Passionate. Committed. Fiery. Winner. These are words regularly overheard in conversations about Sérgio Conceição. In this article, we delve into the key statistics that make up the DNA of Conceição’s resurgent Porto side. We put the Porto manager’s tactical philosophies under the microscope and analyse how he has carved success in a role once perfected by the legendary José Mourinho.
A revived love affair
The stage was set in June 2017. Nuno Espírito Santo departed the club by mutual consent after Benfica won their fourth consecutive Primeira Liga. Nuno joined a raft of coaches who had been unable to achieve silverware at Porto but would go on to find success elsewhere. The departure emphasised that the deeply-rooted problems went beyond whoever had their name on the office door. Porto were in a slump.
To add to the problems surrounding the club, Porto were handed a hefty Financial Fair Play fine for not being complicit in the transfer regulations. In attempts to reduce the financial pressures, Porto sold star-striker André Silva to Milan in a deal worth £34.2 million.
Up stepped Sérgio Conceição unphased by a job haunted by the success of its past. The ex-Porto winger who had achieved multiple accolades wearing the blue and white shirt returned with pride to the Estádio do Dragão. Conceição signed off the back of a successful campaign at relegation candidates Nantes. He had led them from 18th spot to a spectacular 7th place finish.
Porto’s current situation was, however, all white-noise for the straight-talking Portuguese international who was keen to reinvigorate a club he referred to as “home”. Without the ability to open the chequebook, Sérgio Conceição considered his squad. He recalled loanees left out in the cold; most notably Moussa Marega, who is now an indispensable component in the Conceição regime.
Such is his personality, Conceição garnered respect quickly. He introduced a fine blend of spirited charisma and tacit discipline to not only get the dressing room on-side but the despondent fans as well. Conceição made an early statement by dropping first team goalkeeper and legend, Iker Casillas. The move backfired and resulted in the Spaniard’s subsequent reinstatement and a public admission of error from Conceição. But rather than a show of weakness, Conceição’s maturity in handling the situation bought sceptics on board and he began to turn heads.
Sérgio Conceição is a keen advocate of the 4-4-2 formation. Porto have used this formation 59% of the time in all competitions this season and it’s how they are most dangerous, achieving an xG of 1.67 whilst in this shape.
Conceição’s imprint on his team is reflective of his style as a player: fast and aggressive. His approach focuses on condensing the pitch vertically when the opponent has possession. Porto apply an aggressive, high energy front press, confining the opponent to playing in their defensive third. These areas make for excellent opportunities in transition when Porto recover possession.
Under Conceição, Porto’s press is structured and fierce. The two strikers lead the charge by closing down the centre-backs and goalkeeper as the opponent attempts to play out. The second wave comprises of the No.8 – Danilo Perreira in the image above – and the two wingers. These players press in conjunction with the strikers, resulting in a unified structural shift forward onto the opposition. Behind the 5-man press, the full-backs move up onto their respective winger to prevent an escape route. This rapid and harmonious movement suffocates the opposition resulting in the continuous recovery of possession. By regaining the ball so effectively, Conceição’s Porto often dominate a football match. Their average possession in the league this year is an impressive 57.4%, higher than any other team.
And it isn’t just explosive aggression in Conceição’s weaponry; behind his thinking, there’s tactical artistry that makes Porto extremely dangerous on the ball. Conceição encourages his side to pass the ball across short distances and through all the phases to create offensive openings through dynamic movements. 82% of their total passes this season are short, highlighting Conceição’s demand to keep the ball.
In possession, Conceição imposes unorthodox movements within his 4-4-2 system. The two centre backs move up to the halfway line, with the two central midfielders dropping deeper and narrower, creating a central block that provides protection against counter-attacks. This creates space for the ball to move through the phases quickly.
The two wingers roam inside, creating room for the full-backs in the lateral areas. This movement alters the 4-4-2 to an offensive 4-2-4 in possession. For the opposition midfield, tracking the tucked-in wingers is extremely difficult. They become stranded and in attempts to recover their position, they move to mark the infield winger. In doing so they leave a clear passing lane through the centre of the pitch, where one Porto striker drops towards the ball to receive into feet.
When Porto release the ball to the lateral areas, the full-back, winger and striker overload the opposition in a 3v2. The overlap stretches the already overloaded opponent, which creates an easy passing opportunity into the half space.
Porto are particularly talented in the full-back area and this is a must in the Conceição philosophy. Pace, stamina and technique are all attributes that flourish in his system. It’s no surprise then, that left-back Alex Telles has notched up an impressive 6 league assists this season.
Conceição’s defensive philosophy follows much in the same vein as his offensive one. He wants passion, bravery and above all else 100% commitment.
The 5-man press is Porto’s initial defence as it nullifies opposition attacks before they take shape. If the first barrier is by-passed, Porto are vulnerable, leaving plenty of spaces in the midfield area. In this section, we analyse the tactics Conceição has implemented to reduce his sides exposure if their press is unsuccessful.
When the press isn’t set-up, Porto don’t back off. They maintain a highly aggressive shape by keeping the back four up on the half-way line. The defenders reduce their horizontal distances and in doing so reduce their exposure to direct balls over the top. Space is sacrificed from the lateral areas. This gives the defenders a chance to move across if an opponent’s long diagonal ball is successful.
This tactic relies on excellent communication between the defensive four, as well as great anticipation to avoid being caught with balls over the top. By being so narrow, Porto defenders are able to pass on their runner quickly and safely. As a result, Conceição is able to keep the ball in areas most dangerous for his side, as seen below.
In addition to the defensive organisation required by Conceição’s tactics, his philosophy also demands a lot from his central midfielders. They are deployed to cover ground quickly whilst engaging all over the pitch. Large, athletic builds prosper in his system; continually breaking up play and battling for possession. Danilo Pereira wins 67% of his duals which translates to 6.4 per league match. Along with his 1.2 interceptions per game under Conceição, it’s no wonder the bigger teams in Europe have shown an interest. Pereira’s heat map below shows his impressive ground coverage under Sérgio Conceição.
Conceição’s high energy approach has led to the creation of a fast-paced, confident outfit. Porto create a lot of chances and boast the strongest defensive record in the league, conceding just 15 goals all season.
After a four year hiatus, Porto are winning titles again under Sérgio Conceição. The 2017/18 campaign saw Porto dominate in the league, scoring more goals than any other team (82) and conceding the fewest (18). This season Sérgio Conceição’s side are again in title contention and are enjoying success on Europe’s biggest stage.
Beyond an exciting tactical playbook which we have just analysed, Conceição has one intangible attribute all top modern managers possess. He is able to bleed an extra 5% out of every player in his squad, imploring them to pull in the same direction and pull hard. The authority doesn’t come from shouting the loudest or micro-managing every detail. It has grown from his honesty with the press, his public team-talks in front of the fans and jogging 24-miles home after losing a bet with his players. These traits immerse the city in the club’s present with Conceição ingrained in its past; now they join together on what is set to be a very exciting future with Conceição leading the way.
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