Round 15 in Liga NOS saw two of Portugal’s big three collide as FC Porto visited Sporting CP at the Estádio José Alvalade. Unbeaten in their last seven games across all competitions, Porto came into the match in red-hot form, while Sporting sought to build on their recent 4-0 thrashing of relegation-threatened Santa Clara. Much was at stake for both sides as nine points separated second place Porto from third place Sporting. With automatic qualifications into the Champions League only being granted to the top two teams in Liga NOS, Sporting were desperate for three points.
The match began as a high-octane affair with both Porto and Sporting pressing aggressively and fighting for every loose ball. Porto started stronger and struck in the sixth minute when Moussa Marega got on the end of a diagonal ball over the Sporting backline from Jesús Manuel Corona. Sporting grew into the game but were unable to carve out many chances in the first half until Marcos Acuña found the back of the net on the counter-attack just before half time. Sporting pushed on to start the second half and were the better side, but wasteful finishing saw them fail to equalise. Porto punished Sporting’s sloppiness by scoring on a corner kick in the 73rd minute via Francisco Soares, and this proved to be the nail in the coffin for the 18-time Liga NOS champions.
Sporting elected to start the match in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Jérémy Mathieu and Sebastián Coates marshalled the heart of the defence with Marcos Acuña on the left and Stefan Ristovski on the right. Idrissa Doumbia and Wendel formed a double pivot in central midfield with Bruno Fernandes ahead of them. Luciano Vietto and Yannick Bolasie began on the left and right wings respectively, and Luiz Phellype led the attack as the lone striker.
Sérgio Conceição opted for a similar approach to Sporting but with an altered winger positioning, preferring a 4-4-1-1 formation. Alex Telles, Iván Marcano, Pepe, and Jesús Manuel Corona started from left to right in defence, with the central midfield partnership of Danilo Pereira and Mateus Uribe shielding the backline. Moussa Marega and Otávio occupied either wing, while the industrious Shoya Nakajima played underneath Francisco Soares to round out the side.
Porto’s Defensive Organisation and Intensity
A key component to Porto’s success was their defending. They started the game at a rapid tempo and sought to press high up the pitch to disrupt the rhythm of Sporting’s build-up. Porto were very organised in their pressure, which was led by Soares and Nakajima. When Sporting began to build from the back, these two would collect themselves centrally to eliminate any central passing options and then squeeze higher together. Either Soares or Nakajima would apply the initial pressure to one of the Sporting centre backs with the other than joining when the ball was switched to create a front two as shown below.
Soares and Nakajima would steer Sporting into the wide areas where Porto often suffocated the play and forced Sporting turnovers.
The reason Porto’s defending was so effective was not only was it well-organised but also that each player ran with hunger and commitment. Porto’s desperation to win was palpable, and several players were herculean in their defensive duels. For instance, Uribe singlehandedly won 15 duels for a staggering 68% success rate. Moreover, Otávio won eight defensive duels, the same number as both of Sporting’s wingers combined. The Porto players showed no limit in their desire to cover ground and neutralise Sporting attacks. This was perhaps most visibly showcased by Nakajima, who was relentless in his effort to spearhead countless Porto pressing actions, whether that was higher in the Porto attacking half, or deeper in Porto’s defensive third as demonstrated below.
As a result of their devotion to defence, Porto controlled large portions of the match by stifling the Sporting attack. Evidence of this is seen in some of the key defensive statistics from the match. For instance, Porto dominated Sporting in balls won via interception, robbing the ball 45 times to Sporting’s 31. What’s more, as indicated by the image below, Porto were superior to Sporting in their duels win rate.
Sporting’s Lack of Discipline
In addition to Porto’s defensive determination, one reason Sporting struggled was that they showed a lack of discipline in three areas. The first area was their composure. At times they let the magnitude and intensity of the match get the best of them, and they consequently committed needless fouls that created opportunities for Porto. In total, they committed 21 fouls in the match. To put this in perspective, in Sporting’s last five matches they have averaged 12.4 fouls per game. Furthermore, many of these fouls were needless offences in counter-pressing moments where, if Sporting had been more disciplined, they could have regained possession cleanly and launched a counter-attack. Below is a prime example of such a foul committed by Wendel.
Sporting also showed a lack of discipline in their defensive mentality. They simply did not have the same consistency in their motivation and effort to defend as Porto did throughout the match. Therefore, there would be moments, as illustrated below by Vietto and Bolasie, in which a couple of the Sporting players would be walking during the transition from attack to defence.
Finally, Sporting showed a lack of discipline in their attacking organization. It was clear that their attacking game plan was to have one of their pivot players drop between or beside the centre backs to form a back three in the build-up, push the outside backs high, and bring their wingers inside to overload centrally. From there, the wingers, along with Bruno Fernandes, could float into pockets of space between the lines to receive the ball and penetrate the Porto defence. However, Sporting’s midfield did not consistently organize themselves in the proper pockets of space to capitalize on their numerical advantage in midfield. A perfect example of this is Bolasie’s positioning in the image below.
On this occasion, Bolasie has drifted infield to position himself in the inside central channel. Although this is a good passing lane to occupy because it offers an option to split the left side of Porto’s midfield, Bolasie is too deep. Thus, Bolaise is not even an option for Coates because he could easily be closed down by Porto’s left centre mid or left mid upon any pass attempt. Not only that, by positioning himself in the midfield line, Porto’s left-back, Alex Telles, only has to worry about tracking Sporting’s right back who is high and wide. If, however, Bolasie were to position himself seven or eight meters higher to split the difference between Porto’s midfield and backline, this would change everything. From that position, Bolasie would be a legitimate passing option for Coates because he would have created space between himself and the Porto midfield line. Also, Telles would be put into a two versus one situation in which he must try to mark both Bolasie and Sporting’s right back, Ristovski. As a result, if Telles stays deeper with Ristovski, Sporting could pass to a free Bolasie between the lines. Or, if Telles plays closer to Bolasie in midfield, Sporting could bypass Telles by playing over the top of Telles to Ristovski running in behind.
Sporting’s Squandered Chances
The first 20 minutes of the second half was Sporting’s best spell of the match as the intensity of Porto’s defending slightly decreased and the tempo slowed. At times, the game became a bit stretched with both Sporting and Porto finding space on the counter. Sporting, however, had the better opportunities that, in truth, came more by way of individual mistakes on Porto’s part than skilful play or tactical ingenuity. Chancel Mbemba, who subbed on for an injured Pepe in the 24th minute, was particularly at fault through rash challenges like the one shown below.
As a byproduct of such mistakes, Sporting were able to carve out several excellent opportunities on the counter. Specifically, Sporting had success down the left flank where Marcos Acuña contributed three key passes. But although Sporting created a flurry of chances that saw Vietto reach an xG of .52 in just 18 minutes, Sporting failed to convert golden opportunities like the one shown below.
Sporting’s inability to cash in on their chances came back to haunt them in the 73rd minute when Francisco Soares doubled Porto’s advantage. Soares was left all alone to nod in Jesús Corona’s service past Luís Maximiano and definitively dispatch of Sporting. In the end, therefore, it mattered very little that Sporting’s xG of 1.32 almost doubled that of Porto’s at .69. Rather, the most telling statistic was that Porto were able to put six of their shots on target as opposed to Sporting who only managed to put one of their 15 shots on target.
Porto’s performance at Sporting was by no means perfect. The dragons can take pride, however, in their collective mentality that saw them control large stretches of the game, endure difficult moments, and ultimately come away from the Estádio José Alvalade only four points behind league leaders Benfica.
Sporting has been dealt a difficult blow in their quest for Champions League football, but with the season only halfway through, there is still much drama to unfold in Liga NOS.