When Pedro Porro rattled home Sporting’s third of the night against German giants Borussia Dortmund on 24 November 2021, it was a moment of pure elation. With less than 10 minutes to go and now a 3-0 lead, it meant that the dream of qualifying for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League for only the second time in their history was on the verge of becoming reality. After a few agonising minutes of injury time, the final whistle blew and Sporting had done it, against all odds.
As well as Champions League success, Sporting are yet to lose a Primeira Liga game in 2021-22 at the time of writing and are level at the top with rivals FC Porto on 44 points.
Last season, the club defied every expectation to win their first league title since 2001-02, ending nearly two decades of anguish and hurt.
Just over a year before, Sporting, one of Portugal’s traditional Os Três Grandes or The Big Three, finished fourth in the league behind Porto, Benfica and Braga – only the fourth time they’d finished outside the top three in the 21st century. So just how has Rúben Amorim managed to transform Sporting’s fortunes and take them back to the top of Portuguese football over such a short period of time?
Let’s examine Amorim’s impact and the Sporting resurgence.
It cannot be understated just how much of a bad state Sporting were in prior to Amorim’s appointment.
They kicked off the 2019-20 season with a 5-0 drubbing in the Supertaça, a defeat which hurt even more because it came at the hands of bitter Lisbon rivals Benfica, a team that Sporting hadn’t finished above in the league for 11 consecutive seasons. There aren’t many worse ways to begin a domestic campaign than losing Portuguese football’s curtain-raiser by a five-goal margin against your city rivals.
The season kicked off, and after just five games and with only two wins on the board, manager Marcel Keizer was dismissed. His replacement was former Sporting U23 manager Leonel Pontes. However, he too was dismissed after just four league games without recording a single victory. It was only 27 September 2019 and amazingly Sporting were already looking for their third manager of the season. Silas took charge and steered the ship for 28 games, winning 17, drawing one but losing 10.
Three hundred and fifty kilometres north, SC Braga were having their own managerial troubles. Ricardo Sá Pinto was dismissed in December following a poor run of league form and a fresh-faced Rúben Amorim – then in charge of Braga B – was given his opportunity to manage the senior side at just 34 years old.
The former Portugal and Benfica midfielder took over, and his talent as a coach was instantly noticeable.
Braga were once again playing with a swagger and a confidence. From 17 January to 15 February 2020, Braga played Porto twice, Sporting twice and Benfica once – about as tough a string of fixtures as you can get in Portugal. The result? Braga won all five matches, including the Taça da Liga final versus Sporting. Amorim had quickly collected his first piece of silverware in his managerial career.
Sporting, and the rest of the league, quickly took note that there was something special about the young coach. Less than 10 days after Amorim’s Braga beat them at Estádio Municipal de Braga, he’d taken over as the new Sporting boss. Controversially, the Lions paid a whopping €15m to bring Amorim to Estádio José Alvalade – the third-highest release clause paid for a manager ever and a staggering figure for a Portuguese club to dish out. It was an even bigger risk given the fragmented relationship between the club’s board and their supporters, many of whom saw this decision to hire Amorim an example of reckless financial mismanagement.
Amorim, however, was concerned with only two things: uniting the club and winning football matches.
He presided over the final 11 league games of the Covid-19-interrupted 2019-20 season, winning six, drawing three and losing just twice. He continued to use a back three, just as he had at Braga, and like at his former club, it worked excellently. Despite his inexperience, it was Amorim who finished with the best points-per-game ratio out of the four managers who worked at Sporting that season (1.91).
For all the positivity Amorim had brought during his short spell at this point, losses to Porto and Benfica in the space of 10 days to end the season was an indication of just how far off Sporting were. It was abundantly clear for all to see that Sporting’s biggest obstacle was the squad itself – sorely lacking both in depth and quality.
A clear indication of just how poor Sporting’s squad had become was that their top goalscorer was Bruno Fernandes (eight goals), with the Portuguese star also their most creative player with seven assists. That’s fine under normal circumstances. It’s less ideal when the player had left the club midway through the campaign.
In contrast, Benfica finished the season with two players tied on 18 goals each (Carlos Vinícius and Pizzi), Braga’s Paulinho finished with 17 and Porto’s Moussa Marega scored 12, meaning Sporting were the only club out of the top four without a player who managed double figures in the league.
They were clearly in the weakest position out of Os Três Grandes, and their squad needed a serious revamp. One cost-effective way to get talent into the first team is to look to the academy.
Sporting have always been a club that have been able to produce fantastic youth products, including world class talent such as Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo. Under Amorim, those young talents have been allowed to shine.
Toward the end of the 2019-20 season, he handed out debuts to Matheus Nunes (21 years old), Eduardo Quaresma (18), Nuno Mendes (17), Joelson Fernandes (17) and Tiago Tomás (18). It was clear that Amorim was testing out the youth at his disposal, with an eye on which players could potentially contribute going into the new season.
Though the campaign was ultimately a disappointment for Sporting, they knew going into the following season they had a manager with enthusiasm, confidence and most importantly, a clear idea of how he wanted his teams to play.
2020-21 would turn out to be a truly remarkable one.
2020-21 and Beyond
In the summer leading up to the 2020-21 campaign, Amorim got to work bringing in quality players who he knew could operate in his favoured 3-4-3 formation, and players he could trust to help Sporting compete at the top of Portuguese football once more.
The club signed exciting young defender Pedro Porro on loan from Manchester City – a player tailor-made for the right-wing back position. Experienced central defender Zouhair Feddal arrived from Real Betis, Euro 2016 winner João Mário arrived on loan from Internazionale – a match made in heaven as Sporting sorely needed experience and intelligence in the middle of the park, while Mário arrived as a midfielder looking to reignite his career. They were able to partner him with João Palhinha, who, despite being a Sporting player, felt like a new signing. He had spent time at Moreirense, Belenenses and most recently at Braga on loan. During his time at Braga, he played for a short period under Amorim, so when the manager left Braga for Sporting, it was obvious Palhinha was once more going to be part of his plans.
Thirty-three-year-old goalkeeper Antonio Adán arrived from Atlético Madrid as a player with experience but also looking to prove himself and get back to the Real Betis form that prompted Atléti to snap him up. After spending the majority his time at Atlético as an unused substitute, Sporting was his chance to become No. 1 once more.
Sporting also looked to their own league for reinforcements, bringing in Bruno Tabata from Portimonense and former Benfica man Nuno Santos from Rio Ave. For all the smart signings Sporting made, they still needed a talisman. They needed someone to replace the gaping hole left by the departure of Bruno Fernandes, someone who Sporting could rely on in tough moments to provide a bit of magic, to break the lines, to get fans off their seat.
That someone was Pedro ‘Pote’ Gonçalves.
Pote had a solid first season back in Portugal with Famalicão the season before, following a stint at Wolves’ academy. He operated in a deeper role than we would see him take up at Sporting, often forming part of a three-man midfield. He was still able to manage seven goals and eight assists for the then-newly promoted side, a very respectable figure given where he was operating on the pitch. Amorim however, saw potential in Pote to play closer to goal and help fire his team toward glory.
For the 2020-21 season, Amorim deployed Pote as the right-sided attacker in a 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation, but with the width being provided by the marauding Pedro Porro, Pote was allowed the freedom to come infield and play closer to the central striker, allowing him to get on the scoresheet more frequently.
He found the back of the net a fantastic 23 times, finishing as the Primeira Liga’s top scorer. His goals contributed to 35% of Sporting’s total return – a tremendous contribution from a player in his first season as an out-and-out attacking player. His penchant for scoring extraordinary goals is highlighted by his expected goal overperformance in 2020-21: his 23 goals came from an xG total of just 11.6, overperforming by 11.4, which was more than any player across Portugal or the big five European leagues last season.
The season began, and after expected 2-0 away wins at Paços and Portimonense, Sporting’s first big test was on Matchday 3 with the visit of Porto to Lisbon. Sporting trailed 2-1 until Luciano Vietto popped up with an 87th-minute equaliser, with the match ending 2-2. Late goals would be something that Sporting supporters would get used to as the season went on, with Amorim’s men becoming renowned for vital late goals.
They scored a goal in the 90th minute or later in nine of their 34 matches in their title-winning season. Four of these goals were winners and one was an equaliser, meaning these five goals alone were worth nine points to Sporting.
Come the end of the season, 11 of Sporting’s 26 wins were won by a one-goal margin. That MD3 encounter with Porto and the 2-2 draw vs. Famalicão two months later would be the only two games in which Sporting conceded more than once in a match until April 2021 – an 18-game run where they either kept a clean sheet or conceded only once.
A week later they were at it again with another late, late show – Gonçalves popping up with an 81st-minute winner against Santa Clara. Sporting then embarked on an unbeaten run into the new year, with their next big clash coming against Benfica in February. The match-winner on this occasion? Midfield man Matheus Nunes, who popped up with a dramatic 92nd-minute winner to beat their city rivals 1-0.
Amorim was refusing to get carried away, but you could sense that there was something special about this team, about their character and desire to win.
Sporting continued on like this for the entire season, coming back when at times it didn’t look possible, grabbing late goals, keeping clean sheets and most importantly, winning games. Sporting finished the season with just one defeat: a 4-3 loss at the hands of Benfica just a week before the season finished. Sporting had lost their Invincibles crown, but the fans didn’t mind – they had secured their first Liga title in 19 years.
Defensively, Sporting were incredible throughout the season. Club captain Sebástian Coates was a warrior throughout, contributing at both ends of the pitch.
Playing at the heart of Amorim’s back three, Coates’ leadership, never-say-die attitude and defensive ability made him the perfect person to partner the young but super-talented Gonçalo Inácio. Coates finished the title-winning season as not only the highest-scoring defender in the competition (five goals), but he kept more clean sheets than any other defender (19) – statistics that helped him win the Liga Portugal best player award, something he thoroughly deserved.
Antonio Adán was the goalkeeper with the most clean sheets, with him keeping 19 of Sporting’s 20 across the league campaign. They conceded just 20 goals – nine fewer than the next best (Porto’s 29) and allowed their opponents a league-low 24.7 expected goals. Across the top ranked six leagues in Europe, this was the tightest defence for xG of all 116 teams, with an average of just 0.73 allowed per match.
How have Sporting changed for the better over the last two seasons compared to 2019-20? True, Amorim was in charge for the final 11 games of that poor campaign, but it wasn’t enough time to stamp his true playing style on the players at the club. 2019-20 saw Sporting average 6.6 high turnovers per game, but this has increased to 8.2 per game since 2020-21, with the Lisbon club trying to pressurise their opponents in their defensive third more often. This is backed up by Sporting’s average start distance of possessions on the pitch advancing by two metres on average since 2020-21.
Further evidence of Amorim’s work on improving Sporting can be found via the pressed sequences metric – these measures the number of sequences starting in their defensive third where the opposition has three or fewer passes, and the sequence ends in their own half. In 2019-20, Sporting averaged 11.6 per game in the Portuguese top-flight (11th best in the league), but since 2020-21 they have increased this to 15.8 (3rd best).
Improving on a Title-Winning Campaign
It is often said that the most difficult thing isn’t getting to the top, it’s staying there. In football this is no different. Sporting winning the title was a monumental moment for the club, but they knew going into the following season, both Porto and Benfica were going to up their levels, both in terms of squad quality and performances on the pitch. Sporting would also have to contend with the UEFA Champions League alongside domestic matters – a whole new task for Rúben Amorim.
João Mário, who was so instrumental for Sporting during their title-winning campaign, remarkably departed from his parent club Inter and returned to Lisbon, but not for Sporting, opting instead to join fierce rivals Benfica. Nuno Mendes, the flying left wing back who was given his chance by Amorim the season before and attracted the attention of some of the top European clubs in the process, left Sporting to join French giants Paris Saint-Germain on loan with an option to buy, with Pablo Sarabia coming the other way, joining Sporting on loan. Amorim himself reinforced the Sporting full back positions with the arrivals of Matheus Reis, Rúben Vinagre and Ricardo Esgaio.
Astonishingly, at the time of writing, Sporting are outperforming their title winning campaign. After 16 games of 2021-22, Sporting have won 14, drawn twice and are yet to lose. Compare this to this same point of their title-winning 2020-21 campaign, they’d won 13, drawn three and were unbeaten.
Remarkably, they’ve managed to improve defensively also, having only conceded seven goals all season, two goals fewer than they had conceded from 16 matches in 2020-21. Adán has already kept 10 clean sheets from the first 16 games, and it’s not unfeasible that he could keep over 20 in the league this time around.
Their start to the season is even more remarkable when you factor in some of the fixtures they have already played, beating Braga away and drawing at home with title rivals Porto. However, the standout so far this season was their 3-1 win over rivals Benfica at the Estádio da Luz – the place where they lost their Invincibles crown the season before.
Matheus Nunes was in fantastic form; providing both a goal and an assist, and it was a match in which Sporting had to be disciplined and use all of their experience. Benfica dominated the ball with a huge 67% possession, but this was something Amorim was happy to concede. Sporting instead chose to let Benfica move up the pitch with the ball, always remaining switched on and ready to capitalise on a poor pass or a loose touch and spring a counter attack against Benfica’s high defensive line. It worked like a dream. Despite Benfica’s dominance in possession, Sporting limited them to just three shots on target compared to Sporting’s five. Sporting had more attempts overall too with 14 compared to Benfica’s 11.
Fast forward to today, and Sporting are into the last 16 of the Champions League, where they will face Manchester City. They are unbeaten in the Primeira Liga. They are into the quarter-finals of the Taça de Portugal, and they are in the final four of the Taça da Liga. It is incredible to think of the position Sporting are in now compared to where they were prior to Amorim taking over. They are in a very good position to achieve a domestic treble and are competing with Europe’s elite in its premier club competition.
Amorim has established himself as a top manager, and with each passing game, whether it be domestically or in Europe, the Portuguese coach is only furthering his reputation. He has brought the good times back to the Alvalade, and Sporting supporters will be hoping that Amorim’s work to change the culture at Sporting, to raise the expectations and his overall impact on the club, will remain intact long after he has moved on.
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