In matchweek four of the UEFA Champions League, Olympique Marseille took on FC Porto in tightly contested Group C. Manchester City qualified to the next round early, after beating Olympiacos away from home, meaning that the second and third place were still very much up for grabs. Before the match, Porto entered with six points, and Marseille with zero. In order to even have a chance for qualification for the next round of the competition, or the Europa League, Marseille needed to win.
Marseille set an unwanted record for the most consecutive Champions League defeats this week, losing 2-0 at home to Porto to make it an unlucky 13 straight losses in the competition. After analysis, we will see why they failed to make any breakthroughs despite starting the match strongly. Former Tottenham Hotspur boss André Villas-Boas will look to redeem his team’s season with better performances in the Ligue 1, as they are currently in sixth place, six points off first place with two games in hand.
In this tactical analysis, we will observe the key defensive tactics Porto deployed to keep a clean sheet. Sitting in second place in the group, a win against Olympiacos will see them qualify for the next round.
Marseille began the game in a 4-2-3-1 formation that rarely changed during the game. In the early stages of the match, Marseille were able to beat the Porto press and play through their defensive line. Midfielders Valentin Rongier and Boubacar Kamara started in deeper roles, but struggled to help transition the ball from defence to attack. Morgan Sanson was given the responsibility to act as the sides’ main creator in midfield, but rarely got service throughout the game. We will see that Rongier was tasked with dropping deeper and helping his side build up an attack from the back.
Porto started in a 4-4-2 and also rarely diverted from this. At times they would press in a more 4-3-3 shape, but this was only when Marseille had a midfielder drop back to help the build up. This analysis will show that Porto’s flexibility and willingness to be fluid in defence is what helped them win, aside from the goals of course. Standout players include left full-back Zaidu Sanusi and Sérgio Oliveira in midfield.
Porto’s defensive structure
Below is our first example of how Porto set up defensively. Forwards Luis Diaz and Moussa Marega pressed from the front, while the midfield block were prepared to deal with any passes into the Marseille midfield that got past the forward press.
One glaring issue that Porto displayed early on is the amount of space between the midfield and defensive lines. Winger Florian Thauvin did have a relatively decent game making 50 touches and completing five dribbles. However, when there was space to attack, he often went missing and instead opted to stick to his wide role.
Porto did stop service to midfielder Rongier, as seen below. This was effective early on in preventing Marseille from moving forward. When this happens, Marseille can only pass the ball sideways or backwards.
Porto were more than happy to stay in their structure as it ensured that Marseille have no passing options. On the ball below is defender Álvaro González, who is once again moving the ball sideways. His only vertical passing options are in between the forward and midfield defensive lines. Porto have effectively stopped service to Marseille’s double pivot.
Porto showed their defensive flexibility when they asked their wide players to press. While not always effective, Jesus Corona and Otávio Edmilson da Silva Monteiro would often join the front line depending on what side of the pitch play was on. In doing this, it disrupted the Marseille build up when they tried to use their full-backs to play forward.
How Marseille played through Porto
Marseille struggled to get service to their forward players during the build-up phase. This meant that one of Kamara or Rongier had to drop into a deeper role between the defence and midfield. In the photo below, it is Kamara dropping deep to receive a pass from his goalkeeper. Between Kamara, the two centre-backs and goalkeeper, Marseille had four players helping during the build up versus the three pressing Porto players.
When Marseille were able to transition from defence to attack, they looked to exploit the wide areas. More specifically, taking advantage of right full-back Hiroki Sakai who was often left in space as Otávio often pressed him late. Below, we see that Sakai has time and space to move forward, but also has teammate Rongier closing in on him to act as a passing option.
If Otávio pressed late, this meant that his target had time to think about passing options. Alternatively, his target could consider which directions to run into as Otávio would leave space behind him as well due to his late press.
During the build up phase below, it was now Rongier’s turn to drop deeper and help his team move the ball forward. Porto committed more players forward, while also keeping their midfield line close enough to their opponents passing options if they are needed. By having one midfielder drop deeper and the other in the space left behind after the opponent’s press, Marseille kept a numerical advantage in this phase of play.
Why it went wrong for Marseille
Marseille started to show signs of breaking through Porto after beating their forward defensive line, however, they rarely got further than that. Below we see central defender Leonardo Belerdi on the ball. His only passing options were his full-backs or his partner in defense. There was no player in between the Porto midfield and defensive line either.
It is not a case of astute defending from Porto, rather a case of positional misunderstanding from Marseille. As seen above, forward Valère Germain lead the line but was marked out of the game. Thauvin can be seen pointing that he wanted the ball played forward and long. Left winger Luis Henrique was too close to his full-back marker to be considered an option. A player in between the lines could prove to be disruptive for Porto, yet was never attempted.
As the game went on and Marseille conceded, Porto did not stop pressing. Wide play was encouraged in the build up when facing a congested midfield, however, wide play can be detrimental when it takes away passing options you need to use in order to build up out of defense. Midfielder Rangier was pressed after he proved to be vital in the Marseille buildup. Defender González, starred below, had no teammate to pass to or space to pass into, as Porto occupy what seems like the entire Marseille half.
Below we see that Morgan Sanson took up a more advanced role while Rangier acted as the team’s only defensive midfielder. Winger Michaël Cuisance came on for Marseille midfielder Kamara, meaning that Porto needed to match the number of players Marseille were putting forward. To do this, Porto adopted a more fluid 4-2-3-1 shape. This was done so that Porto winger Otávio could operate in a more central role. Forward Diaz took up a wide role, so now Porto had a midfield five instead of four. Marseille attempted to change their tactics, but were very quickly figured out by the Porto coaching staff.
Porto are favourites to go into the next round of the Champions League. They aren’t perfect, and after this analysis, we see that there are some opportunities for them to be exploited by teams with more creative players. With that being said, they certainly will not be steamrolled by stronger teams if they remain as disciplined as they have during their match with Marseille, ignoring Marko Grujic’s sending off.
Marseille on the other hand will not be participating in the next round of the Champions League. They’re also unlikely to make it to the Europa League if their losing streak continues against Man. City and Olympiacos. Marseille did show some signs of promise at the beginning of the match as they adapted and beat Porto’s forward pressing line. However, they failed to play through Porto, while making predictable substitutions and tactical changes that were easily managed by their opposition.