Thursday, April 16, 2015

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.


Ricardo said...

I am also not a fan of Quaresma for exactly the same reasons you pointed out and i agree that his performance was a surprise.
When you see Didier Drogba well into his thirties doing his defensive duties for Chelsea, or Eto'o doing his defensive duties for Chelsea and Everton you see how an attacking player can increase his value for the team. Even when his attacking skills start to deteriorate. It's a shame that someone like Quaresma never learnt that the team performance is more important than any individual tricks.

Vasco Mota Pereira said...

If he had learnt that earlier, he wouldn't be at FC Porto, that's for sure. And for me that was always my main beef with him - that he was never able to sort his priorities out and was always interested in doing what was best for him, rather than the team.

When both things coincided, though, it was a hell of a sight, admittedly.