Braga’s Push to Break the Big Three Hegemony in Portugal
Widely considered to be the fourth club in a country dominated by ‘The Big Three’, SC Braga might just be on the cusp of breaking the hegemony in Portuguese football. Their excellent start to 2022-23 certainly has fans on the edge of their seats…
SC Braga, under the tutelage of their new manager Artur Jorge, have started the season in spectacular form, both domestically and in European competition. Since drawing on the opening day of the Primeira Liga season at home to Sporting CP, Braga have gone on to win every single match – six in league, two in UEFA Europa League, scoring goals aplenty and attracting plaudits both in Portugal and across Europe for their breathtaking performances.
Portugal’s Fourth Club
Braga, particularly in the 21st century, have established themselves as Portugal’s fourth club. A club which strives to fight at the top of Portuguese football, battling to break through the glass ceiling to reach Os Tres Grandes or The Big Three, consisting of SL Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting CP. The last time they finished in the top three wasn’t too long ago, finishing third in 2019-20; a season where they took advantage of a Sporting CP that were seemingly in free-fall both off and on the pitch.
Back in 2009-10, Braga recorded their best league campaign, finishing second under Domingos Paciência, picking up a fantastic 71 points and losing just three games all season. A year later, Braga managed to reach the UEFA Europa League final in Dublin, eventually losing to FC Porto 1-0 before Paciência was nabbed by Sporting CP in the summer. By and large though, Braga are usually found sitting just outside the top three, occupying fourth position. In fact, they’ve finished fourth in seven of the last 10 Portuguese top-flight seasons.
Their electric start to 2022-23, however, has indicated that they may well be gunning to add another top-three finish to their record books. A key difference (and incentive) to note between the last time they went one further than the top three and finished second, is that due to Portugal’s coefficient ranking, Braga had to play UEFA Champions League qualifiers the following campaign in order to secure group stage football. This season however, a second-place finish would guarantee group stage football in Europe’s elite footballing competition, and third place would see them enter the qualifying rounds.
New Manager, New Ideas
When Carlos Carvalhal, a manager who led Braga to a Taça de Portugal victory, consecutive fourth place finishes and to the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals, left the club at the end of last season to “embrace a new project”, Braga didn’t look to replace him with a manager of similar profile and experience, but instead opted to hand the reigns to one of their own, in the form of Artur Jorge.
Jorge, an ex-Braga player, has spent the majority of his coaching career working at the club in one capacity or another, whether it be as working as manager of Braga B, with the club’s U23 side or working with the youth teams at the club’s academy, as well as experiencing a month in charge of the first team as caretaker manager in 2020.
This season, Jorge has moved Braga away from the 3-4-3/3-4-2-1 formation that they often utilised under Carvalhal and before that, Rúben Amorim. The Braga boss has instead opted for a more traditional 4-4-2, allowing Simon Banza and either Abel Ruiz or Vitinha to work off one another up top.
Interestingly, Artur Jorge’s approach this season hasn’t been to try and emulate Benfica, Porto and Sporting, instead they’re playing their own brand of more direct football, and it’s working.
Braga have had the joint most shots (19) and scored the most goals (5) from high turnovers in Portugal so far this season. They don’t press as high up the pitch as the big three, but they time their press to perfection and only seem to press the opponent in their defensive third when they think that they’ll get a shooting opportunity from doing so.
Field tilt is a metric to show the territorial dominance between teams. Put simply, it measures the share of possession a team has in a game, considering only touches or passes in the attacking third. It can be useful when trying to understand which team is more dominant in games, rather than looking at overall possession, mainly as it looks at how teams are able to get the ball into areas that matter.
When we look at the field tilt numbers in the Primeira Liga this season, the stark difference between Braga and the big three becomes even clearer. Benfica are currently averaging 84.6%, Sporting CP 77.1% and FC Porto slightly less with 71.9%, Braga however are currently averaging only 57.5%, taking fewer touches in the opposition third and completing fewer passes in the opposition third, yet they lead the league for goals scored (23).
As the graphic above shows, Braga are averaging less passes per sequence than the big three. In fact, Braga’s 3.4 passes per open play sequence actually means they are currently closer to promoted Casa Pia and Rio Ave (3.1 and 3.0 pps respectively) in that regard than to Benfica and Sporting (4.4 and 4.3 pps).
This directness from Braga starts at the first whistle and is a key reason why they’ve often started games on the front foot. 26.% of Braga’s goals so far this season in the Primeira Liga have been scored inside the first 15 minutes. In the match against Famalicão, Braga effectively killed the game off after 18 minutes, scoring twice and then managing the game brilliantly, allowing Famalicão to have possession in safe areas and then intelligently choosing when to hunt the ball back without leaving themselves exposed.
As the numbers indicate, Braga’s efficiency so far this season has been a key reason for their success. In front of goal, they have been ruthless. In the space of just over two weeks, Braga beat Famalicão 3-0, Marítimo 5-0 and Arouca 6-0 – 14 goals from 28 shots on target, meaning half their shots on target were hitting the back of the net.
SC Braga players have scored 23 goals (excluding own goals) from an expected goals total of just 15.1 – a league-high overperformance of 7.9.
Of course, it helps considerably when your top players are creating chances and firing on all cylinders when in front of goal. In Braga’s case, Ricardo Horta and Simon Banza, as well as several others, have started the season in emphatic fashion for Artur Jorge’s side.
Banza’s exploits last season at Famalicão (18 goals and seven assists) were enough for Braga to bring him to the Estádio Municipal and give the Frenchman a platform to perform at the top end of the table and so far, he hasn’t disappointed. In his first five games of the season, he scored five goals and provided one assist for Braga.
Another talented forward that Braga have at their disposal is the exciting 22-year-old striker Vitinha, who himself has three goals and one assist in just six starts. Vitinha is generally very involved in the game for a traditional striker, averaging a healthy 31.7 touches per game, putting in 1.6 tackles per game and making 1.1 clearances per game. It was Vitinha’s smart rebound against Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin which gave Braga all three points away from home in the UEFA Europa League, a goal that epitomised his striker’s instinct.
Whilst Braga will be delighted at both Banza and the rest of the teams’ goalscoring exploits, they will undoubtedly be aware that their potency in front of goal will not last forever. Their xG overperformance of 7.9 is probably not sustainable in the long term, thus they will be expecting a bit of a crash in front of goal soon. For further comparison, the biggest overperformance of xG across the whole of last season in Portugal was 5.3 by Tondela, while Benfica followed with 3.7 goals more than their xG total.
Keeping Hold of Ricardo Horta
It’s impossible to talk about Braga’s superb start to the season without analysing their key man, the club’s all-time top scorer, the magnificent Ricardo Horta.
Throughout the transfer window, Horta was the subject of a very publicised transfer saga linking him with a move to Lisbon giants SL Benfica, with The Eagles’ president Rui Costa admitting on several occasions that the club were very keen on signing the 28-year-old Portugal international. The interest in him was expected, Horta was hot off scoring 23 goals and providing 10 assists across all competitions, seeing him named in the Liga Portugal Team of the Season.
Undoubtedly one of the best players in the division, it seemed almost inevitable at times that Horta would depart, and Braga would have to pick up the pieces to begin a search for a solution to the gaping hole their most influential player exiting would leave behind.
However, when the transfer window slammed shut, Horta was still a Braga player. The club and its passionate supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief.
If you thought for a moment that this very public courting of Horta would in any way affect his morale and his performances going forward for Braga, you would be sorely mistaken. He has started the season in simply electric form. Some players can either create chances or take chances, Horta does both consistently with equal efficiency. His 56 attacking sequence involvements puts him second in the league behind Enzo Fernandéz, but what is remarkable about Horta’s numbers is how evenly distributed they are, 16 involvements in the build-up to shot, 18 chances created, and 22 shots shows that Horta isn’t currently excelling in just one particular area, but instead he’s doing it across the board. In terms of solely chances created, no player has created more than Horta so far this season (20) and only two players have created more from open play than he has (16).
Horta’s consistency and efficiency when creating and taking chances means he is currently the league leader for combined goals and assists with seven, consisting of four goals (second most in the league) and three assists (most in the league).
His importance to Braga becomes even more obvious when his numbers are compared to the rest of his Braga team-mates. He is their key man and if they are to remain on their upward trajectory and potentially fight for a top three position, keeping Horta fit and firing will undoubtedly be key.
A Brilliant Start, but That’s All It Is
Artur Jorge’s side displayed character and heart on the opening day against Sporting, coming back from behind three times to take a well-earned point. Another test came in the form of their Minho rivals Vitória SC. This was a big test for Braga, who at this point had won three successive matches without conceding a goal but wary that on derby day, form can go out of the proverbial window. The result? Braga won 1-0 courtesy of a Vítor Tormena winner in the eighth minute of second-half stoppage time, which was nearly the final act of the match, with their rivals barely having time to kick-off. The best possible way to beat your fiercest rivals and maintain your winning streak.
Fast forward a few weeks to today and Braga remain unbeaten both domestically and in Europe, but they will not be getting carried away. A brilliant start is great, but it’s exactly that, a start. Their next match after the international break is a huge test of their credentials, a trip to the Estádio do Dragão to face defending champions FC Porto.
Sérgio Conceição’s men come into this one in poor form and lacking confidence, having won just twice in their last six matches in all competitions. On one hand, Braga will feel like it’s a great time to take on the Dragons, but on the other hand, this is a Porto side that will need no motivation, who know that defeat on the day will see them fall six points behind Braga.
If Braga are serious about usurping one of the big three, if only for this season, then it is in matches like this one that their credentials will really be examined. Lose and it’s not the end of the world, win and Braga fans will be in dreamland for yet another week.
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