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Profiling Juventus’ next Champions League opponent, FC Porto

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FC Porto v Leicester City FC - UEFA Champions League Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images

Juventus is set to travel to Estádio do Dragão to face FC Porto in the Champions League Round 16 on Wednesday night. Here I profile this Portuguese heavyweight and analyze their strengths and weaknesses and how these factors will impact this tie.

Lineups and Formations

Porto's structure is hard to characterize because the shape of the team changes considerably with different players, notably in the midfield and in the forward lines. However, their defense lineup is quite constant. The great Iker Casillas starts as the keeper. In front of him is a four-man backline. From right to left are Maxi Pereira, Felipe, Ivan Marcano and Alex Telles. In the midfield, Danilo Pereira is the defensive midfielder. He is almost always partners with Hector Herrera, who is the captain and often plays on the right side. Oliver Torres occupies the left side and is an attacking midfield in nature. Jesus Corona plays behind striker duo of Andre Silva and Francisco Soares (also known as Tiquinho).

The 4-3-1-2 is only one of the several lineups Porto uses. For example, Spanish loanee Diogo Jota will sometimes play in place of one of the two strikers. In that case, Porto will play with a 4-3-3 with Diogo and Corona occupy the left and right winger position, respectively. In another instance, Yacine Brahimi will replace Oliver Torres, and another central midfielder, Andre Andre, will replace Corona. In such scenario, Porto will shift to 4-4-2, with Brahimi and Herrera playing the left and right midfielder positions. But no matter what players are deployed, Porto almost always defends with Danilo positioning in front of the defenders to protect the four men backlines.

Tactics

Pressing

Coached by the former keeper Nuno Espírito Santo, Porto plays a brand of football that is very different from most Serie A teams. Most Italian teams play passive zonal defense, where the major responsibility of a defender is to defend his assigned zone. Aggressive tackling is minimized to maintain the defensive shape. One notable exception is Gian Piero Gasperini, currently at Atalanta. His teams play a more aggressive man-oriented zonal defense where a defender will aggressively tackle the ball handler when the he enters his zone.

Porto, in this regard, is extremely aggressive. They attack the ball handler immediately and intensively. Porto often presses very high to prevent the opponents from building up their offensive phase from the back:

Their forwards and midfielders other than Danilo will close down the opponents very quickly to force them to release the ball. To maintain a high-pressure environment, Porto's players will crowd the opponent's space in their half:

Because they press so quickly and limit a lot of the shorter passing lanes for the opponents, the opponent will often have to send the aimless long balls forward. Such pressing prevents opponents from entering the offensive phase easily.

In the case where the opponent can advance the ball across the midline, Porto will focus their pressing in the midfield. The key setup is still the same, where a crowd of midfielders and forwards will limit space and passing range and allow any player close to the ball handler to close down and attack the ball immediately.

The important player here is Danilo. He rarely participates in the aggressively attacking on the ball handlers. He is like a sweeper of their midfield and cleans up any ball that got past the pressers. Bypassing him will expose Port's defense line.

The offensive phase

The offensive plan for Porto is simple: With their intense pressing, Porto is often able to generate a lot of defensive-to-offensive in transition. Once retrieved the ball, they will immediately send the ball up field. The key player is Corona. The 1 v. 1 scenario with him in the open space is very dangerous because he can use both legs equally well. His favorite move is to start on the right and cut inside to pass or to shoot with the left leg:

Porto often tries to pass the ball directly to their strikers/attacking midfielders without the build-up from the midfield:

This strategy is essential for them to maintain the speed of their offensive phase. Both Silva and Soares are dangerous because they are very physical and possess decent techniques. With so much space — often happens because Porto lives on the transitions and counter attacks — they often generate many problems for the opponents. And when both Silva and Soares play together, they eliminate the numerical advantages of the opponent's two center backs (as opposed to the common tactic where only one striker is used). This scenario can often lead to a loose ball not cleared immediately because either Soares and Silva will go to attack the ball.

Another strategy Porto uses often is counter-pressing. They will often send seemingly aimless long ball up from their defenders. One of the strikers will go for the long ball or pressure the opponent's player from passing to the teammates. Multiple Porto players will usually position close to the ball and retrieve it immediately:

To summarize, Porto's tactic is simple: Chaos. The goal for them is to prevent opponents from the transition between the defensive and offensive phase. When a team is not able to transition between phases, it results in a lot of chaotic situations, and Porto aims to take full advantage of this situation. Therefore, speed and aggressive pressing are key factors for Porto to succeed.

Key players

There is no need to introduce Casillas. He looks to be in pretty good shape from the few games I saw. But he is also under little pressures in these games.

The left back Telles has a great left foot. He is responsible for taking a lot of free kicks and corners. He is not exceptionally fast, but he is skillful. The combination of his techniques and passing range make him a dangerous threat when he overlaps on the left flank.

Danilo is one of the most important players in this Porto team. He is tall, exceptionally strong and physical. He is always in front of the defenders. His passing range is also impressive.

This attribute is critical for Porto because the two Porto's center backs have terrible passing abilities. Danilo is critical for Porto to build up from the back.

Luciano Moggi once suggested that Juventus should replace Paul Pogba with Herrera and "nobody could tell the difference." Most people will not agree with that statement, but nevertheless, Herrera is a world class player. He is the No. 8 who regularly runs up and down. He has very good passing range and techniques and can use both legs equally well. He is their Claudio Marchisio (a few years ago version). His constant running and technique are something Juventus has to watch out. He is often available to link up with Corona or the two strikers when Porto has to penetrate opponent's defense. Moreover, because he always sees and gets into dangerous positions in the field, he can drag the defenders with him and open up space for his teammates.

Herrera's Mexican teammate, Corona, is their most creative player. He is quick and can dribble very well. Even when starting behind two strikers, he mostly stays on the right side. Because he can use both legs, it's hard for defenders to anticipate his move. He can either go to the by line or cut inside. In either case, he often looks to cross instead of shoot. He, Herrera and Danilo are the most important players for Porto.

Soares has just recently joined Porto but he has already forced into the starting lineup. He and Silva are both typical No. 9 type of striker. They are physical and like to play with their back against the defender. Both players have good techniques, but neither of them is creative. Silva is more technical, but less clinical regarding finishing chances. Soares is the opposite. Porto likes to play both strikers together which is a very rare tactic these days. When playing together, their physicality can hurt opponents' defense.

How Juventus should play against Porto

One of the Porto's major weapons is its pressing and aggressive tackling, Juventus must either resist it or avoid it.

To directly counter resist such pressing, a team would need to protect the ball, often dribble past the presser and positional play. Although Miralem Pjanic, Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira, Dani Alves and Alex Sandro are good with the ball, not all of Juventus center backs are exceptional in these areas. Juve’s best dribbling center back, Giorgio Chiellini, is most likely to miss out this tie, while Leonardo Bonucci has been quite careless with the ball since his return from the injury. (Or this season really — remember the Genoa's game?) Trying to play through these presses by exchanging short passes with the center backs are most likely a suicide.

The better option is to avoid it. One way to do that is to use width with long passes. Therefore, it will be critical to play with Dani Alves instead of Stephan Lichtsteiner on the right side. He, Juan Cuadrado and Alex Sandro can send cross-field passes to each other. Porto almost always defend in extremely compact shape (to increased number of player in the tackling area), and they are very vulnerable to the ball opposite flanks:

Efficient spreading the ball between the flanks is only important to avoid Porto's pressing but also to unlock Porto's defense. It is because of both Porto's center backs, especially Marcano, is not reliable against physical strikers nor handles crosses:

(None of the Porto's defenders even try to jump at all)

Sending crosses from the two flanks to either Mario Mandzukic or Gonzalo Higuain is very likely to yield a positive outcome. None of the four Porto's defenders has the physical attributes to counter them.

One thing to avoid for Juventus is trying too hard to penetrate through the central area by positional play or short passing between Dani Alves and Paulo Dybala. This is not to say that they are not good enough. But I think we have seen enough of those plays that result in the loose balls against Cagliari or Palermo. Those loose balls can become poison in the hands of this Porto's team.

If Porto does carry out its high pressing — they may not since they do not want to lose a goal at home, and they may play with less risk — Dybala will need to drop deeper to try to collect the ball or offer passing lanes for the defenders. Porto will press at most with five players (other than Danilo). Therefore, Juventus will need Dybala to balance the numerical disadvantage of double pivots and two center backs. The two full backs must be alert so that one full back can move up while the other will stay deeper to help with ball progression. The balance between width utilization and ball progression from the back will be essential to destroy Porto's pressing.

Moreover, it is important for Juventus to be able to hold a high press against Porto. Porto does not have very physical players other than Danilo and the two strikers. If Juventus can keep the game speed slow and turn it into a physical battle, they should have no problem getting past Porto.

Conclusion

Porto is a dangerous opponent and should not be under-estimated. However, they are also a side with a lot of flaws. Juventus needs to control the tempo of this game. Allowing them to run riot is in no doubt a suicide. If Juventus can play it slow, physical and grind it out, they should be able to advance to the quarterfinal.