Here on PortuGoal we look to enlighten you on everything Portuguese football. Personally, I’m over the hype around the big three.
There are a lot of interesting teams, players and coaching philosophies within the Liga NOS and now with the season well underway, I decided to bring this series onto the website - giving the spotlight to all the “other” 15 teams.
And who doesn’t like a bit of tactical talk? Whether you’re reading this because you’re bored, you like the team, to enhance your footie knowledge or perhaps just because you’re looking to find some new Football Manager targets... sit, grab a bite and enjoy.
(The regularity of this series will be tailored according to its response, so give it some love because smaller sides deserve it too)
Any Portuguese football fan will probably associate two things right away upon hearing “Nacional da Madeira”: challenging for a European spot in the table and having Manuel Machado as a coach. While the latter is still applicable, the first concept is debatable at the moment. The club doesn’t officially carry “Madeira” in its name (its official name is Clube Desportivo Nacional) but it is one of the biggest representations of the island in sport and is also known as the club which had a 10-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo on its books.
Nacional is coming of a disappointing season where they finished in the second half of the table after being 7th and 6th (Europa League-worth) in the two previous campaigns.
The islanders, despite having a solid squad, sit on only 8 points in 15th – only above relegation zone on goal difference with Arouca. It’s a very, very, poor start for them but while you could blame a thousand things, I’ll approach something I haven’t heard yet: their schedule which has been terrible, or to put it another way, incredibly unlucky. They were still striving for coordination between the new team members and Machado was on the look-out for the best eleven when Nacional played their first match away v Arouca - a team that, through Europa League qualifiers, had started the pre-season earlier and was a lot better prepared at that point. A defeat here was followed by a defeat at home to champions Benfica (in a match where they managed to be more troublesome than what is shown by the result).
A string of bad results initiated: including a loss to Chaves and, despite leading at half time, a defeat in Belem – in which Ghazal’s red card played a big part. But it was time to turn it around: a win in the Madeira derby sunk Marítimo while giving them much needed morale, followed by another massive win v Feirense. Five goals scored, two clean-sheets, six points and... they have to host Porto. When you’re on a roll playing good attacking football, it is not the time to face one of the giants of the league and it basically undid a good chunk of the work done until then.
A draw ended up being a great result v Paços and getting points against two of the top five was the following challenge. They were lucky enough to hold Sporting to a goalless draw and crumbled in the second half in Guimarães against 10 men, after leading by one – yes, they have issues holding on to a lead. All of this to get to this conclusion: out of the top five, four are done with and now the Madeira side just has matches against viable opposition (and Braga) to build momentum and climb the table until 2017.
Manuel Machado, a connoisseur of the Portuguese league (and language!), tends to set up his side in an interesting 4-2-3-1 that, during matches, has switched into a back five more often than what you’d usually think. Rui Silva has been the man in goal for a couple of seasons now and, while known for being mistake-prone as he was taking his first steps as the team’s main goalkeeper, he appears to have grown in between the sticks this year. Getting more and more consistent, helped by getting three clean sheets and saving a penalty (albeit against William) – he is not a spectacular player but is making progress and still only 23.
The summer loanees have been extremely important for the team and Machado gave them a real shot in the first team. Benfica’s Cesar seems to have grown a lot since he first tried to make it in the Luz and is one of the team’s pillars. Physically a lot more capable to handle the European game and with capacity to lead plays out of the back with the ball at his feet, the Brazilian has been played as a centre-back as of late but was also used as a defensive midfielder during Ghazal’s inconsistent period.
Rui Correia seems to have won his spot at the heart of the backline in the last few weeks – this reliable Portuguese centre-back was also partnered by Sporting’s Tobias Figueiredo when Cesar played further ahead. The very quick young Portuguese international even grabbed the goal against Benfica, symbolizing his side’s capacity to create danger from set pieces.
Offensive (1) In a situation where the wingers are switched around, we can see Gomes moving to the box in support of Hamzoui while Agra gives the team width on the other side. Sequeira moved forward in possession and isn't afraid to swing in an early cross in the hope of letting his forwards take advantage of more space in the box.
Offensive (2) This here is classic Nacional. Washington gets the ball back within his half and the offensive transition is on. The team's most agile player, Agra, moves to the wing where he receives the Brazilian's long pass. In the middle we can see the other two forwards rushing forward for a 2v3 opportunity.
Defensive (1) and (2) Especially when they hold a lead, Machado's side isn’t afraid to bring back a lot of men to defend. Here, in a crossing chance for Paços, we see 7 men back, 4 of them in the box. All of the opposite forwards that could create danger are secured by a Nacional player and there’s still one to spare. And guess what, they still have three players out of the picture ready to start a counter.
Victor Garcia shines
The duo of full-backs that was present in most matches for the team have, statistically, been their two best players and one of the best full-back pairs in the league. On loan from FC Porto, Victor Garcia could well be a part of the Dragons’ squad already, but instead he is impressing in black and white. The Venezuelan has played 8 full matches and has been WhoScored’s Man of The Match in three of them. Very much a complete full-back, not only does he get involved in the attack – bagging an assist already – he is the nightmare for a winger with an insane amount of over 5 tackles per match.
On the other side, Sequeira is quietly performing better than he ever he had sone. Yet to be directly involved in a goal, the 26-year-old usually is known for how defensively solid he is, has tried 29 crosses (top 20 in the league), but unfortunately for his side only a mere five found teammate. That said, the statistics just mirror how much pressure Nacional’s full-backs end up taking in: Sequeira has over two tackles per match, and taking into account that the team is rarely set in a high pressure system to tackle high up the pitch, it just shows they are easily overwhelmed and forced into defensive 1v1’s. Not ideal.
The team doesn’t tend to assume possession – even in their two league wins Nacional finished the match with less possession than their opponents (yes, even in the 0-3 v Feirense). Not only is it a viable approach to sit back and take advantage of counters, but this also happens to cater to the characteristics of their players. Tiago Rodrigues tends to be the man playing further in midfield: the Porto loanee has a quality shot from outside the box and helps when it comes to set-piece taking but isn’t necessarily a clever playmaker to take over the last third in combinations with his wingers.
Washington’s crucial through his work rate, the distance he covers and ends up being a box-to-box player that helps the DM more than the AM. To complete the trio you have Ali Ghazal, a classic defensive midfielder who is still working to get to the form he was in when he was close to signing for Sporting and Porto a couple of seasons ago.
Long ball option
Either Cesar or the Egyptian tend to be so stuck close to their backline that you often see this 5-2-3 on the field. To give you an idea, Nacional has the third highest average passing distance with over 21 metres, which just shows the usual way of starting play: long passes forward towards a trio that can be a menace to deal with. The fact that Rui Silva is the goalkeeper with the most amount of long balls in the league, with a solid 73% accuracy on them as well, also adds on to this.
Salvador Agra carried the team last year and, despite being yet to achieve the same form, is always tough to handle. Quick with a powerful shot, you never know if this Olympian is going to cut inside to take aim or perhaps to put in a through ball for his centre-forward (the winger is in the top 20 for total through balls in the league) or look to whip in a dangerous cross. Agra’s influence always reminds me of the importance that Matias, now playing for SWFC, had for the club. On the opposite wing the option isn’t quite as clear: Willyan is probably the ideal player due to originally being more of a number ten which would compensate for some of the characteristics Rodrigues is missing, but the Brazilian has been struggling with injuries – and so has Witi who has also only played once in 2016/17.
Cape Verde international Ricardo Gomes has been the chosen one to compensate for the injury crisis and certainly brings things to the table you wouldn’t have without him. Able to play centrally as well, Gomes brings firepower to the eleven having an average of over two shots per match, having played in all 10 liga rounds.
Leading the line we’ve got a quick Algerian who was unknown in Europe prior to this season: Okacha Hamzaoui has been a real surprise. Just like Porto’s Jota, Okacha has four goals in the league and, just like Jota, they came from a hat-trick and a separate goal afterwards. Quick and very aware of where to be to create danger for the opposition, as time went by he has combined more with his wingers and settled very decently in Portugal, with a return of 0.7 goals per match. He is very effective up front and exactly the kind of player a counter-attacking side is fond of.
Only one team in the league has a larger total amount of quick counters and this explains why – you can try to install a way of playing but you also have to cater to the strengths of the players you’ve got. Expect this team to climb up the table until Christmas, especially if the likes of Willyan manage to recover quickly.
By Tiago Estêvão
(Our thanks to InStat Scout for providing the tools needed to write this article)