(Before I begin, quick shoutout to KingBryan, whose videos I linked copiously throughout this blog. He makes great compilations for Sporting CP players. Give him a follow on Twitter @KingBryanR20 and subscribe to him on YouTube.)
Sunday marked the end of another season of the greatest sport on Earth all across Europe, the final matchday of club football for all major leagues not named Serie A. The moment was bittersweet for most, the climax of the season where leagues were won, Champions League spots were earned and relegation was avoided at the 11th hour being counterbalanced by the dread of having to wait another four months for the season to be in full swing again.
That dread, though, affects supporters of some clubs more than others.
A majority of supporters of Sporting Clube de Portugal will be relieved that the nightmare 2016-17 season has finally come to an end.
There’s no sugarcoating it, no escaping the blatant reality — the Lions underperformed massively this season.
Coming off one of its greatest seasons of the new millennium, one spoiled by a monumental collapse in which it lost a 9 point lead in first place to eternal rivals Benfica, the Lions took a step back rather than a step forward.
Jorge Jesus, then a first-year manager at his boyhood club attempting to break a 11 year championship drought in Alvalade, saw the confidence from the supporters who lauded him for the brilliant football his team was playing drop significantly upon watching Benfica celebrate a third straight title.
(Watch this, and this, and this. When the team was playing at its best, they were genuinely brilliant to watch. Suffocated teams in recovering the ball and in attacking, gorgeous combination play across the pitch, held its own defensively. Without a doubt the best football I’ve seen Sporting play and perhaps the best since the days of Mario Jardel, João Pinto, Sá Pinto, Niculae.
Rewatching those clips, I have no doubt in my mind — that team deserved to win the title. Easily the best side in the league, that group of players was special. What a shame.)
His second year was a chance at redemption, but instead his squad fell on its face in an ugly campaign.
The football was nowhere near as great as it had been a year prior, the drama outside the pitch was heating up thanks to the club’s outspoken president Bruno de Carvalho (whose persona, personality and impact on Sporting which earned him the title of “Donald Trump of Football” deserves an entire post in his own right), performances in the Champions League were embarrassing, quite frankly, and the title was nothing more than a pipe dream midway through the campaign.
Now, while most of the blame will fall on his shoulders, this wasn’t entirely Jesus’ fault — he was tasked with replacing the irreplaceable João Mario in midfield and his warrior striker Islam Slimani, both sold in the summer.
Bas Dost, a striker signed from the Bundesliga’s VFL Wolfsburg for a club record 10 million Euros, filled in nicely for Slimani, scoring 34 goals in 31 games. The Dutchman’s output was the fifth largest in Portuguese league history, the best goalscoring season in the country since Mario Jardel’s European leading 42 goal season for the Lions in 2001-02 — coincidentally the last season in which Sporting won the title.
Dost came three goals short of winning the same award, with Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (who?) leading the continent with 37, but the greatness of his campaign can’t be overstated.
The same can’t be said for many of his teammates, with none of his fellow summer signings having a positive season and many of those who had been at the club the season prior seeing a drastic drop in form.
- Bryan Ruiz was a shadow of the suave star he was in his first season at Alvalade, never recovering from missing that sitter in the Lisbon Derby against Benfica, a goal which would’ve won the championship for Sporting.
- Jefferson, a left-back once praised for his ability to storm forward and add depth on the wings, his venemous crosses finding Slimani’s head in the penalty area many a times, couldn’t whip in a quality ball to save his life.
- Ruben Semedo, a once promising center back, was a traffic cone, losing his spot in the starting 11 midway through the campaign as he was increasingly at fault for his club’s shortcomings on the backline.
- William Carvalho, a player I pegged to be the best defensive midfielder in the world when I saw him play in his first season with Sporting, felt disconnected at times, rarely putting in a shift that reminded me of the imposing figure he’s expected to be in midfield.
To be clear, I think Carvalho continues to be one of the best in his position in the world, as he showed at the European Championships with Portugal last summer.
He’s intimidating as a defender, swallowing opposing players dribbling at him, stealing the ball with the ease of a seasoned pick-pocketer, while calm and collected on the ball, spraying it across the pitch to open play and find the teammate in the best position to advance play.
But he often wasn’t that man this season, a disappointing end to his career as his Lion considering he’s all but guaranteed to be sold for a solid return in the summer.
I don’t believe Carvalho is the only one on his way out of Lisbon this offseason, either, but we’ll get to that another day.
Before looking into what is coming this summer, lets go through the failures of the past offseason.
There was some bad luck — Lukas Spalvis, the original substitute for Slimani who had scored 18 goals in 30 games in Denmark the year prior, tore his ACL in his second pre-season game with the club, recovered in time for the second half of the season only to suffer a muscle injury two weeks later that ruled him out for the rest of the season.
But those who stayed didn’t fare much better.
- Alan Ruiz, a second striker/No. 10 coming in to play behind Spalvis/Bas Dost, didn’t live up to the level of expectations put upon him until midway through his first season, far too late to save Sporting from the hole he helped dig it into.
- Joel Campbell and Lazar Markovic, two big name loans from Premier League clubs, were complete flops, often thrown in as last ditch saviors and finding little success in that role.
- Elias, a once-club record signing who flopped in his first stay in Portugal, was resigned again, a dumb decision made evident by the fact he was sold back to Brazil for the same price he came for four months later.
The rest of the bunch — Andre, Luc Castaignos, Marcelo Meli, Douglas — were simply horrendous signings which are indefensible.
It all culminated in a flop of a season, another dud in 15 year streak of them. A stretch of three draws and a defeat in five matches in the early season was the main speed bump on the road the Lions tripped on, causing them to fall behind rivals Benfica and Porto, deficits it they were never able to recover.
The most outlandish of the results was the one that transpired in Guimaraes against Vitoria SC. Sporting dominated one of the league’s best sides in the first half, building up a 3-0 lead that appeared insurmountable. But the home side didn’t give in, clawing their way back into the match minute by minute. As Guimaraes grew into the game, taking control and creating increasingly more chances with, Sporting shrank, getting run back into its own area and defending its lead.
The result was one of the greatest comebacks in Primeira Liga history, an embarrassing 3-3 draw for Sporting that signalled the beginning of the end of the Lions’ attack of the title.
From there, it was the type of matches that have doomed Sporting throughout the past decade and a half.
It was the 1-1 draw at home against Tondela — which escaped relegation on the final matchday in thrilling fashion after winning 5 of its last 6 matches.
It was the 0-0 deadlock at the Choupana against Nacional, by far the worst team in the league which finished in dead-last with just 21 points in 24 games.
It was the 2-2 draws at home to Chaves and in Madeira against Maritimo, those grinding matches against clubs who put 11 players past the ball and dare you to throw everything you have to put the ball in the back of the net.
Those are the matches clubs need to sweat out to become champions, games Benfica has routinely come out of on the right side throughout its current four-year dynasty and ones Porto scoffed at during its 5-year reign over the league in the mid-2000’s.
These vitorias a campeao as they call it in Portugal have escaped everyone from Paulo Bento to Leonardo Jardim to Marco Silva all the way until Jorge Jesus — the lack of garra, of fight, of desire is an institutional one, a curse seemingly looming over the players, the manager, the supporters.
So while it is vital that the club invest smartly in the summer, making the right sales and the right purchases for the right price to fill in the many gaps in depth, unless Sporting buys MSN from Barcelona, the biggest need are players who can resolve those situations.
Slimani was that for Sporting last season, carrying his side to victory so many times, but even his contributions weren’t enough to avoid one of, if not the worst choke in the history of Portuguese football.
Adrien Silva, the box-to-box midfielder who is the engine of the team both on the pitch and in spirit, is all but gone in the summer — he went as far as to give an exclusive interview to O Jogo saying he was off to Leicester City before returning to Sporting — leaving another hole in leadership.
If Bas Dost doesn’t grow into that clutch player role that Slimani, Liedson and Mario Jardel have been in the past for Sporting, or if the club can’t replace the seemingly irreplaceable presence of its current captain, it’s likely that a year from now, Sportinguista’s will be saying the same thing they are saying now and have been saying for the past 15 years — next year will be the year.