The Portuguese league is infamous for being dominated by the big three.
Benfica, Porto and Sporting Lisbon have the infrastructure, both on and off the pitch, to consistently challenge at the top of the table both for the title and for the Champions League spots. Over the last five years, however, Sporting Braga have provided a genuine alternative to the three giants, and combining a combative style of play with intelligent recruitment means they have been regular fixtures in European competition in recent years.
Earlier this season Braga made a coaching change with the former Portuguese international forward Ricardo Sa Pinto losing being replaced by the Benfica U23 coach Ruben Amorim in December. The new coach was highly regarded but even then there were few people who would have predicted that they would win their first match under him 7-1, away to Belenenses.
That was in January and at the time of writing, Braga are unbeaten in nine matches with eight wins and one draw. Not only that, Braga have beaten Porto twice, Sporting Lisbon twice and Benfica once, a sign that they are perhaps in a position to overthrow the traditional power structure at the top of the table.
While the results have been impressive, the style of play and tactical structure of the team under Amorim have caught the eye. He has shown himself to be a progressive coach and Braga have consistently played in a 3-4-3 shape in possession with this becoming a 5-4-1 when the opposition has the ball. As is so often the case, however, it is not the formation that is important but rather the intent behind what they try to do.
In possession, we now have enough of a sample size to suggest that Amorim favours an attacking approach with a high degree of vertical passing to put constant stress on the defensive block of the opposition.
In order to do so, we see the three central defenders split wide across the width of the pitch in the first instance. This provides the base of their structure in possession of the ball and Braga will move the ball across this defensive line until they find a free player. Most teams will press high with one or two players and as such, there is always a free player in the defensive line for Braga.
If the opposition look to press with a third player to cover this there will simply be a free player further forward that Braga can find with a quick forward pass. So, instead, most opponents will allow Braga to have possession in this area. When the ball finds a free Braga player the pass will be played vertically into the midfielders who try to find space between the lines of the opposition midfield and defence. When players take possession of the ball in these areas they will look to receive and then play forward before the opposition can react and fall back behind the ball.
DEFENDING V 3-4-3
This is where the 3-4-3 structure becomes difficult to defend against. The two wide midfielders, who effectively behave like wing-backs, will stay wide and move high to threaten the opposition full-backs. This then allows the wide attackers to move inside to play centrally alongside the central striker - Braga are able to overload the centre of the opposition’s defence.
The movements, both in terms of player positioning and ball progression, are relatively simple but the positioning of the players in possession makes it very difficult for the opposition to defend against them effectively. The ball moves forward through the thirds quickly and Braga look to move into the opposition penalty area as often as possible. The constant stress on the other team makes it difficult for them to concentrate for the entire match.
Out of possession, Amorim is perhaps more traditional than we may have expected. While high pressing seems to be in fashion for many sides in Europe he prefers to defend in a medium or even deep defensive block. When the other team has possession of the ball the wide players for Braga drop back forming a back five. The lone striker will press, but not aggressively, and he will instead look to prevent the opposition defenders from stepping forward with the ball.
Instead of pressing as the opposition come forward Braga try to remain as tight and compact as possible. This is to prevent the opposition from finding spaces between the lines from which they can threaten the penalty area. Amorim has only been in charge for a little over two months, but already it is clear that they have been well drilled on the defensive phase of the game.
As the opposition move forward they are confronted by a compact defensive block, and will tend to react in one of two ways; the ball will be played over the top, where the central defenders and goalkeeper work to prevent the opposition from finding space, or the ball will be worked from side-to-side as they look to find a way to pass and attack down the outside.
Braga work hard and act as a unit, shifting the defensive block extremely well. Often in these situations, as the ball moves from one side to another one or two players in the defensive block can be slow to react, this creates space centrally that the attacking team can look to exploit. Under Amorim, though Braga have allowed their opponent’s no space to attack them through the centre and every player has stuck to their defensive assignment.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Francisco Trincao is a 20-year-old wide attacker who has already impressed hugely for the Portuguese U21 and U20 sides and who sealed a summer move to Barcelona in the January transfer window.
It is unusual for a player of his calibre to come through at a club other than the traditional big three as they tend to stockpile young talent. Trincao, however, has been at Braga from a young age and the club have been careful in exposing him to first-team football too young.
Francisco Trincão vs Belensenses 🔥— 🇫🇷 (@fcbaarcelonaaaa) January 30, 2020
He was one of the best players in the U19 Euros, along with Kean, Tonali, Filipe, Vinagre etc. An insane talent, will get even better with more playing time. pic.twitter.com/dbm7Lm8V4N
He tends to play from the right-hand side of the pitch and he is capable of playing comfortably from either foot. This means that when in possession in the wide spaces he can just as easily attack down the outside or cut back inside the defender. This versatility in possession makes it difficult for opposition defenders to deal with him 1v1.
Instead, he tends to draw more than one defender to provide cover and this creates space centrally that can be exploited by his side. He strikes the ball extremely well and has excellent technique when crossing or passing. He gets great dip and swerve on his crosses into the penalty area and he displays a tendency to find his team-mates even when they are in a crowded penalty area.
Trincao makes intelligent runs and looks to attack space behind the opposition defensive line whenever the opportunity presents itself. He does not possess top-level pace but his timing and understanding of space mean that he often appears to have an advantage over his direct opponent. When attacking into the opposition penalty area Trincao is a good finisher, although his composure can at times leave something to be desired, and his technique allows him to attack across the face of the goalkeeper even from tight angles.
The upcoming match against Rangers appears perfectly set for Trincao to play and to make an impact. Indeed, there are few, if any, wide attackers in Scottish football who are comparable to the Portuguese wide man.
The emergence of Braga under Ruben Amorim has added a new dimension to the Portuguese domestic season. The players will have gained going into the final stretches of the season and though Benfica and Porto are, once again, battling for the title, they will be under no illusions that Braga will be in a position to challenge them going into next season.
Rangers have faltered slightly in recent weeks domestically and they appear to have ceded the title to fierce rivals Celtic. They will have to be ready coming into this match to face a Braga side that are in incredible form and who are playing a style of football that is as efficient as it is simple.