Formerly a winner of the Premier League’s Manager Of The Month award in January 2018 as coach of Swansea City, Carlos Carvahal is now at the helm of Rio Ave in Portugal’s Liga NOS – in 6th place, six points ahead of Boavista in 8th. Their top scorer this season, Mehdi Taremi, has enjoyed a fruitful season under Carlos Carvahal’s tactics. In the following analysis, we’ll have a great insight into Rio Ave’s style of play in and out of possession, as well as how they transition from one phase to another. This tactical analysis will be concluded with a short peek into Carvahal’s set-piece routines.
Defensive flexibility: a principle of zones
Since the settled shape of the 2019/20 Rio Ave side is their most prominent virtue, it is also what we will be looking at first in this tactical analysis.
First things first, Rio Ave’s pressing scheme in the first phase deserves a mention. In this instance, the team is set up in a 4-4-2, with the two centre-forwards remaining in access to both of Porto’s central defenders. They don’t press aggressively, but try to direct the ball into the corners by manipulating the ball carrier’s body shape. Because of this predictable body positioning, the teammates can anticipate the next pass and thus have a higher chance of recovering the ball high up the pitch.
The middle of the park is underloaded in a 2v3 situation, but that doesn’t matter because that zone doesn’t come into play due to Rio Ave’s body manipulation. Instead, a pass to the left-back is forced and ultimately Porto will be trapped out wide in a 180° area – because of the touchline.
Carlos Carvahal’s side also shows great variety in which formations it uses – which, in the defensive phases, is a great virtue. In reality, an alternative formation doesn’t highlight flexibility, because the same key principles always apply.
In the picture above, Rio Ave set up a high block in a 4-3-3 formation. This is because Porto changed their build-up to have a numerical advantage over Carlos Carvahal’s side. But the Portuguese coach reactively altered his pressing scheme to help out his players; three players across the first line would mean it would be harder for Porto to switch the ball.
In the second phase (a medium block), the two Rio Ave forwards would deny central access by marking the opposition’s double pivot. Because the two strikers could drop off, this also means the midfield is no longer outnumbered. Passes out wide are met with direct pressure from the midfielders, and because of Porto’s lack of positional connection (for example one player in the half-space), the encounter out wide often turns into a 2v1 in Rio Ave’s favour.
Another principle seen above is the compact nature of Rio Ave’s back four – they deal with central attackers and runs, while the midfield defends the width.
This tactic is also highlighted here, where the opposition’s double pivot is once again cancelled out by the cover shadow of the Rio Ave forwards. Figueiras, the right-sided midfielder, had a tendency to drop off into the right-back position. As he left his original position, the right centre-forward dropped off to replace him. These smart tactics testify Carlos Carvahal’s smart tactics. It is a principle of zonal occupation – it doesn’t matter who occupies which space, as long as it is occupied and thereby defended.
A natural consequence of this was a formation change – something Rio Ave are very good at, even during games. A 5-4-1 formation meant the backline could now defend the width, while the midfield four would counter any midfield battles. This change was also influenced by the fact that Porto only built with one pivot, which is also a testament to Carlos Carvahal’s match preparation and football philosophy. Yet another defensive principle which the club located in the North of Portugal masters is the ability to shift horizontally while maintaining their original spacing. As the opposition rotates the ball to the opposite side, the team must follow. The left-sided midfielder presses but he cannot do this in isolation; the whole team has to move. While moving, the correct spacing must be respected but also their direct opponents (such as a striker for a central defender) must be passed on, as Rio Ave defend zonally versus centre-forwards.
Vertical spacing is also paramount in defensive phases, as it tells us a lot about the amount of space a team allows another between the lines. Of course, metres (especially rough estimates like those above) don’t tell the whole story. Rio Ave’s spacing between the lines is fairly normal in comparison to other top teams, but then again the spaces are not always occupied by the opposition.
Recovering the ball: offensive transitions
Despite the fast wingers, Rio Ave are not one of the most effective counter-attacking teams in the Liga NOS. They only seem a real threat when the opposition messes up; but Rio Ave don’t encourage mistakes enough in transitions.
This picture tells more about Rio Ave’s counter-attacking stories than you would think; the fast wingers do very well to keep up with the ball carrier, but never capitalise on the numerical and dynamic (running in full motion while the opposition runs sideways) advantages they possess in these phases. A possible solution to this problem is to vary more in the type of runs they make; the wingers often make overlaps but the crowd rarely sees any underlaps. Varied runs are important because it creates decision crises for defenders.
Another option for Carlos Carvahal’s side after recovering possession is just to settle itself on the ball again, opting against fast counter attacks.
When Rio Ave settles again in the first phase, Carlos Carvahal likes to have his full-backs low, to ensure a numerical advantage is always on the agenda. The full-backs serve as easy outlets that have access to many exit routes, while the back three stays intact to provide defensive security. The double pivot also likes to drop back – Rio Ave do everything to ensure the ball is kept once it is recovered. This is very understandable, as the first six seconds after recuperation are often the most dangerous.
Offensive patterns: overload to underload
Once settled, Rio Ave and Carlos Carvahal have a few tricks up their sleeves to progress the ball and ultimately score chances.
Rio Ave’s main offensive pattern rests on the principle of the overload, and the subsequent underload, just like the positional play of Ajax. Since their left side is way more fluid than the right, it is no coincidence they like to create triangles on the left side. The double pivot is also positioned asymmetrically, opening up the right side even more. This all contributes to the switch of play which follows not long after.
The opposite player can always receive in space, usually unopposed and with the possibility to drive the ball goalwards. A diagonal switch also means the opposition has to turn their bodies, losing extra time and speed.
Another tactic Carlos Carvahal’s side use is based on the zonal model famously developed by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. Rio Ave also attempt to occupy every one of the five ‘lanes’ on a football pitch – the two wide lanes, the central lane and in between them the half-spaces.
In those half-spaces, both wingers drop to create triangles – those triangles offer more angles, passing opportunities and also exit routes. Because three players are needed to create a triangle, they also attract pressure. Rio Ave also use this pattern to progress the ball; a striker can now run in behind due to the stretched formation of the opposition.
Rio Ave are very conservative in possession, often neglecting high risk passes to ensure they keep the ball for as long as possible. This also shows in their lost balls graphs; as they rarely do so in comparison to other teams in the league.
These stats tell us that in none of those nine zones, Rio Ave lose the ball more than the league average. On the rare occasions where they do get dispossessed, Rio Ave press intensively for a few seconds.
The player in possession is quickly surrounded by a multitude of Rio Ave players, who press for approximately five seconds – until the ball is recovered or the opposition has settled and can hurt their disorganised shape.
Innovative and not-so-innovative set-piece routines
While Carlos Carvahal has shown excellent set-piece routines on offensive corners and throw-ins, let’s start with the shortcomings of their defensive corners in the last segment of this tactical analysis.
First of all, the team is too focused on protecting the first post zone, neglecting other zones. The defence is also easily disrupted by movement; two Porto runners attempt to lure Rio Ave into the already occupied first post zone, in which they succeed. The back post, however, is attended by only an opposition player, which will ultimately cost Rio Ave a goal in this instance. Another problem is the distance between the zonal markers on the six-yard line; the space vacated between them is easily attacked by the Porto players who will also have more momentum due to their run.
At the other end, Rio Ave seems an effective user of runs too. In order to distract the opposition players, two players run to the back post with no intention of scoring directly from the corner. Meanwhile, two other players run into the ‘hot spot’ right in front of goal – that space is now more open because of the runs. The opposition also has a hard time dealing with the headers, as they don’t run in a straight line like the Rio Ave players.
Finally, their throw-in patterns also will be shortly looked into. This seems basic, but not enough teams do it. For throw-ins it is essential to create separation and then have an exit route, but rarely do you see teams execute this effectively. Rio Ave, however, perform effective rotations off the ball to create that extra yard that players need to receive the ball from a higher angle. Horizontal rotations are the most popular type of rotations, used by for example Liverpool, but also Rio Ave.
While Rio Ave is a bit toothless in attack, scoring 32 goals in 24 Liga NOS match-ups, Carlos Carvahal has installed a solid blueprint for a winning team. The flexibility he shows in terms of formations is also an admirable virtue, as the team can proactively adapt to different opposition, systems and tactics. In settled defense, Rio Ave are at their strongest – whether in a 5-4-1, 5-2-3 or 4-4-2 – they stick to the same key principles which contribute to their strong defensive system across all phases of play.