PortuGOAL continues its series of in-depth analyses of Portugal’s lesser known teams by turning the spotlight on arguably this season’s greatest overachievers.
GD Chaves have returned to the top flight after a 17-year absence. Instead of a battle for survival, the northernmost team in Portugal has spent the whole season in the top half of the table as well as making it to the semi-finals of the Portuguese Cup.
Moreover, Chaves have beaten Porto and Sporting in 2016/17 and tonight will attempt to complete the trio of ‘Big Three’ scalps when they take on Benfica at the Estádio da Luz.
Tiago Estêvão breaks down the secrets behind their success.
GC Chaves were very close to going out of business just six years ago, but local businessman (and lottery winner) Francisco Carvalho came to the rescue, investing in the club and appointing both his sons to run it. After 17 years away from the main tier of Portuguese football, Chaves finally gained promotion last season and now have an healthy and wealthy project that is focused on not just achieving a consistent status in the division but at aiming for the higher spots in the table.
With 32 points from 22 matches and being very close to the European spots for the entirety of the season, we can say that success has come pretty quickly, which also explains why there has been a clamour asking me for an analysis of them since I started this series. So let’s figure out how a team that just got promoted is challenging for Europe, either through their league position or via the Portuguese cup, after knocking out both Porto and Sporting to set up a semi-final against Vitória de Guimarães. For the very best odds on the Primeira Liga, check out Sun Bets.
The club’s summer transfer activity was enough trigger thoughts that the squad’s quality could push the team’s ambitions to something higher than simply avoiding relegation. The squad ended up being a good mixture of experienced top flight players, talented youngsters and a ton of willpower from the guys that made the jump from last season. The good decisions from the board didn’t stop there: Jorge Simão arrived as coach, after showing what he was capable of with Mafra, Belenenses and Paços. Pragmatic, realistic and with a clear idea of what he wants to do – the manager that moved to Braga mid-season was the perfect choice for a team who would need defensive stability for a good campaign.
The coach’s jump to the Arsenalistas and his subsequent replacement with Ricardo Soares, a coach who has worked his way up the football pyramid and finally made the final jump, was the main reason I waited to do this analysis. Soares has been clever in the way he has taken advantage of the smoothly-running engine that Simão left, sticking to a trusty 4-2-3-1 that prioritizes security in the defensive side of the game, then proceeding to cause havoc on counters.
Two solid options in goal
Ricardo arrived on loan from Porto and has been the main man in goal: great at commanding the backline, it hasn’t been just him shining in goal. Antonio Filipe has done very well filling in whenever Ricardo is unavailable, has accumulated over 500 minutes in the Liga and has been the man between the sticks in the cup, where as mentioned above the team is in the semi-finals after overcoming FC Porto on penalties and Sporting. Filipe is yet to concede a single goal in his four matches in 2017, so he has everything to fight with Ricardo for the main spot in goal.
In front of him is one of the league’s biggest surprises: Carlos Ponck arrived on transfer deadline day to be a squad rotation player in midfield and defence but has been irreplaceable since the moment he got his chance. Very quick, great in the air – even scoring against Sporting – and with some ease in the early build-up stage due to his experience as a defensive midfielder, the Cape Verde born Benfica loanee will likely strike up a deal with Chaves to stay with the club on a permanent basis. After all, this is where he has been playing the best football of his career. Adding on to that, we all have to admit that his name is hilarious and that’s always a plus in my book.
Leandro Freire was the main man beside him for a good portion of the season: with experience of playing in the league due to his time at Vitoria Guimarães and Nacional da Madeira, the Brazilian has played more matches in a few months with Chaves than he had done in any other season in Portugal, showing clear signs of maturity and consistency in his game.
January departures well compensated
He was one of the four players whose great performances lead to a move in January – as to be expected whenever a small side overperforms – but all of them were very well replaced. After Freire moved to the J-League’s Shimizu S-Pulse, Nuno André Coelho, ex-Sporting and Braga, came in after a season with Sporting KC in the MLS. To completely reassure the backline, Massaia also signed from second division Santa Clara: the 25-year-old Brazilian had accumulated 144 matches in the 2nd league in the past three and a half seasons (with Santa Clara and Covilhã), so it most definitely wasn’t a gamble. To the point that, while Coelho entered the team straight away, Massaia got his first start with Ponck last week and managed a solid match all around, with 8 clearances to top it all off. This isn’t too relevant since he has only played a single match but, in clearances per match, he is the second best in the league already.
Paulinho was another good deal from Chaves. Coming in the summer for free, the full-back with league experience (Moreirense and União) made the right side of the pitch his own in every match he was a part of. Constantly bombing forward, the tireless right-back was sold for a good profit in January to Braga after two providing two assists and being overall very important for Chaves at both ends of the field. Pedro Queirós, another summer arrival, took over the spot: more experienced and definitely not as rampant going forward, it definitely felt like the team lost a bit of offensive prowess with this transfer move.
Captain leading by example
On the left, captain Nelson Lenho, who just reached 100 matches for his club, has been outstanding. With numbers very similar to Paulinho’s going forward – over 1 dribble per game, over 1 key pass per game and 3 assists (more than any other player) – while still being very active defensively, he has been fantastic and embodies the attitude and mindset of the “Valentes Transmontanos”. With him as the captain, I’m sure every player leaves everything on the pitch every match.
The most impressive part of Jorge Simão’s 4-2-3-1 was how well Assis and Battaglia were working together in midfield. In fact, so much so that the coach brought them with him to Braga (paying €1 million for Assis and recalling Battaglia from his loan). Assis was, baring Belenenses’s Palhinha, one of the most impressive DMs in the first half of the season. The 5’7’’ Brazilian is a quick ball-winner, incredibly effective when paired up with a creative box-to-box centre-mid like Battaglia, who is still Chaves’s second top scorer. When the duo left I thought that could be the moment where the team started falling apart and, to be quite honest, I still thought the same when I saw their replacements.
Pedro Tiba arrived on loan from Braga and 24-times Belarus international Renan Bressan came in for free from Cyprus, having played in Portugal for Rio Ave in the past. They are very good players for sure but with different attributes to Assis and Battaglia. Tiba was one of the league’s best midfielders with Vitoria Setúbal and Sergio Conceição’s Braga but as an 8, while Bressan was always an attacking midfielder at Rio Ave. These two slotted directly into Battaglia and Assis’s spots and not only have they been just as good defensively, I notice massive improvement in Chaves’ build-up play and how they use the ball, due to having two more possession oriented midfielders. Tiba has taken over as the most defensive of the two, with 2 interceptions and close to 3 tackles per match, close enough to Assis’s levels, and then compensating by playing more passes per game and playing them more accurately, too.
Bressan back with a bang
With Bressan as the ‘8’ you notice even more differences. Battaglia’s drives forward on and off possession were the key point to his offensive influence, while Bressan is a cleverer passer with great ball control. This means the team is more comfortable in possession and have an extra creative source. Bressan’s 1.6 key passes per game tops the list for Chaves and is a telling statistic when compared to Battaglia’s 0.5. And while you could argue that he may be a defensive liability, his 3.2 tackles per game (overwhelming compared to his other defensive numbers), suggest that he may even be trying to overcompensate his below par positioning and at least you see him striving to win the ball back which is very positive indeed. To top it all off, Bressan is a great free kick taker and has already started creating danger via those kinds of set pieces with a goal versus Arouca.
The attacking quartet is led by the 33-year-old Bruno Braga. Known for his four seasons with Rio Ave, he was promoted with the team last season and is now leading through his experience and quality. While a direct contribution to 5 goals (3 goals + 2 assists) may not seem much for a second forward, his influence in the team is massive. No-one reads or understands the game like he does, which leads to him often dropping closer to the midfield duo to try and control the tempo of the match. Out of all the usual outfielders there’s no one with better passing accuracy (79.8%) – not even any of the defenders, as we usually see – and only Bressan surpasses his 1.5 key passes per game. These are all reasons explaining why he was dropped into centre-mid in the times between the exit of the old pair and the arrival of the transfers.
Here we see a couple of typical attacking movements from Chaves. William drops to try and receive the ball, Fabio Martins moves inside as Perdigão tries to give some width and Braga covers Martins’s space on the wing. With Bressan’s technical quality from midfield, the team gets access to the sort of passes you see in this frame – in between the opponents’ lines.
Here we see Fabio Martins acting as an inside forward even more, positioned where you would expect the striker to be after William moved, yet again, closer to the ball-carrier to give a passing line. Lenho is moving on the overlap and on the other side, albeit you don’t see him, Perdigão is appearing in the box. In the midst of all this movement you see Braga doing what he does best, taking a step back and appearing in a completely free area where he could take a dangerous shot or produce a killer pass as soon as he gets the ball (Tiba decides to shoot from where he is instead).
Chaves’ typical defensive scheme. Two lines of four close together, with Braga and William/Rafa Lopes (not in the picture) higher up the pitch, generally with a higher spacing between them and midfield.
Chaves’ main defensive issues have come to light when defending set-pieces and crosses. In the indicated space there are four Chaves defenders for Tondela’s big man Heliardo – it’s worth pointing out that forwards with a big physical presence have been bugging them this year; Chaves are still the only side Depoitre has scored against. Here the Brazilian beats Lenho on the run and shows up on his own at the second post where the cross will fall. Nuno André Coelho in a midst of distraction and perhaps lack of coordination with his new teammates runs towards the first post where he doesn’t get the ball nor an opponent. Luckily for Chaves, Heliardo wins the header but doesn’t score.
Lively wingers on the loose
On the wings the duo of Fábio Martins and Perdigão have been causing havoc. Fábio, on loan from Braga, spent last season under Jorge Simão with Paços and has risen to a higher status here. More mature and confident, constantly taking players on and now recognised for his ability to score outstanding goals in the frequent times in which he drifts inside. In fact, no-one takes more shots per game than him in the club with 2.2 and 1.4 of those are from outside the box. While some would say that you can’t blame him for trying, especially after scoring 3 of his 4 league goals from outside the box, it’s not ideal because as a result he does not create many goal chances.
Despite his slight dip in form compared to some other points in the season, Perdigão is still very influential as well, making a much larger impact than the opposite winger when it comes to his key passes or the accuracy of his crosses, for example. That said, now that Paulinho is gone he needs to give even more width which may end up inhibiting him from delivering a better end-product. The defensive work of Martins and Perdigão is perhaps just as valuable as their attacking output, though, with both having a high number of tackles and interceptions per game. In fact, only the midfield duo are ranked higher than Martins (2.6) when it comes to tackles.
Up top it’s between the tireless Rafa Lopes and William. Rafa is known for the way he constantly puts opposition defences under pressure and not so much for his finishing. He is still the team’s top scorer with 4 goals (tied with Martins) and his hold-up play is top notch, with 3.6 headers won per match – only four players have won more in the league. And even if he isn’t necessarily carrying the team with his goals, it’s clear that he is slowly finding his stride with Chaves. In the 1st division he never scored more than 6 in a season, but he’s got everything to beat that William, who recently signed a new deal with the club, has impressed me from the bench and already has two goals in about half of Rafa’s starts.
A couple of attacking options arrived in January from the second division in Batatinha and Davidson. Creative and versatile, Davidson can be a good option for Chaves and showed why with a very positive display against Nacional. Batatinha is yet to show himself. Elhouni, a Benfica loanee, has had a solid couple of matches from the bench and was always decisive when he came on, but a bad injury ruled him out which also led to transfer moves.
Very direct in their offensive play, Chaves have the third highest amount of shots per match with 12.9, the exact same as Sporting, despite them being only the 9th best attack. Offensively another interesting thing to look at is the fact that, unlike what happens in a team like Marítimo, they don’t have an overreliance on set-pieces to score. Chaves scored 17 out of their 23 league goals to date from open play.
Room for improvement
That said, I do think they rely a bit too much on the talents of Fábio Martins. Not only does the team attack more from the left but they’re also the 2nd team in the league to take most shots from the left. And while he averages a goal every 9 shots from outside the box, such a ratio is outrageous and bound to drop dramatically, regardless of Martins’ quality. It just seems like there’s often poor decision making from a lot of the players who tend to get the ball in the final third. Whether that is from a lack of experience or not they could all listen and look a bit more to Braga in training.
Defensively is where the team excels, though. The fourth best defence in the league, Chaves conceded 19 times in 22 matches and 40% of their matches ended with a clean sheet. Only top European sides can match such a record. To illustrate the fact, the table below lists the four teams that conceded the fewest goals to date this season in each of Europe’s top six leagues.
Only the Big Three and Rio Ave concede less shots per match than the Transmontanos but, unlike these top teams, Chaves is the team with the highest number of fouls committed per game. While this could be perceived in the wrong way, they’re also one of the sides with the least number of cards (6th overall) which points to them being a side that pursues the ball aggressively in relatively high areas of the pitch while still being organised and well covered. Out of 22 matches they have lost only four, to Braga, Benfica, Tondela and Porto. Out of the 5 goals conceded against the first three teams, 4 were from set-pieces – clearly the team’s defensive weak spot.
Currently 7th in the standings, a point behind Marítimo and two behind Vitória de Guimarães, it will be an incredibly tough challenge to get to Europe, so I wouldn’t count on it happening. What I’m more interested in is the goals the club sets itself next summer, especially since they should be planning already due to knowing they’ll stay in the league so early on. This is when their project truly comes to life and I’m very interested to see what approach they take in the league next season.
By Tiago Estêvão
Related: In-depth team analysis: Belenenses
Related: In-depth team analysis: Marítimo