An In-depth Analysis of Benfica, Arsenal’s next Europa League Opponent

Benfica, an impressionist preview

See the source image

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 …

See the source image

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.



15 thoughts on “An In-depth Analysis of Benfica, Arsenal’s next Europa League Opponent

  • Bravo LG, I really enjoyed that report, scouting mission.

    English clubs, fans and football in general always underestimate Portugal whether at club or international level and have thus come unstuck on numerous occasions and Arsenal’s record in particular against Portuguese clubs is very mixed. Portuguese teams are street wise and always find a new trick to suck you in and mug you off so I’m not under any illusions as to the difficulty Arsenal face vs Benfica if they are to progress in this vital competition.

    It’s interesting LG that you mentioned that their Coach would be happy with two 0-0 draws and take it to penalties because as I was reading your piece I though that a 0-0 at home would be a good result, no away goals at Ashburton Grove then we go into the 2nd leg at the Stadium of Light as a straight one off knockout cup tie.

    Arteta being Spanish won’t fall into the trap many Brits make, he wont underestimate a Portuguese club or Coach, we might even match them over the two games switching to three at the back again?

    Regarding the game, Benfica vs Porto is like Man Utd vs Liverpool, no love lost between those two and because of the antipathy I reckon that the domestic refs allow them more latitude when it comes to physical challenges/assaults. They won’t be allowed that leniency in the UEFACup but they’ll still be sly.
    Also Benfica are the Man Utd of Portugal and that manifests itself in many ways, as in the domestic referees in Port seem to allow Benfica to get away with what every other team is pulled up for, Benfica also get the United penalty that we all know so well. Therefore although that game is a guide and a very good guide well described by William the Conqueror, the violence on display is unlikely to be replicated in our game as long as we have a decent referee.

    It’s going to be two fascinating match ups and I’m looking forward to them, I always enjoy the tactical chess that European football brings to the table and if Arsenal need penalties to progress then bring it on mio amigos…

  • A great analysis, LeG. I am always wary of playing Portuguese clubs as per the way they set up and love to play against teams that come and attack them. Arsenal are well warned and our opponent will be much more known to us after reading your post. Thanks.

  • To be fair, when I saw that the draw has given us Benfica, I had a sense of trepidation at having to get such a good side so soon. However, there is no better time when you get into knock out stage.

    I won’t worry much about their physical game as such rough house tactics won’t be condoned in the European competitions. Besides, they should also be worrying about how we are likely to dominate them, instead.

    The article is a good warning though, for our team and manager, to prepare well for a potential battle. We would be good.

  • Anyone else watch Fat Sam Allardyce lead his WBA side to get a win at Wolves? Clearly, the fact it is a local Derby may have helped pump up the players, with WBA parading 3 Arsenal old boys in Gibbs, Kyle Bartley and Ajayi.

    Did anyone see that result coming?

  • I saw the 2nd half Eris and on that evidence you have to suspect that Sam might pull it off again?

  • Thanks Kev, for acknowledging Geoff Barnett. He, well named due to his mini afro, was mainly understudy to the great Bob Wilson and then was replaced by Jimmy Rimmer. I still carry the chagrin from the mugging Benfica gave us at Highbury in ’91. After a sound 1-1 in Lisbon (Kev Campbell), Colin Pates (remember him) gave us a lead which was cancelled out by the live wire Isaias. GG asked the lads to step up in extra time to avoid penalties and we got hit by two break away goals. My wife had given me the ticket and I returned home to St Albans heart broken, having waited since ’72 for a crack at the European Cup.

  • Yes thanks Le Gall a very interesting report. More recently didn’t Lord Bendtner score a hat-trick against Porto maybe? As you say its going to be a tough one.

    Kev ,yep sad to hear about Geoff Barnett. Given the amount of times that Bob Wilson tried to Break his own Neck, driving at forwards feet, I don’t think Geoff played that many games. Pretty sure I saw Bob Wilson injured against Stoke in the semi-final that year and John Radford had to go in goal. I seem to remember Geoff wasn’t the tallest keeper in the world.

    As you say Geoff Barnett was in the final against horrible Leeds United. Seems everybody loves them now.

    RIP Geoff

    As an aside my Brighton supporting friend was telling me today about this guy they’ve got from South Africa called Percy Tau. Apparently he has a huge fan club in South Africa and some of his supporters were telling Brighton supporters on line how good he is etc. Too good for Brighton etc

    One of the Brighton supporters but back I said I bet you don’t even know where Brighton is? Of course we do one of them replied you are fourth from bottom.

  • Lol, retsub1. South Africans can be extremely passionate about their best players and Percy Tau is one they adore and even venerate. He is quick and quite skillful; can turn unwary defenders inside out, when on song. He will help but it may require more than just him to get Brighton out of trouble.

  • Sad that Ozil is nearing the end of his Arsenal career. I still feel that a rampaging number 10 is still relevant, but obviously Mikel doesn’t.

    Anyway, thanks LeGall on the scouting report. Someone please forward it to Mikel and his coaches please.

  • That’s a fine analysis Le Gall, I never watch European games except for the CL and The Euro League so it helps me better understand what our opposition are capable of – thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s