Malaga 2-0 Porto: Malaga profit from balls over the top, and Defour’s red card

March 13, 2013

The starting line-ups

Malaga overcame a 1-0 first leg deficit to book their place in the Champions League quarter-finals.

From the first leg, Manuel Pellegrini made two changes – Jesus Gamez played rather than Sergio Sanchez at right-back, while Javier Saviola started upfront in place of Roque Santa Cruz.

Vitor Pereira made one change from the first leg, with Steven Defour replacing Marat Izmailov on the left.

This was a bitty, scrappy game featuring eight bookings – one of which was a second yellow, and the end of Defour’s night. Malaga started slowly, but eventually played better football.

Formation battle

This was a predictable battle of systems – 4-2-3-1 against 4-3-3. Julio Baptista dropped into midfield to occupy Fernando, meaning the Porto midfielder’s distribution was surprisingly poor, but Baptista had little impact upon the game going the other way. That battle was something of a stalemate.

Higher up in midfield, Lucho Gonzalez and Joao Moutinho fought against Jeremy Toulalan and Manuel Iturra. In the early stages, the Porto duo looked much more comfortable – with Gonzalez charging around energetically, and Moutinho bringing a touch of finesse to an otherwise scrappy midfield zone. It felt like the Porto duo were more mobile and more flexible, and the away side dominated the start of the match.


With the strikers staying high up, the ‘joker’ in this 3 v 3 midfield battle was Defour. He’s often been regarded as a failure in this wide role (and ultimately, he’ll be pinpointed as the reason Porto failed here, because of his sending-off) but like against Benfica he served a purpose – if Pereira wanted a proper winger, he would have used Christian Atsu (James Rodriguez wasn’t 100% fit)

However, at times Defour did well, simply because he offered another option in a central zone. He came inside to flick the ball on nicely to Jackson Martinez (who was otherwise isolated) in a good position, and also had a half-decent shot from range. Nothing spectacular, but the decision to use him wide wasn’t a disaster.

Malaga wide layers

The other interesting battle was the Porto full-backs against the Malaga wide players. Both Isco and Joaquin tended to come inside from the flanks into central positions – as they’ve done in the past very successfully – but this allowed Alex Sandro and Danilo to break forward, and both were very threatening in the opening stages when overlapping.

When the tempo of the game dropped, this suited Malaga. With less pressure on their midfielders, they suddenly started to take advantage of Porto’s high defensive line, and knocked simple balls over the top. Saviola, Isco and Joaquin were all marginally flagged offside when making runs behind the defence, and although the Porto backline stepped up just in time, their overall positioning was highly risky. This could have resulted in a goal for Malaga – indeed, a controversially disallowed goal followed one of these simple attacks – but eventually Isco put the home side 1-0 up with a great strike from long-range.

Second half

Because of injury, Pereira was forced to remove Moutinho at half-time – introducing James Rodriguez on the right, with Varela moving to the left and Defour coming inside. But within five minutes, Defour was off – particularly frustrating for Pereira, considering a fully-fit Rodriguez would surely have started in the Belgian’s place anyway.

This completely changed the shape of the game. Going down to ten men from 4-3-3 isn’t easy – Porto had to go 4-4-1, with the wingers dropping deep, and Fernando becoming part of a ‘two’, rather than in the holding role solo.

Malaga pressure

Now, Malaga completely dominated possession and forced Porto back towards their own box. The away side’s backline came under sustained pressure, so Pereira brought on another centre-back, Maicon,¬†sacrificing Varela. This was a defensive move, with Eliaquim Mangala going to left-back, and Sandro moving forward slightly. However, with Gamez forcing Sandro back, and Mangala naturally tucking inside, it often became a back five. Later, an exhausted Sandro was replaced by Cristian Atsu, to offer a counter-attacking threat.

But Malaga were now less dangerous. Their first half threat had been entirely about balls over the top – now the Porto defence edged increasingly deeper, that threat wasn’t present. Saviola couldn’t deal with long balls played into a packed penalty box, while Isco and Joaquin found less space. Malaga’s overall pressure was good – the full-backs stretched the play and Martin Demichelis burst forward to good effect, as he did so crucially against Manchester United three seasons ago – but they lacked a finishing touch.

Plan B

Malaga needed a plan B – thankfully, they had one. Santa Cruz replaced Baptista and became a natural target for aerial balls – he headed in after two minutes on the pitch, from a corner.

Now Porto had to rally. They had no substitutions remaining, although Rodriguez and Atsu were fresher than most. As always, now the balance shifted and Malaga sat too deep, but Porto created little in the final 15 minutes. As for Malaga, Lucas Piazon replaced Saviola, while holding midfielder Nacho Camacho came on for Joaquin to keep things tight.


Ultimately this was a deserved win for Malaga, although it was a game low on quality (Isco’s goal aside) and extremely scrappy in the centre of the pitch. The red card was a significant game-changer – Porto were probably marginal favourites at that point, knowing one goal for them would leave Malaga needing two.

But this was also a decent example of a starting strategy and a Plan B. Sides like Porto start with a high defensive line – which means small, quick players scampering in behind is the obvious way to play against them – but they rarely stay that way for 90 minutes, which is where a 6′2 striker like Santa Cruz comes in handy. The red card is impossible to ignore, of course, but as a general rule Pellegrini’s tactics can serve as a lesson: start with pace, use height when the opposition try to nullify the threat of that pace.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,