Porto juggernaut could lose key components before next season
Under young coach Andre Villas Boas, Porto has been dominant this season
Villas Boas deploys an attack-minded 4-3-3 that relies on overlapping fullbacks
Porto's stars are coveted by other clubs and it may prove hard to keep them
Already the vultures are hovering. Porto will be back in the Champions League next season, but the problem is that it is unlikely to be this Porto, the side that has dropped just four points in the league all season, and swept all before it in Europe.
Watching the 5-1 demolition of Villarreal in the Europa League last week -- a Villarreal side that lies fourth in Spain -- it was impossible not to wonder how Andre Villas Boas' side might have fared in the Champions League, to wonder whether it could have repeated the achievement of Jose Mourinho's 2004 Porto vintage and broken the hegemony of the big four European leagues (since Ajax's last success in 1995, all but one Champions League has been won by a side from England, Spain, Italy or Germany; Porto's win over Monaco in 2004 is the only occasion since 1996, when Ajax lost to Juventus, that a team from outside the big four has even reached the final).
Mourinho, of course, won the UEFA Cup in 2003, but his side never quite captured the European imagination as Villas Boas' team has. The only major loss from Mourinho's UEFA Cup side before it embarked on its successful Champions League campaign was Helder Postiga, the forward who joined Tottenham and managed just nine starts and one goal before returning to Portugal. If this Porto suffers similarly minimal damage it can count itself very fortunate; the biggest danger, perhaps, is the manager leaving. At 33, Villas Boas is understandably seen as standing at the forefront of a new generation of young coaches; perhaps significantly, he has no playing background. Increasingly, it seems, management is being seen -- as it logically is -- as a separate career from playing.
That is just one of the many similarities with Mourinho, in whose shadow Villas Boas seems condemned to live, at least until they have had some cataclysmic pupil versus master confrontation. Villas Boas even plays the classic 4-3-3 favored by Mourinho at Chelsea. That said, when he was at Porto, Mourinho often used a diamond -- in fact, he started out at Chelsea using a diamond before adapting -- and, while he used a 4-3-3, it tended to be as an alternative.
One 4-3-3, of course, can be very different from another, and Villas Boas' variant is very modern. Mourinho at Chelsea kept his fullbacks deep and his wingers wide, using them mainly -- although not exclusively -- as providers for Didier Drogba. In Hulk, this Porto has a center forward who, in his pace, upper body strength and directness, in some ways resembles the younger Drogba, but Villas Boas does not even play him as a center forward, preferring him cutting in from the right.
That works because of the other great difference between Villas Boas's 4-3-3 and that of Mourinho at Chelsea: the fullbacks. Villas Boas, as is the modern way, prefers his fullbacks, although starting from a back four, to operate effectively as wingbacks. The Uruguyan Alvaro Pereira on the left tends to be the more attacking, but on the right the Romanian Ionut Sapunaru is also capable of getting forward, overlapping the wide forwards.
Against Villarreal last week, Sapunaru and Pereira were so advanced they were often ahead of the midfield three, with the holding midfielder Fernando dropping so deep the formation often resembled a 3-4-3. The midfield anchor becoming a third center back is something Sergio Busquets sometimes does for Barcelona -- a way for dominant sides to change the angle of attack when playing sides that defend deep and in numbers against them.
Joao Moutinho is one of those players who seems to have been linked with transfers to England and Spain for years, but the only move he's made is from Sporting to Porto. Remarkably, despite having racked up 185 starts in the Portuguese league he's still only 24, a player intelligent enough to adjust his position according to the state of the game. Last Thursday he noticeably shifted deeper at halftime to play almost alongside Fernando, giving Fredy Guarin, the third midfielder, more license to push forward from midfield. Guarin has played deeper this season, with the former River Plate midfielder Fernando Belluschi in the more advanced role; Villas Boas has a squad to draw on.
Porto had played with a very high line in the first half, and had looked vulnerable to the pace of Giuseppe Rossi; as the back four shifted deeper, Moutinho's movement backward prevented Fernando being outnumbered. Some coaches excel at preparation, but struggle to change a game once it is under way; Villas Boas, although his side was unfortunate to be 1-0 down, had the ruthlessness to make changes at halftime and was rewarded with five second-half goals; in that, again, he resembles Mourinho, who is probably the greatest there is at changing the momentum of a game that seems to be going against his side.
The real strength of Villas Boas' Porto is the forward line, and particularly Hulk and Falcao. Hulk is a powerful runner who on his day is all but unplayable, a rare combination of physique and technique. Falcao, who scored four against Villarreal, is perhaps subtler, but is also lightning fast, and can finish with either foot. As Villarreal tired last Thursday, his interchanges with Hulk almost seemed cruel, devastating bursts of passing played at a pace that would have been very difficult to defend even by a fresh side at the beginning of a game; for a Villarreal team looking generally fatigued and having suffered a second-half pummeling, it was impossible.
Porto was sensational in that second half, attacking in relentless waves -- which hints Villas Boas may have a more offensive outlook than Mourinho. Then again, maybe he is able to. If there is a question-mark against Villas Boas, it is in how he handles games against top opponents, how he deals with adversity. In Portugal this season his side has been able to steamroller lesser opponents, and even to look a class above the likes of Benfica and Sporting. It has been a similar story in the Europa League: CSKA, Spartak, Sevilla and Villarreal are good, but they aren't the elite.
How would this Porto fare against the real giants? We just don't know. It would be nice to believe that next season we would find out, but the chances are that by then, Porto will already be a diminished team on conclusion of the summer transfer market.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.