In stark contrast to recent years, Sporting have made a flying start to the season while both Benfica and Porto have dropped unexpected points in the early rounds of the new campaign. As a result, Sporting are four points clear at the top of the table.
The new signings at Alvalade have settled quickly, coach Rúben Amorim has a tactical plan that is working, and the Lions – unlike Benfica, Porto and Braga – have no European football to distract them from carefully preparing for their next Liga match every week.
Are the ingredients in place for Sporting to end an 18-year wait for a championship triumph? PortuGOAL analyses Sporting’s title credentials.
Why the excitement?
Sporting have made a near perfect start to the 2020/21 Primeira Liga, clocking up six wins and one draw in the first seven matches of season. What’s more, the team’s performance level appears to be on an upward trajectory. Two successive 4-0 victories before the international break were a vast improvement on the sketchy wins eked out against Santa Clara and Gil Vicente in their two previous matches.
Thumping Vitória Guimarães on matchday seven could even be considered a statement victory. The Dom Afonso Henriques stadium is a traditionally tough venue to travel to, and Vitória began the jornada in 6th position in the standings. It was not so much the fact that Sporting came away with the three points; it was the consummate ease with which they did so. The Lisbon club were ruthless, creating chances in a variety of ways with inventive play through the middle, speedy breaks down the flanks and long balls over the top, while goalkeeper Antonio Adán hardly had a save to make.
With Moreirense and Famalicão up next, two teams who have regressed from last season’s exploits, followed by struggling Farense and Belenenses SAD, there is every chance Sporting could prolong their winning run, thus further building confidence and momentum, and perhaps extending their lead at the top of the table.
Five reasons behind the resurgence
New boys shining
Much has been written about Sporting president Frederico Varandas and his team of directors who are almost universally considered unfit for purpose by the fanbase after a catalogue of incomprehensible decisions. Going through 4 coaches in one season; bringing in expensive flops such as Jesé Rodríguez, Rafael Camacho, Yannick Bolasie and Eduardo Henrique; selling off Matheus Pereira and Bas Dost on the cheap, are just some examples of the incompetence from the top that marked the administration’s first complete season. But credit where credit is due. Lessons have been learned from the mistakes.
A completely different approach was adopted in the last transfer window, with the club signing players to suit the system of new coach Rúben Amorim, all of whom have been a resounding success. None more so than Pedro Gonçalves who is doing a fine job at filling a Bruno Fernandes-shaped hole in terms of goals and assists. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder signed from Famalicão has been exceptional, and currently sits top of the goal-scoring charts in Portugal with seven goals.
Nuno Santos (bought from Rio Ave), João Palhinha (returning from loan at Braga), João Mário and Pedro Porro (signed on loan from Inter Milan and Manchester City respectively) complete a quintet of newcomers who have hit the ground running and proven huge upgrades on the options of last season. Moroccan centre-back Zouhair Feddal and Spanish goalkeeper Antonio Adán have also put in consistent displays.
The set of new recruits contrasts sharply to last season’s debacle in terms of their utility. The quality of Sporting’s squad has increased significantly without the club spending too much of the money it does not have.
Youth contributing again
In the chaos of recent years, Sporting largely turned its back on its world-famous Alcochete Academy, a key component of the very identity of the club. That changed with the appointment of Rúben Amorim. The young coach promised he would make use of the club’s youth products and he has been as good as his word. At the tail end of last season, Sporting often fielded line-ups almost entirely comprising of inexperienced prospects.
Sporting to kick off against Tondela shortly. Rúben Amorim's youth revolution in full swing. EIGHT players 22 years old or under in the starting line-up!— Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) June 18, 2020
Maximiano (21), Quaresma (18), Camacho (20), Wendel (22), Matheus Nunes (21), Nuno Mendes (17), Plata (19), Jovane (22) pic.twitter.com/2OgjxBfNiB
Amorim used those season-ending games intelligently to evaluate which of the Alcochete youth were ready to contribute to the senior team. The end result is the discovery of an absolute gem in left-back Nuno Mendes, who at 18 is a regular, one of the best performers in Portugal, let alone Sporting, and seems set for a glittering career.
Winger Jovane Cabral was “rediscovered”, forward Tiago Tomás is an exciting talent, while midfielder Daniel Bragança, recalled from a loan spell in the second tier, has impressed in the opportunities afforded to him. With Brazilian youngster Matheus Nunes also making telling contributions on a regular basis, and the likes of Eduardo Quaresma, Inácio Gonçalo and Joelson Fernandes waiting in the wings for their chance, Sporting’s youth factory is apparently in good shape again with real potential to strengthen the first team.
The Amorim factor
One of the first battles coach Rúben Amorim faced upon signing for Sporting in March was to convince the fans he was the right man for the job. This was no easy task considering his strong association with bitter cross-town rivals Benfica, where he spent most of his playing career, and the fact Sporting’s board deemed it appropriate to pay Braga 10 million euros to activate his release clause.
Fascinating chart in today's @abolapt showing world's biggest "transfers" (buyout clauses paid) for managers. 6/11 are Portuguese coaches, Mourinho & BrendenRodgers appear twice on list. Rúben Amorim has been a head coach for 10 weeks, played 13 matches, but jumps in at number 3! pic.twitter.com/xjvbq1UthF— Tom Kundert (@PortuGoal1) March 4, 2020
The fee made Amorim the third most expensive “coach transfer” in football history, despite the fact he had only a couple of months of top-flight experience. That said, despite his short tenure at Braga, Amorim’s record was nothing short of sensational, winning 10 out of 13 matches at the Quarry, including victories over Porto (twice), Sporting (twice) and Benfica, lifting the Portuguese League Cup in the process.
Maintaining that win percentage would be an unreasonable ask, and his time at Sporting has not been without blemish. Meek defeats to Porto and Benfica last season and an embarrassing Europa League capitulation against LASK Linz are lowlights of his tenure.
Amorim can argue, though, that only now has he had the time and the personnel to fully implement his ideas. A staunch believer in 3-4-3, Amorim has strong convictions about how he wants Sporting to play. It is still early to hail Amorim as the next big thing in Portuguese coaching but having largely won that initial battle of persuading the Sporting fans he is deserving of his position, the signs are positive.
Sporting’s untimely exit from the Europa League before the group stage began means the club are spared the hectic schedule of their rivals at the top of the table. With the condensed season leading to an even more packed fixture list than usual, Sporting undoubtedly have an advantage in being able to carefully prepare for and recover from matches: a logistical impossibility for Benfica, Porto and Braga. This is not to mention the significantly improved chances of avoiding injuries and mental fatigue compared to the other title contenders.
Benfica and Porto have won the last 18 titles in Portugal. The utter dominance of the duopoly in relation to the rest of the league can also be illustrated by the number of league defeats suffered by the champions in each of the last ten seasons (since 2009/10, Benfica 5 times champions, Porto 5 times champions): 2, 0, 1, 0, 2, 3, 4, 2, 2, 3, 4.
Early indications are that this season is set to break the mould. With just seven matches played, Benfica and Porto have each been beaten twice – and none of the losses came against each other. When the perennial title contenders crashed to comprehensive defeats in jornada 6, it was the first time both Benfica and Porto had lost and conceded three goals in the same round of Liga matches for 70 years.
1.ª divisão (HT)— Rui Miguel Tovar (@ruimtovar) November 3, 2020
Jornada com derrotas chapa 3 de FCP e SLB
VFC 3:0 💙
VSC 3:1 ❤️
(25.552 dias depois)
PF 3:2 💙
BOA 3:0 ❤️
Despite spending big, Benfica’s defensive problems have been laid bare for all to see, the Eagles conceding 9 goals in their last 3 matches. Porto also brought in a raft of newcomers in the close season, but coach Sérgio Conceição has thus far failed to integrate them and appears a long way from establishing his preferred starting XI.
Obstacles to success
For now, all is rosy in the Alvalade garden, but the potential for setbacks cannot be ignored. The lack of squad depth must be worrisome for Amorim. In a number of positions the drop-off in quality should injuries occur is glaringly obvious.
A huge improvement in Sporting’s play this season has come about due to the dynamism offered by wingbacks Porro and Mendes, the sturdy foundation at the base of midfield granted by Palhinha, the goals and assists of Pedro Gonçalves and the class imprinted in every action taken by João Mário. If any of these five key players get injured, it is difficult to imagine their deputies providing the same output. That is not to mention Andraz Sporar, who although not an elite striker, has shown his attributes are crucial and are unmatched in the squad. Amorim’s instruction to the board to go all-out to purchase Braga No.9 Paulinho was well documented, and the failure to land the Portugal striker may yet prove costly for Sporting.
Addressing the issue of squad depth in the January transfer window could well be the difference between a sustained title challenge or another finish looking up at their rivals. The problems currently afflicting Benfica and Porto can to some degree be put down to the lack of a proper preseason to mould much-changed squads into cohesive units, and Jorge Jesus and Sérgio Conceição will surely vastly improve their teams in the near future.
After winning two titles at the turn of the millennium, Sporting remained competitive for several of the following years, often starting seasons strongly. The running joke among Benfica and Porto fans was: “Sporting come down with the Christmas lights”. Sadly for fans of the Green and Whites, it was usually true.
However, after a traumatic few years when the Lions were not even at the races (bar 2015/16), this iteration of Sporting Clube de Portugal appears ready to fight to be national champions. Only time will tell if Amorim’s team are genuine contenders, but the evidence so far and the factors in their favour suggest this particular title tilt will be different.
by Tom Kundert