Twenty-five games played for twenty-three victories and two draws, a balance sheet better than Barcelona’s one, the Liga Sagres’ title already won even though there are five games left, a Europa League quarter-final to play and a manager who walks into Mourinho’s footprints… All these reasons make the tactical analysis of Porto’s tactics quite relevant, the Villas Boas’ one, who became the youngest manager to win the championship’s title on Sunday night. Moreover in Lisbon after a victory over Benfica. What else?
On the blackboard :
If a game plan could be summarized on a simple board, that’s what FC Porto’s one would look like. For tactic’s fans, the organization of Porto is a 4-1-4-1 when the team is defending that moves into in a 4-3-3 with two wingers (Varela and the left side and Hulk on the right side) going forward when the team get the ball. They are supported by the two full-backs (Alvaro Perreira on the left side and Fucile on the right side) who move forward to participate in the construction of the attack.
The defense is articulated around the axis made by Rolando and Otamendi (Maicon was on the bench for the match against Benfica). Fernando’s role is to clean the midfield when the team has to fold and to compensate when the team is defending. Falcao plays upfront, supported by Guarin who plays box-to-box while Moutinho plays all over the width of the pitch.
Defensive withdrawal: the importance of Fernando
This is the modish midfield organization. Villas Boas does no exception to the rule of the defensive balance based on the position of a midfield anchor. As you can see on the screenshot below, Porto switches from 4-3-3 to 4-1-4-1 when the team defends with the only Fernando between the lines.
Before this, the brazilian midfield is placed to recuperate the ball. He rarely starts the pressing but positions himself in the best to benefit from the opponents mistakes due to defensive work of the five midfields in front of him. A role of ball winner and first support to permit good passing and (usually) quick side switching, a part of his play that we’ll analyze later.
When Porto is defending, Fernando’s role is to help is defense and to care that gaps made by movements of his defense are compensated. Unlike other anchor midfields who help their full-backs, Fernando stays most of the time in the center of the pitch and works with his two central defenders. On the left scheme, the left full-back is overwhelmed, so the left stopper goes for challenging possession and consequently, Fernando takes his position. On the right scheme, the stopper goes off the defense to challenge the ball; Fernando takes his position to keep the defensive line straight.
This tactical principle is the same as the one José Mourinho applied with the pair Cambiasso – Zanetti during the second leg between Inter and Barcelona last year. Be careful, this principle needs to have a very compact block in defensive phase otherwise the two midfields in front of Fernando would not have enough time to fill the empty space left in front of the defense by the Brazilian (red arrow on the scheme).
Attack: looking for width
It is certainly the most evident aspect of the Dragões’ style of play. As soon as they win the ball, they look for passing de ball as fast as possible on a side. In most cases, they need only 3 passes or less to reach a teammate on the side. Hulk and Varela often get the ball in these conditions but you may also see the full-back carrying the ball to the attacking side or Moutinho and Falcao getting off their position to carry the ball to their winger and then to combine with him.
If you except the central defenders (even though their passing abilities allow them to reach directly the wingmen), playmaking in order to send the ball on a side is made by passes between five players: the three midfields and the full-backs (white circle). Moutinho and Guarin lead the exchanges in the axis, sometimes helped by Falcao, waiting for the good moment (understand getting off the opposite pressure) to send the ball on the opposite side. The full-backs and Fernando never get off their position to insure the team balance.
Once the ball is on the side, pairs are formed. On the left wing, Varela and Alvaro Pereira made the most visible pair against Benfica. On the right wing, Hulk’s versatility and his movements inward bring more varieties. Helped by Fucile getting upfield, the Brazilian has also combined with Falcao who repeatedly ventured into this area of the field. When he did, Guarin took his place in the axis so the opposite defense could not follow the Colombian as it would be perilous for them.
Passing and pressing: Moutinho superstar
This is the following of the preceding paragraph. Fairly discreet during the huge first quarter of Porto against Benfica, Moutinho started to shine as soon as the opponent started to show off: the mark of leaders. When Porto keeps the ball on the wing, the former midfield of the Sporting provides an extra-solution to the wingers. That’s how we’ll see him launch Alvaro Pereira on the left wing or create a triangular movement with Hulk and Fucile on the right wing. His role is to stay back the ball in order to offer a solution or to cross the ball to the other side if the opponent has closed the wing.
Besides his role in the play style of the Dragões, Moutinho is the real tactical leader of the team when the opponent has the ball. As shown in the screenshot above, he is the one who starts Porto’s pressing by going off the line of the four midfields, a role reminiscent Sneijder for Inter. From 4-1-4-1, the team goes to a 4-1-3-2. Forward, Falcao and Moutinho press to cut pass solutions in the axis and force the ball carrier to pass it on a side. This done, the winger faces his opponent, and if he wins the duel, it creates a five-on-five situation against a defense not prepared for it.
Porto’s second goal comes from this type of action and we’ll be analyzed image per image in a future paper. Just one thing to notice about Villas Boas’ players’ pressing: it appears to be more efficient on the left side, Varela seems a better defender than Hulk. Moreover, the right side of the new Portugal champions seems to be their weakness, especially if you manage to pass quickly in the Hulk’s zone. There you just have to know how to do to score.
The team forms a very consistent pack and involves some codes that you can find in Mourinho’s style (Fernando, Moutinho). For its own, the animation gets profits from the wings players’ abilities such as percussion thanks to an organization which brings the ball on a wing and provides solutions then thanks to the movements of Moutinho and of the full-backs as fast as possible. If you add this to technical qualities above average in every line you can conclude that Porto is good stuff and Villas Boas starts quite well his career as a head coach.