1. Historical context
Sporting CP have struggled during this season having changed coach for the 4th time now. Marcel Keizer started the season, was sacked at 5th September 2019 and was followed by caretaker manager Leonel Pontes who only stayed until 26th September. Sporting’s third manager was Silas who stayed until 3rd March 2020 before the record signing of Ruben Amorim for 10 million Euros from SC Braga. Despite being hugely contested, this signing is real, and the purpose of this article is to understand what is going to change with it. We’ll take a look at what Silas did since he was the manager who has stayed for the longest time in charge of the team, analyse it, and see what is going to (and also what needs to) change based on the work Ruben Amorim did on SC Braga and what we can expect to see at Sporting CP.
One major thing has to be mentioned, and it has to do with the awful crisis that the club is living at the moment mostly due to the new President’s and board of directors’ bad management practices at the various levels. It has affected Silas’s and the player’s work, and the fans are also divided between the ones who support the actual president and the ones who don’t, which is not very good for the team’s performances as there is no real support for the team. This situation most likely took part in some of the failures in terms of results and performances, taking some of the blame out of the coach and the player’s shoulders. Silas’s tactics and ideas, as we’ll see, were actually positive and a good fit for his squad.
2. The Silas era: main principles, tactical organisation and key players
Under Silas, Sporting deployed various tactical formations due to the coach’s adaptability to their opponents but also started to develop something they didn’t have before he came: a game model/philosophy/identity and we could notice that in certain movements and combinations that occurred consistently throughout the games.
2.1 Main ideas/principles seen in Silas’s teams
- Possession based football
- Search for the spaces in between the lines and behind the opponent’s defensive line
- High/mid-block pressing depending on the opponent
- Counter movements
- Building play from the back
- Counter-pressing when the ball is lost, not relentless pressing but always trying to get the ball back as high and as quick as possible. If not successful, the players reposition themselves.
2.2 Tactical systems deployed:
- 3-5-2 (used a few times only then dropped)
- 4-4-2 Diamond (used a few times only then dropped)
- 4-3-3 (not often)
Despite the various tactical systems, the main principles, movements, and spaces that the team tried to explore, it remained the same most of the time as we will see in the examples provided.
Silas is often called a “tactical chameleon” but it’s important not to mistake the use of various tactical systems or formations with the lack of principles, main ideas, or identity. One thing is your game model, ie. the way you want your team to behave on the 4 main phases of the game: attacking organisation, defensive organisation, the transition from defence to attack, and transition from attack to defence.
Your game model dictates, amongst other things, if you want to play a possession-based football or a counter-attack based football, what spaces you want to explore, etc. This is all based on certain principles and sub-principles you develop, and then, to achieve such “game model” you use tactical formations and player positions. It’s not uncommon to see teams that on paper are organised in a certain tactical formation and then, on the pitch, behave in a way that resembles another tactical formation exactly because of said principles or ideas that the coach wants to implement.
2.3 Most used line-ups
3. Offensive organisation
3.1. Building play from the back
As it was previously mentioned, under Silas, Sporting always try to build their play from the back. For that they adopt a three-man line using the three centre-backs or two centre-backs and one of the midfielders depending on the used formation.
The principle is simple: the 2 wide men from said line bring the ball out to attract pressure and free the midfielders in between the lines for a potential pass and the player that stays in the middle falls back a bit acting as a “Líbero” to cover any attack that might come if the ball his lost.
In this shape, the wing-backs provide full width and are positioned high up the pitch, while the wingers “tuck” in the half-spaces and the two men in midfield try and fixate/attract the opposition midfield as well as provide a passing option to the centre-backs. This way the wingers that are tucked in are freed. We call a midfield box to this concept (between those 4 players, 2 midfielders and 2 wingers) and we also see it being used, for example, by Nagelsmann on his RB Leipzig team. We can see that the shape in possession is a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1.
Build-up phase with 3 man defence formation
One main variation is worth mentioning: when the tactical formation used was one with 4 defenders, one of the wide players from that first line was a midfielder that dropped back in that position to form the back three (Idrissa Doumbia in the picture below). Sometimes the player would also drop in the middle of the 2 centre-backs. The position of said midfielder was then occupied either by the winger or the number 10.
Another variation: again, in a tactical formation that uses a 4 man defence, the spot of the midfielder that drops back would most times be occupied by the attacking midfielder (in a 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1) or by one of the 2 more attacking midfielders in a 4-3-3 with a single pivot (picture below).
Buil- up phase with 4 man defence formation. Defensive midfielder (Idrissa Doumbia) dropping back to the wide position of the 3-man first line while the number 10 (Bruno Fernandes) provides an option on the space left vacant
3.2. Attacking dynamics: spaces explored and movements
As it was mentioned before Sporting CP look to explore the space in between the opposition midfield and defensive line and, to do so, they use certain key players and movements. They also aim to explore the space behind the defensive line and do so with the use of what we call counter movements and runs made by certain players. In this section we will be taking a look at how the spaces are explored and which players contribute to do so.
3.2.1. Space in between the lines
Bruno Fernandes: The most important player of this manoeuvre and of the team in general. Great spatial awareness, able to dictate the tempo of the play, technically very gifted in all aspects – passing, shooting, receiving the ball (very good at using oriented reception – “half turn”), dribbling and crossing. Always looking for the space in between the lines in order to create danger through a pass behind the defence (wing-back counter movement), a short combination with other player or taking a shot at goal.
Luciano Vietto: The former Atletico Madrid player is the second-most important and used player of this manoeuvre. Great spatial awareness, technically very gifted in most areas – shooting, receiving the ball (very good at using oriented reception – “half turn”) and dribbling. Always looking for the space in between the lines in order to create danger through a pass behind the defence (wing-back counter movement), a short combination with other player or taking a shot at goal. Dribbles with the ball and progresses with it on his feet more often than Bruno.
Yannick Bolasie, Gonzalo Plata, Jovane Cabral, Rafael Camacho: These are players that, when playing in the winger position, take up more central areas (half-spaces) as well, although not always and not as effectively as the previously mentioned. Sometimes, when in a 4-2-3-1, they would take a more wide position as Bruno Fernandes playing in the number 10 position would, alongside Vietto, occupy the referred area. Very strong physically and very fast players. Able to dribble and take on defenders on 1v1. Less capable spatial awareness and not as able to use oriented reception (“half turn”), as a result, less able to play progressively. Decent passing and crossing ability.
3.2.2. Movements and tactics to explore space in between the lines
One of the tactical instruments or ideas used to explore the space in between the lines is the one already addressed in the build-up phase, the “Box” formed by the 2 central midfielders and the 2 wingers in inside positions (half-spaces). The pressure of the opposition midfield is attracted to the 2 midfielders leaving the 2 wingers or sometimes a winger and the “number 10” (in the picture Vietto and Bruno Fernandes) free to receive in the space left vacant.
Narrow attacking line
The attacking line of Sporting is always very narrow, with the 2 wingers or a winger and the number 10 occupying the half-spaces, and that provokes the opposition’s defence to be narrow as well leaving the wide channels with space for Sporting’s full-backs to explore. The position that these players take, in the half-space, creates a situation of doubt in the opposition full-back because if he defends narrow and covers the winger then the space in the wide channel is left open but if he defends wide and closer to the wing-back moving up then the winger makes a run in behind the defence through the half-space gaining access to the “assist zone” and the opportunity to cross or pass to the “golden zone”.
Midfield box concept allowing space for players to receive the ball in between the lines (Vietto and Bruno Fernandes). Narrow attacking shape allows space on the wide channels for wing-backs to explore
3.2.3. Space behind opposition defensive line
Stefan Ristovski (RWB): Great speed and stamina, maintains a high intensity of play throughout the 90 minutes. Able to run up and down the pitch. Good timing on runs made behind the defensive line and also great speed on recovering his position on defensive transition. Good crossing and passing ability. Defensively strong.
Marcus Acuna (LWB): Good speed and great stamina, maintains a high intensity of play throughout most of the 90 minutes. Able to run up and down the pitch. Good timing on runs made behind the defensive line. Decent speed on recovering his position on defensive transition. Great crossing and passing ability. Defensively very strong as he uses his body very well to protect and rob the ball.
Yannick Bolasie, Gonzalo Plata, Jovane Cabral, Rafael Camacho (Wingers): These are players that, when playing in the winger position, take up more central areas (half-spaces), although not always. Sometimes, when in a 4-2-3-1, they take a more wide position as Bruno Fernandes playing in the number 10 position would, alongside Vietto, occupy the position in between the lines and in the half-space. Very strong physically and very fast players. Able to dribble and take on defenders on 1v1. Decent passing and crossing ability. Mainly, but not only, when playing in a more wide position they also make runs in behind the opposition’s defence.
3.2.4. Movements and tactics to explore space in behind the defensive line
The concept of counter-movements is a quite simple but also very effective way of exploring and creating space. Generally speaking, it involves two players doing opposite movements or runs, one of them with the purpose of creating space and the other with the purpose of exploring it. Sporting use this a lot with their wingers and wing-backs to create and explore the space behind the opposition’s defensive line but also in other circumstances as this is a rather common and natural concept for the players. The proof of that is that everyone who has played football in his life has heard, at some point, something like this “When the goalkeeper kicks the ball to the striker you move in the space behind him so that he can head it to you in space”. That is a common counter-movement.
Runs in behind the defence
In order to explore the space behind the opposition’s defensive line, Sporting’s wing-backs are encouraged to make runs from deep. Sometimes, if the chance arises, the wingers will do it too. These runs by the wingers are most commonly seen in counter-attacks or if they are playing in a wider position like in a 4-2-3-1 system with the number 10 occupying the inside (half space) position but are also made when a player with a good passing ability (Vietto or Bruno Fernandes) receives the ball with time and space in between the lines.
Narrow attacking line and run in behind the defence from the wing-back. Counter-movement between Y. Bolasie (receiving narrow and deep) and S. Ristovski (running in behind the opposition’s defence). Results in goal
4. Defensive organisation
4.1. Defensive shape
When defending (and using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3) Sporting usually organise themselves in a 4-4-2 shape with the 2 front men leading the press. They try to reduce space between the lines and present a rather high defensive line. When using a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 the shape will be more a 5-3-2. The defensive moment, as well as the defensive transition (especially this one), are the moments of the game that Sporting struggled the most. This could be the lack of training, but I also think that some of the players displayed a lack of commitment, and the already mentioned club’s situation wasn’t of great help either. As a result, Sporting sometimes fail to be compact and concede too much space in between the lines and they also concede goals in counter-attacks.
Sporting usually presses their opponents if they try and build-up from the back with their goalkeeper. They also press when the opposition is in the 2nd build-up phase. Their pressing and positioning aims to take away the central space for the opposition and to force them to go wide. This is done by pressing high and early when a player receives the ball (pressing trigger) so that he has no time to think, turn or play a progressive pass. Ideally, this should be done in anticipation, but carefully not to overcommit, this way the pressure is already there when the player receives the ball and can, sometimes, lead to interception. Most of the times, when the ball is played to the midfielder (when sporting don’t rob it with their first line of pressure), one of Sporting’s midfielders (depending on the side of the ball) will go up and press that player.
4.1.3 Key players
Luiz Phellype (Andraz Sporar) and Bruno Fernandes (Luciano Vietto): Players with the task of leading the 1st line of pressure. Bruno Fernandes is usually the one who triggers the press as he is the player on the team with the better timing and space perception to do so. Very good pressing skills, always positioning his body to cover passing lanes and often catches opponents on their “blind side”. Luiz Phellype will follow Bruno’s press, he has good physicality and therefore can be a threat to the player on the ball. Later in the season Andraz Sporar was signed and played in Luiz’s place.
Wendell and Doumbia: Players instructed to cover the wing-backs when they come out to press. As Sporting forces the opposition to go wide, this happens quite often, and it’s important that both have high concentration levels and are physically capable to do such task. One of them will also go up to press the man on the ball as already mentioned leaving the other to cover if the press is bypassed.
Mathieu and Coates: Players that command the defensive line and control depth. The defence must go up as the team presses so that space between the lines is not available to be explored. Tasked with winning aerial duels, if one goes and battles for the ball, the other stays back and covers.
Ristovski and Acuña: Tasked with pressing when the ball goes to the wide channel. Both should be quick to react and anticipate when the ball is going to their corridor and should press high and tight not giving the player any time on the ball. Both are capable of doing so and are especially aggressive and tight on their marking and pressing.
Sporting in 4-4-2 shape pressing opposition on 2nd build-up phase. Midfielder (Wendell) pressing tight not giving any space for the opponent to turn and play progressively. Narrow defensive shape to force the opposition to go wide
Sporting in 4-4-2 shape pressing opposition on build-up phase. Wing-back’s (Acuña) pressing triggered when the ball goes wide. Tight pressing is done with anticipation to deny the opponent space and time on the ball
5. Offensive transition
After regaining possession Sporting will behave in one of two ways:
- Try and counter-attack if the opportunity is there
- Recycle possession and try to create an opportunity through positional play
When Sporting regain possession and there is space for the player with the ball to progress or pass it, the other players, recognising it, will make runs forward to support and try to create a scoring chance. Usually, there will be 4/5 players trying to support the counter-attack but sometimes, and this can happen by a lack of perception or fatigue from players, less will support. This way, with 4/5 players Sporting will have numerical equality or advantage over the opposition’s defensive line.
5.1.2. Key players
Yannick Bolasie, Gonzalo Plata, Jovane Cabral, Rafael Camacho: Wingers are always important in the counter-attacking manoeuvre as they tend to be the fastest players in a team. Very strong physically and very fast players. Able to dribble and take on defenders on 1v1. Able to take advantage of the pace to explore space in behind the exposed defensive line appearing in positions suitable for crossing or finishing.
Luiz Phellype, Andraz Sporar: As strikers, these players take part in the counter-attacking manoeuvre as well. Providing frontal support if needed and also trying to explore space. They are asked to go all the way an appear on the finishing zones.
Bruno Fernandes, Luciano Vietto, Wendell: These are the players that Sporting look for to lead the counter-attack as they are the ones with better spacial awareness, dribbling and ball conduction skills with speed, as well as passing range and technique. Combined with great vision, these skills make them the players to look for when the ball is regained so that they can find the other players making runs. Wendell is probably the one with the most speed and physicality and is able to carry the ball forward very well. Bruno Fernandes is the most skilled and has the better vision, and Vietto, while similar to Bruno, is not quite as good in some aspects.
5.2. Recycle possession and positional play
When regaining possession if there is no real chance of a counter-attack or if the opposition’s press doesn’t allow for a progressive play Sporting will recycle possession and shape up again in their usual build-up shape. This is an indicator that Sporting use the counter-attack as a tool and not as a principle because they only “go for it” if it’s a viable option.
6. Defensive transition
When Sporting lose possession they counter-press to try and win it back fast and high up the pitch. This counter-press will happen if there is a chance of winning the ball back and if that doesn’t bring huge risks of exposing the team. If the risk of exposing the team is high then the players will regroup and take their position moving on to their defensive shape and pressing patterns already explained (see pts 4.1 and 4.1.2).
We can say that the reaction to losing the ball from Sporting is to use a hybrid, counter-pressing when viable and as a tool. This type of approach is a bit more conservative as opposed to the ones used by other counter-pressing teams as players tend to commit less and only if the situation allows them to do it effectively and safely.
As a result, Sporting might not be able to counter-press as many times as other teams, but, if the players make a correct assessment of the play then the times they do can lead to good results.
6.2. Regroup into shape
If the situation doesn’t allow for an effective and safe counter-press then Sporting players will regroup into their usual defensive shape (4-4-2) and try and get the ball from the opponent through their pressing patterns (see pts 4.1 and 4.1.2).
7. The signing of Rúben Amorim: what to expect?
7.1. Brief introduction
Rúben Amorim is a young coach that still needs a lot of development, nevertheless, he has some results to show for during the time that he coached SC Braga and, more importantly, a defined playing style with main ideas and principles.
In terms of results, he managed 10 wins, 1 draw and 2 losses. In the 13 games, the goal difference was 14, scoring 27 and conceding 13 goals. In his SC Braga spell, Rúben Amorim managed 2 wins against Sporting CP, 2 wins against FC Porto (one of them being in the League Cup final), and 1 win against SL Benfica, beating all of the “Big Three”. No doubt a successful spell, but can he do it again at Sporting CP? The challenge will be different as the club’s situation, as already mentioned, is not the best and therefore he will have to deal with more pressure than before.
We will take a look at some key ideas and playing principles that Rúben Amorim likes to implement in his style of play as well as his preferred tactical system. We will also see how his playing styles suits Sporting’s squad.
7.2. Main ideas/principles seen in Rúben Amorim’s SC Braga
- Possession based football
- Building play from the back
- High pressing
- Counter movements
- Counter-pressing when the ball is lost
- Numerical superiority and overloads
- “Free-flowing” attacking front
- Switch of play always available thought width
7.3. Tactical system
Rúben Amorim’s favourite tactical system is a 3-4-3. The most common line-up is as follows although some positions suffer changes. Francisco Trincão shares the place with Galeno being a player that offers more ball retention and circulation capabilities and they both play regularly.
7.4. SC Braga under Rúben Amorim in all 4 phases
7.4.1. Attacking organisation
220.127.116.11 Build-up phase
Both managers set their team up in a 3-4-3 during the build-up phase but the movements and positions of the players are not quite the same. Sporting are less bold with finding vertical and progressive passes and the players do fewer movements to create space. We saw Sporting’s build-up already (see pts 3.1 and 3.2) and so will now focus more on the way SC Braga build-up under Rúben Amorim.
SC Braga under Rúben Amorim build-up in a 3-4-3 with a very wide first line composed by the 3 centre-backs. The aim is to stretch the opposition’s first line of pressure and create more space to play through it. The goalkeeper always takes part in the build-up process and makes himself a passing option. The full-backs are also very wide with the wingers occupying the half-spaces. The midfielders are both in the central area of the pitch. This will be the shape in a “static” way.
One thing that is very important: The players are instructed to position themselves so that there are no more than 2 players in the same horizontal and vertical lines to ensure progressive passing options.
SC Braga under Rúben Amorim would do a lot of movements during build-up phase to create and explore space both on the 1st and 2nd build-up phase to bypass the opposition’s press and be able to progress with supported play.
1st build-up phase:
- A numerical advantage using the goalkeeper, creating 4 vs 3
- Central centre-back not in the same line as the other 2, giving a progressive passing option
2nd build-up phase:
- Successive counter-movements and dragging of opponents.
- Attract wide to gain space on the inside
- Wingers start high and come short to receive (drag defender)
- Counter-movement from the midfielder on the same side to explore space and receive the ball
- Midfielder starts narrow and comes wide and short to receive (drags opposition’s midfielder)
- Other midfielder comes to space left vacant to receive the ball
- Striker drops to space in midfield
18.104.22.168 Attacking dynamics: spaces explored and movements
When attacking in positional play SC Braga try and exploit the space in between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines and also the space in behind the defensive line.
There is a real emphasis on playing progressively and to get the ball to the wingers in between the lines or to the dropping striker. The wing-backs always provide width and try to exploit the space in behind the defensive line.
One very important thing: the front 3 (also applies to the wing-backs when high up the pitch) are given freedom to interchange their positions in order to explore space created by one of them dropping to receive the ball. What is important is that the numerical superiority and spatial superiority in relation to the opponent’s defensive line is always assured.
- Play progressively. Players are encouraged to occupy different vertical and horizontal lines at all times in order to give progressive passing options
- 5 corridor occupation on the front line (both wide channels, both half-spaces, central corridor) to have numerical and spacial superiority while maintaining width
- Players positioned in the half-space to create doubt (if the defender goes wide then a run in the half-space is made, and if the defender stays narrow then space on the wing available – see pt 3.2.2)
- Try and create overloads wide
- Counter movements as a way to create and exploit space. Usually, the winger will come short to receive the ball dragging the opposition’s full-back out and SC Braga’s wing-back will exploit the space created by his teammate
- Switch of play is always available as a wing-back is always providing width on the far side
- Midfielder recognises crossing possibility and makes supporting run. Fransérgio would do this most of the times since he has decent height and heading ability. This way SC Braga are able to get 4/5 players in finishing zones
7.4.2. Defensive organisation
Without possession, SC Braga defend in a 5-4-1 shape. The wingers join the midfield line and close the space inside and, overall, SC Braga defend narrow forcing the opposition to go wide. They try and reduce the space in between the lines to the minimum so that the opponent can’t explore it. They maintain a very high defensive line and try to play the offside trap when possible.
The pressure on the opposition’s 1st build-up phase is high and done by the three front men with the rest of the team accompanying it so that they reduce the distance between them and leave no space or time for the opposition to think or to turn and play progressively. Again, preference is given to protect the inside space cutting off passing lanes.
On the 2nd phase of the opposition’s build-up, they force the opposition to go wide and then the pressure from the wing-back is triggered with the winger cutting of the inside passing lanes.
The centre-backs provide cover for when the wing-backs press and the goalkeeper acts as a sweeper on the space behind the defensive line.
SC Braga pressing on the opponent’s 1st build-up phase. The three front men leading the press followed by the midfield duo and then the defensive line which is out of the shot. The aim is to have little space between each pressing line forming a compact structure
7.4.3. Offensive transition
When SC Braga win possession they will try and counter-attack because they have very fast players on their wingers and wing-backs (Galeno, Trincão, Ricardo Esgaio). They also have players with good ball progression capabilities and able to play through passes (Ricardo Horta, Fransérgio). If they cannot counter-attack then they will recycle possession and try and build again through positional play.
7.4.4. Defensive transition
After losing the ball, SC Braga try and counter-press to win the ball back as high and as fast as possible. We can see 2/3 players pressing aggressively to recover possession and if they fail they then regroup and go back onto their defensive shape (see pt 7.4.2).
SC Braga counter-pressing example. Players close to the ball press aggressively in order to win it back as soon as possible. The centre-back covers the wing-back when he presses and the midfielder tries to keep close for a possible 2nd ball
7.5. Silas vs Rúben Amorim: comparison
In this section, we will be taking a look at a table comparing the two coaches in the various tactical aspects. The aspects that I consider that are good and well assimilated by the team are marked with a “+” sign, the ones I consider negative or badly worked by the coach with the “-” sign and the ones who are good but not well assimilated by the team with “+/-“.
Note: One thing that has to be taken into account is that, as I already said many times, Silas accepted to take on the job as Sporting manager in difficult conditions for the club and, according to him, after already turning it down 2 times. There were many times when players were lacking motivation and commitment and I believe that can contribute to the outcome being worse thanthey would have in normal conditions.
|Attacking Organisation||Defensive Organisation||Offensive Transition||Defensive Transition|
What can we take from this analysis? First of all, Rúben Amorim will have a difficult task ahead of him managing a big club like Sporting CP. Add to that the fact that the club is in a bad situation in all levels (we can call it a crisis), and the task gets even harder.
At a tactical level, he will have the advantage that there are some similarities between his preferred system and the one that Silas implemented during his time, although he will have to work on some aspects that were less positive as shown in the board. The main things he will have to worry about are the team’s movements and ability to create spaces during their build-up phase, the defensive shape and press, and, most of all, the defensive transition.
As our scout report showed, Rúben Amorim has proven is value during his time at SC Braga but now he will have different challenges to overcome at his new club.
As far as the squad goes, he has players capable of doing what he wants for most positions although some could be a bit better.
In the midfield area, he might need someone technically more capable and with a better awareness than Idrissa Doumbia and Eduardo Henrique as sometimes the players fall short in these aspects as well as in-game reading skills.
At the back, he will have to replace Jeremy Mathieu as the French defender is reportedly going to retire at the end of the season.
The positions in which he needs the most changes or additions are the wingers as Yannick Bolasie (Everton) and Jesé Rodriguez (PSG) are ending their loans at the end of the season and had rather disappointing performances.
The loss of Bruno Fernandes will also call for a search of an attacking midfielder capable of having the huge impact he had on the team. These needs, and others that might come, can always be fulfilled with players from Sporting’s amazing academy and Rúben Amorim seems to be a coach that likes to give young players a chance.
Hopes are that Rúben Amorim is very successful at Sporting as many would like to see this historic club back to winning days and Europa League or even the UEFA Champions League as soon as possible.