The Perils of Being Up a Man

From the Touchline

It must feel wonderful as a manager to not have to worry about tactics.

At least, that is what many people assume happens when a team goes up a man. When a player is sent off, the team down a player loses any obligation to create a smart tactical plan. Your goal is to make the best of a bad situation and try not to give up a goal (or two). As a manager, it is actually quite ideal. Your tactics no longer matter because of the actions of one of your players. Yes, losing hurts but if the card is shown when your team is not losing, the blame falls on the dumb player, not necessarily you.

Porto’s 2-0 loss to Juventus shows how a quick red card in a match can alter the expectations of the managers involved.

Alex Telles in a way saved Nuno Santo by placing blame for a loss on the player, not the manager. When the match began, the home side seemed unprepared for Juve’s 4-4-2 formation and conceded the majority of the possession early on. This is nonsensical; Porto’s home record was immense and has historically been so. The Portuguese side should have been on the front foot, pinning Juventus back especially with the Italian side missing a suspended Leonardo Bonucci. Instead, it was the inferior team early on.

The red card covered for these tactical errors. Once Telles slid in again with his studs showing, Porto immediately made the change to the traditional 4-4-1 formation. Because it was early in the match, they needed to hold the scoreless draw and try to snatch a goal which is the exact opposite of how they should have played. Andre Silva was sacrificed as the attacking player for defensive reinforcements, which led to little from Porto in the attack for most of the match.

On the other side line, the red card changed the narrative for Juventus for the better. Going into the match, the stories focused on the dust-up between Masimilliano Allegri and Bonucci, leading to the latter’s suspension. Going into a Champions League round of 16 match without one of the world’s best defenders was risky, but Allegri must have either felt (a) supernaturally confident in his side’s talent, (b) the crime necessitated an extreme reaction, or (c) some combination of the two. Once Porto withdrew Silva, the biggest threat to the still good but incomplete backline was gone.

The narrative for the Italians then became if they would score, but even that was not essential. A 0-0 draw, despite being up a man, was not an embarrassing result for either side. Juventus certainly looked like a scoreless draw was in their best interest as they slowly probed the Porto defence. They had their chances, but did not commit too much to the attack to prevent counters. Then Allegri turned the tale. His substitutions of Marko Pjaca and Dani Alves made an immediate impact, as Porto failed to adjust to the changed style of play quick enough to prevent two goals.

Entering the game, the talk was if Allegri was crazy. Leaving the stadium, his genius was being praised and no one was blaming Santo for it. It is amazing how two dumb challenges early on can negate the criticisms usually heaped on a manager.