The Primeira Liga is widely considered a three horse race every season and yet Porto have flattered to deceive in the past two. However, after a year at the helm, Julen Lopetegui and his talented team are primed for success says Ross Eaton.
For the last two seasons, Porto have failed to deliver the Primeira Liga title, something considered a huge disappointment by the club as a whole. Two seasons ago, Porto lost the title by 13 points and finished in third place behind Sporting Lisbon and Benfica, finishing with what was the club’s lowest points tally since the 1993/94 season. The 2013/14 season saw coaches fail to retain their job, this obviously meaning a vacancy of the manager’s job. Along came Julen Lopetegui. Lopetegui was the Spain U-21 head coach and had been very successful in this job. He had a good track record of developing youngsters for the next stage of international football and had won a number of competitions with the young Spaniards too, playing a lovely brand of football. In his first season at Porto, Lopetegui failed to deliver the Primeira Liga and questions were asked of him but Porto stood by their man.
This season at Porto, Lopetegui will certainly be vying for the title and has a strong enough squad to mount a mighty challenge. Porto have attracted some big names to the club such as Iker Casillas and with a strong start to the season, a clear statement has been sent out to their rivals; FC Porto will be up there come the end of the season.
In goal, Spanish legend Iker Casillas is number one choice. Following a tearful ending to his 25 year-long Real Madrid career, Casillas moved to the Portuguese club on a free transfer. Loyal goalkeeper Helton is still around but is back-up to Casillas and probably won’t be expecting to overtake him in the pecking order.
Maicon and Ivan Marcano have formed a solid partnership at the heart of Porto’s defence this season. The pair have played every minute of this season together so far and have done an excellent job protecting Casillas. Young Chilean/ Austrian Igor Lichnovsky is contently back-up to Maicon and Marcano, waiting for a chance to prove himself. Bruno Martins Indi is one of many Porto players capable of playing in more than one position, this season the Dutchman has been used at left-back but he is primarily a centre-back and will hope an opportunity arises for him to play in his favoured position.
Maxi Pereira, released from rivals Benfica in the summer, has remained in Portugall by signing for Porto on a free transfer. The marauding right-back has impressed so far this season, particularly against Benfica when he managed to keep one of Primeira’s top players, Nicolas Gaitan, quiet for 90 minutes. Pereira is another full-back who enjoys getting forward but this at times does have a cost. The right-back is positionally poor at times and can often leave his side exposed on the right flank. Similarly, Miguel Layun can leave Porto exposed on the left flank when playing as left-back. Layun is used mostly in Primeira Liga matches, while Martins Indi is used in the Champions League or against any team which poses a decent threat on the counter-attack.
Central midfield is a position Porto excel in. They have arguably one of the best midfields in Europe with the options and variation they have centrally. Gianelli Imbula, who joined Porto in the summer from Marseille for a fee of around €16million has been a key player for Porto this season, used in any of the midfield roles (pivot, interior, box-to-box, number 10). Imbula is an extremely valuable member of Lopetegui’s squad. When playing as pivot, Imbula is clever, he knows when to make his trademark penetrative runs into the opposition area as well as when to hold his position. In the other roles, Imbula knows he has a defensive minded player covering for him and he is a huge threat in the opposition’s half, not something you can say about every defensive midfielder. Danilo Pereira is the defensive head in Porto’s midfield, used to give Imbula, Brahimi, Herrera, whoever it may be playing in midfield alongside him, licence to get forward and make an impact in the opposition’s half, Pereira is only capable of playing in one midfield role. However, he could be used at centre-back in an emergency. Impressing at last year’s World Cup, as well as having a terrific last season clearly hasn’t been enough to help Hector Herrera nail down a regular starting spot for a Porto this season. Herrera has often been used an impact substitute, to offer Porto a dynamic option. The Mexican is very direct and has a playing style that reminds me of Paul Pogba. Last but certainly not least of Porto’s central midfielders is Ruben Neves. Although Neves has been used sparingly by Julen Lopetegui, he has been outstanding in every game he has played. Neves has played only in big games, which seems strange for an 18 year-old but has showed no signs of struggling. The midfielder has a skill set similar to that of Sergio Busquets and may even go on to emulate the quality of Busquets. Neves has attracted interest from bigger teams such as Chelsea and Liverpool but will remain a Porto player for now.
In attacking midfield Porto’s first choice is Yacine Brahimi. The 25 year-old excelled for Porto in last season’s Champions League as well as racking up 7 goals and 9 assists in the Primeira Liga. An explosive start to the season has put Brahimi on a few bigger club’s radars, including Arsenal and Inter Milan and the Algerian may be on the move in January. Andre Andre is capable of playing as an attacking midfielder as well as Evandro, who even though he is a fringe player, is still a decent enough option for Porto. Technically excellent Alberto Bueno is another player who could play in the number 10 role for Porto this season, however his favoured position is as a centre forward.
Following a disappointing loan spell at West Brom last season, Silvestre Varela has done well to break into Porto’s starting 11, earning a berth on the right wing for himself. The traditional right winger is very direct and is able to provide good service to Aboubakar. In bigger matches, Andre Andre has been used out on the right as a wide playmaker. This isn’t perhaps to increase Porto’s attacking threat but in fact to add a positionally disciplined player on the wing, to support Pereira defensively. Making the left wing spot his own this season is Cristian Tello, currently in a two year loan spell from Barcelona, Tello is beginning to show the attributes in which Tito Villanova put faith in at Barça. Young Mexican Jesus Corona has been used mostly as an impact substitute, his direct style of play and explosive well suited to this role for the time being.
Striker Vincent Aboubakar is one of Porto’s best players. Aboubakar is physically excellent and will give any centre-back a good tussle but physicality isn’t all Aboubakar has. The Cameroonian is very clever in his movement and can lose a man by peeling off them and turning up a gear to explode away. Dani Osvaldo, signed on a free following his release from Southampton this summer, will provide competition for Aboubakar and may be one of the back-up players who get a chance to impress. Aboubakar can be inconsistent and scores his goals in patches, this may allow Osvaldo to nip into the team during a poor period of form from Aboubakar. As previously mentioned, experienced Spaniard Alberto Bueno is another option up front for Porto.
To conclude, Julen Lopetegui obviously has lots of talent at his disposal, particularly in the centre of midfield and he will know how to use the correctly, as we are currently seeing with Ruben Neves. Although this looks like a long-term project at Porto, this team of wonderful talent are most certainly capable of achieving success right now.
Written by Ross Eaton
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