Time for the second in PortuGOAL’s series of in-depth analyses of some of Portugal’s less well-known top flight teams.
Today we turn the spotlight on Vitória Guimarães, arguably the team with the most fervent fans anywhere in Portugal.
The northerners are enjoying a fine season to date. Tiago Estêvão looks at the reasons why and the possibility of it continuing.
Pedro Martins has consolidated his status as one of the best managers in the Portuguese League over the last few years – the ex-Sporting player has led Marítimo and Rio Ave to the Europa League and was brought to Vitória with the objective of bringing European football to what many believe are the best set of fans in the country, yet again.
With a lot of movement in the summer transfer window – in both directions – it took a while to figure out what was the best way to line-up the team but consistency has been rising as the weeks go by. With a nice mix of a very pleasing, passing style of football, and the tenacity that is closely connected to the club’s identity, they now sit in fifth place in the table – well on course to achieve their initial objective – with the third best attack in the league (tied with Braga, topping FC Porto).
Even in their three defeats this season, Martins’ side only got legitimately outdone against Porto at the Dragão: in the season opener vs. Braga they just couldn’t convert their chances, having twice the amount of shots at goal as their opponents, and they surprisingly surrendered a lead to lose to two late goals at Tondela two weeks ago. But let’s get to the team’s components.
The goalkeeper and typical line of four defenders has been the basis of this eleven: four of these five players have accumulated 1080 minutes in the league so far, the maximum possible after 12 matches. Douglas has been the main man in goal. While I wasn't keen on seeing talented youngster Miguel Silva dropping back down to the bench, I can't blame Martins’ thought process: the experienced Brazilian is still tremendous commanding the backline and I’m sure he is offering precious insight for Silva in training as well.
Josué, who has been a solid starter for them for a couple of seasons, is now partnered by Pedro Henrique or “Pedrão” as he is also known. The Brazilian, albeit a bit more sluggish than his counterpart, compensates by being absolutely massive when it comes to physical duels. João Afonso, who often played with Josué, wasn’t getting as much play time as he wanted and luckily for both parties he has been loaned to Estoril where he has been key.
The summer transfer window brought into the club two of the best full-backs in Portugal, excluding the big three. Ruben Ferreira, who used to be viewed as a possible international and as someone ready to make a bigger jump, was brought in from Marítimo. I believe that selling Dalbert for a profit and bringing in the more consistent Ferreira for a grand total of zero is one of the deals of the summer. Besides his experience and quality going forward, Ferreira is an excellent set-piece taker and we all know how important those are in modern football. Completing the quartet, Aurélio was also brought from Madeira without expense but this time from Nacional. The versatile, right-footed player, was the starter in the early stages of the season and has now turned into a squad player who can take over anywhere on the right or in midfield. The competition he injected into the position led ex-Benfica player Gaspar to work hard to get back to his best and reclaim his place in the line-up. Gaspar, whose initial loan deal became permanent at the club as part of the deal that saw manager Rui Vitória take charge of the Eagles, is another modern full-back well capable of patrolling the entire right side who we’ve highlighted here before.
Ahead of the backline we have probably the league's most consistent midfield duo after Sporting’s William and Adrien: João Pedro and Rafael Miranda. “JP” – as I have him on my match notes for short – is finally having his breakthrough season at 23, after spending his last few seasons as a consistent piece of Vitória’s B side. With his Fellaini-esque haircut but much sharper technique, he is yet another one of those who really feels this club, being in the Vitória ranks for over ten years now. Miranda ended up as the perfect fit after Cafu left for Lorient and is partnered by a summer transfer.
At 32, Rafael Miranda is back in Portugal after a stint with Marítimo from 2010 to 2013 and while his arrival confused many, the Brazilian has been an integral part of this eleven. The pair has been instrumental in both the defensive and in the offensive process of the team, having had great success both at pressuring high up the pitch and at making everything go through them when the team is in possession. Miranda is the player with most interceptions per match in the team, while JP has the most tackles, which is an indicator of how high up the pitch Vitória are recovering the ball. While João is the cleaner of the two, Miranda tends to be the heartbeat of the team when they have the ball. Positioned as the left centre-midfielder, the Brazilian has, on average, more than 42 passes per match – numbers similar to the likes of Óliver Torres – with a completion percentage of close to 88%, well within the league’s top ten.
Crucial injury setback
While this is one of the quality areas of the team, it’s also one of its weak points: after a rib fracture in the cup fixture against Boavista, Miranda is out for a long period and there is no real replacement. Ex-Lille’s Mbemba is yet to get going despite arriving in the summer and Aurélio has filled in – Martins will look for a centre-midfielder in January. Without him Vitória has been having less possession and is yet to win: a loss vs. Tondela and a tie against Chaves.
From midfield forward is where Martins’ ideas took longer to settle. The initial 4-4-2 was dropped to insert an attacking midfielder and increase fluidity between the three men behind the striker. Interestingly enough, neither of the two natural, and quite talented, attacking midfielders in the squad managed to grab a spot: Atleti’s loanee Bernard Mensah, who Vitória sold to the Spanish giants, and Tozé, ex-Porto who is in his 3rd season in the first division, have both been appearing mainly off the bench, with only one league start each.
Instead it has been the trickier Hurtado who moved into a more central position with great success. The former Reading and Paços player leads the team in key passes and has the great advantage of being able to meddle with the wider areas, giving his wingers the chance to appear inside and cause all sorts of problems.
1) Here we have the team somewhat organised defensively. The two central midfielders (CM) are always very close together, Marega closes on his full-back and on the other side there’s Raphinha missing. The talented winger still has a lot of work to do on the defensive part of his game and is leaving a gap here that could be exploited via a 2x1 for Belenenses.
2) Here after a long ball forward that would fall in the circled area we can illustrate an issue that tends to be a part of Vitoria’s defensive mechanism. With the duo of CMs pushing high and very close to each other, whether for a long ball or when the opponents are in possession, the defensive line isn’t always ready to follow suit and close the gap between sections. This means that, when the opponents do overcome the midfield duo, there are acres of space to progress and create.
3) While building from the back, both defensive midfielders constantly try to receive the ball from their CBs. When one does, in this case Miranda, the midfield triangle tends to invert with Hurtado dropping so the pivot can have two central passing options.
4) In this image we have a regular attacking movement by Martins’ men. As Bruno Gaspar progresses in possession, both wingers drift towards the inside of the box in the hope of overwhelming the opponent’s defence and marking system. Since both wingers moved inside, Hurtado stays around the box hoping to take advantage of a rebound. João Pedro stays on to cover of both the central space and the wing due to the full-backs’ movement; if it was Ferreira moving up on the left, Miranda would have this responsibility.
On loan from Porto, Marega was moved from being Soares’s partner to being more of an “inside forward” who starts out wide. His pure physicality and speed are best put to use when he has more space ahead of him and, drifting inside he often finds himself opened on the back post because the opposite CBs are focused on Soares and his full-back… well he likely bullied him off the ball seconds before. Marega has gone from being mocked during his ill-fated six months at Porto in the second half of last season to being one of the league’s numerical top performers, with an astounding 10 goals and one assist in only nine matches played, simply due to being played in a more favourable system.
On the other side Raphinha has looked lively ever since he got a spot in the eleven and is my pick for biggest revelation of the season so far. The Brazilian was virtually unknown previous to this summer and was supposed to be a part of the B side, but the 20-year-old impressed so much he has been leaving Hernani out of the eleven. Quick, flashy, tricky on the ball, but with an end product as well which is key. So far, the winger has accumulated four assists in the league, only Gelson Martins has more, and two goals (besides forcing Casillas into one of the saves of the season with a long shot) – all in only seven starts. Despite this not being a cross-heavy team, the left-footed talent tends to approach the line more often than Marega does. His value has quadrupled since he arrived and, despite signing until 2020, I doubt he’ll stay for much longer than one or two seasons.
Due to Marega’s suspension the Mali international has been out as of late and will be again in January for the CAN competition, but luckily for Vitória the team has plenty of options for the wide areas. This “luxury” was the reason Martins was able to shift Hurtado into more of a central position without much of an issue. The previously mentioned Hernani is always an option after playing over 25 matches with Olympiakos last season, Alex is very talented and is slowly recovering from a nasty injury, 19-year-old Xande Silva was a first team choice during last season and has everything to keep growing and Vigário, albeit older, has been gaining his space. And don’t forget Tyler Boid; he has four scored in sixteen for the B team this season and I like to believe in him purely due to the trivial factor of his Kiwi nationality.
Tiquinho Soares lighting it up
To round out the attack, yet another summer pick up from Madeira: Tiquinho Soares scored a total of 14 goals for Nacional (10 in the league) last season and was their standout man and was one of the first transfer targets Pedro Martins had in mind when he moved to Guimarães. A player that moves very well in and around the box, Soares is a handful for defenders to deal with. The striker has an average of 3.3 shots per game, only topped by Porto’s André Silva in the league and has scored from six of those. Only his strike partner Marega, Sporting’s big money summer buy Bas Dost and Porto’s André Silva again, have scored more Liga goals than him.
Interestingly enough it’s not only in shots per match that Soares is second in the league, but also in fouls (funny enough with the same 3.3 per match). This goes back to the team’s tendency and hunger to get the ball back quickly and high up the pitch in this high-pressure system. Vitória’s top five players in terms of fouls per match all play from the midfield forward, acting like the real first line of defence.
In general, the results have been very positive: the side will face a tough group in the League Cup but are still in it, they’ll face 3rd-tier Vilafranquense in the Portuguese Cup round of 16 so everything seems to be going according to plan taking into account the 6/3/3 record in the league, which is especially positive for a team that went under a very busy summer transition.
But not everything is tactical, and there are also some key motivational factors to this team’s success that enabled them to make a comeback from 0-3 down v Sporting for example. This is a young side with players eager to prove themselves that is balanced out by the experience of Douglas in goal and Miranda in midfield – the average age of everyone else in the eleven doesn’t even reach 24. On top of that, many of these players are “rejects” if you will, for one reason or another, from one of the big teams, meaning they are willing to work so much harder to get minutes, get points and prove their talent.
And the absolutely incredible support of the Vitória faithful is always worthy of mention.
Uneven goal distribution
Moving back to our tactical analysis of the team, there are a few more issues that should be addressed, especially when it comes to all the goals scored by the team as we mentioned at the start. As expected from any top-5 team, most of their goals are scored through open play but it’s not an overwhelming amount: 57% (12). So where did the others come from? The nine other goals are split between penalties, 4, other set pieces, 4 as well, and an own goal against Paços.
Not only are they relying too much on set-pieces, they are also relying too much on specific players to put the ball in the back of the net. Only five Vitória players have scored in the league, with Marega and Soares having scored a massive proportion of the total (16/21). There were only two matches in which the team didn’t score: against Braga, where Soares missed a penalty and against Porto in which Marega wasn’t available.
The men from the city where Portugal was born need to find new routes to the opposite goal, or they will run into trouble trying to bring European football back to Guimarães.
By Tiago Estêvão