Over the course of this century, Portugal’s three giants have dwindled to two, as Benfica and Porto have combined to form a duopoly. Sporting, on the other hand, have failed to win a league title since 2002.
They’ve come close many times, but they’ve never managed to hoist the elusive trophy since Mário Jardel fired them home to the promised land 17 seasons ago. However, with Sporting currently just two points off the top, and with new president Frederico Varandas leading the charge since September, and with manager Marcel Keizer getting off to a perfect start since his appointment last month, a new era could be dawning at the Estádio José Alvalade.
Nobody expected Sporting to be in the hunt for the title this season. In fact, some doubted they’d even finish in Europa League spots. After all, 2018 had been a year of turmoil and chaos for the club, and if 2018/19 was expected to be a rebuilding season, if not, a healing season, it certainly wasn’t thought to be a year in which Sporting mounted a title challenge.
Between the infamous training complex invasion by angered fans, to the mass exodus which saw Rui Patrício, William Carvalho, and Gelson Martins, among others, terminate their contracts, Sporting looked set for an embarrassing season to follow a tumultuous summer.
Indeed, things certainly looked to be turning out that way, and for a while, Sporting were 5th in the league, behind Porto, Benfica, Braga, and Rio Ave. José Peseiro’s dull tactics made Sportinguistas yearn for Jorge Jesus, with the team eking out results against lesser sides and failing to keep clean sheets. On November 1, after being eliminated by Estoril from the Taça do Portugal, Peseiro was sacked.
Initially, Tiago Fernandes, who had managed the club’s U23 team, was chosen as an interim coach, but a week after Peseiro’s sacking, Sporting hired Marcel Keizer on a permanent basis. Keizer had worked his way up through lower league Dutch clubs, but when it came to managing Ajax, the task seemed too big for him, and he was sacked within months.
Varandas pledged support to the Dutchman, stating, “He plays a very attractive and domineering football.”
Since the appointment, Varandas has been vindicated: in the first seven matches under Keizer, Sporting have achieved seven victories, scoring 30 goals and conceding 9 goals. Keizer has not only reinvented their results, but their playing style as well, reviving a once-dull style of play into a thriving, attacking play.
Unlike Peseiro’s direct style of play, which often saw center backs launch long balls into the forwards, Sporting focus on associative play and smart positioning. It’s a meticulous build-up play which sees Sporting slowly build from the back with passes in between the lines. Sporting’s goalkeeper (often Renan Ribeiro) creates numerical superiority against the opposition press by providing himself as a passing option. This numerical superiority generates space for the center backs to either play a vertical pass between the lines or roam deep into midfield. Meanwhile, the fullbacks project themselves high up the pitch to offer width.
Bruno Fernandes and Nemanja Gudelj both compose Keizer’s first-choice midfield, with either Miguel Luís or Wendel adding a third man into midfield. Gudelj and Fernandes tend to position themselves deep to protect against rival counterattacks. Keizer has rotated between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 but mainly sticking with the latter. They’ve suffered several defensive errors against Rio Ave and Aves, but in general, they’ve been fluid, running rampant against teams with the trademark “furacão Keizer” tactics, in which Sporting spontaneously break into a vicious attack.
Sporting tend to search for a free man in midfield, with one midfielder either dropping back or receiving on the back of his man. Unlike the Peseiro days, Sporting build from the center and finish through the center as well, with the wingers moving inside to receive between the lines. In addition, with this central build-up causing the rivals to move inwards in an attempt to win the ball, this allows the fullbacks plenty of space further up the pitch to exploit. With either Jefferson or Marcos Acuña offering width on the left, and with the right back, either Bruno Gaspar or Stefan Ristovski tending to stay deeper, the left back can then receive into space and play a cross into attack, often met by the powerful header of Bas Dost.
Unlike in the Peseiro days, in which the fullbacks tended to carry the ball up the pitch and aimlessly cross it, Sporting’s attack and positioning is far more fluid. Keizer has demonstrated the team management, leadership and tactical competence that Sporting have desperately lacked this season. Furthermore, by fast-tracking Miguel Luís into the first team, he’s given the first of many academy talents a start at the top level. Miguel Luís has freed up Bruno Fernandes in a greater offensive role, and at 19, many are drawing links between his intelligence and balance to that of a former Sporting captain: Adrien Silva.
Defensive Strategy and Shortcomings
Keizer’s defensive strategy centers on intense pressing of the rival’s build-up, and an urgency to win the ball back and quickly transition. After losing the ball, Sporting quickly press to close down spaces, shut off passing lanes, and win back the ball. Indeed, Sporting’s central build-up offers compactness and allows the players to press with a solid shape. The team tends to shift from a 4-3-3 on the ball to a 4-4-2 off the ball in order to press opposition build-up, where a winger, often Nani, presses high up with Dost.
With Villarreal set to play them in the Europa League Round of 32, and with Porto and Benfica set to contest them before that, it seems Sporting has plenty of work to do in improving its solidity in defensive transitions and limiting costly mistakes. After an easy start to Keizer’s time at Sporting, the first ‘challenging’ opponent faced Sporting yesterday: Vitória de Guimarães.
There’s no circumventing the fact: Guimarães bested Sporting, Luís Castro bested Marcel Keizer, and Sporting lost their first match under the Dutchman 0-1. Sporting’s build-up was nullified in the first half by Castro’s set-up, which saw an off-the-ball 4-5-1 stay compact and limit spaces through the middle. In preventing the wingers and the midfielders from receiving between the lines, Castro deprived Keizer of his bread and butter.
Castro did his homework and prevented another automatism of Sporting under Keizer: the opposite-side fullback latching onto open space in the final third and crossing into Dost. Furthermore, he exploited one of the few weaknesses of Keizer’s Sporting side: failure to prevent defensive transitions.
Sporting’s compact shape in build-up, in which wingers arrive inside for the ball and in which the players congest zones in order to facilitate building through the middle, has its advantages. However, every strategy has a disadvantage, and it’s clear that rivals are finding success in catching Sporting off-guard with quick transitions. Guimarães quickly switched to the free side, exploiting the space provided to them by Sporting’s narrow positioning, and bursted into direct counters.
Later on in the game, Guimarães retreated into a lower block, with the wingers tracking Sporting’s fullbacks and with Guimarães’s midfield trio set on disrupting build-up through the middle.
As yesterday’s defeat proved, Marcel Keizer’s Sporting still have a long ways to go before they can challenge for the title. On that same day, Benfica defeated Braga, who at 4th, are only one point behind Sporting, by a margin of 6-2. Porto, on the other hand, defeated Rio Ave 2-1, stretching their lead at the top to four points. Sporting must reinforce in the January market, especially focusing on defensive reinforcements. Keizer, in turn, must focus on eradicating defensive errors and preparing them for the second half of the season.
Nonetheless, Marcel Keizer has what it takes to become a long-term leader of this new Sporting project, and by putting faith in the academy and by designing a beautiful brand of football, he has the fans on his side, too.
By: Thiago Edivaldo
Photo: Global Imagens