Thursday, March 12, 2015

FC Porto 4-0 FC Basel: The pictures

Last Tuesday night FC Basel were comprehensively beaten by FC Porto, a match that was analysed soon after the end of the match. But sometimes words fail to paint a proper picture that helps explain where exactly the difference lay between the two legs. An attempt to put it into context follows below.

  • Jackson who?

There's always a risk while praising a player for one isolated performance but here Vincent Aboubakar was certainly a linchpin for FC Porto's attacks throughout the match. Whether acting as a wall off of which his team-mates could bounce their passes or getting himself into scoring (or at least finishing) positions, the Cameronian's ability - and willingness - to make himself available to open passing lanes meant that Jackson Martínez was not as sorely missed as one might think. Whether this was a one-off evening or just a taste of just what Aboubakar is capable of remains to be seen. If Jackson Martínez leaves, as expected, the former Lorient man will certainly have lots more opportunities.

  • A different attacking approach
At the press conference, Julen Lopetegui claimed that the team adjusted their strategy according to their opponents - something that is not exactly groundbreaking, but that has sometimes been hard to notice when FC Porto are concerned. Last Tuesday there was clearly a change of tack and the centre was a much more fertile ground for scoring chances. The wings were still the starting point for attacks, but more as a decoy - usually through the seemingly unshakable Brahimi - so that FC Basel's centre could become vacant.

Contrary to what has been the norm so far, decent chances came from the middle, rather than the wings. The Dragons kept wreaking havoc with an approach that worked wonders throughout the whole 90 minutes.

Just in case there remained any doubts, the chalkboard below compares the number (and origin) of crosses over the the two legs and certainly helps explain FC Porto's different approach against Paulo Sousa's FC Basel.

Another noticeable aspect was how less involved Cristian Tello was when compared to his counterpart down the left, Brahimi. Without space to run into, the Spaniard winger is sometimes frustrated all too easily (even though the run that drew the foul for the first goal was his). Even his team-mates seem to be aware of that and, consciously or not, tend to seek Brahimi for the out-ball. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how many dribbles (stars) the Algerian attempted and how he invariably sought his team-mates with passes inside.

  • Evandro comes into his own

It hasn't been the easiest of seasons for former Estoril man Evandro. With Óliver Torres and Herrera in front of him in the pecking order, he's been usually limited to come on for the last 10-15 minutes of matches. Here, however, he was able to make the most of a few consecutive starts following Óliver Torres' injury in the first leg against Basel and his silky touch and intelligent positioning enabled him to find pockets of space to receive the ball in, as well as distributing it calmly and wisely. Playing mainly left of centre, he combined well with Martins Indi and Brahimi, and was able to keep FC Basel's midfielders guessing.

  • Compactness in midfield means greater solidity at the back

One of the knock-on effects of the proximity between FC Porto players while attacking was that they were able to immediately get close to the ball when it was lost and stop FC Basel from getting their counterattacking groove on. Therefore, the defence consequently looked more solid, even though it was comprised of (almost) the same players doing the very things they've been doing so far. The difference was in the much tighter shielding.

Casemiro was one of the key players for that effective shielding, patrolling the area in front of his defence when necessary, but - more crucially - playing closer to his midfield team-mates, which allowed him to exert counterpressing and winning the ball back on numerous occasions (green diamonds stand for ball recoveries and green crosses stand for tackles won).

FC Porto were on one hand much quicker to react to giving the ball away. But, on the other hand, they were also able to time their pressing much better than in times past, successfully pinning FC Basel at the back and robbing them of the necessary time to breathe and impose their own passing, high-pressing game.

When compared to the first leg, it's not exactly hard to see the different approach in defence as well, with the centre much less exposed and the number of ball recoveries (green diamonds) and tackles in the centre increasing dramatically. By winning the ball back in such advanced, central positions, FC Porto were able to create danger simply through better positioning - thus proving once again that the game's fluidity makes it hard to tell attack and defence apart.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

FC Porto 4-0 FC Basel: Dragons destroy Swiss team to bits in magical night

As Portugal's sole representative in the Champions League, FC Porto were trying to successfully negotiate their way into the competition's quarter-finals stage for the fifth time, thus cementing their place as the country's leading force in Europe (second-best Benfica only managing to achieve it twice since the inception of the Champions League).

Without captain Jackson Martínez, recently injured against Braga, and Óliver Torres only fit for the bench, there were some questions marks about the Dragons' ability to beat a side that both Real Madrid and Liverpool had found to be tricky. As it turns out, Julen Lopetegui's charges put in the performance of the season so far and will have certainly put some of their names on the radar of bigger European teams.

  • The unstoppable force from the Cameroon

Vincent Aboubakar was brought in at the beginning of the season both to provide cover for Jackson Martínez and give him the opportunity to slowly learn the ropes in order to take the Colombian striker's place when he eventually moved away to greener pastures. Even though his goals per minute ratio was certainly impressive, the Cameronian hadn't played that much this season and there were some question marks here about whether he would be able to find his stride in such lofty environments.

Aboubakar was indeed fundamental to the night's outcome, and he proved as much right from the start. With FC Basel seemingly willing to press from the front - their 4x2x3x1 fitted perfectly into FC Porto's 4x3x3 - FC Porto's centre-backs were forced to resort several times to long balls and the striker did not disappoint, effectively linking up play with his team-mates. The 47 passes he received throughout the match painted the perfect picture.

As has often been the case, for all the ball possession FC Porto actually looked more dangerous on the counterpressing - i.e. when they won the ball immediately after giving it away. The first goal, on 14 minutes, was the perfect example as Casemiro made a well-timed tackle and then played a probing pass into Cristian Tello, who ended up being fouled. Brahimi's expertly taken free kick was the first of four delightful goals.

  • Solid improvements across the board

 FC Porto had been looking better over the past few weeks and the wins against Sporting and Braga certainly didn't hurt matters, but there remained a few doubts about the team's ability whenever the going got tougher. Given how the team had struggled to create many chance against Basel and that a 1-1 scoreline was a tricky scoreline, both teams's approach was something of a mystery. Basel's initial attempt at pressing high up quickly fizzled out, but FC Porto consolidated all the marginal gains from the past weeks.

There were two things in particular that made a significant difference. On one hand, both Evandro and Herrera were much more willing to penetrate enemy lines and drag their direct markers out of position, thus creating confusion about which Basel player should be marking whom. This had the knock-on effect of putting more FC Porto players near the ball when it was given away and consequently allowing the Dragons to exert greater control over the match, which has not always been the case so far.

On the other hand, both Tello and Brahimi - for all their attacking forays - were willing to track back, unlike what has often happened this season, stopping Basel to hit the wings, particularly on the break. All of this compounded Basel's misery and stopped them in their tracks as the Swiss side were never able to find their groove and, as time went on, started subsiding.

  • Dragons discover central virtue

A 1-0 scoreline was good, but it was not exactly an insurance policy, since a goal from Basel would level things. As it were, Brahimi made another one of his darting runs down the left (which had already brought him a few bruises during the first half) and slid the ball to Herrera, who had no trouble dispatching the ball into Vaclík's far corner. Whatever doubts remained were quickly and surely disappearing.

However, perhaps the most important point to take from this match is FC Porto's change of tack as far as the attacking approach is concerned. Unlike what happened against Braga and Sporting, for instance, today there were virtually no aimless crosses thrown into the box, despite Aboubakar's physical presence.

In fact, the chances created from open play throughout the match spoke for themselves and showed the patter to exhaustion: Initiate attacks down the wings to attract the opponents there and then find the pockets of space in the middle. This time around, there were even midfielders supporting those runs, with the rest of players close by just in case.

In the end, Casemiro and Aboubakar would score another two gems, the Brazilian midfielder with a piledriver from 30 yards out and the Cameronian striker with a fine solo run that made for possibly the goal of the evening. However, the most impressive tonight was certainly FC Porto's ability to leave their indelible mark on what will certainly be remembered as one of the club's magical nights in the Champions League. A fifth presence in the competition's quarter-finals was guaranteed and the display that led to it will certainly have supporters gagging for what's to come against Europe's stronger sides.

PortuGOAL and

Ahead of tonight's match between FC Porto and Basel, PortuGOAL's latest podcast analyses the Portuguese team's situation (and whether or not results are a true reflection of proceedings) on one hand and, on the other, takes a look at Portuguese players in Spain and Spanish players at FC Porto thanks to the participation of the reputable David Cartlidge, in what is probably one of the website's best podcasts so far. You can check it here.

Leading up to the match, there is still time to take a look at a piece on about the 10 most exciting prospects playing in the Portuguese league. Some may surprise you, some you may fundamentally disagree with. Either way is fine. You can check it here.

Friday, March 6, 2015

SCB 0–1 FC Porto: Dragons keep up the pace up front

After Sunday’s comprehensive defeat of Sporting, FC Porto had another tough obstacle to overcome – this time it was Braga, who had arrived at this match on the back of a very interestingly winning streak. If Julen Lopetegui’s had any hopes of breathing down Benfica’s neck, victory was mandatory.

However, the team led by the Dragons’ former glory Sérgio Conceição had other ideas and wasn’t willing to roll over, particularly because Sporting’s defeat last Sunday at the Dragão meant that Braga were in touching distance of a much sought-after Champions League berth.

  • Guerreiros stifle Dragons from first whistle

As the only team that had beaten Benfica twice this season, Braga certainly did not need any more letters of recommendation and, with their own agenda in mind, came out strong from the get-go. Ruben Micael and Zé Luís allowed both Maicon and Marcano time on the ball, but effectively closed the easy, obvious passing lanes to Casemiro, thus forcing several long balls out of FC Porto’s centre-backs. With the excellent Pedro Tiba and Danilo sticking close to their direct opponents, Lopetegui’s men had no choice but to play outside Braga’s block, forcing crosses upon crosses.

In fact, that was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the match, as Danilo and Tiba were virtually marking Herrera and Evandro out of the match (Evandro would later improve his performance), the same happening practically everywhere on the pitch, almost resembling a series of individual battles - with little movement from FC Porto to burst past the man-marking approach.

FC Porto were once again showing their vulnerabilities, since the team kept lacking collective answers to bypass teams who are adept at patrolling the area in front of their penalty box and that, unlike Sporting, don’t allow acres of space to exploit behind the back four. All of that meant that it was up to the most skilled players to make the difference, i.e. Jackson Martínez and Brahimi. Indeed, the Dragons only showed some of their potential either when Jackson dropped back to link up play (but with no one taking in his place in the penalty box for the eventual crossing that is the side’s most frequent solution) or Brahimi got past his man, particularly after moving to his more natural left wing 15 minutes into the match.

  • FC Porto gradually improve

Despite their cohesive defending and the dangerous-looking transitions, Braga actually struggled to create clear-cut chances, with the exception of the 5th minute set-piece that had Fabiano once again fumbling for the ball. As the match wore on, though, FC Porto became more proactive when they lost the ball and the energy of Braga’s front four slowly subsided.

Ironically, FC Porto always looked more dangerous when Braga committed men forward on their breakaways, with the ball often travelling down the wings - Lopetegui’s insistence on ignoring the centre means that their charges never invade the most dangerous areas of the pitch, thus needing numerous attacking situations to create a clear chance, usually after yet another cross.

The end of the first half brought a bit more danger as Tello started finding more space to run into and, on the other hand, Evandro started making himself more available to receive bisecting passes from the centre-backs (but was eventually replaced not long into the second half).

  • FC Porto repeat winning formula

Similarly to what had happened against Sporting, FC Porto looked willing to be more intense when they came back from the dressing room. With Braga gradually tiring out, the Dragons started finding more space to exploit, even though (half) chances kept coming far and between. Despite Evandro’s improvement, the midfielder was replaced with Ricardo Quaresma, meaning the Dragons were now playing a 4x2x3x1 of sorts, with Brahimi off Aboubakar (who had taken the injured Jackson Martínez’s place).

In what turned out to be a slow-burning second half (and match overall), it became clearer and clearer how FC Porto had an Óliver Torres-shaped hole in the middle, without anyone able to pick apart opposing defences with passes, movements or dummies and this forcing opponents out of their comfort zone. With Braga fading more and more out of the contest as the match wore on, the Dragons got tighter to Sérgio Conceição’s men and, in one of those situations, Aboubakar left Tello one on one against Matheus and the Spaniard replicated what he had done so well against Sporting.

 All in all, it was a very cagey match from two of the best teams in the Portuguese league that promised a bit more, but the fact that both teams needed the three points might help explain both sides’ fearfulness. On the other hand, it was hard not to feel disappointed by how both teams looked most comfortable when the other side lost the ball and thus paved away for quick breaks, rather than showing good skills as far as attacking organisation is concerned.

FC Porto may have won the match – and in hindsight may have in fact been the team more willing to chase the goal – but the end result seems to be less of a collective effort than a consequence of a much stronger squad individually. Victories will always offer some shade, but FC Porto’s process has yet to persuade.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

FC Porto 3-0 Sporting: Dragons nullify Sporting on Tello's night

FC Porto and Sporting entered this match with five points separating them and with both teams needing a win. On one hand, Benfica had effectively destroyed Estoril the day before and put a seven-point distance between themselves and the Dragons. On the other hand, Sporting were just one point ahead of Braga in the fight for the next season's last Champions League place. The promise of an entertaining match was made.

But the game played out somewhat differently from what might be expected. Having yet to lose against either FC Porto or Benfica this season, the Lions' coach Marco Silva chose not to replicate the successful strategy that had granted the Verde e Brancos an impressive 3-1 win at the Dragão for the Portuguese Cup last October.

  • Sporting's compact back four

Sporting's more expectant approach was somewhat counterbalanced by the high positioning of their back line, playing 10-15 yards in front of their own penalty box, an approach complemented by the fact that all four elements in the Lions' defence were deployed very narrow - apparently in an attempt to stifle FC Porto's centre.

Sporting's plan seemed to be completed by a more expectant approach and a seeming over-reliance on FC Porto's tendency to make mistakes in possession, particularly through their centre-backs. The first two half-opportunities came from Sporting - and exactly through the expected fashion. After that, Sporting seemed to evaporate offensively as FC Porto started piling on the pressure.

  • FC Porto's issues down the centre and ironic goal

Without Óliver Torres, the Dragons' coach Julen Lopetegui went with Evandro to take the Spanish wunderkid's place, meaning Herrera played closer to Casemiro than usual. The midfield match-up was almost man-to-man marking, with Herrera on William Carvalho, Evandro on Adrien and Casemiro on João Mário - and vice-versa, naturally.

The Dragons had some initial issues with the build-up play, as Brahimi looked like the team's only out-ball, with both Herrera and Evandro unwilling to get the ball from their centre-backs. On the defensive side of things, Herrera and Evandro were not looking too secure either, playing too far apart and thus forcing Casemiro to move out wide - which made it look like Sporting could create some danger down that route, particularly with Montero, João Mário and Nani all thriving in that space.

As Sporting progressively faded, FC Porto ended up scoring 31 minutes into the match with can only be described as the antithesis of their tactical blueprint: Maicon hit it long in the direction of Jackson Martínez, who, with a little flick, played Cristian Tello in for the Spanish's first goal of the evening. On English shores, this would be designated as typical route-one football.

  • Sporting go missing, FC Porto at full throttle

Marco Silva's team seemed ill-prepared for the possibility of conceding a goal and apparently without a plan B. Things surely didn't look rosy as the Dragons kept attacking in waves and looked more purposeful on the ball. That much was further stressed as FC Porto came out stronger out of the gates for the second half and Tello benefited from another lovely assist from Jackson Martínez, with Sporting left-back punished for his terrible positioning and reading of the game.

Silva reacted immediately with Slimani and Capel coming on for Montero and Carrillo (meaning Nani acted as no. 10 and João Mário alongside William Carvalho), but nothing came of it. In fact, it was FC Porto that kept coming at the vulnerable lions, with Jackson now finding pockets of space between the opposing centre-backs but also between the centre-halves and the full-backs. With Sporting a tad more proactive and more balanced up front, the Dragons' midfield found the space they had been craving for some probing passes behind the Lions' back four.

Tello would round up his evening with a hat-trick after Herrera followed in Jackson Martínez's footsteps and provided a direct through-ball that completed Jonathan's torment of a match. Iván Marcano would hit the woodwork with a powerful header in an attempt to increase the final scoreline, but it ended up unchanged up until the final whistle.

  • Conclusion

An anaemic display from Sporting that cannot certainly be blamed exclusively on Thursday's Europa League match against Wolfsburg. Despite the difference as far as players are individually concerned, the team did not seem prepared to what FC Porto had to offer, the huge space behind the Lions' defence proving deadly for the team led by Marco Silva - and given the team played the whole time with such a high defence, it had be to under the coach's instructions.

FC Porto, on the other hand, ended up achieving a very good result and a decent cushion in order to guarantee direct access to next season's Champions League - and still be within touching distance of Benfica. Still, there remain some issues that look hard to get rid of, namely the defence's shakiness when things are more tightly contested and the little protection provided by the midfield. Also, the fact that the team rely heavily on Brahimi to provide the out-ball should not be overlooked either, especially as the season enters its defining stages.