PortuGOAL’s series of articles analysing some of the lesser known Liga NOS clubs in depth has proven extremely popular.

Tiago Estêvão continues to cast his expert eye over the non Big Three sides in Portugal, and today’s offering is an examination of Vitória de Setúbal.

The fact Vitória are one of only two top-flight clubs outside of Benfica, Sporting and Porto who haven’t parted ways with their coach during the course of 2016/17 illustrates it’s been a tranquil and positive year for the ‘Sadinos’. Here’s how José Couceiro has achieved it.


After winning the Portuguese cup in 2005 and also grabbing the first ever edition of the League Cup, there’s not a year in which Vitoria FC – commonly known as Vitoria de Setubal – supporters don’t think they can surprise the country yet again. Whether with a cup run or a surprising fight for a European position, every team of this level secretly hopes for more than just another season trying to beat the drop.

That said, after last year finishing 15th in the league with 30 points – União da Madeira went down as 17th with 29 points – Couceiro was brought in as someone who knows the club very well with the sole purpose of having a safe season. Semedo and Suk’s departures half way through last season had never really been compensated for and André Horta’s move to Benfica would obviously make an impact as well. That said, the summer was productive and well planned, much like the season as a whole has been.

For a few weeks, I believed they could run for a European spot but a series of bad results has knocked them down to 12th now. But after 26 matches, Couceiro’s men have the 30 points that allow them to survive last term, so now they only have to look forward to the next 8 matches, looking to finish as high as possible, Even though Maritimo are 9 points away in the last Europa League berth, you never know…

Couceiro underrated

Either way, we need to give this team all the praise for keeping Couceiro if not for anything else. Barring the big three and Vitória Guimarães, Vitoria is the only team in the league to have retained their manager since the summer, showing not only trust in someone as a professional but also in his and his teams’s plans for the season that were created in the summer. In a country where club boards are generally clueless about football, Vitória is a fortunate exception in an unfortunate situation. Couceiro’s ability to see beyond age and experience, but to evaluate and give chances to quality instead is important for every player who is a part of his team and is one of the reasons why I consider him to be underrated by the majority.

Future Portugal goalkeeper?

Much like three other teams already covered here – Maritimo, Chaves and Belenenses – Vitoria’s solid season has been built on a very solid defensive foundation. So much so that they have the seventh best defensive record in the league, tied with Chaves, and only behind the aforementioned duo and the big four. Fighting against the tendency of having experienced goalkeepers in between the sticks, Bruno Varela arrived from Benfica to have his first season in the league. Turning 23 this year, Varela has been a fantastic pick up on a free who quickly showed his quality when they stopped Benfica away early in the season. Great reflexes, agile and with the capacity to step up in the big matches, as witnessed both against the big teams in the league and in the Olympics last summer. The only ‘but’ when it comes to the youngster has to do with him staying injury-free. He has a contract until 2021 but with his value on the rise there are already clubs on the lookout, especially with him becoming more and more consistent as weeks go by. Just last week he was called up by Fernando Santos in place of the injured Anthony Lopes for the national team, which was a much-deserved prize in my eyes.

Frederico Venâncio, team captain at 24, has already accumulated 125 matches for the Setúbal side and is becoming more and more of a leader as time goes by. Fábio Cardoso arrived in the summer from Benfica on a similar deal to Varela’s. This duo have been the most common pairing, making an impact at both ends of the field. While their 5.3 and 5.5 clearances per match jump to sight right away, both in the league’s top ten for that stat, together they have 3 goals and 3 assists, showing their major impact in offensive set-pieces. Their high amount of clearances reflects a side that is sometimes forced to sit deep and absorb pressure. The three goals all came from Venâncio, whose has a substantially greater aerial presence than Cardoso. The ex-Benfica defender is known for his great positional awareness that earns him 3 interceptions per match (top 10 in the league) and only 1 yellow card so far.

Vasco Fernandes was yet another summer arrival on a free that has played centre-back this season, but with the departure of André Geraldes in mid-season, he has mainly been filling at right-back as of late. Clearly lacking the offensive output the Sporting loanee brought to the table, Vasco is very reliable defensively and isn’t slow. Arnold, originally a winger, has been tested in the position but the more reliable option tends to be picked more often in these cases.

Mr Reliable  

On the left side of defence, we find Vitória’s best player and definitely one of the league’s best full-backs overall. If Nuno Pinto wasn’t turning 31 this summer, I’m sure he’d have a ton of teams from the major European leagues knocking on his door in the summer. A very solid 2 tackles and 3 interceptions per game are allied by great stamina and offensive output. With 1.5 key passes per game, the same as Gelson Martins and Jonas, and getting fouled twice per match, again the same as Gelson, it’s on the left that Vitoria get the largest chunk of offensive support. The second most used player in the team, Pinto has made two assists so far in his final season in Setubal. His contract runs out in the summer and, since he refused to renew it, the Portuguese full-back must already have a juicy contract lined up somewhere. Great for him, but bad for Vitoria, who’ll lose a reliable asset.


Talking Tactics

DEFENCE: Defending narrow and with a lot of bodies in their own half/box, Vitoria’s 4-2-3-1 turns into almost a 5-4-1 diamond narrow 5-3-2 while defending. The DM, in this case Agu, tucks in between the CBs, with Costinha free to pressure the opposition. Both wingers also defend narrow, forming what will be close to a diamond depending on Carvalho’s positioning slightly ahead. The wings are often free to be explored by the opposition so while the opponents do tend to get crosses in, VFC naturally has numerical advantage to clear the ball once it is crossed. In this case, Chaves’s Perdigão drifts inside but due to a lack of passing lanes that were blocked by the movements of the defending players, he ends up forced to shoot from outside the box.


ATTACK: Here is the move that led to the goal versus Porto. As usual, Nuno Pinto is pushing high, with Carvalho close to Edinho and Amaral arriving in the centre of the box as well. As soon as the cross is played in, Edinho drags the CB with his movement and Carvalho is able to attack the now open space.



In Couceiro’s 4-2-3-1, he tends to deploy one strong defensive midfielder and the manager was lucky enough to be able to pick from two. Fábio Pacheco was probably Vitoria’s best player last season and has been referenced here by me on the website already. He was the one who started the season and did so very well but an injury allowed Mikel Agu, Nigerian Porto loanee to prosper in his place. Rare were the moments in which both players played together in midfield due to coagulating a lot of the team’s ball circulation; they’re both better as lone DM’s and rare are the teams that play with more than one DM anyway.

Their purpose is clear: getting the ball back, stopping opposition build-ups and counters, and they’re pretty similar in what they do. With a combined average of 7.1 Tackles + Interceptions PG for Pacheco and 6.2 for Agu they show their similarities in what is the standout of their game. Both are in the league’s top 5 for Tackles PG and Pacheco is in the league’s top 10 for Interceptions. They position themselves identically and even their stats show that they are very analogous, Fábio numbers just slightly (literally by fractions) better. The only factor that I find important to point out has to do with Fábio’s reliability passing-wise, seeing as he complements the destructive defensive job better involving himself in the build-up with more quality than Agu: the Portuguese’s experience and superior technicality is shown when you see he makes around 5 inaccurate passes PG, while Agu misses over 8.

Costinha’s stunning progress

Costinha was chosen to fill in the shoes of the departed Ryan Gauld as the flexible central midfielder between the DM and the AM. At 24, not many players in the league have such a fascinating story, him being one of the two major starters for VFC who they picked up from the Campeonato de Portugal (3rd tier of Portuguese football) and having a stint in the Danish 2nd division before then. He has reached 60 Primeira Liga matches in only two seasons, showing his importance to the team and his evolution on the pitch shows his intelligence as a player. Arriving as a quick winger who could play the odd game as an attacking midfielder, Costinha has been adapted to a centre-mid role, doing a fine job. A solid passer of the ball, his speed helps him pressure the opposition like none of the other midfielders do, also allowing him to track back and help Agu/Pacheco. He plays a vitally important role in offensive transitions and the fact he is the League’s 7th most fouled player (2.5 PG) shows both that opposite teams have to often take him out of the equation before he starts a counter, but also how much he infiltrates into the team’s attacks coming from a deeper position.

Carvalho promise

On loan from Benfica, under Tottenham interest and hopefully pulling a ‘João Mário’ (i.e. flourishing after a loan spell at Vitória), João Carvalho hasn’t been amazing despite all the hype around him. The crafty attacking midfielder slotted into the side soon after the loan ensued in January and while his ability is clear – and his goal v Porto will leave all Benfiquistas rooting for him even more – I think he might just be forced onto another loan move next season. For someone that was always a number ten, always carrying the ball with his head high looking for passing lanes before anyone else, whose silky touch would control the ball no matter the situation, Carvalho hasn’t been getting enough of the ball to take over VFC’s attacking game. Forced to play closer to Edinho than he probably expected to due to the games’ circumstances, he has been seeing little of the ball (only averaging around 22 passes pg, 0.9 key passes pg) and appearing closer to the opposition’s goal, which, despite his shooting quality, isn’t where his influence should be in my eyes. He has to grow, has to adapt to his team and has to consistently up the level of his performances. Hopefully he’ll grow in confidence now and next year will be utilized in a manner that suits his strengths somewhere in the league.

The other player who made the jump from Portugal’s third division is João Amaral this summer. While more and more teams are looking at the lower leagues’ talents, as they should, I doubt many of them scout there quite as well as VFC does. João is another versatile attacker who showed his talents straight from his debut at Benfica’s Estádio da Luz. Able to play behind the striker, it’s on the wing that he has been preferred as of late. Constantly occupying interior spaces, Amaral brings technique and sharp movement on and off the ball. His 1.6 key passes per match are in the league’s top 10 alongside Bryan Ruiz and ahead of Jonas’s 1.5, for example. His high-risk, high-reward passes justify his slightly low accuracy and when it comes to scoring he doesn’t do too bad for himself either. He is the team’s 2nd top scorer with 4 and the team’s 2nd player who shoots most often.

“Classic” winger Santos

On the other side we find the out-and-out winger in Nuno Santos. One of the few more ‘classic’ wingers playing in Portugal, Benfica-owned Santos has fallen under the radar for many, especially when compared to all the other loanees from the big Three. His crossing ability is outstanding and it’s in getting to the byline that he shines, a tireless worker who has become indispensable to the Vitoria eleven, but who also seems to be in need of another year out on loan before trying his luck at his parent club. His slight one-dimensionality might compromise his presence in Benfica’s 4-4-2 in a near future so he might as well keep on striving for game time elsewhere.

Golden oldies

Up top, it’s experience that contrasts with the youth. Edinho, at 34, has been leading the line since winning the starting spot in December and has bagged 5 goals since then. The team’s top performer in December and January, when Vitoria were in their best run of form, the Portuguese international has petered out slightly as of late, much like the team’s results. A good finisher whether it be with his feet or head, the bulky forward is a threat from outside the box as well, although his influence in every other stage of the game is minor – his 10.2 passes per game is the 10th worse in the league for example – and his slow decline will result in a smaller and smaller defensive contribution over time, which consequently will require the midfield trio behind him to cover even more ground. That said, Albert Meyong is an even more advanced state of decline at 36, and didn’t do much in his couple of starts and the more versatile Thiago Santana just doesn’t impress me whatsoever, lacking a ton when it comes to end product in every phase. This position will definitely need to be revised by the team in the summer.

Like in many of the other smaller teams, there’s a lack of options within Vitoria’s squad, barring the defensive mid situation and perhaps the centre-back depth earlier in the season. Zé Manuel, on loan from Porto, doesn’t offer as  much as the other wingers do and rarely makes much of an impact from the bench (a questionable buy by FC Porto), while someone like Bonilha, picked up from Nacional in the summer, has done very well against the big teams helping out the DM, but is rarely picked in other situations.

Big-match mentality

But talking matches versus the big teams, no other ‘small’ side has done as well against the trio of title candidates, with Couceiro’s organization shining through in a record of 1 Win, 3 Draws and 1 Defeat in the Liga NOS, with Vitória yet to host Sporting in the league. The Lions are the only team that defeated them, at Alvalade, but Vitória knocked Sporting out the League Cup at the Bonfim.

While they do have 48% of their goals coming from set-pieces (including penalties), they don’t rely on them nearly as much as other sides covered in this series. The create most of their goals through combinations of their wingers with their target man and supporting movements from their attacking full-back on the left-hand side. VFC do not create only from quick counters, they are actually 6th in the league in average possession (although with a big difference to Braga in 5th) and 7th for passing accuracy. This combined with their low amount of dribbles per game, show a more position oriented attacking philosophy, especially on the left, as on the right Amaral has the license to drift, which is why we also see a bigger portion of the team’s shots coming from him.

Defensively, as I mentioned earlier, they are sometimes forced to absorb pressure, and despite their high amount of interceptions (4th best team-average in the league), they don’t do a good enough job stopping the opponents from actually shooting – only Estoril and Arouca concede more shots – although a large portion of these comes from outside the 18-yard box.

by Tiago Estêvão

Related: In-depth team analysis - Boavista

Related: In-depth team analysis - Chaves

Related: In-depth team analysis - Vitória de Guimarães

Related: In-depth team analysis - Marítimo

Related: In-depth team analysis - Belenenses

Related: In-depth team analysis - Nacional da Madeira


Comments (1)

  1. Val

Fantastic again Tiago.

This team should be doing better than they are. Considering their statistics and players they should be fighting Guimaraes for fifth but the last six games have been a disaster. They haven't won since January 17th and in...

Fantastic again Tiago.

This team should be doing better than they are. Considering their statistics and players they should be fighting Guimaraes for fifth but the last six games have been a disaster. They haven't won since January 17th and in the seven following games they have scored five goals. I dont know what happened but they need to get this ship righted and play every match as if they are playing the top three clubs.

A consistent theme in Portugal this season is mid table clubs looking like Atletico Madrid vs the top three then they look like the sub 8 year olds from Peniche (not knocking Peniche just wanted a shout out to the Penicheiros!) vs the rest of the league.

Hoping they finish strongly.

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"Is this squad stronger than the Euro 2016 squad? That's impossible to say. What I can say is that I'm as confident in this squad as I was for the Euro."

Fernando Santos
(Portugal coach after announcing the Seleção squad for World Cup 2018)