Sergio Conceição: more than just a coach

Whilst planning out what I would write about in this blog, the first thing that came to my mind was to dedicate my first full post to Sérgio Conceição. He is more than just a coach; he is a true legend of this club and deserves the appropriate recognition. However, the match against Monaco took precedence so I started there. But I think it’s really important to stress how amazing of a job he has done and why he is absolutely integral to this team’s success, so here we go.

Before we look at each season in more detail, it’s important to understand the context of his arrival. Sérgio came to a club that had been decimated financially as a result of some horrible mismanagement (the majority of the culprits are still there) and therefore was under immense pressure not to spend any money in the transfer market whilst having to compete with a squad full of past flops and failed loan deals. It was a daunting task.

In addition, the fanbase had been mostly alienated in previous seasons, due to underwhelming coaching hires and below par football. But especially after seeing Benfica win 4 leagues in a row (nothing hurts more than seeing your main rival win consistently) and quite clearly asserting their dominance both financially (with several big money deals) and in the media (you can say it doesn’t matter what the biased newspapers write about, but the truth is players and fans read it and a repeated lie slowly becomes truth). The odds were stacked against Sérgio from the beginning.

Yet, he persevered. Winning 3 leagues in 5 years, given the hurdles he has faced and continues to face, is outstanding. Porto has had other great coaches that had great achievements, like Sir Bobby Robson, Artur Jorge, José Mourinho or André Villas-Boas, but Sérgio is in his own category with José Maria Pedroto, a true Porto legend who epitomises the values of this club and has helped resurrect a club that looked like it was on the verge of collapse. It may be unrealistic, but I hope he stays for many years. I believe I speak for all FC Porto fans when I say that Sérgio Conceição deserves a statue in our museum, when he eventually departs.

Sérgio Conceição, a true FC Porto legend.

2017/18 Season

Porto came into this season under extreme financial pressure and the only signing made was Vaná, a back-up goalkeeper. This was despite the sales of André Silva (40m€, AC Milan) – the top scorer from the season prior, and Ruben Neves (18m€, Wolverhampton) –  one of the most promising youngsters in the squad. I went into the season with very low expectations and I’m sure most other Porto fans did too.

The first official match of the season was against Estoril – a 4-0 win at home; the line-up was: Casillas, Ricardo Pereira, Felipe, Marcano, Alex Telles, Danilo, Oliver Torres, Tecatito Corona, Brahimi, Soares, Aboubakar, in a 4x1x3x2 formation. On paper, this looks like a pretty good line-up, but let’s remember: Casillas was coming off a pretty average debut season under Lopetegui, Ricardo played very well for Nice on loan the season before, but was still unproven as a right-back, Oliver was still trying to find his footing, Corona still looked very raw and Aboubakar was coming back from a loan deal at Besiktas that wasn’t overly successful (12 goals from 28 league games).

Yet, we started seeing signs of an idea building – a team that presses very high up the pitch to win the ball back in dangerous areas, but once the opponent evades the first line of pressing, the team drops back to defend and then quickly tries to hit the opponent on the counter-attack with (mostly) long passes to the back of the defence. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was very effective. It resulted in 22 wins and 3 draws in the League, until the first loss on 11 March 2018. Pretty good.

This included Aboubakar completely disappearing after a bristling start, the emergence of Moussa Marega (a bruising forward with below average technical ability, but very high work rate, raw strength and speed), the season-ending injury to Danilo (a key player), the resurgence of Sérgio Oliveira after several seasons away, the benching of Iker Casillas for unknown reasons during a key stretch and an awful 5-0 loss at home in the Champions League against Liverpool, that could have crushed this team’s spirit. But it didn’t, and it all culminated in a win at Benfica’s stadium with 4 games to go to put us ahead by 2 points, through a last minute long range shot from Herrera. It was poetic. Winning that league, against all odds and with that squad, was probably one of the greatest achievements of all time.

Herrera celebrating Porto’s winning goal against Benfica.

2018/19 Season

Immediately after what was an unbelievable achievement, the 2018/19 season was marked by massive underachievement, given the circumstances. Porto went into the season rightly as the favourite and there hadn’t been big changes to the squad – Ricardo and Dalot left to Leicester and Man Utd (for 20m€ each), which weren’t unexpected given both had only a year left on their deals. The more surprising departure and the start of a terrible trend that stills persists, was Marcano leaving on a free transfer. The issue isn’t necessarily that Marcano was irreplaceable, but rather than the club let an important player run out his contract and leave for free. It’s really bad long-term planning and it continues to happen to this day.

To replace the departing players, Porto signed Chancel Mbemba (5m€, Newcastle) and Eder Militão (8m€, São Paulo), which ended up being two excellent signings. But a bunch of money was also spent on players that given zero return – the likes of Majeed Warris, João Pedro, Saidy Janko, Ewerthon or Paulinho. Combined, they have less than 15 first squad appearances and cost around 15m€. A terrible waste of resources.

I called this season the biggest underachievement of Sérgio’s Porto coaching career, because Benfica weren’t the better team – it were individual mistakes and lack of a tactical plan B that really killed this team. Porto had become extremely reliant on four things:

  • Brahimi creating something out of nothing through sheer individual brilliance
  • Alex Telles’ ability to put balls in the box from the left
  • Marega’s deep runs to stretch the defence
  • Goals from set-pieces.

There wasn’t a particularly creative way of breaking down defences other than through force or ‘repeated blows’ until the opponents breaks. It often resulted in draws or 1-0 wins. You could see this wasn’t sustainable. But there were three key moments that defined the outcome of the season:

  • The signing of Pepe in January
  • Militão move to right-back and subsequent benching
  • The loss at home against Benfica

First off, I want to stress how much I admire Pepe, both as a person (a great leader and seems to be a really good guy) and as a player (a true warrior on the pitch, who is still going at almost 40 years of age, which is remarkable). But he joined us mildly unfit and took some time to find his footing. Also, because of how ‘big’ he was, you could kind of sense there was some pressure for him to assume a starting role – he wouldn’t have returned without some kind of guarantee he would play, but that meant sacrificing Militão, who had played excellent up to that point. He had to move to right-back to make way for Pepe; this create two issues: it messed with a very strong centre-back partnership with Felipe and took away from our attacking prowess, given Militão, whilst strong technically for a defender, is not adept to providing width down the flank. Porto struggled with two draws from four matches with this new defence, which gave Benfica some hope.

Militão got taken out of the squad after the draw against Moreirense, for unknown reasons. Rumour has it he was out partying. I don’t believe that, I think he questioned the decision to move him to right-back and Sérgio didn’t like it. But that meant Wilson Manafá was inserted into the starting line-up at right-back – he had just been signed from Portimonense; he’s a decent player, but had a lot of defensive shortcomings and Porto paid the price. The third key moment of the season was the 2-1 loss at home against Benfica, in a game where Militão didn’t play and Benfica were marginally superior – in the end, they deserved to win. It was a gut wrenching defeat, because it meant Benfica moved into first place and you could feel they were on a role. Unsurprisingly, they never let go and won the League.

Benfica celebrating their key win in Porto.

2019/20 Season

After a shaky summer, with a sense that Sérgio Conceição didn’t have full backing from the fanbase, Porto went on to splurge in the transfer market to try and shore-up the squad. Around 60m€ were invested, but again, with mixed results; Mateus Uribe (10m€, Club América), Augustin Marchesin (8m€, Club América) and Luis Diaz (7m€, Junior Barranquilla) were hits, in particular the first two became immediate starters. But Zé Luis (10m€, Spartak Moscow), Renzo Saravia (6m€, Racing), Loum (8m€, Braga) and Shoya Nakajima (12m€, Portimonense) were flops, and that is really problematic for a team in financial distress, when more than half of your transfer budget goes to waste.

The trend of players departing for free saw chapter two, with Hector Herrera and Yacine Brahimi leaving the club, giving no financial return after a combined 12m€ investment. Again, this is very problematic. In addition, Felipe (20m€, Atlético Madrid), Oliver Torres (10m€, Sevilla) and Eder Militão (50m€, Real Madrid) also left the club.

After finishing in second place and due to some poor performance from Portuguese clubs in European competitions in recent years, Porto had to play a Champions League qualifier against the Russians from Krasnodar. After an important 1-0 away win in the first leg, Porto lost their first match of the season in the League, with a 2-1 defeat at Gil Vicente. A sign of things to come, because Porto then struggled mightily at home against Krasnodar in the second leg, and were down 3-0 within the first half hour. It was shocking. Sérgio sent on all his attacking talent in the second-half, but it wasn’t enough. Porto lost 3-2 and were eliminated from the Champions League qualifier. Absolutely brutal, not just for the motivational and reputational damage, but especially for the financial hole it created, due to the lack of Champions League money (the difference compared to the Europa League is staggering). For a club on the brink of financial ruin, this was very significant.

This was probably the closest we’ve been to Sérgio leaving the club – the dissatisfaction from the fanbase was palpable and would take several weeks to turn around. The situation in the League wasn’t going particularly well either, culminating in a 2-1 defeat against Braga in mid-January, creating a gulf of 10 points to league leaders Benfica. There were lots of rumours about Sérgio’s impending departure. I honestly thought that was it, there was no way Porto would comeback from that. But suddenly, something changed and Benfica started to drop of points (including a 3-2 defeat at Porto), which meant Porto were back in first place at the start of March. And then… Covid-19 happened, and football was shut down for three months.

Porto’s first game back was away at Famalicão, in front of an empty stadium and with the players looking a little unfit. Unsurprisingly, Porto lost that game. However, Benfica also lost their return from Covid game, and that seemed to give Porto a huge mental boost to take them home the rest of the way. Porto won the League with 82 points, the second lowest single season total of Sérgio’s tenure as a coach, but Benfica only scored 77 points. It was a relief to win the league in that fashion and especially important to deal a big blow to Benfica. On the other side of Lisbon however, something was brewing – a resurgent Sporting, under the stewardship of Ruben Amorim.

Celebrations of the 2020 Championship in a stadium with no fans.

2020/21 Season

This was a very weird season, as every single League game was played with no fans in the stands, and because last season ended so late, this season was very compressed, with a match every 4-5 days, especially in the second-half of the season once European competitions were out of the way. In the end, that really benefitted the eventual champions Sporting, as they got bounced out of the Europa League before it even started and that extra ‘freshness’ was key.

In terms of market dealings, this was a great example of poor planning and doing things last minute, with a bunch of deals happening on the last day (so players joined unfit and had little to no prep time). The big money deal was the sale of Fábio Silva to Wolves for 40m€, which I thought was a great deal for a non-key player. Unfortunately, we also saw others depart, namely: Alex Telles (15m€, Man Utd), Danilo (5m€ loan, with a mandatory purchase option of 15m€, PSG), Zé Luis (5m€, Lokomotiv Moscow) and Soares (5m€, Tianjin) – all of these (with the exception of Zé Luis) ended up being discount sales, given every player was on the last year of their respective deals, so either sell them on the cheap or lose them for free. Another instance of pretty poor squad management.

Most of the signings that year however, were on the money. We saw the likes of Mehdi Taremi (5m€, Rio Ave), Evanilson (8.5m€, Fluminense), Zaidu (4m€, Santa Clara), Toni Martinez (3.5m€, Famalicão) and Grujic (on loan, Liverpool) join the club and all of them having a relevant role that season. There were also some misses, namely Nanu (2m€, Maritimo), Malang Sarr (on loan, Chelsea) and Felipe Anderson (on loan, West Ham) who flopped – all of which were signed on the last day of the transfer market, which really says a lot.

The season didn’t get off to a good start. By match-day 6, Porto had already squandered 8 points and Sporting built a big lead. They didn’t let off. At some point, I thought it could still be possible, but there was a 5 game stretch in February where Porto drew 4 games, one of which against Sporting at home, and that was the end of it. Sporting took that 4 point lead and never looked back.

A couple of positives to take away from this season however, were the excellent Champions League campaign, almost beating the eventual winners Chelsea in the quarter-finals, and the evolution of a new football idea – one less reliant on physicality and more about link-up play between the midfield and the offense – Mehdi Taremi in particular was key in this transformation.

Porto struggled to break Sporting down in all matches of that season.

2021/2022 Season

This was by far the best season under Sérgio’s leadership, with a lot of records and streaks broken, including being undefeated for 50 League games, which is an astonishing record. If I’m honest, I wasn’t expecting this season to go as well as it did, especially due to the lack of impact signings, the departure of a few key players and the non-departure of others, who were clearly not interesting in staying any longer and ended up being distractions due to their lack of contribution on the pitch.

Looking at the leavers first, Moussa Marega joined the list of players who left on a free. Renzo Saravia’s contract was also terminated after 6 appearances for the club and several loans deals – talk about throwing money down the drain. Danilo’s transfer to PSG was also made permanent, which funded the signings of Pepê (15m€, Grémio) and Wendell (4m€, Leverkusen). Marko Grujic’s loan deal was also extended. The biggest problem however, happened January, when Luis Diaz was sold to Liverpool for 45m€. That must have felt like a massive punch in the gut for Sérgio, to lose his best player in the middle of the season for an amount that was, in my opinion, not reflective of the player’s true market value. Some of that money was used to bring in Galeno from Braga – a rather underwhelming replacement. Yet, Porto continued to win.

The most important aspect to takeaway from this season in my opinion, was the really high quality of the football played by this team in most games. It was by far the best product put on field in Sérgio’s era. Vitinha (unfortunately no longer a Porto player) was the key player in that transformation, by completely changing the way the midfield operated. Other players such as Fábio Vieira (in spurts), Mehdi Taremi (carrying on from last season) and Evanilson (for most of the year) also really elevated their games. The season culminated with Porto celebrating the championship at Benfica’s stadium, on a last minute Zaidu goal. Magical. It was also the highest point total in the history of the Portuguese Lead, at 91 points. What a season!

Porto players and staff celebrating winning the League at Benfica.

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