On the 26th of June 2020, 14th-placed Belenenses hosted Portugal’s third best-ranked team in Sporting CP. The hosts came into the game in full spirit, having lost just one game since the beginning of February. Nonetheless, the Estadio do Restolo still faced a Sporting side coached by Ruben Amorim. The following tactical analysis will look into the Liga NOS fixture.
Both teams started with a back five; in anticipation of harmful turnovers but also to progress the ball more easily in the first build-up phase. On paper, the double pivots in 3-4-3 do the most running; and in this particular game both teams’ pivots had lots of space to work with across all phases.
Early pressure from the home side
After taking the lead just nine minutes in, Belenenses put their two feet on the gas pedal. They pressed high, forced Sporting to play long balls, attacked at high speed and did not give Sporting a sniff.
As seen above, Belenenses’ set pressing scheme to counter Sporting’s short goal kicks seemed effective. The three Sporting centre-backs split (with Coates in the middle), and the Belenenses full-back would press the receiving centre-back out wide. The striker notices the Sporting midfielder open in space, and decides to mark him. Aware of the player he now leaves open, he points at Coates to signal Lica (number 7) to mark him. Tiago Esgaio, the right-back wearing number 13, finds himself in the farside half-space. The occupation of this lane is very common when the press happens on the farside; in that lane, he finds himself in access of the Sporting centre-back, left-back and central midfielder behind him.
Out wide the home side would trap Sporting, whose Champions League qualification dreams seem very unlikely, as they had only a 90° landscape to play in (limited by the touch- and byline). The Belenenses striker closes the centre-backs’ body shape to force a long ball down the line, while central midfielders and right-back Tiago Esgaio closed off all other exit routes.
Belenenses also capitalised on Sporting’s shaky start with quick attacks, mainly after transitions. The “Lions” struggled in dealing with the Belenenses pace down the flanks, as shown in the following analysis.
Their struggle is not only seen in the interval between them and the opposition, but also their running motion – heads down and chasing a lost cause. These counter-attacks were possible due to the Sporting full-backs’ high positioning – despite the fact that they deployed three centre-backs. This should mean they have to cover less ground each, yet Belenenses still exploited the space in behind very well.
Sporting’s tactics also didn’t help themselves in possession; their positioning behind Belenenses’ high first line disrupted the progressive passing opportunities. This style of play is very slow and due to the distant spacing between them and the attackers, long balls would be forced. Cabral (77), the winger dropped in the half-space to receive the ball, but he wouldn’t be passed to as the Sporting centre-backs did not position themselves correctly.
When Sporting got out of the first phase, Belenenses also had a well-structured press to prevent the opposition of feeling comfortable on the ball. As the front three stayed rather narrow to disrupt the centre-backs, the full-backs rushed out to directly meet the opposite full-backs whenever they received. This, of course, meant the centre-backs would have to shift, and thus pass on the Sporting strikers to one another. Subsequently, they often found themselves in 1v1 situations, but without the ball – because the Sporting full-backs never had time and space to pass it. The double-pivot also matched their direct opponents in midfield.
A sudden turn-around
Despite Belenenses’ early pressure, Sporting would still go on to score three goals in the first half. This was particularly possible due to the fact that the home side’s pressing was not as consistent and immaculate as it seemed.
The blue zone highlights the space Belenenses defend in the second phase. In behind, however, the Sporting players are free with too much space. The Belenenses front three were not aware of the movements in their blindside, and this meant the Sporting players moved freely to receive in between the lines. In the picture above we see a wall pass, possible because Belenenses defend too zonally without taking opposition players into account. The detached spacing issues of Belenenses allowed Sporting to play through them.
Due to Belenenses’ loose grip on the game, Sporting could easily take over. They settled and especially after their goals, they took control of the game.
Their spacing in possession improved massively after the half-time break, with the front three very narrow to encourage intricate link-up play and quick interactions. The double-pivot supported them and moved out to the half-spaces if necessary. In order to grant the central players as much space as possible, the full-backs hugged the touchlines high and wide. This 3-2-5 shape, similar to Manchester United‘s as of late, allowed Sporting to easily play through Belenenses, with enough angles and overloads.
Sporting also started to overload Belenenses in the middle of the park with numerical advantages, yet their shape was ill-spaced and fairly easy to penetrate.
The 2-3 block in the middle of the park would discourage central passes, but Belenenses often used the space left in behind to reach attackers.
Belenenses did not give up
In the second phase, Belenenses are a creative, penetrative and progressive team. They have certain principles, but are also smart in their positioning and staggering between the lines.
The player in between the lines is positioned very well; diagonally between the two midfielders and with a body shape open for a half-turn. While Sporting’s lines were not compact enough, this was a very good sequence of play for the home side. He is also on a different height than the strikers, so he can easily play it through for them. That last part is called staggering.
Belenenses also showcased the principle of the third man, which gained popularity in the Serie A thanks to Maurizio Sarri. This beautiful ‘lasered’ pass is possible due to the movement of the receiver; stepping sideways to create that extra yard to receive in his opponent’s blindside. The blue circle also highlights the third man, who recognises the trigger and starts his run. After laying the ball off in a wall pass, the next player can see Marco Matias running and attempts to put him through on goal. While technically this was not the best example of a third man run (because of the lay-off), the principle remains the same.
Zonal attacks on set-pieces
Both teams had set specific zones they aimed to attack on set-pieces, on both corners as on long free-kicks.
Belenenses attempted to overload the front post, but did not commit too many players in the box. They had two runners around the penalty spot, both marked by Sporting players creating a 2v2 in the penalty box. Petit, coach of Belenenses, deployed two players on the edge to prevent turnovers.
In a more dynamic approach, the hosts would start from different positions in and around the six-yard box to all run to the front post. The safety net of two players is also present in this corner routine.
Porto on the other hand overloaded the far-side to head across goal or across the face of the goalkeeper for a back post header. The one player who would head the second header is already waiting in an offside position.
Despite Belenenses’ qualitative possession in the second phase, they failed to materialise it in the final third. During the first fifteen minutes, they were in full control of the chaotic game, but the individual quality of the Sporting XI ultimately shone through to score three goals in just the first half. The result leaves Belenenses in 14th place, but some positivity around the performance itself would not be misplaced.