With the start of the new Primeira Liga season now less than two weeks away, clubs are finishing their preparations for the new season. PortugalFutbol.net’s own FC Porto expert and creator of TripeiroNation, Mitchell Rua gives some extensive insight into what we can expect from the Dragons this season.
Work us through Porto’s transfer activity so far this summer. Any big name arrivals/departures?
Having lost the Primeira Liga in the last two Primeira Liga seasons to SL Benfica, heavy investment has followed after the supposed end of FC Porto’s perceived hegemony in Portuguese football, O Mística do Dragão (The Mystique of the Dragon).
Undoubtedly, out of Portugal’s traditional Big Three, Porto has made the biggest splash this summer, dishing out €20M (a Portuguese transfer record) for much touted Marseille defensive midfield stalwart Giannelli Imbula.
Complementarily, Porto has arguably made the highest profile signing in Portuguese footballing history, signing on Iker Casillas for two years from Real Madrid. Putting his signature on a two-year contract, with an option for another season at the Dragão, the former Castilian skipper will fill the void left by Fabiano (on loan at Fenerbahçe).
Maxi Pereira has similarly made headlines after his move to the north, joining as a free agent after eight seasons with Benfica. The Uruguayan takes over the right-back slot and No.2 jersey donned by his predecessor Danilo, who moved to Real Madrid for a reported €31.5M.
The likes of Alberto Bueno (free), the highly controversial free agent Pablo Dani Osvaldo, former left-back Aly Cissokho (on loan from Aston Villa), Sergio Oliveira, André André and Danilo Pereira (all undisclosed) have put pen to paper on deals, adding more depth and variety to the Dragons’ squad.
Going the other way, Casemiro has returned to Real Madrid after his loan spell, earning Pinto da Costa €7.5M as Florentino Pérez exercised his right to resign the midfield lynchpin.
From the Bernabéu to cross-town rivals Atlético Madrid, Jackson Martinez left the Os Tripeiros for Simeone’s charges, along with Primeira Liga Young Player of the Season, Oliver Torres, replenishing Porto’s coffers by a generous amount equal to €35M.
The ongoing saga that was Ricardo Quaresma and Lopetegui’s tumultuous relationships has been put to bed, as O Cigano has rejoined former club Beşiktaş, with Porto earning €1.2M from the deal. This has seen Varela join the squad as his replacement after loans at West Brom and Parma last season.
Last season was Julen Lopetegui’s first at Porto. Going into his second season, what can we expect from Lopetegui? Can you predict a starting eleven?
After a season that many argued was taken lightly by Julen Lopetegui, with Jorge Jesus’ Benfica coming out on top in both editions of O Classico; Porto barely made a whimper of contention when it counted in a title race that many expected them to take by the scruff of the neck.
Lopetegui has looked to emulate a game reminiscent of Barcelona’s Tiki Taka: a high possession, high pressure game. The latter is an area that has been carped by pundits and analysts, as Casemiro’s ineptitude as the sole midfield anchor and Herrera’s dearth defensively as the No. 8 were highlighted.
In this way, the side’s structure has been experimented with this preseason, specifically in the centre of the pitch. Investment in a host of names, whose defensive aptitude either as a No. 6 or ball carrying No. 8, in the form of André André, Sergio Oliveira, Danilo Pereira and Giannelli Imbula has seen Lopetegui experiment with a 4-2-3-1/4-2-1-3 against the likes of Valencia and Stoke City, amongst others.
By the same token, the likes of Brahimi and Tello, who are expected to start on the flanks, would be given greater freedom, as well both Hector Herrera and Alberto Bueno, with the latter pinned to play as Lopetegui’s No. 10 or centre-forward behind the striker.
This move towards a midfield base of two deeper lying midfielders would almost certainly include Imbula, who has mostly featured as No.8 in midfield with a tendency to play close to the No.6, although with Herrera back in the fold, could find himself at Porto’s definitive midfield lynchpin.
FC Porto’s predicted starting eleven for the 2015/16 season
Nevertheless, a system with two more defensive-minded midfielders would likely be implemented against stronger opposition, both domestically and in Europe, as Lopetegui lacked a Plan B last season. His atypical 4-3-3 should feature predominately, although with a greater defensive base than last season.
Just as a recap, how did Porto finish last season? What are the expectations this season?
Porto finished in 2nd place for a consecutive season as Benfica triumphed again, a feat that had not been achieved in over 30 years. A strong showing in the UEFA Champions League, where the Dragons went undefeated before falling to Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals, remunerated domestic shortfalls after being knocked out early in the Taça de Portugal and falling to Marítimo in the semi-finals of the Taça da Liga (League Cup).
Having arguably lost their three best performers last season in the form of Jackson Martinez, Oliver Torres and Danilo, Porto will expectedly undergo a period of transition in the early season. Nevertheless, adept signings and needed depth in all positons, particularly in midfield, has placed them as firm favorites for the title and a strong European campaign with Lopetegui being one season the wiser.
Who will Porto’s danger men/most important players be this season?
Arguably, Porto’s difference maker this season could well be Giannelli Imbula. With Casemiro and Herrera struggling last season to stamp his authority defensively, the tools that the Frenchman brings to the table, either at the No.6 or No.8, must not be taken for granted.
The striker is the one player who can turn an imminent defeat into three-points at the bat of an eyelid. Jackson Martinez was that player, and with his exit Lopetegui has looked to his replacement, and a number of names have been mentioned. Vincent Aboubakar, Pablo Dani Osvaldo and André Silva are all in contention, granting that the former two lead the race for the No.9 spot. Whoever takes the Colombian’s mantle will arguably make or break Porto’s title credentials.
Last season’s revelation, Yacine Brahimi (albeit mostly limited to Europe), will provide goals, assists and a threat from any dead ball situation. Captain and Porto mainstay Maicon will need to build on last season’s defensive fragilities as he leads the back four; alongside Iker Casillas, whose undoubted experience on the big stage could make the difference in the big ties that saw Fabiano play the proverbial deer in headlights.
The transfer window will be open until September 1st. Will Porto dip into the transfer market further?
Porto has already dipped into the transfer market extensively, having already covered the departures of some big names. If there was a position of fragility, whether it is in terms of personnel or depth, it would have to be at the No. 10 position.
Although traditionally a striker or centre-forward, Alberto Bueno has been drafted in as Porto’s ‘creative outlet.’ Looking the part in preseason, the Spaniard looks largely undisputed, with a dearth of talent who are apt at the No. 10 role.
Irrespective of that, the likes of Oliver Torres, Lucas Lima, Bernard and Braga’s Rafa have all been targeted as contenders, although a move looks unlikely for all of them.
Are there any young talents who have a chance at playing time this season?
Porto’s golden boy and fan favorite Ruben Neves will be looking to build on a successful last campaign where he featured predominately off the bench. A dream debut where he scored his first goal for Os Dragões, the Olival graduate’s path to the starting eleven was blocked by Casemiro. The likes of Danilo Pereira, Imbula and André André will provide even stiffer competition, but Neves has already earmarked by Lopetegui as a crucial squad member and contender for the No. 6 spot.
Congruently, U20 FIFA World Cup superstar and cited future Portugal No. 9 André Silva has impressed, scoring a brace in preseason having been picked ahead of Gonçalo Paciência who’s been loaned out to Académica de Coimbra. Also, Chilean youngster Igor Lichnovsky will have his opportunities as Porto’s 4th choice centre-back after Diego Reyes was loaned out to Real Sociedad.
Final league prediction.
There is no reason that Futebol Clube do Porto will not finish first. On paper, they not only have the superior eleven, but also the strongest squad, and, in this writer’s opinion, one with greater depth and quality than last season.
Massive overhauls and changes in personnel, as well as the managerial go-around that is Portuguese football, has seen Benfica and Sporting, as well as Braga and Guimaraes, with a lot of work to do.
Porto are more settled, have recruited well with a superfluity of options in every position. Quality football and trophies will be at a premium this season.