“We have our feet on the ground. It’s game by game but I like the happiness of my players. We played an excellent game, bordering on brilliance.” These were the words used by Gil Vicente boss Ricardo Soares after his team beat Portuguese giants Benfica 2-1 back in February and he was then asked about how far his side can go.
Last season, the Gilistas finished in the bottom half of the Primeira Liga with just 39 points. In the current campaign, Gil Vicente have already bettered this and are sitting comfortably in fifth place in the table, hot in pursuit of Braga in fourth.
If things remain like this when the season draws its curtains, the Portuguese minnows will have earned a spot in the 2022/23 UEFA Europa Conference League playoffs, a magnificent feat for a side that was just promoted in 2019 to the top-flight, albeit through a court order.
Subsequently, fifth-place in the 1999/2000 season is the highest the team have ever finished in Portugal’s top-tier so Soares’ side are now chasing the club’s own league record. Gil Vicente have never qualified for a European competition before and the coaching and playing staff look set to make history this season.
This article will be a tactical analysis of Gil Vicente under Soares this season. It will be an analysis of the side’s most instrumental tactics, allowing them to pursue European glory.
Formation and style
Soares has instilled some wonderfully modern principles into his side. The Portuguese outfit are a possession-oriented side and very patient on the ball, averaging 53.2% ball possession per game this season — one of the highest in the division.
Out of possession, they like to press high and coordinately. However, in true yet stereotypical Portuguese fashion, Soares’ team are more than capable of setting up in a low defensive block and denying the opposition chances at goal, smothering the space between the lines.
Gil Vicente’s pragmatism has allowed them to become the fifth-toughest defence in Portugal’s top-tier, conceding merely 25 goals in 25 games, just one more than both Benfica and Braga as of writing.
To carry out his philosophy, Soares likes to set his side up in quite a conventional 4-4-2 although this often tends to morph into more of a 4-4-1-1 in certain aspects. The 4-4-2 has been utilised in 57% of Gil Vicente’s matches in all competitions this season, followed by the 4-4-1-1 with 23%.
The 4-2-3-1 is another option for the Gilistas if the double-pivot need to drop further back and the wingers push on to sit in the third line with the ‘10’. Ultimately, there has not been too much tactical flexibility in the side, but this is not necessarily a weakness. The team play within a certain structure and do it well so there has been no need to adapt to other formations.
Gil Vicente have stuck with their preferred system even in matches against Porto, Benfica and Sporting Clube de Portugal. The players understand their roles and execute them extremely well.
Man-oriented and zonal hybrid
Gil Vicente press quite high and with the intent to win the ball back. The Portuguese side have averaged 10.01 Passes allowed Per Defensive Action this season in the league. Essentially, this means that Gil Vicente are allowing the opposition to play roughly 10 passes on average before making a defensive action. The lower the PPDA, the more a team presses as the opponent is making fewer passes.
This data graphic has contrasted Gil Vicente’s PPDA with challenge intensity compared to the rest of the division. Challenge intensity measures how many defensive actions a team makes per minute of play and metrifies how actively a team is seeking to regain possession of the ball.
Gil Vicente’s challenge intensity currently stands at 6.3 which is the fourth-highest in the league. As the data represents and proves, Soares’ side tend not to allow the opponent to have too much time on the ball. But how exactly do they press the opposition in the high-block phase?
The Gilistas press in a 4-4-2 inside the opponent’s defensive third. If the players begin in this shape, then nothing has to change but if the structure is more of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, the number ‘10’ or second-striker will move up alongside the centre-forward. Fran Navarro as the centre-forward with Kanya Fujimoto joining him in the first pressing line has been formidable for Gil Vicente in this phase of the game. The pair are great pressers and do so very effectively together.
In this 4-4-2 shape, the wingers and two centre-forwards play in a man-oriented fashion against the opposition’s centre-backs and fullbacks. A 4-4-2 against any back four shape matches up perfectly numerically and facilitates this man-marking approach.
The two central midfielders sit back ever so slightly to support the press. This double-pivot are instructed by the coach not to play man-for-man but instead to defend zonally. For instance, in this image, Gil Vicente are pressing in a high block against Estoril’s 4-1 build-up structure with the fullbacks low.
Fujimoto is sitting slightly deeper than his strike partner, cutting the passing lane off into Estoril’s single-pivot. As soon as the ball is pushed out to his man though, the nearest central midfielder will have to push up onto the opposition’s number ‘6’ in order to mark him now as Fujimoto is occupied.
Failure to do so could make central progression into the number ‘6’ extremely easy for the opposition, as it was here for Estoril.
The objective for Gil Vicente during this phase is to force the opposition wide and then use the touchline as an extra defender to win the ball back. This is quite a regular tactical ploy in the modern game.
When the attacking side has been lured into the pressing trap, Gil Vicente look to block off any passing lanes and press the ball aggressively either to win the ball back or else to force the opponent long.
The backline are also instructed by Soares to keep a very high line to quash and smother any space between the lines. However, as can be seen from the previous image, the four defenders are very well-drilled and are orienting their bodies so that they can recede towards their own goal in case the ball is played over the top.
Playing into the tactical narrative that Gil Vicente prefer to win the ball on the flanks, the majority of their defensive duels come down the sides. The following data visualisation plots all 50 of the Gilistas’ defensive duels from a recent league outing against Belenenses.
What is noticeable is that the vast majority were out wide, 86% were in the halfspaces and flanks to be precise. In this instance, Soares’ team won 64% of their duels, which is very high, although their average for the season in all competitions currently stands at 57%.
Defending in deeper areas
Once the press is broken, there is no room for laziness from the players, the 47-year-old head coach demands that his players drop back in a compact defensive block. Again, this shape tends to resemble a 4-4-2 and is very narrow horizontally as well as vertically.
Similarly to in the higher defensive phases, Soares wants his side to be difficult to play through centrally. Ultimately, in football, the central spaces are where the greatest quality of chances are created from. While you may be able to formulate more opportunities out wide by putting crosses into the box, the overall xG difference is significant.
Hence, in the early parts of one’s coaching career, it becomes extremely apparent that negating the opposition from the central spaces and out to the flanks is the best way to defend in a deep defensive block. The opponent may be able to get crosses away but once these are dealt with, the goalkeeper should be relatively unchallenged.
Gil Vicente are no different. To coerce the offensive team wide, the block must be very compact between the lines, ensuring that there are no passing options through the middle.
Observe just how little space there is in the area between the back four and the midfield line. Benfica, in this situation, are unable to break down Gil Vicente through the central channels, so must go wide to the highly positioned wingback on the right.
From here, the side can aggressively press the ball, like with their wide pressing traps further up the pitch, and look to regain possession.
At times, particularly against teams that use a five-man frontline in possession where there are wingbacks in high positions, Gil Vicente will drop their wingers back into the defensive line to practically create a back six.
Palmeiras deployed a similar tactic against Chelsea in the FIFA Club World Cup final and were able to hold the European champions at bay for the majority of the bout as it allowed the Brazilian giants to cover the width of the pitch as well as the halfspaces, two areas that the Blues excel in.
Funnily, the Palmeiras boss Abel Ferreira is also Portuguese so perhaps setting up a brick wall defensive unit is just in their blood.
Patience in possession
Gil Vicente are good in possession but also tend to be very patient in their build-up play. The minnows are in no rush to advance the ball up the pitch and generally take their time to build their way through the thirds with positional play.
Here is an example of the team’s possession map, taken from a recent fixture in the Primeira Liga against Estoril. What is very noticeable is that the passing links are really strong from the backline to the wingers which tells us that Gil Vicente tend to circulate the ball quite a lot to retain possession.
The passing links to the fullbacks and wingers are much stronger than those to the double-pivot in the centre of the park. This shows that Gil Vicente like to build up through the wide areas whilst in possession.
In settled positional attacks, the right-back will tuck inside and play as a third central defender in possession, creating a three-man backline against the opposition’s first line of pressure, whilst the double-pivot sit behind the other team’s forwards.
However, the left-back pushes up high and wide and joins the last line which creates a flexible and fluid 3-2-5, used quite a lot by Manchester City, although the profile of players is much, much different.
Nevertheless, often one of the double-pivot will push up between the lines which creates a 3-1-6, resemblant of Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s Manchester United. Out of Giorgi Aburjania and Pedrinho in this role, it is typically the latter that moves up due to his offensive abilities and knack of making runs in behind.
In the final third, in order to break down opposing defensive blocks, Gil Vicente create wide overloads which allow them to create space to put crosses into the box. The Portuguese club are averaging just over 17 crosses per 90 this season in all competitions.
Contrasting this with the rest of the teams in Portugal’s top-flight division, the league’s average is 11.19. The 4-4-2 facilitates for four players to drift wide to create an overload on the flanks: the fullback, winger, centre-forward, and nearest central midfielder.
The spaces that each player takes up doesn’t really matter as continuous rotations will pull the opponent out of position which makes finding the free man much easier indeed. If the opposition cannot be broken down on this side, the players will look to switch possession to the opposite side and continue their attack from there.
As the defensive block will have shifted to the overloaded side, it can create the opportunity for the winger or fullback on the underloaded side to go 1v1 with the opponent’s fullback and then cross the ball.
Gil Vicente have no preferential crossing type. Usually, a team that crosses a lot will show similar patterns over time such as Liverpool and their early crosses from the fullbacks.
However, Gil Vicente have quite a good mix of crossing variations in the final third. This makes them very unpredictable in this area. Here is an example of all 12 of the team’s crosses into the penalty area against Estoril:
There is nothing flashy about Gil Vicente this season, but they have displayed an innate willingness to execute their manager’s instructions incredibly well. Competing with the big four in Portugal is an incredibly difficult task but one that the minnows are achieving with aplomb.
As for Soares, he has managed to find a tactical system that best suits the personnel available to him. Ultimately, this is a head coach’s job, but Gil Vicente are overperforming their expectations this season and are set to make history by qualifying for a European competition for the first time ever.
The players may not look wonderful on paper but have proven that they can go all the way this season. Quem vê cara, não vê coração. Those who see faces, don’t see hearts.