As Liverpool and Porto meet again in the Champions League, one can’t help but think back to what happened last time around on Valentine’s Day 2018. Liverpool broke Porto’s hearts with a shattering 5-0 victory at the Estádio do Dragão, definitively ending the last-16 tie in the first leg.
This time Sérgio Conceição’s players will be determined to give a better account of themselves as they travel to Anfield for the first leg of their first Champions League quarter-final since 2015.
For Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool it will be a welcome break from the pressures of the Premier League title race, and they will want to kill the tie off in the first leg against a Porto side that was seen as one of the easier draws in this year’s last eight.
This tactical preview will assess how both sides may approach the game both in possession and in transitions whilst addressing the respective strengths and weaknesses of each team.
The main absentee for Liverpool is left-back Andy Robertson who is suspended for this game. The Scot will most likely be replaced at left-back by the versatile James Milner.
Captain Jordan Henderson is likely to return to Klopp’s three-man midfield, in place of either Keita or Fabinho as Georginio Wijnaldum makes up the three. Midfielder Adam Lallana is also an injury doubt, though it is unlikely he would have started the game in any case.
Liverpool are expected to play their usual 4-3-3 formation, though another option would be to have Mané drop back into the left-hand side of the midfield to form a 4-4-2, particularly if Klopp chooses to match Porto man-for-man.
Sérgio Conceição will have a number of big decisions to make when it comes to picking his first XI, not least regarding the fitness concerns over Alex Telles. Porto’s Brazilian left-back has been involved in training but his match-fitness is still in doubt and a decision may be left to the last minute. If he is unavailable it will be a huge loss for Porto as he has been one of their best performers this season, averaging 3.5 accurate crosses per game (the league’s best) and providing six assists.
Regardless of what happens with Telles, Porto’s backline will undergo a reshuffle as veteran centre-back Pepe is out suspended and full-back Wilson Manafá is not registered for European competitions.
The absence of Pepe may well convince Conceição to go with the all-Brazilian partnership of Éder Militão and Felipe in the centre of defence. Madrid-bound Militão can play either at centre back or at right-back and if he is selected in the centre then it is likely that Mexican winger Jesús Corona will play as an attacking option at right back. If on the other hand Militão plays at full-back then youngster Diogo Leite may be given a rare start at centre back.
In midfield Conceição’s problems only worsen with the absence of captain Héctor Herrera. Óliver Torres and Otávio are the most likely candidates to replace him in partnering the more defensive-minded Danilo in the centre of midfield.
Porto usually line up in a 4-4-2 formation like the one displayed below. It’s not unheard of for Conceição to play a 4-3-3, however, especially in the big games. So don’t be surprised if the Portuguese manager opts for more solidity in midfield using a trio of Óliver Torres, Danilo and Otávio. If this happens, then expect Marega to play on the right-hand side of the front three with Brahimi moving into the more advanced position on the left.
Liverpool’s tactical approach in possession
Liverpool like to play out from the back, so it will be interesting to see whether or not Porto choose to press them high up the pitch, as Sérgio Conceição’s side are prone to doing. If strikers Marega and Soares do press them high then any one of Liverpool’s midfielders may drop in alongside Liverpool’s centre backs in order to give them numerical superiority and allow them to pass their way through the press.
Alternatively, Liverpool may rely on Van Dijk and Alisson’s excellent distribution to bypass the press altogether. This could be particularly dangerous if Porto overstretch themselves and leave gaps for Liverpool to exploit higher up the pitch like they did to disastrous effect in last year’s first-leg fixture.
Given the risks of a high-press approach, it is likely that Porto will be more cautious this time and employ a mid-block much like Southampton did on Friday evening’s Premier League game. Notice in the image below how Southampton allowed Liverpool’s centre-backs to have the ball in order to block passing lanes in the middle of the pitch. Porto’s two centre forwards will be able to do a similar job of screening the midfield area if they position themselves deep just in front of the midfield.
If Porto do challenge Liverpool to break them down in this way, it will be especially important for Liverpool’s forwards to provide the movement to get into the half spaces. If Porto play a 4-4-2 formation as expected, then gaps may well develop between the defence and midfield and the likes of Salah and Firmino will have to make the runs into those spaces as they do in the image below.
Liverpool in transition
The latter three of Liverpool’s five goals in last season’s game came when they caught Porto on the break, and we can expect them to be just as ruthless this time around if the opportunities present themselves.
One area where Porto could be particularly vulnerable is down the flanks. Since Porto’s wide midfielders play particularly narrow, the Primeira Liga champions rely on their full-backs to provide width. This can leave gaps that can be exploited by the likes of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah.
Porto’s local rivals Boavista managed to exploit one of these situations as we can see in the image below. As Porto’s attack broke down, Boavista immediately played the ball into Porto’s right-hand channel, which was left vacant as Jesús Corona (playing right-back on that occasion) had bombed forward to join the attack.
This is one of Porto’s biggest weaknesses and one that Liverpool will be well aware of as this is exactly how they scored their fourth goal in last season’s rout. In the image below from last season’s tie, it is Ricardo Pereira, now of Leicester, who got caught out after having got forward from right back.
Another way in which Liverpool may create chances from transitions is by pressing Porto high up the pitch. Porto, like Liverpool, like to play the ball out from the back but unlike their English opponents, Porto are not used to being pressed when they do it.
In the Primeira Liga few teams would adopt the risky strategy of trying to close down Porto’s defenders as they would risk being opened up by the technically superior Porto players. But when Porto are pressed, they reveal a certain vulnerability, as we will see below.
Porto’s goalkeeper Iker Casillas is a particular weakness in this regard. In the image below we can see how Casillas was willing to play the ball out to Adrián despite this clearly being a dangerous move with several Benfica players waiting to pounce.
This is partly down to Porto’s willingness to play out from the back, and partly down to the fact that Casillas does not like to distribute the ball long. In fact, the Spaniard records on average only 5.5 accurate long balls per game, the second lowest number among all the regular goalkeepers in the Primeira Liga.
Porto’s tactical approach in possession
As mentioned, Porto like to play out from the back. When they do so, it is common for their two centre-backs to split, with one of the midfielders, usually Danilo, dropping in between them to make a three. When this happens, both full-backs push forward and the wide midfielders tuck inside between the lines as in the diagram below.
This narrow use of the nominally wide midfielders is a hallmark of this Porto side and Algerian midfielder Yacine Brahimi is perfectly suited to the role. Although he starts on the left, he loves to make driving diagonal runs in field, making him the classic ‘inverted winger’. In fact, he makes more dribbles per game (2.8) than any other player in the Primeira Liga.
Liverpool found out how dangerous he can be in last season’s clash. In the image below from that February game, Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren is so mesmerised by Brahimi’s run that he allows Tiquinio Soares (circled) to make a run in behind him and Brahimi obliges by playing the pass through to the front man who very nearly scores.
Another major attacking threat for Porto is their Malian striker Moussa Marega. Despite being known for his aerial threat, he is also particular skilled at peeling away from defenders. And since Marega plays on the right-hand side of a two or three-man attack, he will most likely be marked by none other than Virgil van Dijk, who plays on the left of Liverpool’s central defensive partnership.
In the next image from Porto’s league game against Braga, we see how Marega (circled) is indicating to Éder Militão that he wants the ball to be played out wide into the right-hand channel. Braga centre-back Pablo (circled in red) is expecting the ball to be played into the space in between him and Marega.
However, as a somewhat unselfish striker, Marega was not thinking about how he could get into a goalscoring position in this move, but how he could get into a position to cross the ball.
As we see in the next image from that move, Militão, who is being challenged by Braga’s left-back Sequeira, plays the pass down Pablo’s left side, allowing Marega to make a diagonal run into the space where he can provide a cross for his strike partner.
It will be interesting to see how van Dijk copes with Marega’s movement, especially if Porto manage to catch him isolated without the protection of his full-back as Porto did to Braga’s Pablo here.
Porto in transition
Like Porto, Liverpool allow their full-backs to go very high up the pitch to provide width, and this is something that Porto may look to exploit. Assuming that Liverpool will have most of the possession, it will be extremely important for Porto to make the most of any opportunities they get to attack in transition.
One player who is particularly important for Porto in this aspect is Moussa Marega. Blessed with a powerful physique, the Malian forward can act as an outlet if his side need to play it long either to escape pressure or to launch a counter-attack. He is also willing to run into the channels to hold up the ball and bring others into play.
In the image below, after a long ball is played up to him and headed away by the Benfica defender, Marega chases down the second ball into the wide right area. This space was left vacant by Benfica’s left-back Aleix Grimaldo who had been caught out by the quick transition.
This is a problematic scenario that Liverpool may find themselves in if Porto can play it long to Marega as soon as the home side’s attacks break down and while their full-backs are stranded high up the pitch.
With last season’s outcome in mind, it is likely that Porto will take a very cautious approach and look to frustrate Liverpool. With key players such as Pepe and Herrera out, Sérgio Conceição will probably be more than happy to keep it tight in order to have something to take back to the Estádio do Dragão. By then he ought to be able to field a stronger side including a fully-fit Alex Telles.
Jürgen Klopp’s side probably won’t have it all their own way like they did in the same fixture last year and I expect it will be a much closer affair. Liverpool’s attacking threat still makes them favourites, however, and if they can force Porto into making mistakes at the back you would expect them to score, though perhaps not so many as five this time.
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