In the second leg of the Last 16 in the Europa League, FC Porto had to face Bayer Leverkusen in the Estadio do Dragao. Coming out of the first leg with a 2-1 win at home, Leverkusen were determined to maintain their lead and move into the next round. After a dominant first half, Leverkusen were able to decide the match early on thanks to two quick goals after the break. In essence, it never really felt like Leverkusen could be in serious danger to lose this match.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine how Leverkusen earned the win through a strong performance and systematic dominance. The analysis will further point out why Porto’s tactics struggled to create high-quality chances against Bayer’s defence.
On paper, Porto’s coach Sérgio Conceição opted for his usual 4-4-2. However, his team applied this system very flexibly and asymmetrically with Otavio always moving into the centre and Luis Diaz positioning himself very high next to the strikers. Out of possession, Porto tried to press in a 4-3-3 to attack Leverkusen’s back three in a man-oriented way. After the break, Conceição brought on the 37-year-old Pepe and switched to a 3-4-3/3-4-1-2.
While Peter Bosz deployed his usual 4-2-3-1 in the first leg, he chose a 3-4-2-1 in Portugal. As in the last Bundesliga match against Augsburg, Sven Bender, Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba were the three at the back. Besides that, there were not many surprises. Due to the absence of Charles Aranguiz, the central midfield consisted of Nadiem Amiri and Kerem Demirbay. Upfront, it was Lucas Alario, who replaced the long-term injured Kevin Volland.
Harmless FC Porto
Porto made a very lethargic impression for most of the game, only amassing one shot on target and 0.4 xG in what was a do or die match for them.
Since Bayer Leverkusen always provided good protection against counter-attacks and did not have to take any risks because of their lead, Porto – unlike in the first leg – had to attack mainly via their own build-up. This approach led to a large number of long balls as soon as Porto’s build-up was pressed. Those long balls were mostly aimed at the two strikers Marega and Zé Luiz, who had a rough time upfront, barely winning any aerial duels. Consequently, Porto’s strikers were isolated and had almost no connection to the rest of the team.
As already mentioned in the previous section of this tactical analysis, Porto approached their 4-4-2 shape very flexibly. In possession, it looked more like a 2-4-1-3 as both full-backs positioned themselves higher up the pitch in line with the central midfielders.
Otavio’s role in this set-up was interesting as he was actually the only player who tried to offer passing lanes between Leverkusen’s lines. In the example below, we can see one of the rare instances where Porto’s build-up was able to make use of Otavio’s movements.
The 25-year-old was undoubtedly Porto’s most creative player and the initiator of almost all the Portuguese side’s chances. His behaviour on the pitch and his feeling for open spaces were very smart but he didn’t receive many balls in possibly dangerous spaces due to Porto’s motto of rather opting for the long ball instead of building up with short passes through the midfield.
Due to Otavio’s moves inside the centre, the right side was only occupied by right-back Jesus Corona. In most instances, when he received the ball, the Mexican took on one opponent and eventually tried to put in a cross or combine quickly with a teammate. Below we can see an example where he enjoyed lots of space and could take on Sinkgraven 1 vs 1. However, Oliveira took too long to deliver the pass and missed the chance. In general, diagonal long balls, especially against the direction of shifting, could have been promising for Porto but were ultimately used too rarely.
Mature Bayer Leverkusen
Leverkusen had hardly any problems with Porto’s attack for most of the game. On the basis of a good lineup in the centre with the back-three and four midfielders in front, Peter Bosz’s team was very compact, pressed consistently and won back many balls. To force long balls, they didn’t even have to press very intensively. Leverkusen’s front three attacked the build-up of Porto mostly in a modest way. At the latest when the ball was played back to goalkeeper Marchesin, they opted for the long ball, which didn’t cause any problems for the guests.
Offensively, Leverkusen had a clear plan to break down Porto’s defence. In possession, Havertz often moved from the nominal wing position into the half-space in front of Amiri and shifted the focus of Peter Bosz’s team inwards accordingly. On the left side, Diaby was mostly positioned higher up the pitch to ensure depth. In general, he also stayed a bit wider and offered options for a long ball behind Porto’s defence. Basically, this resulted in a slightly crooked 2-2 split in Bayer’s midfield between two more defensive and two offensive players.
As the sequence goes on, Havertz moved even further into the centre. Simultaneously, Diaby realised the space behind Porto’s defensive line and made an explosive run. Ultimately, Tapsoba opted for the long ball to Diaby exploiting Porto’s defence.
Here, we can see another example of Havertz’s smart movements between the lines to offer progressive passing lanes. First, he was positioned on the right flank. However, as he saw that L. Bender moved higher up the pitch, the 20-year-old moved inside to occupy the spaces in the centre.
As soon as Tah played the ball to Havertz, he was surrounded by two opponents, who tried to minimize his opportunities. In turn, this opened up space for Demirbay, who was free to receive the ball and play through the middle or switch the side.
In principle, Leverkusen came into the gaps between the lines of the home team several times in this way and Havertz played a crucial role. The “German wonderkid” not only amassed two assists and one goal but initiated almost all dangerous attacks of his team. Porto never really knew how to cope with his free-flowing movements and how to minimize the space he could occupy.
Second half changes backfire
At the break, Porto stood with their back against the wall. They had to score at least two goals to get into extra time and three to win. Given the fact that they were so harmless in the first half, Conceição changed his formation to a 3-4-3. Consequently, Porto tried to press their opponents higher up the pitch and in a more aggressive manner.
That being said, this left them very vulnerable for counter-attacks and situations where Leverkusen could overcome Porto’s first pressing line. As we can see below, Porto’s back three had to defend in a man-oriented manner. It ultimately didn’t take long for the guests to make use of this vulnerability and decide the match.
After their third goal, Leverkusen sat a bit deeper and only did what was necessary while allowing Porto more time on the ball. Consequently, the home side didn’t play as many long balls as in the first half but tried to build up with short passes through the midfield.
Furthermore, it helped that Otavio played deeper next to Oliveira to support their build-up. Offensively, it was especially Jesus Corona, who had some good actions where he dribbled inside or down the flank, initiating dangerous situations for his team.
As this tactical analysis showed, Leverkusen were fully convincing and deservedly moved into the next round. They played a very dominant first half and profited from Alario’s goal after ten minutes. After the break, Sérgio Conceição tried to turn things around and tried to set up his attack more dangerously. However, the risk didn’t pay off but backfired instantly as Leverkusen came up utterly efficient and cold-blooded to decide the game before the hour-mark.
It’s still early days in the Europe League and several strong teams are aiming for the title. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that Leverkusen appeared more organised and more mature than they’ve been for years. If they can keep this up and cope with the absence of Kevin Volland, they might be a serious title contender.