Wednesday, April 22, 2015

5 conclusions from Bayern Munich 6-1 FC Porto

Bayern Munich and FC Porto met once again last Tuesday, six days after their previous contest - the six days that Pep Guardiola kept claiming would be enough to correct some mistakes and make the difference. And that they did, as shown in the final scoreline. Similarly to last time around, here are five things we should take from Tuesday's drubbing of FC Porto.

  • 1. Football is about much more than just footwork

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There is one aspect that should be highlighted before any other: While the return leg will be a sad reminder for all FC Porto supporters of the gulf that now exists between their team (and any other Portuguese side for that matter, something that will tend to worsen as UEFA cracks down on third-party ownership) and Europe's big dogs, this was a match that offered one of the best pieces of evidence of how football will probably be played in the future.

Both sides kept adjusting their positioning and tactical formations throughout most of the match and both sets of players were able to interpret the changes and different tasks and movement that different positions required. Apart from the goalkeepers, centre-backs and the centre forwards (and even so...), virtually every other player had to keep reinterpreting the diverse challenges the match insisted on posing as both managers fine-tuned their teams in search of the advantage point. In comparison to, for instance, last weekend's Chelsea 1-0 Manchester United, it becomes clearer and clearer why the Premier League is falling behind the European wagon.

  • 2. Tactical (in)flexibility

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There is probably a reason why Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is hailed as one of the best coaches in the world and is always in such high demand. At the press conference in Porto a week earlier, the Spanish coach made no mention of the weekend Bundesliga fixture, repeatedly focusing instead on the six days until the return leg and how those six days would be important to correct a lot of the things he had perceived as wrong.

On the other hand, FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui made the odd-sounding claim that his team held no surprises and that everyone knew how the Dragons played. Sure enough, the first half was the perfect mirror for both coaches' stances.

While Guardiola kept almost the same starting XI (Holger Badstuber taking Dante's place), the side had little to do with the eleven men that took to the pitch at the Dragão. The Spaniard even went as far as saying that Bayern were not ready for Jackson getting so tight to maestro Xabi Alonso on the first leg, but that they were ready for it when the second leg came around.

Indeed, Xabi Alonso hardly ever got himself in between the centre-backs and for most of the first half his role resembled a simple game of shadows, making sure his movement dragged Jackson Martínez out of the way so that Jérôme Boateng and Badstuber had the necessary space and time to progress with the ball or pass it with some purpose. FC Porto went through the whole first half without being able to adjust to that simple manoeuvre.

Furthermore, the Spanish coach played his full-backs Rafinha and Juan Bernat in a narrower position, rather than hugging the touchline - with Phillipp Lahm and Mario Götze providing width. This allowed Bayern to have significantly more passing options and bamboozled FC Porto's men, who were unable to understand whether to mark their supposed direct opponent or the one that kept popping near them.

  • 3. The coach's hand

Julen Lopetegui will have been doing
a lot of this last Tuesday.
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In last week's match report from the Dragão, a reference had been made to just how important coaches are and how their work is sometimes plain for everyone to see. At the Allianz Arena, Lopetegui did himself no favours by stationing Mexican centre-back Diego Reyes on the right side of FC Porto's back four, which meant that a man with hardly any playing minutes during this season was deployed out of position, at one of the toughest stadiums in Europe, facing one Mario Götze.

Given the Portuguese side's need for technically skilled players at the back so that the team had time on the ball when they got it back and the fact that facing Bayern hardly ever calls for a less mobile player stationed out wide, it was hardly surprising to see the Mexican player being replaced with Ricardo half an hour into the match.

On another note, it is equally hard to ignore the fact that FC Porto came out like a deer in headlights, afraid to use the third way between pressing or parking the bus that had worked so well last week. While it's true Bayern were much more accomplished with their pressing when transitioning into defence and effectively stifling the Portuguese side, it is undeniable that the Dragons were a bit further back than at the Dragão, which yielded a huge distance to Bayern's goal whenever they had the chance to win the ball back.

Whether by design or the inability to put his players at ease before such an important match, Lopetegui's European reputation took a serious dent here, as anyone curious enough about the first leg's result to tune in for the return leg won't have been impressed with FC Porto's first half.

  • 4. The vulnerabilities of 4x3x3

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One of Pep Guardiola's main trumps is his rejection of one definitive tactical formation. While he has perhaps been most successful with the 4x3x3 during his Barcelona stint, he has proven more than adept at chopping and changing his tactical formations in order to keep opponents - and sometimes his own players - guessing.

Even though Bayern seemed positively outmanoeuvred at the Dragão, the Spanish coach clearly learnt his lessons and went with a very different approach this time around, drilling holes in what seemed a very static strategy from FC Porto.

In fact, Guardiola stretched FC Porto out wide with Götze and Lahm, but made sure there were plenty of passing options in the middle. As mentioned on the first leg's preview, Óliver Torres and Herrera can sometimes take too long to occupy the necessary positions in front of their defence and Guardiola surely noticed it. With Robert Lewandowski often dropping back with his back to goal, there was also Thiago Alcântara and Thomas Müller lurking around, which meant FC Porto's holding midfielder Casemiro was much less sure of whether to press or cover the space.

Last night's match was surely a definitive reminder of just how vulnerable the 4x3x3 formation can be if the opposition knows how to pick the pockets of space that invariably form around the holding midfielder and behind the interiores - or shuttlers. The time FC Porto took to take notice of those changes was crucial to Bayern's incessant pounding.

  • 5. What does it all mean?

The problem with analysing results rather than processes in football is the instant bipolarity this option presents. Last week Guardiola's head was to be served up on a silver platter and his Bayern project was going nowhere. Today he's being heralded as one of the big names in coaching history. Conversely, Lopetegui was last week being touted for the Real Madrid coaching position (the rumour mill at its best) and this week he's under an enormous amount of pressure as he is forced to defeat Benfica at the Estádio da Luz if he harbours any hope of winning the title and therefore keeping his job with his current employer.

For Guardiola this emphatic win was most definitely a sigh of relief. With last season's debacle against Real Madrid in mind, crashing out against Europe's minor opposition, for all their history, would have deepened the sense of perceived crisis in Bavaria and truncate the Spaniard's wiggle room. While they seem under control, success in domestic competitions would no doubt be insufficient for the club's (almost impossibly) high demands and might bring Guardiola's project into question.

Therefore last night's win - and the way it was accomplished - will serve as the perfect panacea for Bayern's ailments and provide Guardiola with the much-needed time to bring some of the key players back, rather than being forced to watch the rest of the Champions League on the telly. On another note, the demolition of FC Porto will serve as notice for anyone that might think - at their own peril - that Bayern were already with one foot out Europe's door.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

5 conclusions from FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich

Following yesterday's night match (memorable for FC Porto, inescapable for Bayern Munich), it's now time to dwell for a bit longer on what lessons can be learnt from the result and the display from both sides. Here are five bullet points.

  • 1. Xabi Alonso marked out of the match

Xabi Alonso's frustration
was on display throughout the match.
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A coach can sometimes drill his players to exhaustion and ask them to do a specific thing or set of things on the pitch and never actually see it come to fruition. Therefore, it's not often that a coach gets to see it materialise on the second minute of a very important match.

As it later became evident, Jackson Martínez had clear instructions to sit close to Bayern's maestro Xabi Alonso and thus frustrate the team's passing rhythm (the Spaniard came in behind the likes of Thiago Alcântara, Mario Götze, Juan Bernat, Sebastian Rode and even Jérôme Boateng as far as passes in the attacking third are concerned). FC Porto coach Julen Lopetegui couldn't have dreamed that that very strategy would yield the match's initial goal as Xabi Alonso was caught out in possession by the same man that would come to deny his extraordinary passing skills. If Bayern could never get into their passing groove, much credit should go the month-long absentee Jackson Martínez.

  • 2. Moments and areas for pressing: the key

FC Porto players gave it their all
in the attempt to close down Bayern's passing options.
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Contrary to Thomas Müller's words, FC Porto did not win last Wednesday by parking the bus. In truth, they did the exact opposite at first by playing a relatively high line and then pressing Bayern's centre-backs and/or Xabi Alonso, in order to disrupt the Bavarians' rhythm. Even though they have been used to being the ball hogs themselves throughout the season, Lopetegui's charges adapted well to the fact that they would see less of the ball and were willing to take a step back and press only when it was deemed necessary.

Rather than pressing their opponents all over the place, FC Porto accepted Bayern's superiority in terms of ball possession, but rather than sitting deep, forced the Germans to play under the Portuguese's own terms. And that is perhaps the biggest lesson of them all for players, coaches and supporters alike - perhaps more than whether to press or not to press, the most important thing is to know what to do when it's time to do it. That way, FC Porto were able (most of the time) to condition Bayern's play towards the areas they felt most comfortable in.

  • 3. Holding the ball up: crucial to breathe

Quaresma might have
provided his trademark finish,
but his work rate impressed the most.
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Despite the final scoreline and the Bayern obituaries that have been written following their capitulation at the Dragão, FC Porto struggled quite a bit after the first 20 minutes up until the half-time whistle. During that period Bayern successfully stifled the Dragons and forced them to retreat to their penalty box and misplace several passes when they won the ball back.

If things didn't pan out as badly as they could have, it was in large part due to the ability displayed by Jackson, Yacine Brahimi and Ricardo Quaresma to hold the ball up and either wait for the foul to come or solve the situation by themselves - thus giving the team some much-needed time to breathe. Without that skill set, FC Porto would probably have succumbed to Bayern's pressing, even if the Germans never looked quite their best at the Dragão.

Quaresma and Jackson's goals will stay in the club supporters' mental highlight reel for a long time, but it was their work rate, willingness to track back and numerous good, yet less visible decisions that allowed FC Porto to thrive.

  • 4. Ball possession: blessing or curse?

Bayern had to wait
until the 28th minute to unleash their celebrations.
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Any time a team that bases their football around ball possession loses, the knives come out to criticise the approach and the judges use the latest defeat or poor display as ultimate evidence that holding on to the ball in and by itself is an ill-advised approach. This is not intended to be one such case.

The main theory sustained by those who prefer a thriftier approach when it comes to sharing the ball around claims that when one's team has the ball, the other team cannot score. The main hole in that theory is that no team in the world - not even Pep Guardiola's Barcelona or World Champions Spain in their prime - was ever able to keep their opponents from having the ball for several minutes, however few they were. The other pressing countenance is that a quick break or getting caught in possession only takes a few seconds to yield at least a scoring chance.

This is in no way a hark back to more cynical times where Serie A teams excelled, but more of a starting point for a discussion about how it's much more important to know what to do when a team effectively has the ball, rather than whether they have it for a short or long time. Ball possession in and by itself offers nothing as an end product, but may well be the best way to keep your opponents from hurting you. The only problem with that is that you need huge amounts of confidence to make it work - and definitely better centre-backs on the ball.

  • 5. Knowing one's strengths and weakness

Dante and Boateng were hardly ever given a moment's peace.
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The position of centre-back could actually be one of the best starting points for any analysis of yesterday's proceedings. On one hand, Lopetegui was humble enough to realise Robert Lewandowski presented a clear threat, particularly given Bayern's recent, more direct way of playing as a result of so many dribblers missing. Therefore, he made sure that the Pole was almost always doubled up on whenever the ball was contested in the air, but also that the areas around him were duly occupied with FC Porto players.

On the other hand, the Basque coach admitted that his centre-backs could not run the risk of being dispossessed near their own penalty box and that was why both Maicon and Bruno Martins Indi had no qualms hoofing it up towards Jackson Martínez (whenever possible), rather than exposing themselves to being caught in possession against the likes of Götze or Müller.

Guardiola, in turn, saw Boateng and Dante (and even Manuel Neuer) put in some gasp-inducing passes and moves, and not only ended up chasing the score but was never sure enough anything similar wouldn't happen again either. For a team that is so dedicated to ball possession, it seems baffling that, with so much money spent all over the pitch, Boateng and Dante are still the go-to centre-back pairing.

In purely defensive terms, both centre-backs showed once again that they are from comfortable when dealing with physically imposing strikers (or forwards, for that matter) and high balls, which was why Jackson managed to give FC Porto some wiggle room up the pitch and how the third goal came about.

FC Porto 3-1 Bayern Munich: Dragons Work Their Magic

Previews had been written. Podcasts had been recorded. Stats had been analysed. And yet nothing quite seemed to lead anyone to believe FC Porto were about to add another incredible chapter to their already success-laden book of European nights.

Not even the most optimistic FC Porto supporter would have hazard such an adventurous guess: A 3-1 win, resulting from such an incredibly valiant display. With the second leg coming up at the Allianz Arena in less than a week's time and without both Alex Sandro and Danilo, though, the story will be far from over and FC Porto players, supporters and coaches will have to brace themselves for a bumpy ride.

  • To Be or Not to Be: A Third Way?

But how did this all come to pass? That is probably the question going around the head of most journalists, if not every FC Porto supporter on their way home. There had been some discussion about what exactly Julen Lopetegui's approach would be and whether it would be better to hold back and afford Bayern Munich the initiative or, on the contrary, pounce on the Germans' perceived vulnerabilities.

It turns out FC Porto's Spanish coach had something else on his mind and went with an alternative option. Rather than pressing heavily - and indiscriminately - from the front, his charges had clear instructions to keep their lines compact (the Dragons did not start out with the proverbial bus parked), allow the ball to reach the centre-backs and pounce on them when they looked most exposed - a mishit pass, getting the ball with their backs to goal, etc.

The approach worked wonders and by the tenth minute FC Porto were already leading 2-0 via similar passages of play. On the first instance, Jackson Martínez caught Xabi Alonso out in possession and charged towards goal and got around Manuel Neuer, only for the German goalkeeper to bring the Colombian down. Ricardo Quaresma coolly scored the ensuing penalty and, five minutes later, repeated Jackson's actions by intercepting Dante's underhit pass and provided an even cooler finish to put FC Porto in the driver's seat.

  • Physical and mental yo-yoing

The German champions effectively looked shaken by the worst start they could have imagined, but they gradually grew into something that looked closer to their best. In fact, as the match wore on Bayern forced FC Porto backwards more and more and increasingly put the Portuguese under pressure. (By the end of the first half, Bayern had accumulated 70% of ball possession, a statistic that Lopetegui is used to seeing under his own team's column and that reflects how little of the ball FC Porto had seen.)

By the time Bayern scored through Thiago Alcântara's first goal in more than 450 days, things were starting to look shaky for FC Porto, as their players seemed to grow physically tired as a result of their incessant pressing, especially through the centre in an attempt to close down Bayern's passing options. Coverage started to arrive a bit later than usual as the first half drew to a close and the out-balls were not getting to their destination. This column wondered during half-time just what Lopetegui would fine-tune in the dressing room to avoid what seemed to be the impending German attacking barrage.

As it were, the exact opposite happened. Bayern took to the pitch and almost immediately looked ill positioned, particularly in central midfield, oddly awarding FC Porto acres of space into which to break, rather than attempting to stifle the Dragons. When Jackson Martínez delicately received Alex Sandro's long diagonal pass and once again got around Neuer for the third goal, Herrera had already forced the German 'keeper to make a wonderful save and the feeling at the stadium was that FC Porto's third goal was somehow more likely than Bayern's second.

  • The coach's hand

It is sometimes hard to perceive - or to explain - just what a coach does in the background to help increase his team's performances and results. Here it was rather easy to assess just how well Julen Lopetegui had drilled his team as his players kept pressing under the same circumstances and adapted almost miraculously to what the match asked of them - something very different from what they are used to on most matches.

There was Casemiro's excellent positioning throughout the game whenever Bayern got to the goal line and tried to cut a pass backward, the incessant coverage provided by the wingers to their full-backs and the awareness of where the out-ball had to get out through. A team that plays with such confidence and panache even when facing one of Europe's fiercest sides necessarily means his coach has to be awarded some credit.

  • Thiago, Götze and the diamond

Guardiola made some subtle changes to his team's tactical layout, chiefly the forwards' positioning. Most of the time, Bayern seemed to be playing in a diamond 4x4x2, with Mario Götze often behind Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller. While it was one of the reasons why the Bavarians managed to put FC Porto on the back foot throughout the latter half of the initial 45 minutes, it also backfired spectacularly throughout the first half of the second period, as Götze became more unaware of his defensive duties and Lahm and Thiago were not enough to protect Xabi Alonso.

When Sebastian Rode came on for Götze, Thiago was allowed to move higher up the pitch. And while Rode actually did very well for himself, Thiago stopped being the threat he had been posing for the first hour of the match as his new positioning now meant he was much closer to Casemiro and the Portista defence, forcing him to often receive the ball with his back to goal.

Despite Rode and Lahm's best intentions, it was clear FC Porto were being allowed too much space to break into. Even though Pep Guardiola would later come to say that in his opinion the match was never out of their control, the fact of the matter was that it remains rare to see any Guardiola side offering so many chances to their opponents with so little control down the middle.

  • Football: A Game Played with One's Head? 

Perhaps more than any tactical tweak, however, it may have been the mental approach that Guardiola mentioned at his press conference that did the trick for both teams. As far as Bayern were concerned, the Germans looked more and more baffled and dispirited as the match wore on, particularly after FC Porto's third goal, and never resembled the assured team they were during the first half of this season (and no, this match does not constitute enough reason to celebrate the end of tiki-taka).

As for the Dragons, the same team that was starting to look a bit lost as the half-time whistle blew suddenly found themselves awash with fresh confidence 20 minutes later as they realised beating Bayern (if not on the aggregate of the two legs, at least in front of their own crowd) was eminently doable. Danilo might have laid on the ground with cramps while Casemiro couldn't bring himself to get his hands off his knees after the final whistle was blown, but they had been zipping around just seconds earlier - a case of mind over matter if there ever was one.

  • Quaresma: A Wizard Coming into His Own?

Anyone familiar with this column(ist) will have come across some of the doubts surrounding Ricardo Quaresma's contributions to the team. As it were, today was definitely one of the best matches from the Portuguese winger, not (only) because of the goals he scored - and the two cool finishes would be enough to stand on their own - but also because of the stupendous amount of work (defensive and otherwise) that would have seemed impossible not so long ago.

Quaresma held the ball when he had to, dribbled when he should and kept showing himself available to team-mates in need of an out-ball. And that - in the middle of such a memorable night from most players - should be highlighted above anything else.

FC Porto may be in for a tough match at the Allianz Arena, but they have at least made Europe sit up and pay attention to the only undefeated team in the competition so far - even after playing the dreaded Bayern Munich.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

FC Porto x Bayern Munich: The Preview

With such a monumental match coming up as far as FC Porto are concerned, PortuGOAL had to step up and provide a thorough preview of what can only be described as a David-vs-Goliath sort of clash. This time there's room for an in-depth analysis and also a short podcast for anyone that feels more inclined to listening rather than reading. You can find both pieces here.