Benfica, an impressionist preview
Well, yesterday was the day of the big game in (Porto-Benfica) Portugal. I was right in front of my TV screen at 21.00 (London time), and “impressionist” is because even though I don’t know 2021 Portuguese football well, I had to watch the game with the sound turned off, since my wife was watching tv 3 feet to my left – which is why some details are bound to have eluded me.
Anyway, to the point (at last): it was not a football game, it was a “football” battle. The players spent their time kicking one another about the pitch – all the more so since refereeing was awful, much, much too lenient, so much so that in the second half things were not far from being out of control (both benches should have been sent off for threatening to invade the pitch).
Benfica? Mates, we’re in for a very bumpy ride. They are a well-organized, well-drilled, … dirty team (I’ve always loved Portuguese football, but I really can’t put it otherwise). They were presented in 4-4-2:
but they are almost always three in central defence: at the moment they get into possession, Weigl slides back between Otamendi and Vertonghen, so that they turn into:
when they are dispossessed, they shift to:
Of course, the key players in that system are those who are asked to shift positions in the blink of an eye. Two are outstanding, imo:
Weigl, a DM who has made me think a lot of young Busquets – he has the same seemingly effortless turnarounds right in the middle of pressing opponents, always followed by one of these key passes dear to PB, either short of long (his decision-making is excellent). He has the responsibility of putting the team back on track when in possession, which is why he slides back to CB position, from where he plays like a 21st century Beckenbauer. I don’t think he gave the ball away once, and I think he was the only player on the pitch not to have committed any foul. It might be a good idea to have a guy marking/pressing him in those Beckenbauer moments, Laca is good at that.
Rafa Siva, a right-wing-attacking-midfielder, who had already impressed me against Santa Clara: just as Kieran is our spark, he is Benfica’s; he was the one who made me think that the great tradition of fast, skilful, imaginative, combative too, Portuguese (I think he’s Portuguese, he might be Brazilian, now I think of it) players has not been wiped out. You can’t help but feel sorry for him, thinking of what he could provide in a more attack-minded team.
There was something eery about the way they played, because I couldn’t help but have in mind what Mikel tried to implement at The Arsenal in his 3-at-the-back period, with Granit sliding back and Ainsley sliding forward. The flaws in Benfica’s game are the same as ours were, then: predictability, lack of creativity. Most of their attacks are bound to end up with a high-ball-cross from one of either wings; Tavarez is good at that, Gilberto is not, and obviously kicking long-high balls into the box is neither Rafa’s nor Grimaldo’s thing, so that for whole spells, both players look a bit … lost.
Having said that, crossing make more sense for them than it did for us, when the recipients were either Laca or Auba who sometimes look as though they are afraid of heading Kieran’s crosses. Benfica’s target-men are made for this kind of football: Darwin-Séférovic are the Ollie-kind of CFs, strong, not very mobile, but just as with Ollie, there’s more than meets the eye in them. Darwin was not on a very good night, but you can feel there’s more to him than that; as for Séférovic, he looks almost ponderous, but he pulled a wonderful, subtle assist on Grimaldo’s goal (a great chip over the keeper, too). The goal was an example of how deadly they can be on the break; Darwin wasted a chance Rafa had provided after a great run, and the same Darwin hit the post after a very decent, quick, counter-attacking move.
More generally, I hope we won’t be on a high-ball night against them, because they are very good at it, all over the pitch, but especially in both boxes, with the attackers I just mentioned, but also with Otamendi-Vertonghen in their own box, as well as with Odysseas who strikes me as being an excellent keeper indeed.
Their taste for high balls goes along with a taste for elbowing the faces of the opponents competing with them. How Otamendi/Pizzi/Tavarez/Séférovic/Vertonghen were not yellowed well before HT is a mystery only the ref can solve (can he?).
Pizzi (their captain!!!) was the dirtiest player on the pitch; he should have been sent off after ten minutes, but only got a yellow in the second half, after Porto’s CF had been shown a red (for a leg-breaking tackle that needed to be VAR’d by the ref to be turned into a red!!).
I don’t think they can get away with such belligerent tactics in EL, but who knows? I’m afraid a player like Pizzi could get Granit-on-a-bad-night to be sent off, I’m also afraid Jorge Jesus might do his homework well, identify Kieran as our main (only?) danger, and put a contract over his head. Refereeing will be key, anyway.
What can I say? They’re not a great team, and the Santi-Aaron-Mesut-Alexis Arsenal would have wounded them, because of the lack of mobility of key defensive players (Otamendi-Vertonghen-Pizzi). 2021 Arsenal I’m not that sure. Key passes delivered over or through their defending line from the space between the edge of the centre circle and the edge of their penalty area can hurt them, as one of them did on Porto’s equalizer, but those are tricky passes and there are not many among the lads who are sure providers of them. Of course the other solution, is the kind of move that ended up with Bukayo’s goal against WBA, Emil is very good at triggering them, actually Emil-Laca-Bukayo is the perfect trident for such moves, so …
They’ll be a tough nut to crack, that’s for sure, because they have a clear plan, which is to annihilate the other team’s strengths, and physically intimidate them. Jorge Jesus’s coaching is the perfect illustration of that; in both games I saw he took out his only creative players, Waldschmidt (who had been the best player on the pitch – he wasn’t even picked yesterday) against Santa Clara, and Grimaldo/Rafa yesterday. Two goalless draws and kicking us out after a penalty shootout wouldn’t bother him at all, from what I’ve seen. There’s no way we’ll make it to the next round with a “B” or “A’” team – and let’s all pray for Bernd to be kept out of harm’s way; Rúnarsson under their high-ball-bombing is the stuff an eternity of nightmares is made on. On the other hand, Gilberto is their obvious weaker link, and since he’ll have to face Kieran, both nights may turn into nightmares for him and his team too.
By LE GALL