Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto v Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Porto pivot vacating space to receive and play forward

Matchday 24 saw European giants Porto host a revitalised Rio Ave in the Primeira Liga. It was another eagerly-anticipated clash with Porto sitting one point above rivals Benfica, who they beat 3-2 just weeks before. After bowing out of the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds early on in the season, the main focus was to push for a 29th league title. Now at the club since his return from Ligue 1 side Nantes in 2017, it was vital for Sérgio Conceição to bring success to the club he once played for.

Carlos Carvahal’s return to management from the English Football League has been successful so far in Portugal, as he looks to guide Rio Ave to Europa League qualification. The club has had a two-season absence from European football but currently sit in fifth place with only one defeat in 11 previous outings.

Despite the hosts creating better opportunities, Rio Ave were able to leave Porto with a share of the points. Porto dominated the early spell of possession and took the lead through Chancel Mbemba after 18 minutes, as a rebounded effort from a corner was scored by the central defender, which was his first of the campaign.

After the early goal, Rio Ave began to retain possession and dictate play through the thirds. The equaliser came in the 32nd minute after a well-worked possession-based goal from Iranian international Mehdi Taremi. VAR ruled out what would have been a 78th-minute winner for Porto after Tiquinho Soares was deemed to be offside from the rebound.

This tactical analysis will examine how both sides approached this game, providing an in-depth overview on the different possession-based tactics used by the sides.


Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Porto vs Rio Ave FC lineups

Porto lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation making one change from the previous 2-0 victory away at Santa Clara. Shoya Nakajima returned to the starting line up in place of Wilson Manafá as an attacking midfielder. The more attacking Jesús Manuel Corona was pushed into right-back, giving Porto more of an attacking threat in possession. This allowed the Brazilian midfielder Otávio Monteiro the opportunity to receive in the half-space between the lines and create attacking overloads.

Carlos Carvahal’s Rio Ave altered their approach from the previous outing of a 0-0 draw at home to Belenenses. They moved from a 4-3-3 to a 5-4-1, with Lucas Piazon, Pedro Amaral, and Nélson Monte coming into the starting lineup. The two teams had brought different approaches to the fixture, here is an analysis on how the systems differ.

Porto’s fluidity in the build-up

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Porto’s pivot becoming a third central defender

Sérgio Conceição’s Porto were very organised in their build-up play, as they looked to penetrate centrally between the lines. In this case, Danilo Pereira, either of the two Porto pivots would receive deep between the central defenders. The full-backs gave the side width to stretch the Rio Ave wing-backs and allow the wingers to come into central areas to receive in the half-space.

This creates an overload centrally, with Nakajima also looking to combine in between the two Rio Ave holding midfielders. Porto’s second pivot Sérgio Oliveira will look to receive in front of the opposition midfield and entice the press, so as to create passing lines in behind.

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Porto’s pivot vacating space to receive and play forward

The rotation between the Porto players results in progressive forward passes as they move the opposition. In this instance, it’s Pereira who creates the back three and looks to receive in the wide-left central defensive position. As they’ve moved the ball quickly, Rio Ave’s Piazon is out of position and gives Pereira the opportunity to exploit the space ahead.

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Porto winger dropping in to receive in the now vacant space, at the same time creating space for the full-back to run in-behind

This triggers a rotation between the left-back and left-winger who drops into the vacant space, forcing Monte to apply pressure. This creates space for the attacking full-back Pedro Amaral to run in behind the wing-back. This pattern of play was frequent in encouraging Rio Ave to press and hold a high defensive line so they could attack the vacant space behind the wide centre-backs. If Porto couldn’t play directly in behind, Amaral would still look to make the forward attacking runs.

However, this would be from either a direct pass into the Porto striker Soares’ feet from the pivot who would look to set to a supporting midfielder and play through in behind; alternatively, the inside-winger Moussa Marega would receive and look to combine with the Porto striker and attacking midfielder. This gave the current league leaders a 3 v 2 overload in the central area of the pitch.

Porto’s defensive transition

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Pivot screening forward passes into the striker, whilst the centre-backs drop off to cover the space in-behind

When losing possession, Porto were reluctant to press unless they lost the ball in their own defensive third. This, however, was a rarity due to their dominance in possession. The central defenders would drop as soon as possession was lost to prevent the Rio Ave inside forwards making runs into the wide areas in behind. The two pivots would narrow and screen the forward pass into Taremi, who predominantly would look to receive in front of the central defenders.

As the game progressed, the opposition inside forwards were very deep in an attempt to block penetrative passes from Porto. So when possession was lost, there wasn’t much of a threat in behind with Taremi being isolated 1 v 2. Rio Ave would look to retain possession and this would allow the high and wide Porto full-backs to recover.

Setting traps to press

Primeira Liga 2019/20: FC Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Setting traps to press the Rio Ave wide centre-backs when they receive the ball

Once organised, Porto would set traps to win possession high up the pitch. The home side would force play into the Croatian Toni Borevković, who is naturally a right-sided central defender. His role for this game, however, saw him play as a wide-left centre-back which Porto looked to exploit. Soares would angle his run as the ball was played into the middle of the centre-backs to force play into Borevković.

As the ball travels, Otávio presses the left centre-back whilst cutting out a passing lane into the left wing-back. This forced the right-footed central defender to play forward into the central area of the pitch, which is overloaded in Porto’s favour. With Nakajima in a covering position tight to the closest Rio Ave pivot, this forced more often than not a turnover of possession. Porto then would look to play on the transition between the exposed central defenders.

Rio Ave retaining possession

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Rio Ave using a double pivot to play through the thirds

Carlos Carvalhal’s side looked to build up through the thirds where possible but struggled to do so due to the nature of Porto’s aggressive press. In possession, Rio Ave pushed the wing-backs high and wide, creating a 3-2-4-1 formation using a double pivot to progress the play. They were able to play forward successfully when the two pivots were on different passing lines, making it difficult for Porto’s Nakajima to intercept. The Porto holding midfielder doesn’t engage with the on-loan Ali Al Musrati, allowing them to easily progress into the wing-back.

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Inside forwards running in-between the full-back and central defender, creating space for the striker to receive

Porto looked to maintain a back four defensive line when they were pressing high up the pitch. So when the visitors played through the press into the wing-back areas, this triggered movements from the Rio Ave attacking trio. The Iranian international Taremi would look to receive to feet and open up the space in behind for Nuno Santos and Piazon., giving the wing-back Amaral the opportunity to play directly in behind the Porto back four.

Defensive transition

Primeira Liga 2019/20: FC Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Wing-backs pressing the opposing full-back to initiate the press from a deep block

When turning over possession in the midfield or attacking third, the visitors would drop into a 5-4-1 formation and not engage the player with the ball. Once back in their defensive structure, the Rio Ave striker Taremi would look to sit on the Porto pivot. With the other pivot dropping into the defensive line to make a back three, this forced Porto to play around the press, giving Rio Ave time to slide across as a unit as the opposition switch the play.

The distances between the players are tight in both the defence and midfield unit and allowing Porto to play into the full-backs. This triggers the wing-back, Amaral, to step into the midfield area and press as the ball travels into the full-back, transitioning into a 4-5-1. Once play has been forced back into the central defender, Amaral would slot in the original 5-4-1 structure.

Primeira Liga 2019/20: Porto vs Rio Ave – tactical analysis tactics
Pressing from a deep block

Occasionally, however, Rio Ave would engage with the press from the deep block. Play has gone from the Porto full-back Corona into the Porto midfielder Pereira. As the ball travels into the Porto player, this triggers Musrati to engage with the player and initiate the team’s press. Taremi is in a covering position to prevent the switch into the furthest centre-back whilst still being able to press the Mbemba as the ball travels. This forces Pereira to play back into his goalkeeper and allows Rio Ave to gain territory up the pitch.


Since Carvalhal’s arrival, it’s evident to see the drastic improvement made to the team with a regimented approach out of possession. Despite not being as expansive as the hosts Porto, his tactics frustrated the Primeira Liga leaders and earned a point at the Estádio do Dragão. If the regular season is to return, FC Porto will have to be braver and more creative in possession if they are to win the Portuguese first division.

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