Friends turned foes: Pepe vs Ronaldo headlines Porto vs Juventus clash
Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe, the long-time pillars of the Portuguese national team and former Real Madrid teammates, return to the pitch, but on different sides of the battle. Pepe leads the home team, Porto, against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus.
This UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash will take place at the Estádio do Dragão. Both clubs enter the matchup with mixed form. The Portuguese are unbeaten in seven matches, but the last four were draws, allowing Sporting Portugal to climb even further ahead in the league table.
Juventus’ run of seven games unbeaten recently ended at the hands of a resolute Napoli side. Of those seven games, only one was a draw, which was the match against Inter just before the game against Napoli, leaving Juventus two games without a win.
This tactical analysis will pit the tactics of these two southern European giants against each other, deciphering how the teams will approach the tie in search of a first-leg advantage. We’ll talk about how Porto will look to initiate play from defence, how Juventus can counter their tactics in the early attacking phases and the importance of half space penalty box entries to both teams.
Porto’s predicted lineup (4-4-2) – Agustín Marchesín; Wilson Manafá, Chancel Mbemba, Pepe, Zaidu Sanusi; Jesús Corona, Sérgio Oliveira, Mateus Uribe, Luis Díaz; Moussa Marega, Mehdi Taremi
Sérgio Conceição has leaned heavily on a 4-4-2 this season and will likely use that formation in this matchup with Porto looking to avoid conceding, but also wanting to grab a home goal. That’s why I expect them to this formation instead of the 3-4-2-1 they used against Manchester City.
Marchesín will get the starting goal. The backline will be anchored by Pepe. He’ll be joined by the trio of Manafá, Mbemba and Sanusi. From right to left in midfield, look for “Tecatito” Corona, Oliveira, Uribe and Díaz. At the two forward positions, Taremi and Marega will look to stretch the backlines with aggressive runs into space.
Juventus’ predicted lineup (4-4-2) – Wojciech Szczęsny; Danilo, Matthijs de Ligt, Leonardo Bonucci, Alex Sandro; Weston McKennie, Rodrigo Bentancur, Adrien Rabiot, Federico Chiesa; Álvaro Morata, Cristiano Ronaldo
Andrea Pirlo’s likely to use his 4-4-2/3-5-2 hybrid. With Szczęsny in goal, look for Danilo, de Ligt and Bonucci to earn the starts and play fairly deep. Meanwhile, Sandro is likely to start on the left and offer width on that wing. Bentancur and Rabiot will offer a central defensive presence in the midfield while McKennie and Chiesa play on the outside while targeting the half spaces. Look for them to play just beneath the two forwards, Ronaldo and Morata.
Porto will look to initiate play from defence
Under Conceição, Porto’s had a great deal of success initiating play from defence. Much like Jürgen Klopp’s teams, he’ll often see Conceição’s men engage in a high press when out of possession and commit to being one of the top counterpressing sides in Portugal. Porto’s recoveries often come in dangerous areas, serving as the high playmaker for this fast-paced attack.
While Porto is unlikely to sit back quite as far as they did against Manchester City, they will likely be more selective when engaging in the high press. When they do, you likely see that their defensive structure is well set, enabling the team to take more chances higher up the pitch.
Expect Porto to defer to the middle block in most situations, using midfield as their line of confrontation. They’ll invite Juventus to enter into their expansive attacking shape, then look to intercept passes through their defensive shell.
In Juventus’ last game, Napoli set up in a 4-4-2 with a midfield line of concentration. Though Juventus dominated the stat sheet, Gennaro Gattuso’s side did well to contain the opposition. Defensive solidity was at the core of the Neapolitan’s 1-0 victory. And our first image, we see exactly how compact the Napoli defence was and why Juventus found it difficult to play through their press. In this instance, Giorgio Chiellini’s pass was intercepted, springing the Napoli counterattack. To their credit, Juventus recovers well defensively, a trait they will bring to the matchup against Porto.
If Porto can bait Juventus into playing through the central channel and half spaces, they’ll look to use those recoveries to initiate direct attacks to goal. The two forwards will make aggressive runs behind the backline while the midfield four, which will play very narrowly throughout the match, will look to drive into the space between Juventus’ lines.
In their match against Sporting Portugal, Porto baited the league leaders into a poor pass high in the left half space. The Porto players won the first and second balls, putting the team in position to counterattack from the central channel. The first pass went high to Marega, who then played into the right half space for Tecatito.
The next past went to Manafá, who was able to send his cross from just outside of the box. Though he didn’t connect on this cross, we get a clear image of Porto overloading the far post. A common trait you’ll see is that they like to send the final ball on the ground, increasing the likelihood of a quality shot on goal. Cutting out this past will be key for Juventus’ backline.
If the interception is not an option, the objective is to at least force Juventus to play around the defence and into the wings. If they can’t set up an attack by forcing Juventus into a poor pass, Porto will at the very least want to keep the Serie A side in the wings. If that happens, look for Porto to aggressively condense the space and try to trap the Juventus players in the wings without any outlets.
Juventus will find success in the early attacking stages
When Porto has played top opposition this season, be it in the Champions League or Portugal’s Liga NOS, they’ve typically implemented a more pragmatic approach. Though they’re the home side in the first leg, expect them to do the same against Juventus, forcing the Italians to win the match through their attacking tactics rather than Porto’s mistakes.
As mentioned, Porto is likely to use a middle block as their default defensive approach in this match, but analysis of their matches against top teams shows that they are willing to push higher up the pitch in search of buildup deficiencies. Though Juventus’ backline has a fair number of press resistant players, I do think we’ll see the Portuguese show a little more aggression in the home leg.
If Juventus can coax them into a high press, there’s space to be had.
Going back to the match against Sporting Portugal, we have a really good example of the aggressive approach Porto utilises in the high press. After successfully funnelling Sporting into their right-wing, the Porto defence collapsed on that vertical half of the pitch. Highlighting the pitch coverage area, you can see that even in their high press, all but one player is likely to slide to the ball side of the pitch. The issue with this aggressive approach is that Porto is not in position to defend the deep outlet to the goalkeeper, Antonio Adán.
The simple pass of the goalkeeper allowed Sporting to play into João Palhinha before releasing the third runner, Sebastián Coates. The former Liverpool man then released the teenage sensation, Nuno Mendes, into the left-wing, breaking the Porto press.
If Juventus plays into the wing, encouraging Porto to become more compact on that vertical half of the pitch, there are opportunities for the Italian side to create acres of space on the far side of the pitch. Given the talent they have at the back, Juventus should have success breaking Porto’s high press. If they don’t, mistakes could be devastating, so they will have to conduct an analysis of the possible risks and rewards.
Once Porto has settled into a middle block, look for Juventus to use their asymmetric attacking shape to create spaces for progression.
As mentioned, Danilo is likely to play a Kyle Walker type role, not taking on the attacking responsibilities of your average outside-back, but also not quite a full-fledged centre-back. Rather, as in the example below, you’re likely to see him slide into the half space, putting him just outside of the opposition’s press while also positioning him for an easy defensive recovery if need be.
With Bentencur and Rabiot as the two central defensive mids, look for Juventus to have a central box plus Danilo at the back. Those five players will offer defensive solidity while the remaining players push higher at the pitch in search of positional superiorities.
As mentioned, Juventus’ backline is loaded with talent, and that includes her ability to brake lines through their passing. De Ligt and Bonucci will occasionally look to play behind the Porto backline, stretching them with passes into space, but we’re just as likely to see the centrebacks play around the defence and hit the wide targets, much like in this image against Napoli.
If Juventus is finding it difficult to break down the Porto block, Pirlo’s tactics could see one of the central midfielders drop in between the centrebacks to facilitate play. As the central midfielder drops, the two centrebacks will push into the half spaces in search of better angles for forward passes.
If Porto does engage beyond the midfield line, leaving running room between the backline and Marchesín, the hard runs of Ronaldo and Morata will test them. With Juventus’ distribution qualities at the back and Porto’s very compact defensive approach, I think we’ll see the Italians test the Portuguese with passes like the one below.
With the quality Juventus has at the back, Porto must be circumspect when pressing the ball. Should they engage higher up the pitch, they will open themselves up for direct attacks in the wings or behind the backline. The higher Juventus can get them to a defend, the more success they should have.
Both teams will target box entry through the half spaces
Performing an analysis on both teams, one thing that stood out in their final third attacking tactics was the frequency of penalty box entries through the half spaces. With each team playing a very narrow four-man midfield, the two wide midfielders often look to attack the space between the opponent’s defensive mids and backline. Not only are they running into the space between the lines, but they’re often playing underneath one of their two forwards, who commits a centreback to the central channel, creating more space for the midfielder’s progression.
With the centreback pinned to the spot, aggressive 1v1 play is a common characteristic for each team. If they can beat the first defender, their chances of creating an opportunity on goal skyrocket.
Going back to the game against Sporting Portugal, we saw the Lisbon side create an opportunity in this exact manner, which serves as an example for Juventus. Ronaldo’s academy club had a long switch of play to the right side, giving Pedro Porro a 1v1 with no coverage behind his defender. He beat Sanusi to the inside rather than the outside, which forced him into the direction of Pepe. While there’s the initial negative of running into a cover defender, Porro’s close control prevented Pepe from putting in a tackle, allowing him to play the run of his teammate, and Liga NOS leading scorer, Pedro Gonçalves.
Sporting managed to beat the first defender, pin the second and play the runner into the half space of the box.
Juventus did something very similar against Napoli. Ronaldo drew two defenders before releasing his pass to McKennie. The American took an aggressive touch into the box, entering through the half space. Though he was unable to unleash a shot, this move shows the I Bianconeri’s intent.
Porto looked to do the same against Manchester City. During their away loss, the aggressive runs of Marega behind the backline and into the half spaces was a real standout. He did very well to play off of the back shoulder of his defender, then burst behind the backline at the right time.
Those half space runs behind the backline will be critical for each team’s success. If we do see goals in this game, look for penalty box entry to come through the half space or close to it.
This is a tough matchup to gauge, mostly because both teams have seen a recent dip in form. Granted, it’s impossible to maintain lofty standards for the entirety of the season, nor will they have the same level of intensity for an average league game versus a UEFA Champions League knockout fixture.
Considering the very narrow 4-4-2 formations that each team plays, this should be a very tight affair with very little room for error or space for prolonged attacks. Look for each team to produce a couple of decent chances, but largely struggle for those moments of quality.
In the end, we’ll call a 1-1 draw. Juventus will happily take the away goal while Porto will feel pleased with how they’ve positioned themselves going into the second leg. Either way, the Ronaldo vs Pepe matchup will be one to watch. Keep in mind Euros are on the horizon, so we’ll see how aggressively Pepe deals with his Portuguese teammate.