Portuguese managers are in vogue. Take a look across the leagues of world football and their quality and quantity becomes evident. Marco Silva and Nuno Espirito Santo have joined Jose Mourinho in the Premier League and continue to impress and add to their lengthening CVs.
Leonardo Jardim is very highly thought of following his successful time with Monaco in France whilst Paolo Fonseca has been approached by numerous English clubs on the back of his job at Shakhtar Donetsk. And only recently have both Pedro Caixinha and Vitor Pereira won titles in Mexico and China with Cruz Azul and Shangai SIPG respectively.
Highly sought after and showing that they’re adept to coaching and winning at the highest levels, coaches from Portugal are very much leading the way in football management at the moment. However, there are two coaches who both ply their trade in their homeland doing impressive work with two of Portugal’s biggest clubs.
Sérgio Conceição and Rui Vitória may not be as household a name as Mourinho, Silva or Jardim but they embody the new wave of coaches that are emerging from Portugal. Conceição – unlike Vitoria – had an illustrious playing career and his steady journey back to FC Porto where he started as a player in the early 1990s has featured time spent in Belgium, France and the lower levels of Portuguese football.
Vitória did not breakthrough as a player and has consequently followed similar paths to those trodden by Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas. Vitória, at Benfica, and Conceição make up a total of 17 homegrown managers in Portugal’s top flight, which features 18 clubs. They are doing sterling work and it is beginning to be recognised beyond their native country.
Back at Porto, Conceição is relishing the opportunity
Conceição has earned his opportunity back at Porto, having built a solid body of work in each of his previous head coaching roles at Olhanense, Academica, Braga, Vitoria Guimaraes and Nantes. His modus operandi is strict but fair and very effective, getting his teams to play vibrant attacking football while obtaining positive results.
The combrian coaches with the same passion and volatility that he exhibited as a player – once he reacted to being sent off by spitting at an opponent and throwing his shirt at the referee – and that fires up the Porto fans who have high expectations.
Porto have returned to the zenith of Portuguese football having won the league title last season for the first time in five years; they are currently top of Liga Nos and have all but qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, all of this being in the year of their 125th anniversary. The intensity with which Conceição attacks his work is evident and has been passed onto his hungry squad, who are making up for a slight drop in quality from Porto teams of the past with their work ethic.
Porto combine style and substance
On Tuesday evening, Porto brushed aside Lokomotiv Moscow with an emphatic 4-1 victory in the rain on Portugal’s west coast. It continued their rich vein of form and tightened their grip at the top of group D, extending their winning run to six matches, during which they have scored 21 goals. Considering that the Russians were still ‘in the game’ at 2-1 just after half time, it spoke of Porto’s fight in awful conditions to bulldoze their way through to a more comprehensive scoreline.
Conceição is a flexible coach and his ability to switch between formations and players has enabled Porto to address their opponent’s weaknesses whilst not removing the edge from their own game. The guile and technique Oliver Torres and the all-action Hector Herrera are the linchpins in this pacey and agile Porto side.
Conceição, who turned down the vacant Leicester City job in 2017, has caught the eye of many owners around Europe and his willingness to make the best of the group of players he is dealt with is a valuable characteristic.
Valuable lessons are being learnt
This weekend’s match against unbeaten – and joint top – Braga will only offer more insight into how Conceição operates as a manager in the biggest of games. Last season, his Porto suffered a somewhat embarrassing 5-0 defeat in the Champions League round of 16 at home to Liverpool, it was the end of that particular journey but for Conceição it was one of the most valuable evenings of his managerial career thus far.
Since then Porto have remained unbeaten in Europe, having drawn the return at Anfield 0-0 and taking 10 points so far in this season’s campaign. It only heightens Conceição’s stock. “Conceição’s among the best”, claimed sports newspaper A Bola on Wednesday morning.
A philosophy built on hard work and simple football is taking Porto to new heights, with last season’s league title being the greatest achievement of Conceição’s career thus far, there is a sense that the best is yet to come.
Against Lokomotiv, Porto scored a scrappy tap-in, a clean strike following a delicately-weighted dinked through-ball, a nutmeg through the goalkeeper’s legs and a thunder strike from outside the area in stoppage-time; in a rather crude manner, such wide-ranging goals only highlighted the flexibility and tenacity of Conceição’s Porto.
Vitoria’s success rate is impeccable
However, further south in Lisbon and the job that Vitória is undertaking at Benfica is just as impressive. Arriving in the capital in 2015, he had the big shoes of Jorge Jesus to fill as his countryman had guided Benfica to three titles in six seasons (having only won one in the previous 15 seasons), but the European ‘curse’ continued as they lost two European finals.
After a stuttering start to life at the Estadio da Luz, Vitória’s team embarked on an incredible run of results to clinch the Portuguese title in his debut season. Benfica retained the title in 2016/17 and throw in the successful integration of a host of young players from the club’s academy into the starting XI, and there is no doubt Vitoria has proved himself up to the job of commanding the fortunes of Portugal’s biggest club.
Frustrations are rising but most be measured
With the time of Porto, however, now seemingly arriving, Vitória has had to deal with some grumblings among the fanbase and the board.
Losing talented players such as Ederson to Manchester City have also put a strain on resources. Benfica currently sit fifth in the league table and outside of the European places, the match against Ajax on Wednesday was very much D-Day with regards to their Champions League progression for this season. A win was mandatory to keep the hopes of progression beyond the winter alive.
The 1-1 draw in what was a low-quality affair seemingly featured too much tension for the players to fully deploy their expressive best. The host’s winless run now stretches to four games in all competitions and despite Vitória’s success, there is surprisingly mounting pressure. “I understand the frustrations,” Vitoria said afterwards, but it must be realised by supporters and the owners that he is best suited to addressing them.
Record reported that the coach was encouraged with his team’s display and the way in which they dealt with the displeasure arising from the stands. It was noticeable in the stadium that the home fans were rather eager to let their annoyance with the result be known, and somewhat expected given Benfica are a club used to such a high level of recent success.
Champions League disappointment is Vitoria’s biggest test yet
The match was more physical than finesse and it was difficult to take too much from it – Benfica’s goal came from a dual-goalkeeping mistake whilst Ajax’s was a tight finish from a narrow angle.
Gabriel saw a last-minute shot miraculously denied by Andre Onana and with that Benfica’s time in the Champions League for another season was all but ended in name. For Vitória, the next few weeks may be testing, but his record is telling having won something at every single club he’s managed, with the exception of Pacos de Ferreira, who were runners up in the Portuguese League Cup.
Vitoria featured on Everton’s shortlist when they were looking for a new manager after Sam Allardyce, along with countrymen Fonseca and, the eventual appointee, Silva. Like Conceição, his name is becoming increasingly muttered outside of Portugal and a move to the Premier League does seem almost inevitable.
A country that has 2.3 million people living abroad alone suggests that Portuguese are capable of effectively adapting to their environment. That trait is definitely the case with Portuguese managers. There is always the desire to take on a challenge and win with a dedicated philosophy.
What Conceição and Vitória have, and continue to show, only suggests that they will both make the move abroad in the near future – to the dismay of the Portuguese locals. For now, though, two of Portugal’s most historic and proud clubs should cherish having two of the nations most promising coaches.