Sporting success: how Portuguese champions plotted their way back

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When Sporting parted company with their manager, Silas, on 4 March 2020, it was easy to wonder when the upheaval would end. The Lisbon club sat fourth in the Primeira Liga, four points off third-placed Braga and 20 behind the leaders, Porto, and were about to appoint their fourth manager of the season. He would be the sixth of the presidency of Frederico Varandas, who had taken over in September 2018 from the controversial Bruno de Carvalho.

Sporting remained haunted by the notorious training-ground attack of May 2018, when 50 hooligans – incensed by poor results – stormed the premises to beat up players and staff. In May of last year, a Portuguese court made 41 convictions for assault and threatening behaviour, with nine men receiving five-year prison sentences. De Carvalho was cleared of having helped to mastermind the episode. Sporting said it had left “an indelible mark on the club and its fans”.

Varandas and his sporting director, Hugo Viana, a former Newcastle midfielder, had to get the managerial appointment right. The climate was edgy and not only because the pandemic was coming. It was accurate to describe the relationship between the board and supporters as awful.

What Varandas and Viana did was risky. They turned to Rúben Amorim, a former Portugal midfielder, who had spent much of his playing career at Sporting’s crosstown rivals, Benfica. He was 35 years old and a veteran of two months of top-flight management with Braga, albeit spectacular ones. He had won eight and drawn one of his nine league matches and won the Taça da Liga, beating Sporting in the semi-final and Porto in the final. Sporting had to pay the €10m release clause in Amorim’s contract and it only added to the pressure on him and the club to make it work.

Just under two years on, with Sporting ready to host Manchester City in the Champions League last 16 first leg on Tuesday, the decision has come to look inspired. It is Sporting’s second appearance at this stage of the competition and stemmed from their stunning domestic title success of last season – their first since 2001-02. They also won the Taça da Liga, which they have retained this time out. They sit second in the league, six points behind Porto, after a 2-2 away draw against them last Friday – a game that ended with a mass brawl. There were five red cards, three for Sporting.

The Sporting head coach, Rúben Amorim, raised both his arms while stood on he touchline during a game
The Sporting head coach, Rúben Amorim, has led the club to the Champions League last 16 for the first time since 2009. Photograph: Miguel A Lopes/EPA

Amorim has become a superstar in Portugal, his leadership style marked by strength of personality and charisma, the ability to encourage players to buy in rather than ruling by decree. Sporting have wanted to follow a particular path for some years only to lack a manager to push them along it. In Amorim, who started his coaching career at the third-tier side Casa Pia and went to Braga B before being promoted to the first team, they have found the ideal fit.

The Sporting project has been shaped by three guidelines: the recruitment of a small number of experienced players (mainly from outside Portugal), a drive to sign younger ones from the domestic league and the promotion of academy talent.

What the onset of the pandemic and the suspension of football in Portugal for three months allowed Amorim to do was bed in and understand the dressing room, including some of the weaknesses.

When the championship resumed in June 2020, Sporting won five and drew three of 10 games to finish fourth – only the fourth time this century they had been outside the top three. But Amorim had begun to formulate a plan for the market with Viana, one of his closest friends, and to make progress in one of the priority areas.

Amorim gave debuts to a number of academy youngsters in those final matches, including Nuno Mendes and Matheus Nunes, who were 17 and 21. They would be important parts of the title-winning team, particularly the former at left wing-back in Amorim’s 3-4-3, which is compact without the ball, quick and direct with it; defined by aggressive pressing.

João Palhinha is about to play a pass for Sporting against Portimonense
João Palhinha was an influential player in Sporting’s title success and has been linked with a move to the Premier League, Photograph: DeFodi Images/Getty Images

Mendes would get a move to Paris Saint-Germain last summer in a deal that took the Spain winger Pablo Sarabia the other way on a season’s loan. Nunes, born in Brazil but now a Portuguese citizen and international for them, has locked down a starting spot in midfield this season.

The Sporting academy is famous for having produced Luís Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo and the club want roughly a third of Amorim’s squad to have come up from it. Amorim wants that, too. He is obsessed by blooding homegrown players and he has been singularly unafraid to pitch them in. Gonçalo Inácio, now 20, a central defender with a burgeoning reputation, is a good example. He has been guided by the talismanic captain, Sebastián Coates, who plays in the centre of the back three.

Amorim brought the midfielder João Palhinha back to the club in the summer of 2020; the academy product had been out on loan, latterly with the manager at Braga, and he was key to the title win. Palhinha has been tipped for a Premier League move at the end of the season.

The right wing-back Ricardo Esgaio is another academy product to have returned and hopes are high for the teenage wing-backs Gonçalo Esteves and Nazinho, and the 22-year-old midfielder Daniel Bragança. A youthful star addition has been the right wing-back Pedro Porro on a two-year loan from Manchester City. He is eligible to face his parent club.

Amorim would instigate something of a clearout in his first transfer window, moving on, among others, Marcos Acuña, Wendel and Luciano Vietto. It was who he brought in that made the difference. The goalkeeper Antonio Adán and the centre-half Zou Feddal – seasoned professionals – arrived from Atlético Madrid and Real Betis respectively, while the experienced midfielder João Mário joined on a season’s loan from Internazionale. He had been a youth player at Sporting. Paulinho, a 29-year-old striker, would come from Braga in the winter window of last year.

Pedro Gonçalves, pictured celebrating the win over Benfica last Dececmber, scored 23 goals for Sporting in their title-winning season.
Pedro Gonçalves scored 23 goals for Sporting in their title-winning season. Photograph: Paulo Nascimento/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

But if there was one signing that served as a spark it came from the project’s other track – the trawl of Portuguese football and clubs of lower stature. Pedro Gonçalves, who is now 23, had starred for the promoted Famalicão in 2019‑20 after they had taken him from the Wolves academy for a nominal fee. The Premier League club did negotiate a sell-on clause.

Playing as a No 8, Gonçalves had helped Famalicão to a sixth-placed finish and he was named as the league’s young player of the year. He was to touch the stars after going to Sporting, who paid €6.5m to Famalicão for 50% of his economic rights.

Redeployed by Amorim as a wide forward who cuts inside, he scored 23 goals in 32 league games, winning the Golden Boot, another young player of the year award and inclusion in the team of the season and the Portugal squad for the European Championship finals. Sporting had found their heir to Bruno Fernandes, who went to Manchester United in January 2020.

This season, Gonçalves has had injuries but he still has 13 goals, including two in the 3-1 home win over Borussia Dortmund that secured Sporting’s passage from the Champions League group stage. He extended his contract last October, with Sporting raising his release clause to €80m, and the feeling within the club is the boy who feels no pressure is destined for a massive move, although not this summer.

Some of the big clubs in England and Germany have inquired about him – not to talk numbers, rather to begin their due diligence. Sporting, meanwhile, made a future-proofing move of their own in January, signing Marcus Edwards, the erstwhile Tottenham wonderkid, for €7.5m from Vitória Guimarães.

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