Rúben Amorim is the latest Portuguese coach tipped for greatness. Could his excellent tenure at Sporting CP hint at him being the new ‘Special One’? Liverpool certainly think so…

Rúben Amorim is a name you may have heard a lot recently; if it isn’t, it will be over the coming months. The 39-year-old has been linked to a host of top managerial jobs in Europe, with the latest rumours linking him to the upcoming vacancies at both Liverpool and Barcelona. He’s even been tipped to replace Chelsea boss Mauricio Pochettino amid the Blues’ disappointing 2023-24 season.

His Sporting CP side lead the Portuguese Primeira Liga by a point having played a game fewer than rivals Benfica and FC Porto as they aim for their second league title in four full seasons under his management.

The first of those titles came in 2020-21, just over a year after Amorim arrived at the club from SC Braga in March 2020. In fact, Friday (8 March) will mark the four-year anniversary of his first game in charge of the club, a 2-0 league victory over CD Aves. Sporting have come a long way since his appointment, with context needed to understand how bad a state the club were in when Amorim arrived.

Their transformation over these four years provides some clarity as to why so many of Europe’s leading forces potentially see Amorim as their next manager.

Ruben Amorim Manager

Controversial Arrival at Sporting

Sporting kicked off the 2019-20 season with a 5-0 drubbing in the Supertaça, a defeat that hurt even more because it came at the hands of bitter Lisbon rivals Benfica, whom they hadn’t finished above in the league for 11 consecutive seasons.

After only five games of the league season and with just two wins on the board, manager Marcel Keizer was dismissed. His replacement was former Sporting Under-23 coach Leonel Pontes. However, he was shown the door as well after just four league games in charge, failing to record a single victory. It was only 27 September 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, 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 aged 34. The change in Braga’s fortunes was instantly noticeable.

Braga were once again playing with a swagger and confidence. Between 17 January and 15 February, Braga played Porto twice, Sporting twice and Benfica once – about as tough a string of fixtures as you can get in Portugal. Braga won all five matches, including the Taça da Liga final versus Porto, meaning Amorim had quickly collected the first piece of silverware in his managerial career.

Sporting, and the rest of the league, quickly noted how there appeared to be something special about the young coach. In early March, less than three months after being appointed by Braga, Amorim was heading for Lisbon.

Controversially, Sporting paid a huge €10 million fee to bring Amorim to Estádio José Alvalade, reportedly the third-biggest fee paid for a manager at the time and a staggering figure for a Portuguese club to dish out. It was an even greater risk given the fragmented relationship between the club’s board and their supporters, many of whom saw this decision to hire Amorim as an example of reckless financial mismanagement. The supporters were wrong, this time.

Since his appointment four years ago, Sporting (324) have won 10 points more than Benfica (314) and only trail Porto’s total (331) by seven. They have averaged 2.38 points per game during Amorim’s 136-game spell as head coach; in the 136 league games prior to his arrival, they’d averaged 2.13, which was below both Benfica (2.51) and Porto (2.42) in the same period.

Ruben Amorim Sporting Record

While he was unable to stop Sporting falling outside the top three in 2019-20 – ironically finishing just below the club he’d helped do so well earlier in the season, Braga, on goal difference – his first full season in charge of the Lions would rock Portuguese football.

First Title in 19 Years

Sporting went into the 2020-21 season having not won the Portuguese league title since 2002. Portuguese football has been dominated by Os Três Grandes, ‘The Big Three’, so to have the third side in that trio underperforming to such an extent compared to Porto and Benfica became an embarrassment.

Between Sporting’s last title in 2002 and Amorim’s first full season in charge, Porto had won the league 11 times and Benfica seven; Amorim actually played for the latter during three of those title-winning campaigns. With Sporting fans largely unhappy about appointing a man with such a close association with Lisbon’s other big club, Amorim needed to get them onside.

Ending their Primeira Liga title drought wasn’t a bad way to do it.

Ruben Amorim Benfica
Amorim spent six seasons as a player at Benfica, winning three league titles.

While that is, so far, the only league title Amorim has brought to the club over three full seasons in charge, he’s added two Taça da Liga trophies and won the 2021 Supertaça against former side Braga.

Last season was his biggest disappointment yet, as Sporting once again fell out of the top three and failed to win a single trophy. Key players left before that campaign, with João Palhinha joining Fulham and Matheus Nunes going to Wolves, while 2021-22 top scorer Pablo Sarabia’s loan from Paris Saint-Germain wasn’t made permanent, so their main goal threat disappeared.

Despite the poor season in 2022-23, the club stuck by Amorim, and that decision is paying dividends.

Finding a Goalscorer

Sporting had consistently been outscored by their ‘big-three’ rivals, Porto and Benfica, in recent times. In their title-winning campaign of 2020-21, Sporting scored 65 goals to Porto’s 74 and Benfica’s 69.

In the seasons that have followed, Sporting finished second in the Portuguese top flight (2021-22), scoring 73 goals, 13 fewer than winners Porto and five fewer than Benfica. Last season, when Sporting dropped to fourth and finished 13 points behind league winners Benfica, they (71) were outscored by the champions (82), Porto (73) and Braga (75).

Across those last four seasons, Sporting haven’t seen many players hit 10 or more goals. Two did in 2022-23: Francisco Trincão (10) and Pedro Gonçalves (15); two more in 2021-22: Paulinho (11) and Pablo Sarabia (15); one in 2020-21: Gonçalves (23); and none in 2019-20.

Enter Viktor Gyökeres.

After a brilliant season in which he almost single-handedly fired Coventry City to the Premier League against all expectations, Sporting splashed out a reported club record transfer fee of €20m for the Swedish forward.

Last season saw him score 21 times in 46 English second-tier appearances, a tally he’s only three away from replicating this season in the Portuguese top flight from half the number of games (23).

Viktor Gyökeres Goals Sporting

Gyökeres’ 18 league goals – tied with Braga’s Simon Banza at the top of the Primeira Liga rankings in 2023-24 – have helped Sporting become the leading scorers in the competition this season with 66 goals. That is 10 more than any other side (Benfica’s 56) and their goals per game average (2.87) is the highest it’s been in a league season since 1973-74 (3.20) when they won the title.

In all competitions, Gyökeres’ goal tally is already 32. That’s the most by a Sporting player in a single competitive season since Bruno Fernandes’ 32 in 2018-19. The last player to score more was Bas Dost (34) in 2017-18.

Gyökeres is deployed as the number 9 in Amorim’s 3-4-3 formation, with the excellent creative options of Gonçalves and Marcus Edwards usually starting alongside him in the wide forward roles, while Trincão is another option.

It’s not only the Swedish forward impressing this season at Sporting. Gonçalves is among the top five chance creators in the league (48), while only Benfica’s Rafa (11) has more assists than him (10). Former Tottenham youngster Edwards has created more chances on average per 90 minutes than both, though, with 3.3 overall and 2.8 from open play; that’s a better record than any other player in the competition to have played at least 1,000 minutes this term.

Having such a ruthless frontline has meant Sporting maximise their opportunities in front of goal. Amorim’s side have averaged fewer expected goals (xG) per game from non-penalty shots than Benfica (2.09 vs 2.24) and their average non-penalty shot is of lower quality (0.134 xG vs 0.127 xG), but they have scored nine more goals from non-penalty situations.

Their conversion rate of these chances is 16.6%, better than anyone else in the league and over three percentage points higher than Benfica (13.5%), who are the next most clinical. Across Europe’s top 10 leagues this season, Sporting’s non-penalty shot conversion rate is the highest of all 172 clubs.

Sporting Shot Conversion

Compare that to last season, when they were only able to convert 11.8% of non-penalty shots, which was below the top three sides. With 11 games still to play this season, Sporting have already scored just one non-penalty goal fewer (63) than in the whole of 2022-23 (64).

Signing Gyökeres for such a high fee was seen as a gamble by many, but Amorim knew to improve on last season’s weakness in attack, he had to find a clinical striker. This wasn’t a lucky signing; it was an arrival that they knew would make a huge difference to their attacking output.

Central Build-Up

One of Gyökeres’ key strengths is his ability to run the channels and use his powerful running style to carry the ball into dangerous areas.

For a player considered as the central attacking threat in a front three, a surprisingly high number of his touches come out in the wide areas. Just 5% of his open-play touches have been in the central area of the penalty box this season, which, when compared to last season, is a much lower proportion than someone like Paulinho (9% in that area) or Youssef Chermiti (12%) in their most-used 3-4-2-1 shape.

Viktor Gyökeres Position

While a lot of their build-up play comes centrally, Sporting’s strength is picking the right time to feed the ball into wide areas and cause damage with their pace and creativity in the front three.

In terms of how wide Amorim’s Sporting side play this season, they are one of the most centrally focused teams in possession across the league. Looking at their absolute width – a metric that measures the maximum distance a team gets from the centre of the pitch per sequence – only Rio Ave (24.5m) and Farense (24.6m) rely less on possession in the wide areas of the pitch than Sporting do (24.7m). In comparison, Porto (26.0m) and Benfica (25.5m) are the two widest teams in the league this season.

Despite this, only Braga (212) have created more chances from the left and right thirds of the opposition half than Sporting (202) in 2023-24, with just 26.5% of their chances created originating in the middle third of the pitch – much lower than Benfica (35.8%) and Porto (34.8%).

Much of their build-up is reliant on their three defenders carrying the ball upfield. Of all defenders to have played at least 1,000 minutes of league action in Portugal this season, three of Sporting’s four senior central defensive options of Gonçalo Inácio (22.1), Matheus Reis (19.7) and Ousmane Diomande (19.1) are all rank inside the top five for carries per 90, while Inácio (137.6m) and Reis (136.2m) are the top two for average carry progress per 90 in the competition, with Diomande (106.5m) in eighth.

Amorim not only requires his back three to be able to carry the ball up the pitch and advance possession into the attacking half, but they are also guaranteed to see a lot of the ball. Including Sebastián Coates – their fourth central defensive option in the back three – all four players feature in the top 10 for touches per 90 and successful passes per 90 across all players to have played at least 1,000 minutes this season.

They lead the league for the number of direct attacks (57) – the number of open-play sequences that start just inside the team’s own half and have at least 50% of movement towards the opposition’s goal and ends in a shot or a touch in the opposition box. This is already eight more than in the entirety of last season (49 – 10th highest in the league) with the arrival of a player like Gyökeres playing a big role in this shift.

Portuguese Primeira Team Playing Styles

Much of the beauty of the 2023-24 Sporting side is that they can mix up their style of attack, though. They also lead the league for build-up attacks (76) – the number of open-play sequences containing 10+ passes and either end in a shot or have at least one touch in the box – while they also lead the league for average open-play possession time per sequence (10.8 seconds); one second lower than their league-high average in 2022-23, however (11.8).

Their four league games against Porto, Benfica and Braga (twice) this season have seen them have less possession than their opponents every time but were able to utilise their pace in attack with fast breaks. Across the two matches versus Porto and Benfica, they attempted five shots from fast breaks, which has contributed 20% of their seasonal tally.

With the pace of Edwards and Gyökeres in attack, this shows that Amorim can mix up his team’s style based on the opponent put in front of them. Both forwards are in the top six players in the Portuguese top flight for shot involvements following a ball carry this season, with Gyökeres (36) in third and Edwards sixth (32).

Amorim’s Future

It seems very unlikely that Amorim will move before the season’s end, even if the Chelsea job was to become available. With Sporting leading the league and potentially winning a second title in four years, the Portuguese coach could become the first man to win more than one league title at the club since Englishman Randolph Galloway in the early 1950s.

While José Mourinho went to England and succeeded, more Portuguese coaches have failed – André Villas-Boas and Bruno Lage both arrived in the Premier League having won the Portuguese top-flight.

Based on the job he’s done to transform Sporting, this feels different, though. Amorim could just be the new ‘Special One’.

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