter-finals at the very latest. The conclusion is always identical: positive brand of football but ultimately an approach that is absolutely unsuitable to Europe's top echelon.

  • Spring

The quicker players slowly start coming back from injury. With a less congested schedule, the team seem to get back to its best. A spirited comeback is needed to ensure the crucial fourth spot, even though it seems too far off this time around.

By March and April, some are left wondering where this Arsenal were all this time - the courage, the resilience, the excellent football, the joint effort of all the artists and hard workers on the same page. What once looked like a mirage - qualifying for the Champions League - now seems possible. Just.

By May, the Gunners end up achieving their (what one can only assume should be a) secondary goal. Whatever chances of putting their hands around some silverware dissipated in some unlucky clash with a Championship team or a side that ended up being relegated from the Premier League.

Wenger, true to form, assures supporters and journos alike that lessons have been learned and that the off-season will be spent plugging the glaring holes in his squad.