At the beginning of April, in a fascinating interview with Miguel Delaney of the Independent, Carlos Carvahal discussed his work with Braga. Currently sitting in fourth place in Liga Nos, Carvahal moved to Braga this summer following a very impressive fifth placed finish in 2019-20 with Rio Ave. English football fans will remember Carvahal from his spells with Sheffield Wednesday and Swansea a few seasons ago, but may be surprised to hear the Portuguese manager has been turning heads in the past 18 months with his catalogue of work in Liga Nos.
In Delaney’s interview with Carvahal, he described Braga’s style of play as based around a set of principles rather than a specific formation, whilst also looking to specifically attack or defend certain spaces on the pitch. This isn’t something all that revolutionary in coaching, where principles of play are what training sessions are based around. But with how much of analysis is given, whether that’s on our very own website or magazine, or in television studios where pundits give their thoughts on a team’s tactics from a particular game, the information is still framed around formations. This tactical analysis will look to give an insight into some of the principles of play Carvahal has used at Braga, and how they are manifested in different moments of the game. However, before we start, one caveat should be noted, which is that Carvahal stresses a flexible approach and the examples shown below are merely that – examples. Carvahal will react to the problems put in front of him by the opponent, potentially adapting certain aspects of their game tactics, whilst still maintaining the same principles.
Braga look to maintain control in the build-up phase by having an overload in the initial build-up stage. This will generally be seen by them using three to structure play from the back, with at least one pivot initially in support, although they give freedom for a second pivot to drop in as they see fit.
Whilst the opponent in the following image has four players pushed forward to press, they have only one player in the first line of the press.
This three will circulate possession, whilst the pivot is constantly a threat to the opponent as an option for Braga beyond the first line of the press. They help support build-up play by giving that short forward option, but also ensure the opposition forward has to be aware of keeping this player covered as they press. As we can see in the previous image, they also attract the interest of the second line of the press, drawing the opposition midfield slightly further forward to cover them.
This in turn creates more space between the opposition midfield and their defence, and therefore gives Braga’s midfielders and attackers more space to receive line-breaking passes.
Whilst Braga have ways to control build-up through the centre of the pitch, they maintain the option to use the full width of the pitch by constantly having a player hugging each touchline.
Carvahal then ensures there is one forward ahead of the winger, and one midfielder inside, giving them a compact triangle. This compactness gives them protection in possession, as we will see later on, and allows them to quickly link up as a three.
A lot of the time, teams will use this shape to allow them to play wide, with the winger playing inside to the central-midfielder, who can then flick the ball around the corner for the centre-forward. The forward can then drive forward, or run onto this ball if it’s played in behind, or they could also then play once again to the winger.
Braga certainly do this, but they also use an extra player away from this triangle to give them more options. Braga’s compact attacking shape allows them to have players provide extra options rather than just operate in this triangle. In the following image we can see how they are able to use a forward outside of this triangle, creating a simple, up, back and through passing combination to release the right-sided forward in behind.
Stretching the opponents shape through wide combinations and a double pivot
From build-up you will often see Braga go wide rather than looking to immediately break through the centre of the pitch.
They are then able to create two central passing options with two central midfielders showing for the ball. The player that operates as the single pivot is interchangeable, and Carvahal will have them work as more of a defined double pivot as the ball is played further forward or out wide. As the ball is played wide, the ball-side cm makes a triangle with the two wide players.
This midfielder pushes across the pitch with a slightly further forward run, drawing his marker with him. The far-side cm is then able to loop their run into the space between the opposition first and second line of press, and receive in this area.
Braga will create more space for this midfielder by engaging the opposition with some quick interplay before using the pivot as the third-man option. This midfielder now has the space around him to take his time picking a forward pass, whilst due to the opposition midfield being drawn across there is an array of forward passing lines available too.
It should also be noted in the image previously shown how the opposition defence and
the holding midfielder is drawn across as Braga uses short passing combinations in the wide channel.
As the ball is worked inside, there is now room in the opposition back line for a through pass, which we can see in the following image.
Braga look to use a double pivot to structure combinations which allow them to play into one of their three attackers. We can see two of these simple combinations in the following image as Braga attack from left to right.
Carvahal’s double pivot will otherwise work as they see fit to help the side build play safely.
In the next image we can see the ball-side central midfielder dropping into the left-back position, in turn pushing forward the Braga left-back. However, what this move does is leave a great deal of space centrally.
With the far-side pivot still an option, we can see a quick triangle of passes, along with the pivot pushing back into the central space.
Now in possession, we can see them in plenty of space, and having drawn the second line of the opposition press up, there is now space to play forward.
Attacking in a compact shape
Earlier Braga’s compact attacking shape was referred to, and having so many players in such close proximity to the ball is what structures their quick and fluid pass combinations. However, Braga’s counter-pressing is also noticeably structured by this set-up. Below we can see an example as the ball has just been lost on Braga’s left flank. Whilst there is support on Braga’s goal-side of the ball, there are immediately three players surrounding the ball player. Beyond that we can see the forward and right-winger ready to cover those near to them.
As the opposition look to work the ball out, we can firstly see the pressure Braga have on the ball. Whether or not this is a specific trap, we can see how the four players surrounding the ball are showing the ball-carrier to play back to the highlighted centre-back who is already being pressed. Braga win back possession in this instance. Are they specifically targeting flat, lateral passes?
Braga are incredibly quick and efficient on defensive transition too. This is in large part down to their relatively compact attacking shape, but as we can see in the image below, they still ensure there is width with the attacker placed on the far side to stretch the opponent’s defensive block.
As soon as the ball is lost, this group gets very narrow, very quickly. Whilst the wide player tucks in somewhat, albeit still wide enough where the opponent doesn’t have an easy outlet pass to the wing. They make it very difficult for the opponent to play out, and as we can see from the following image, when they win back possession they have an instant overload around the ball whereupon their players can quickly combine to secure possession, giving time for their wide players and attackers to transition into attack.
Otherwise, if the ball is in wider areas for the opponent, Braga ensure they have all players dropping back and keeping a compact central five. This crowding of the central area allows their back five to spread relatively wide and cover a good amount of the width of the pitch, knowing the central five will prevent any central passage.
Creating space in the opposition defence
In the front line, Carvahal looks to have his centre-forwards stretch the opposition centre-backs as much as possible. These two forwards will match up one-on-one on the centre-backs and look to draw them wider, or even deeper into the 10 area if they choose to drop deep to impact build-up play that way.
By creating this space between the centre-backs, Braga will allow their midfielders to make late runs in between the gaps, searching for the through pass in behind. With the centre-backs occupied by both forwards, they can become more focused on the movement of these players rather than looking out for a late run from a midfielder.
Braga are always passing at angles, rarely looking for simple lateral passes. Carvahal uses these angles, mixed with high starting positions from his attacking players to create good attacking opportunities. By starting high and dropping in to receive possession, the attacker creates a passing angle for the right-sided defender, that wouldn’t be present were the initial ball-carrier to just play a lateral pass.
We can then see the passing angle open up from this pattern of play in the image below. Also, note how the opposition left-back can’t tuck inside due to Braga’s constant width provided by having a player on each wing constantly (out of picture).
In open play, the press starts with a lone forward, protecting the centre of the pitch, but as the ball is worked wide, a midfielder will push up to support, and allow the forward to continue protecting the central space. Behind this forward, there will be two midfielders, and for the most part these two players remain in this position, again protecting this space.
As the ball is circulated again, a further wide midfielder pushes up. And in turn the full-back or wing-back on that side will push up to support the press. All the while that double pivot remains intact.
The winger can press in one of two ways. In this example they press to prevent the ball-carrier from playing centrally, keeping the Rio Ave midfielder in their cover shadow. Because they press in such a way, the ball-carrier is only going to pass to the left-back. This is why the Braga full-back is ready to push forward. We can see the Braga front three are quite flat, and there is potential for their double pivot to be overloaded centrally, with the opponent having three players in that central area.
However, if the Braga press is more compact, they will aim to press to show back inside, with these wingers arching their runs to show the ball-carrier back into an area where Braga have an advantage.
Carvahal has instilled a style of play at Braga that has led to outstanding performances and results on the pitch. Regardless of the opposition’s shape, and the variations within their own possession play, Braga’s brand is fast-paced, fluid, passing football. They use rotations and quick combinations, as well as a relatively fluid shape to manipulate their opponent’s defensive shape and create attacking opportunities as a result. Last season they finished in fourth place, behind the trio of Benfica, Porto and Sporting. It will be interesting to see if, given more time, Braga can break apart the dominant forces in Portuguese football.