The first quarter of Benfica’s first game since the inevitable sacking of Bruno Lage was filled with fouls which slowed the tempo down, but it would not stop The Eagles from going on and taking the game by the scruff of the neck. The title contenders took advantage of Boavista’s unstructured shape out of possession. Nelson Veríssimo, the man that took over from Lage not even a week before the match-up with Boavista, already instilled some interesting offensive ideas which wore and ultimately broke down the opposition in just 45 minutes.
This tactical analysis will dissect these very tactics, why they were so effective, what the opposition did and did not do to stop them, and will be finished by a conclusion of Benfica‘s 3-1 win over Boavista in the empty Estadio de Luz.
In charge of his first official Benfica game, interim manager Veríssimo opted for a 4-4-2, but as always the shape of the team on the grass would not be as rigid as the ink on paper. Full-backs Nuno Tavares and André Almeida would stay wide at all times in possession, with Cervi and Pizzi playing as inverted forwards between the lines. Either Julian Weigl or Gabriel would drop between the centre-backs to open up passing lanes further up the pitch.
Daniel Ramos’ Boavista would play in a 4-5-1 block as they did not have more than 30% of the ball during the game. The team in 10th position on the Liga NOS table would hardly have a sniff at Benfica’s goal, despite striker Cassiano leading the line, alongside Gustavo Sauer and Fernando Cardozo.
Social distancing between the lines
Ramos’ Boavista are a very spacious football team in both the offensive as the defensive phase, but this lack of compactness backfires against sides with the physical and technical strength of Benfica.
In the second phase (the middle of the pitch), the Boavista defensive and midfield lines let too much space in between them, allowing Benfica to occupy this critically important zone of the pitch on multiple occasions. The home side often found players in those areas thanks to deep passes from the centre-backs, Weigl who dropped between them, or even midfielders themselves. This zone is critical because receiving the ball here attracts multiple opponents, vacating the wider spaces for runners.
Boavista started in a 4-5-1 block with a staggered midfield line, but switched to a 4-1-4-1 to defend the deeper zones in midfield to counter Benfica’s progressive play there.
The midfield line was staggered in the sense that no midfielders defended at the same vertical height. This not only meant it would compliment their pressing strategy of one midfielder rushing out to disrupt the carrier, but – in theory – it should have also helped them to defend the central zones. Yet, as previously mentioned, their lines would space themselves too far out to defend Benfica’s players successfully.
Benfica’s offensive patterns
The home side created a multitude of clear cut chances and eventually also scored three VAR-approved goals, thanks to their attacking prowess, which troubled the visitors for 95 long minutes.
Benfica played a 3-1-6 formation for most of the game, as they had 63% possession. The front six overloaded Boavista’s original four defenders, but in some situations the midfielders made it a back five. Yet, this still did not change the numerical disadvantage Ramos had to deal with. Benfica’s wing-backs held the width in a very expansive manner, and mostly found themselves to be the spare man on the far-side.
This pattern would be put into effect by the home side on numerous occasions, much to the displeasure of the Boavista full-backs. As highlighted in the picture, the wide areas would often be dominated by Benfica players in either a 2v1 or 2v2 situation. Both scenarios can be lethal for a defence, and this game was only testament to that. Benfica used quick combinations to get around (or through) Boavista’s block in the wide areas, or put in great crosses – one of which ended up in a disallowed goal for Carlos Vinicius.
Most of the game was played in Boavista’s half, despite their relatively high line. Once again the wide areas are unprotected on both sides, with Benfica’s central core also dominating the ball area with a 4v2 overload. Boavista’s passive press encouraged Benfica to carry the ball or pass through their lines in order to reach more advanced attackers. This particular picture highlights the structure Benfica had in possession. The wingers Cervi and Pizzi are on the inside of the full-back – in the half-space – leaving the wide zones open for the full-backs. Also, the zone in between the Boavista defensive and midfield lines is occupied at all times.
Everywhere except between the lines (until Boavista switched to a 4-1-4-1 formation), Boavista man-marked the opposition. By marking the lone pivot, the visitors attempted to nullify their ball progression, and they marked the wide players with their full-backs. What Daniel Ramos and his coaching staff had not thought of, was that Benfica did not use their pivot often to progress the ball, nor that their full-backs would not be able to stop Benfica’s quick and creative wide players.
This picture too illustrates Benfica’s occupation of the zones between the lines. As noted earlier in this analysis, the Benfica centre-backs were allowed to venture down the pitch (especially Ruben Dias in the red zone) and had time and space to pick out some crisp passes.
Boavista were first of all not compact enough in their defensive approach, which offered not only Benfica’s ball carriers but also receivers too much space. Secondly, they didn’t show any form of staggering (tilting the shape to prevent diagonal out-to-in passes) which helped Benfica even more on the ball.
Another reason as to why Champions League qualification-hunting Benfica found it so easy to carve open Boavista was the opponent’s full-back’s lack of awareness defensively; they did not remain on the same horizontal line of their centre-backs, allowing space in behind for the dangerous home side.
This not only happened in the third phase, but also in Boavista’s midblock, as seen on other pictures in this article. This photo, however, also illustrates a chance-creating method Benfica used more often than not in this game. Appelt, the player in possession in this frame, is situated in the half-space, a lane between the central and wide spaces. Gabriel Appelt Pires receives in this zone, where Kevin de Bruyne of Manchester City likes to operate, is a trigger for Pizzi to initiate his run to the back post. Passes from these areas are so deadly, because of the deadly angle this zone generates. In addition to that, the runner also moves in the dead spot or blind side of the defenders, as their eyes are all fixed on the ball.
Losing the ball: defensive transitioning
Benfica did not experience any costly turnovers in this game, despite those phases being the only real opportunities Boavista to score a goal.
Possibly derived from Pep Guardiola’s six-second rule at Barcelona, the new-look Benfica pressed the ball without any set pressing scheme after losing it for approximately six seconds long. After those seconds, the average football team recovers and can completely transition to its offensive structure, according to Pep’s philosophy. This high press meant Benfica would reclaim the ball on multiple occasions, leading to dangerous shots from in and around the penalty area.
Of course, this tactic did not work every single time. In those situations, Boavista would settle and try to get within the flow of the game – a game in which they were second-best for over 90 minutes.
When Boavista had the ball for extended spells, Benfica would tightly mark their double pivot through which the team likes to progress play. In their defensive 4-1-4-1, the striker would also curve his pressing run to close the centre-back’s passing angles, forcing the ball to the full-back. This pass acts as a pressing trigger for the winger to jump to the receiving player.
A wide line of pressing midfielders
Boavista’s 4-5-1 formation would – on paper- keep out vertical passes, but they allowed too much space in their backs for the opponents to freely move into.
Cassiano would press either the pivot or the ball carrier, attempting to deny Benfica comfortable spells in possession. The five midfielders tried their hand at shutting down the centre of the pitch by marking the lone pivot and spreading themselves horizontally. Benfica however, positioned themselves behind them and played the game in those zones, free of midfield pressure.
Boavista’s little chance creation
The visitors did not create a lot of chances and certainly barely any open-play chances during Saturday’s match-up, which was not really reflected in the scoreline.
Boavista deserve credit for using their deep free-kicks so effectively; scoring one goal from the two they were given by the referee. They overloaded the unattended far-side of the Benfica line to move in their blindside, giving Benfica a taste of their own medicine. The other Boavista players were well-distributed horizontally, to knock in the second ball after the far-side players would lay it off in the middle. On this occasion, however, the ball accidentally went straight in off Gustavo Dulanto.
Boavista did not take advantage of the momentum they gained from this, and the match slowly petered out until Carlos Vinicius had a late goal disallowed.
Nelson Veríssimo’s Benfica took full advantage of Boavista’s disjointed defensive structure, progressing the ball between the lines, but also overloading the wide spaces and creating clear cut chances by occupying the half-spaces. This 3-1 win leaves Benfica three points behind league leaders Porto, while having played a game more. It remains to be seen if interim coach Veríssimo can continue to impress the Benfica board to warrant him a full-time contract at the helm of Portugal’s huge club.