On the 10th of June 2020, Portimonense battled against Benfica in a tide-turning game of football which lasted 99 minutes. The goals, the drama, the comeback and the quality itself was a great advert for Portuguese football and the Liga NOS in particular.
The following tactical analysis of the 2-2 draw will look at the systems both teams deployed in possession, in transitions and out of possession. Before, the conclusion, this analysis will also include set-pieces.
On paper, Portimonense lined up in a traditional 4-2-3-1 formation, but in reality, their medium block was often shaped in a 4-4-2. League leaders Benfica came into the game with Carlos Vinicius and Rafa Silva leading the line, while QPR one-season wonder Adel Taarabt found himself next to Julian Weigl in the pivot.
A game of two halves
Benfica, coached by Bruno Lage, had more physical capabilities than their counterparts and this showed in their high pressing. From the first whistle on, Benfica would press and try to play on the front foot in all phases. Both centre-forwards Rafa and Carlos Vinicius were asked to be the first line in defence, by pushing the ball to a certain side of the field. This was part of Benfica’s pressing trap to lure them into underloaded areas, where they eventually would lose the ball. Exit routes such as through the centre in the screenshot above, were sealed off using tight man-marking tactics.
In other defensive actions, such as the second phase, Benfica would settle in a 4-4-2 shape. The benefit of this 4-4-2 formation lies in the reference points; defenders and midfielders position themselves in accordance with their teammates. This set-up, one of the oldest in the book, seems very structural on the eye and thus, players find it easier to correctly position themselves. Hence, many coaches coming into a relegation-threatened job, tend to deploy this formation at first.
Yet, this formation also has its downsides. Due to its rectangular nature, the general shape is vulnerable to diagonal passes and diagonal runs. Besides, it doesn’t offer the best wing protection either.
The picture above shows Benfica’s 4-4-2 set-up, similar to Atletico Madrid‘s. Rafa Silva and Carlos Vinicius press based on the location of the ball in the second phase. In this particular game, versus a back three, one striker would track a wide ball-carrier and deny out-to-in passes (into the centre). When the most central defender would possess the ball, Carlos and Rafa would stick together to refuse vertical passes into Portimonense’s midfielders.
Before the break, Portimonense failed to capitalise on the yellow-marked space. Benfica’s gap between their first and second lines allowed a lot of space, which the second-to-last placed team in Liga NOS did not occupy just yet.
Benfica’s offensive patterns
In possession, Benfica would use their superior quality on a technical, cognitive and tactical level to bypass the Portimonense block.
A key principle of defending is to remain compact at all times. Nowadays, it is very rare to come across a professional team that fails to do so. A principle often forgotten – despite it being just as vital – is the press on the ball-carrier. If there is no aggressive pressing, the ball-carrying has space and time – two of football’s most important components – and can pick out a free teammate.
Benfica tries to have a free teammate through overloading the central spaces, as seen in the picture above. With five players between Portimonense’s defensive lines and three behind the ball, Benfica attracts defensive players. This overload is used to underload in open spaces, such as in the wide areas, due to the compactness of the block in width.
Portimonense altered their horizontal spacing across the backline to remain in access of that free full-back or winger. Benfica exploited this to perfection; Rafa Silva recognised the gap which appeared the left-back and centre-back. A great run was picked out after Ruben Dias carried the ball unopposed. A pin-point vertical pass splitting Portimonense set up a great opportunity which goal scorer Pizzi capitalised on.
The diagonal lane marked white however does not represent the trajectory of the ball, but the space left open by the home side due to a lack of staggering. Ideally, in a defensive set-up, routes into the block needs to be covered in a defender or midfielder’s shadow. This means that the central midfielder marking Rafa should move to his left to cover up the diagonal lane opened up.
A second-half comeback worth remembering
Going into the interval 0-2 down, little belief was left that Portimonense could still upset the league leaders. Yet, Antonio Folha’s side came out of the blocks flying. In the first half, Portimonense would build with two centre-backs, which was easily disrupted by the pressing front two of Rafa Silva and Carlos Vinicius. To defeat this 2v2 game, a midfielder would often drop out to shape a three at the back. This offers more angles in possession for forward passes, but is also safer in transitions.
As soon as the ball was kicked, Portimonense would now deploy a back three to help progression in all lanes of the pitch. The midfield duo was now split into a lone pivot and a higher 8, playing off the striker. The wing-backs would provide width, and together with other right-sided players, he would overload Chelsea-linked Alex Grimaldo.
In their successful attempts to progress the ball through Benfica’s 4-4-2, Portimonense would use their opponent’s marking tactics to their advantage.
The movement made by the central midfielder, namely dropping closer to the ball-carrier, has one purpose. The player doesn’t mean to receive the ball (especially not in direct contact with his marker), but solely to create space in behind him, in his back. This is possible due to, once again, his marker following him. Other runners, who do mean to get onto the end of the pass, can run in behind. Ultimately, the red rectangle will continue to widen, offering Portimonense more space when they arrive around the box for a cutback.
Portimonense, pressing and preventing penetration
In the second half, Benfica barely had extended spells of possession on the ball; as Portimonense dominated and intimidated them. “The Eagles” tried their hand at central progression of the ball, but crashed in Portimonense’s pressing traps.
Benfica, who found success in wide attacks earlier in the game, opted for central possession due to Portimonense’s wider set-up. Full-backs who now received out wide, were instantly pressed in a 1v1 situation. Hence, the team in red tried to reach their double pivot.
After being found by an out-to-in pass, the Benfica midfield were suddenly trapped by three opposition midfielders and two strikers. This quick and sudden pressure caused many turnovers, which only contributed to Portimonense’s momentum and eventually, their comeback.
Set-pieces, dynamic advantages and two goals
Of course, we need to take a look at how Portimonense scored their shock goals. The first one came from a corner, very soon after the break.
As highlighted in the screenshot here, due to their static positioning, the Benfica players will struggle to compete with their opponents. The Portimonense players have dynamic advantage because their leap will – on average – be greater because of the run they have already made. To counter this physical situation, defenders make little jumps before the kick is taken.
Portimonense capitalised by attacking the spaces between the defenders, which were also too wide. On other occasions, the far post was attacked as Benfica underloaded this zone. The furthest defender often found himself in a 1v1 situation with his back turned to his direct opponent, which only enlarged his disadvantages.
Benfica struggled to cope with this feat on several occasions, such as on free-kicks.
In this picture, we can also see the ‘safety net’ Portimonense used to stop turnovers. Once again, however, Benfica lost the aerial duels due to the dynamic disadvantage. A more effective way of countering this would have been to deploy a few of the zonal markers as blockers; their task would be to stand in the way and thus block the momentum Portimonense players gain in their run towards goal.
Last but not least, came Junior Tavares’ wonder strike in the 76th minute. As the random positioning of the Benfica players suggests, the goal fell after a set-piece. The goalscorer was coincidentally one of the ‘rebound players’. While the strike seemed easier to save than not to, it went in regardless. Vlachomidos did not have the reach to keep out the ball, which was probably down to his movement before the ball was flying. Goalkeepers, such as Kepa at Chelsea, have a knack to swing their arms backward before jumping. This technique is very counterproductive however, reducing reaction time, while energy also goes to waste. The latter often makes it seem like the goalkeeper has ‘weak wrists’.
League leaders Benfica lost two points by conceding two goals to second-to-bottom Portimonense. Their comeback was unexpected and on a tactical level, nothing in the first half suggested Portimonense would put up a fight, but they grabbed by the scruff of their neck and fought very well to ultimately defy any expectations.