Sporting CP : The balance between tactical identity and business model sustainability

13 min readFeb 5, 2023


In Portugal, three clubs make the difference compare to all Primeira Liga clubs : FC Porto, Benfica SL, and Sporting CP. Even though Sporting CP has an international coverage all around the world, the Lisboa club has always been trying to pretend to another place than “The Third Club” of Portugal.

When Sporting hired Ruben Amorim on March 4th 2020, Sporting made a risky bet : relying on a coach who just had one year of experience in coaching top teams (Sporting Braga), but with innovative ideas in matter of tactics. His main objective was to maintain a vision, a clear identity, visible for everyone in each game. At this period of time, Sporting tried to renew its identity on the pitch.

How did Amorim design the rebirth of Sporting CP ?

Ruben Amorim has a clear tactical vision : three defenders to cover width in defensive phase, with wide wingbacks, and also a particular double pivot.

Let’s analyze how Amorim established this double pivot :

Benfica vs Sporting CP (0–3)

Off-the-ball, Amorim has been implementing a 5–2–3 structure, with short distances in his double pivot. Why ? In 90% of the cases, Sporting faced teams with two midfielders : having central and compact structure eased out opponent’s control concerning their double pivot, and forced them to play wide, easing out wingbacks jumps.

Sporting CP VS Ajax Amsterdam

Amorim, in many press conferences, strongly insisted on the way two midfielders had to manage distances between each others, when they have the ball and when they lose the ball, in order to regulate all phases of the game. Out of possession, Sporting double pivot have short distances to cover the zone 14 (near penalty box). In possession, one of the two midfielders steps up and participate to second phase of build-up, while the first one is involved in first phase of build-up.

From his first games until now, Amorim has always been keeping the same movements, the same coordination in midfield, no matter the midfielders he had at his disposal.

. Battaglia-Wendel
. Joao Mario-Palhinha
. Nunes-Palhinha
. Ugarte-Morita

All of these double pivots implemented by Amorim respected the same tactical identity (interactions, distances, roles…).

Fc Porto VS Sporting CP

Amorim makes the difference compare to other coaches in first phase of build-up. Given the three at-the-back defense, the opponent regularly densifies central areas to force Sporting to play wide. To counter this issue, Amorim demands his goalkeeper being involved in the build-up. It allows central defender to step up in midfield and avoid numerical inferiority.

Other reason to have the central defender in midfield : one of the two midfielders can step up in build-up phase, so the wingbacks, when they receive the ball can have one more passing option in the second phase. Amorim insists on the fact opponent’s structure have been more and more sound, with few spaces to make the difference with passes or dribbles. That’s why he implements such mechanisms to catalyze build-up.

A good illustration vs Benfica in Taca da Liga Cup : Sporting in first phase of build-up. To stretch Benfica’s midfield line, Sporting’s build-up on the right channel. At this precise moment, Palhinha stays in a low position while Matheus Nunes is moving upfront to help Nuno Santos and Paulinho, ancitipating a potential through ball.

#9 role is at the core of Amorims’s animation in possession : fixing central defense with an excellent ball retention. Why ? Amorim wants to draw out central defenders, taking them out of their respective zones. Paulinho (next Marcus Edwards? ) completely responds to these attributes. By holding the ball back to goal, allowing Sporting’s #8s to step up. Paulinho moves are also key because when he receives the ball, his back-pass provokes the run in behind from the wingback, or the midfielder (depends on the situation).

If we can resume Amorim’s in possession philosophy in one sentence, it would be « efficiency at all cost». That’s why you will regularly see few passes made in offensive phase, but sharped ones: here to kill the opponent, not letting time to organize its defense. To realize such efficient transitions, you need to have players with excellent passing range. With Coates and Palhinha, Amorim could rely on both to address accurate long balls, in the perfect timing most of the time.

However, in my opinion, Amorim stands out thanks to his off-ball structure. He designed (and from 2020, before the trend) a 5–2–3 structure, with many advantages, given Amorim anticipated 3–4–3 Renaissance.

That 3–2 (or 2–3, depending on the situation) shape has many advantages : it can counter many opponent’s shapes in build-up. Front 3 have to jump on central defender after the first pass, while anctipating the second one by positioning in front of the passing angle. Under Amorim teams, we have seen the perfection of this off-ball structure. It doesn’t require a high pressing, because it can cover wide spaces and anticipate a build-up with wide passes from the opponent.

However, Amorim demands to respect distances between double pivot and the front three in this situation. Why ? If distances aren’t respected, opponent’s midfield can easily escape that structure and jeopardize Sporting’s defensive process.

Sporting out of possession structure is mostly performant when the oppnent has a double pivot on the same line. For instance, Tottenham Hotspur, when Sporting faced them in Champions League, had troubles to progress in build-up, as Sporting didn’t implement a high-press, but locked double pivot into the structure, forcing one of them to drop-off, or playing in direction of wingbacks.

Sporting keeps the same structure, willingly letting enough space for wingers. Amorim demands to keep an eye first on spaces between the lines in central areas. Even they put themselves in danger, because of the space given for wingers, Amorim considers defense can defend easier on lanes rather than penalty box area.

Sporting CP vs Ajax Amsterdam

Nowadays, most of the teams exploits wide positioning from wingers, less inverted than before, to stretch defensive lines and leave enough space for 8s and forwards in penalty box, waiting for the cross. Amorim managed to find the right balance between wingbacks jumping on wingers and maintaining that sound structure without letting too much space near zone 14. For the opponent, moving around such a structure is difficult , not easy to manipulate, requiring lots of patience and efficiency, given Sporting transitions.

To conclude this part, we have seen Amorim took time to established the team he considers the most difficult to beat. From the first phase of build-up, to the off-ball structure, everything is done with clear and visible principles of play. This tactical identity has also been built to incorporate Sporting players from the academy in the best conditions to express their qualities, on and off the ball. Sporting CP is the best recent example of a great match between Football Department and the business model implement by the board.

In which way Amorim’s system has allowed Sporting players to shine across Europe ?

You can evaluate a club’s good health when both coach (manager) and sports director work alongside president / owners to match the business model and tactical identity. Sporting CP, thanks to Amorim and the trust he received from his superiors, managed to find a formula on the pitch to reveal their best talents, and by extension increase their market value. It has been established from in the Alvalade Club. Sporting Tático (@sporting_tatico) illustrates it well :

“ It must be said that Sporting is always obliged to sell players to balance the Club’s accounts. The internal and external resources still don’t allow any Portuguese Club to balance its finances without selling a player every year. This is the policy of the Alvalade Club. Form to sell. Buying young players, developing them and selling them. Invest in young formation. Only this way can Sporting have competitive squads that can compete with Benfica and FC Porto.”

It’s the only way for Sporting to compete with the two other big clubs in Portugal to create the unbalance in matter of football geopolitics. Their is also an economical reason to insist on this sports policy. TV Rights redistribution in Primeira Liga is largely inferior than the rest of TOP5 Leagues in Western Europe.

Source : KMPG France Football Benchmark

As you can see, Primeira Liga is not even in the TOP6 ranking concerning TV Rights. In that sense, Sporting CP’s sports policy has to be well-organized to respond the economical pattern. Leonardo Bertozzi (@lbertozzi), ESPN Journalist, tells “Finding and developing talent is crucial for clubs like Sporting, who are not part of a top league. Since they don’t have the same resources from marketing and TV deals to compete with Premier League sides, they compensate with good scouting and the ability to sell them for great prices. It was the case with Bruno Fernandes, who cost them 8,5M euros and was sold for up to 80M (with bonuses). Matheus Nunes cost 500k and was sold for 45M. Those deals make the wheel keep spinning.”

Speaking of Matheus Nunes, the portuguese midfielder is one of Sporting who benefit the most from Amorim’s system to shine across Europe. The relation he developed with Palhinha has been excellent : Palhinha was one the metronom, while Nunes acocmpanied transitions and broke lines with his incredible speed, and the ball carrying.

Matheus Nunes ball carrying

Amorim’s system was the best animation regarding players profile. Joao Castro (João Castro | 1906), Sporting expert, goes into that sense and explains certains players wouldn’t have been sold at the same price if Sporting played in a different system.

The system benefited some defenders right from the start, Coates as the maximum exponent.
With some physical weaknesses, the Uruguayan in a system with two central defenders would have more difficulties, so he would have to run, due to the larger area he would have to cover. Nuno Mendes and Porro are two examples of sales made thanks to this system, maybe in a 4 defenders system they would have the offensive impact they have? Maybe not…

This reflects well what I explained earlier speaking about Coates role in first phase of build-up. As the central defender, he doesn’t have to cover wide areas, and could focus on his tactical intelligence and his excellent long balls.

Amorim has also emerged many wingbacks, because of the freedom he gave to them in offensive phase, as long as they replace quickly if Sporting looses the ball. Nuno Mendes and Pedro Porro are two great examples. The Spanish winger is clearly a step up in the Portuguese league, and could easily play for a club of Tottenham’s level. Sporting could loose a player with the same or similar ability to replace him. Ricardo Esgaio, the natural
successor, has several limitations.

Concerning Nuno Mendes, according to B.Oliveira (@FilosofoJogo), tactical analyst, “From an early age it was realized that the Portuguese winger would be a serious case. He revealed everything that was required for a top lateral defender: speed, strength, technique, quality in the tackle and strong in the offensive moment. Its sale, replaced by the arrival of Pablo Sarabia on loan, also turned out to be positive for the club and for the player (…) it would never be possible for Sporting to hire.”

Sporting CP biggest transfers (net values) from 2020 to 2022 (Source :

As we can see, Sporting’s tactical identity allowed them to sell with an interesting amount of money, considering COVID crisis and the loss of revenues clubs had during that period. However, replace these players is the key part to make this business model sustainable. That’s why the biggest challenge for Sporting is to rely on Amorim’s philosophy without being trapped in the result matrix. If Amorim leaves, there is no guarantees Sporting will continue to build a sound and innovative tactical identity responding to the business model’s demands.

Is that business model sustainable for Sporting CP ?

That’s the most difficult question to answer. If we look under a short-mid term prisma, this pattern has shown many positive arguments to say yes. However, Sporting CP strongly relies on Amorim’s success in his tactical identity. Would be Sporting CP more competitive if they managed to keep their players 2–3 years more before selling them, in order to increase this sustainability ? When we take a look at the average age Sporting CP sells their players from the acamedy (20), it’s also a risk to have a two years cycle in matter of performance on the pitch and in net sales.

“Football has changed and is different. Football is an economic and financial medium. We have many examples of players who migrate to Arabias to make money. Nowadays, there are no longer those players who prefer to stay at their clubs for love or passion. There is a lot of money involved and players are increasingly professional and look first and foremost at their careers. It is impossible for a club like Sporting to keep a player like Matheus Nunes or Porro. And these players will play for teams that are not fighting for titles. But they will play for the biggest league in the world, the biggest European stage and, above all, they will earn three or four times more than Sporting can pay in wages. Who wouldn’t rather play in the English League than in the Portuguese League?”

Sportin Tático, Sporting CP expert, explained well modern constraints the club face to keep their player. Primeira Liga has not the arguments of the Premier League, financially, tactically… In my opinion, this is a fact we can’t do anything about it. Yet, I truly believe all circles have to be broken, at some point, to change mentalities. The only actors that can have a major change in Portuguese leagues are FC Porto, Benfica SL and Sporting CP. Those three giants have the power to improve Primeira Liga’s club’s infrastructures, letting small clubs sign talents before hiring them directly from South America countries, and so on.

Did ex-Sporting players adapt well to the new championships ? Globally, that’s a yes. Moreover, clubs hired them because of the current system they gad, so the transition could be as smooth as possible. The example of Matheus Nunes is accurate when you look at the role he has for Wolves. Leonardo Bertozzi has been “impressed by how quickly they adapted, specially to the pace of the game”.

Matheus Nunes vs Spurs and Manchester City

It is a very good sign sent to all european clubs that Sporting players from the academy or recruitments are reliable options.
But is it enough to make the business model (selling players with a high rate of profitability) sustainable ?

“Great sales were made thanks to the performance of players in this system, Palhinha, Matheus Nunes, Nuno Mendes and Porro, are examples of the good work done by Amorim in his 343 or 523. But is it enough? This is where my opinion is different.
While many analyse the sales, more million less million, the success passes through purchases, that’s where Sporting has to make a difference (…) In other words, this system is sustainable the more assertive the purchases are.”

Joao Castro pointed out well the condition of Sporting business model sustainability. If Sporting keeps that performant scouting department (for the academy, for the players abroad), they will increase the chances of success both in their tactical/economical sustainability.

The balance is always difficult to find. When you sell too much players, you have to replace more players, fitting in Amorim 3–4–3 system, potentially creating unbalance. Tiago, a Sporting CP fan, explains : “Our financial position is fragile and so we had to sell. What i don’t understand is why a club sells both starting midfielders on the same window transfers!”

Sporting CP managed to rebuild a sound tactical identity, thanks to Ruben Amorim, young coach with a consequent potential in the future to be a top European coach. Sporting business model benefit a lot from this Renaissance and allowed Green&White to win trophies. Now their best players have been sold, Sporting CP has to show to Europe their business model is sustainable, with stable principles of play and performant scouting department to find new talents, for the first team and the academy.