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.
Photo credit:
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.
Photo credit:
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.
Photo credit:
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.
Photo credit:
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.
Photo credit:
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.


Matthew Marshall said...

Spot on Vasco, looking forward to the 2nd leg.

Vasco Mota Pereira said...

Cheers, Mat. The second leg will certainly be a great game. Let's see what lessons we can take from tonight's match.