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Tactical Philosophy: Sérgio Conceição

While this website has made its name focusing on the lesser known youth of this beautiful sport, and combined it with a tinge of tactical flavour meant for the football enthusiast, we found a large gap to be exploited in terms of combining the two. This mini-series thus focuses on young managers (below the age of 45) and their tactical philosophies, deriving what got them here and where they could go. Mateus Carvalho has a look at Sérgio Conceição’s emergence.


With the most successful Portuguese coaches being true scholars (the likes of José Mourinho, André Villas Boas, Leonardo Jardim or Rui Vitória never played football professionally or did with little success), Sérgio Conceição represents a new wave of coaches who were great football players and could not stay away from the pitch after the end of their careers (we could also talk about Nuno Espírito Santo, Pedro Martins, Paulo Sousa or Marco Silva, for example). Perhaps Conceição was the most successful of all. As a winger he enjoyed excellent spells at FC Porto, Parma, Lazio, Inter and Standard Liège while also being a regular in Portugal’s national team and could transport his aggressive and frontal nature as a player to his tactical philosophy, never hiding from disputing the result, even if training smaller sides and always promoting vertical and positive football. Starting as a director at PAOK and then as an assistant at Standard Liège, Conceição enjoyed his first senior coach experience at struggling Primeira Liga’s teams Olhanense and Académica, managing to attain honourable 8th place finishes with both teams while impressing for the offensive style he imposed in his teams.

Subsequently came two opportunities, coaching SC Braga and Vitória de Guimarães, two sides who desire to reach the level of Portuguese giants. His spell at Braga was a lot more successful, with a 4th place and Portuguese Cup final to prove it. After what seemed to be a pause in Sérgio’s career, a struggling Nantes, on the brink of relegation from Ligue 1 offer a mid-season job to the Portuguese coach, hoping he would make the impossible happen and save the French club. Not only did Conceição succeed in doing that, he conducted Nantes to a spectacular rise in the table, finishing in 7th place (when Sérgio arrived, the club was in 18th place), only a spot away from Europa League qualification. When all seemed bound to another Nantes season with Conceição in the lead, FC Porto appeared and signed their former player to try and win the Portuguese championship. Finally, Sérgio Conceição managed to train the club he supports in a dream job that Porto’s fans start to put high hopes in.

Tactical Philosophy

FC Porto allows Sérgio Conceição to express his football proposition to all fans in a way that other teams he has previously managed could not, whether for the pursuit of more humble competitive goals – to avoid relegation –or due to the absence of players who had the characteristics and quality to fully implement Conceição’s tactical philosophy. It seems as though Conceição’s managerial career path has been an escalating journey towards FC Porto and the conditions this side offers him in terms of competitive ambition and players in order to fully implement his tactical vision of the game. Sérgio Conceição has shifted tactical systems throughout his career, with 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 being the most used, and that might explain why his teams are tactically flexible during a season or even a match. In Braga and Nantes, Conceição had already tried to put forth this mentality, although with more caution. In Braga, he opted for a 4-2-3-1 model with only one striker – Éder – and in Nantes assembling the team in a 4-4-2 but with two defensive midfielders – Gillet and Rongier. However, there are some core principles he insists on imposing on his players that transpire in all his sides that will be dealt with below: high pressure, wingers that search for more central areas in the pitch, and more. For all reasons presented above I will base my analysis in the project the Portuguese coach is now implementing at FC Porto, often naming players who serve as prototypes of what Conceição desires for each position of his team and using the 4-4-2 formation he is now using at his current club to explain both his offensive and defensive approach.

4-4-2 – Casillas/Ricardo Pereira, Marcano, Felipe, Alex Telles/Danilo Pereira (no.6), Óliver (no.8), Brahimi, Jesús Corona/Aboubakar, Soares

Offensive Approach

The first core principle of Conceição’s philosophy is undoubtedly his attempt to concentrate the match in the 20-30 metres in front of the opposing net, using a powerful and high-energy first line of pressure to compromise the adversary’s build-up. In Porto’s 4-4-2 this high-pressure is done by the two forwards, the no.8, and the wingers. This serves both a purpose of facilitating the creation of serious opportunities to score and to quickly start and restart the offensive process. Porto’s first goal this season was born from such a pressure attempt by forward Moussa Marega and also constitutes one of the most important defensive principles of Conceição’s philosophy as we will discuss below.

An example of Porto’s high pressure, the players in blue force the goalkeeper into a long ball which can be recovered by Porto’s defenders and defensive midfielder more easily than if the opposition could build-up from their area

Another core characteristic of Conceição’s offensive approach is the option for similar forwards instead of a more area-prone striker supported by a more mobile forward that plays behind him. This two forwards both need to be agile, savvy in playing with their back facing the goal but also with presence in the area in order to provide efficiency to Porto’s offensive model. They will take turns in dropping deep to get a hold of the ball and distribute it to fellow teammates in order to destabilize the marking of the opposing side as shown below:

In the blue square is Moussa Marega dropping deep and passing the ball to the right-back, Ricardo Pereira), allowing the other forward – Aboubakar – to pressure the opposite centre-back and to be nearer to the goal.

There is always one forward who does this, enabling the other to get to the area faster and profit from crosses or other deadly passes. But the key aspect here is that both forwards depart from the same position in the pitch which also shows the aggressive nature of Conceição’s philosophy. In addition, Conceição likes to play with wingers that step into more central areas, allowing the full backs to explore more lateral areas, a classical movement of any 4-4-2 model. This amounts to an unfolding of the offensive manoeuvre into a quite unorthodox 4-2-4, for there is always a winger who is given a lot of liberty to roam around the entire pitch, which induces players to shift their assigned positions in the pitch to further compromise the tactical organisation of the opposite team as shown in the image below. In FC Porto that player is Yacine Brahimi, but almost every Porto winger is comfortable playing in this manner – like Corona or Otávio.

In black is Brahimi occupying a more central position, allowing the full-back Alex Telles to serve as a winger in the line of four of Porto’s 4-2-4.

Finally, it is important to highlight that Conceição’s philosophy puts more emphasis on the ball and its possession than in the pursuit of spaces. He desires to impose a build-up that goes through all sectors of the team with low passes. A common movement is the one where the no.6 drops between the centre backs to receive the ball and allow the defenders to occupy more advanced areas offering passing lines. The spotlight goes to the players that are encouraged to express themselves with the ball and thus create spaces, rather than mainly doing that with their movements without the ball. This is definitely a true reflection of the Portuguese coach’s career as a winger. This is a very risky option that can be rendered ineffective, for it depends on the players’ inspiration. That is why Conceição tries to free the wingers and the no.8 from severe tactical constraints which might favour certain players (we’ve already discussed Brahimi and the Algerian is the best example of what I’m trying to illustrate) and not be suitable to other ones. Another fundamental component necessary for this system to work is the role of the no.8, who needs to connect every sector of the team, being a box-to-box in the purest sense. This requires an incredible stamina, dynamic posture, foreseeing capacity and passing mastery. The player must be another passing and finishing option in the area, attempt 1-2 combinations with the full-backs, trade positions with the wingers in order to exploit half-spaces or more lateral areas, mainly with the ball controlled at his feet.

Defensive approach

In what concerns the defence, and contrarily to what it may seem from Conceição’s offensive approach, the Portuguese manager induces in his team an almost absolute rigour in defending the net, also a reflection of his personality and training method. There is a great dependence on the success of the aforementioned line of pressure (looking to Porto’s tactical formation presented above this pressure is done by Óliver, Corona, Brahimi, Soares and Aboubakar), for there a huge risk that, if this first barrier is surpassed, the antagonists gain a lot of space in the midfield to profit from almost effortlessly:

The solution to this potential problem rests in three core defensive movements that Conceição aims to sediment in his team’s mentality:

  • task in defensive transitions is naturally given to the full back, who has to return to their position as quickly as they can.
  • Perhaps the most important aspect of Conceição’s defensive approach is the high positioning of the defensive line, near the midfield to be precise, which demands an enormous level of concentration in all the defenders and mainly the centre-backs, in order to catch the opposite attackers offside or to make sure they can’t receive the ball, due to anticipation movements; as well as the speed and intelligent positioning to compensate the full backs and each other when long balls are played behind the defensive line.
  • The defensive midfielder has to be designed to destroy plays and to help the centre-backs, being more of a wall rather than a playmaker. That’s why the system Conceição puts forth is more suitable to players like Danilo Pereira (Porto), Guillaume Gillet (Nantes) or Bouba Saré (Guimarães), all of them strong and tall players which impress mainly for their number of recovered balls. That is maybe why Conceição had no problems in giving up Rúben Neves to Wolverhampton, since he is a different kind of no.6 and could not offer the team the physical prowess and defensive efficiency that Danilo can.

Conceição’s philosophy is a passionate and idealistic one, as it assumes a priori an offensive, inventive, aggressive model that his team is going to present. The opposing side knows in advance what they will be facing and how to theoretically stop it and the fans already know what to expect and the ticket they pay will be worth it from their perspective. But this might not constitute, as would logically follow, a strategic disadvantage, as there is a factor that compensates this and often balances the plate in favour of Sérgio Conceição’s football proposition: the fantasy and space to individual expression that a system like his necessarily has. The Portuguese coach then cleverly complements this by instilling in his players the aggressiveness and absolute compromise towards the goals of the team: everybody attacks, everybody defends without any absence of effort. In fact, a big part of the game is now psychological and Conceição has the ability to motivate and unite the players in a way that few can, showing that no one is more important than the others and that everyone has a role to play in the team.

Three Career-Defining Games

2013/14, Primeira Liga, Académica 1-0 FC Porto – For every coach, the first victory against a title contender is a symbolic and changing cornerstone. And in Portugal that assertion is all the more accurate, since the title contenders are chronically the same three; Benfica, Porto and Sporting. For Sérgio Conceição, this moment came with the precious victory against FC Porto with a goal from Fernando Alexandre. Even though he had already beat SC Braga at Olhanense and tied with all top Portuguese clubs, this match clearly proved that Conceição was a manager to take into account and fit to coach more ambitious sides.

2014/15, Portuguese Cup, stage of 8, Braga 7-1 Belenenses – The competition Conceição almost clinched was the Portuguese Cup (2014/2015), losing only in the final to Sporting. A lot of games from Braga’s cup campaign could be highlighted (for example, the 2-1 victories against Benfica and Guimarães), but this match against Belenenses, illustrates perfectly Conceição’s philosophy and constituted the peak of SC Braga’s journey in this competition. The offensive but tactically balanced match delivered by Braga was an absolute delight to watch and another important factor of this game was that all 7 goals were scored by 7 different players, from defenders to forwards, which truly shows the message of holistic offensive participation Conceição likes to promote in his teams.

2016/17, Ligue 1, Nantes 3-2 Marseille – Taking on the Nantes challenge in 18th place, it would be safe for Sérgio Conceição to implement a more passive style of play at the French club, holding on to the one point every match offers in its beginning instead of seeking the victory. But the Portuguese opted to constantly fight for the three points and his offensive vision of the game emerged once again. This win against Marseille, a French giant, was truly an impressive match and defined that Nantes would not only fight to avoid relegation but would also try to finish as high up the table as they possibly could. The goals of Diego Carlos, Stepinski and Thomasson as well as a fairly consistent collective performance helped the club assert just that.

Three Key Players Developed

Dalbert – Recently signed by Inter, OGC Nice’s former left-back, Dalbert climbed from Portugal’s second tier to one of the most important top-tier sides, Vitória de Guimarães in the season the club was managed by Conceição. Under his orders, Dalbert managed to quite surprisingly perform with a quality and regularity that made him one of the best left-backs of the league. The Brazilian talent started the season at Guimarães’ reserve side but once the coach of the senior side was sacked and replaced by Conceição, Dalbert’s promotion was almost immediate. Displaying regularity along 27 matches, Dalbert quickly moved to Nice and asserted himself as one of Ligue1’s finest full backs.

Otávio – Otávio seemed doomed to be aimlessly loaned to other clubs by FC Porto when one of those deals joined him with Sérgio Conceição. Having been always a no.10, Otávio struggled to claim his spot at the Dragons, as his preferred position could not be accommodated in Porto’s formation. Conceição turned him into an effective and game-deciding winger at Vitória de Guimarães and led him to his best season in European football so much so that a spot at FC Porto was quickly offered to the Brazilian youngster, a spot he has not let go off ever since. Sérgio Conceição was a key influence in Otávio’s current success at a top club such as Porto, where player and coach meet again this season.

Emiliano Sala – After a sum of irregular spells in lower and more humble top-tier French sides, the Argentine forward benefited from his time with Conceição, performing at the greatest level of his career while under his orders. The 26-year old had the profile to play as one of the forwards in the 4-4-2 model and he duly delivered with 11 of his 15 goals in the 2016/2017 scored while playing for Sérgio Conceição.

Read all the other articles from this series here

Mateus Carvalho

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