Friday, April 6, 2012

Benfica - how to improve for next season?

It's always hard, risky and perhaps unfair to analyse how to improve a team that were without any of their centre-backs and were two goals down (on aggregate) when one of their best players was sent off. Nevertheless, even though the Eagles left Stamford Bridge with their heads held high, that's exactly what we're going to do - because there are some specific areas that could - and should - be improved, despite Benfica's valiant attitude.

Chelsea and Benfica offered an enthralling battle last Wednesday to see which team would go on to meet Barcelona in the Champions League semi-finals. Similarly to what had happened against Braga, Benfica were willing to break the game in two and take advantage of their dynamic attacking movement. Therefore, it was hardly surprising that, like the match versus Braga, the game was packed with goal-scoring chances, great saves by the goalkeepers and a jittery home crowd.

Today we will be considering 3 particular issues: defensive positioning, defensive set pieces and defensive transitions. It's true that Benfica were unfortunate on both matches, but it's also true that Champions League powerhouses tend to make underdogs pay on those apparently minor "details". If the Eagles are to build on this season, they must be humble enough to acknowledge that there is a sizable gap between Portuguese football and this particular European competition - the sooner they own to it, the faster they will become powerhouses in their own right.

1. Defensive positioning. Benfica are often admired for their relentless attacking football, an approach that almost paid off last Wednesday. However, good defensive positioning and coverage are a foundation that any team that aspires to greatness must have. Regardless of how much damage both Bruno César and Maxi Pereira can inflict on their opponent's half, it's just as important that they master their defensive duties - something at which they have failed over and over throughout the season.

Maxi Pereira pushes high up to meet Kalou, ending up side by side with Bruno César.
Notice the space behind both Benfica players, with little coverage from Javi García.

With a simple one-two, Kalou gets into space and García is already late to cover for his team-mates.

2. Defensive set pieces. It's a well-known fact that Benfica can wreak havoc with their attacking set pieces, but it is less known that they seem to be very vulnerable on defensive ones. Lately they have conceded against FC Porto and Braga (just to mention bigger games) through this sort of play and here they were fortunate not to allow Chelsea to score from corners, in particular. Despite the recent changes Jorge Jesus made to their zonal approach, there are still tweaks to make if they are to overcome stronger sides.

Benfica insisted on concentrating a large of number of players at the near post.
As a result, David Luiz ends up alone and unmarked. Notice the space at the far post.

After a bad clearance, Luiz gets the ball unmarked and with very little coverage.
Capdevila managed to avoid disaster here.

3. Defensive transitions. Probably the single most important issue in modern football. Most teams are aware that they should take the ball away from where they won it back, because their opponent is less likely to have as many players on the blind side. They are also more and more aware that the ball should be shifted from side to side - preferably in a quick fashion - in order to find space between the lines. The thing that tends to set teams apart nowadays is their reaction to the moment they give the ball away. Sure, this is nothing that gets noticed on highlights, but take a closer look and see for yourselves. It can't be just a coincidence that the better teams are usually the ones that are better at defensive transitions - or do you really think Barcelona (for instance) is all about attack?

Both Bruno César and Maxi are caught high up. None of the makes a foul to stop the breakaway.
Benfica is about to have seven players in front of the ball.

Javi García (the team's fulcrum with his fist clenched) makes the interception seconds later
and tells his team-mates they should have "killed the play" when they could.

Notice the difference the other way around. Artur has just released the ball for a quick breakaway.
Realising how many men Chelsea had in front of the ball, Lampard quickly made the foul to stop the play.

Conclusion. All of this can be dismissed as nothing more than tactical hooey, but more often than not, these are decisive moments for the outcome of any given match. Even though Benfica can get away with defensive carelessness on most matches in the Portuguese championship, the Champions League is much more competitive - and the big sharks don't mind taking their time.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Why the best player of this season's Portuguese championship won't start at the Euro

Lately there have been numerous opinion-makers about how ludicrous it is that Hugo Viana won't start at next summer's Euro (or at least be called up to the Selecção).Indeed, the Braga midfielder has most likely been the best player in the whole league and it only makes sense that the question of his absence is posed.

In football, as in so many other areas in life, context is everything. Whether (s)he's a club manager or the coach of a national team, it's absolutely critical that the players hired/called up are chosen according to the manager's ideas, and not just because they excelled at their (previous) club. Otherwise, (s)he would be left with a bunch of players with little or nothing in common, creating chaotic scenarios that we see in football far too often (Gian Piero Gasperini's case at Inter immediately springs to mind*), in which the manager has the ungrateful task of being forced to try to concoct some game plan that accommodates everyone. In case you're wondering, that's the ideal way to ruin a team and their manager - just look at how Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City ended up spending so much money in unsuccessful newcomers (from Wayne Bridge to Shevchenko or Torres, from Robinho to Sahin, from Carroll to Charlie Adam), most of which they couldn't get rid of. As for national teams, just think of why the performances from Messi, Ronaldo, Lampard or Gerrard (to name but a few) draw so much criticism from their own fans.

As decisive as Viana has been in Braga's exhilarating season, it's important to analyse if his traits, tendencies and overall game are suitable to Paulo Bento's ideas. Regardless of how much you may or may not agree with Bento's ideas, it's still up to him to make the decision in the team's best interest and, therefore, there will be no discussion of his perspectives.

1. Braga's tactics. Leonardo Jardim's Braga usually play a 4x2x3x1, with Custódio as the holding midfielder and Viana alongside him. Additionally, Lima is a fast, mobile forward and Mossoró provides the link-up between midfield and attack. Viana's precise passing offers an alternate route to Mossoró, allowing Braga to quickly break away by bypassing Mossoró with long passes to Lima or Alan. Defensively, Braga tend to be quite conservative, dropping back and usually creating two banks of four. There are numerous players around Viana to cover for him when he strays for an attack, for instance.

2. Portugal's tactics. Again, this issue does not revolve around whether this is the best option for Portugal, rather if Hugo Viana is a suitable pick. The Portuguese eleven has traditionally lined up in a 4x3x3 for quite some time now. Paulo Bento has kept João Moutinho and Raúl Meireles, with Miguel Veloso lately getting the nod ahead of Carlos Martins. It seems clear that Bento favours a team that is capable of exerting pressure higher up when necessary, a job for which Hugo Viana does not seem fit. Unlike Braga, Portugal does not have a typical regista, which means both midfielders (ahead of Veloso) must defend and attack - if we take a closer look, Bento has been calling up players capable of doing just that, such as Meireles, Moutinho, Ruben Micael or Ruben Amorim. Even Castro or André Santos have been called up precisely because they fit the bill. With so many offensive-minded players at the back (João Pereira and Fábio Coentrão, for instance) and wingers who rarely help out defensively (Nani, Ronaldo, Quaresma), it's up to the midfielders to provide coverage, and not the other way around.

3. Portugal's approach. It only seems logical to infer from Bento's stint so far that he will be going for a different approach from Carlos Queiroz. Instead of sitting and waiting for opponents, the Selecção will be looking to stifle opponents and play with a high(er) defensive line. Again, unfortunately this does not bode well for Hugo Viana, who is particularly prone to tiring out mid-game and does not usually do well in such sides. Besides, Viana is vulnerable to being muscled out of the park (the Besiktas tie is proof enough), a threat he will face on most matches of the European Championship.

Conclusion. All in all, I don't believe that this is a case where a stubborn coach does not want to admit he got it wrong at first, rather a case where the player does not go well with the team's tactics and approach. To put things in perspective, even though they are very important at their current clubs, it would be nonsensical for Barcelona to hire Luisão, Milan to hire James Rodríguez or Manchester City to hire Matías Fernández - the teams' principles and the players' features simply do not add up. Personally, I do believe that Hugo Viana could be a valuable asset (particularly for matches where Portugal may not be the clearly superior side), but I also think that his playing time would be limited.

*Gian Piero Gasperini was hired by Inter at the start of the current season, only to be fired after five (winless) matches. The oddness of it all was that he was dismissed precisely for implementing his game plan (known to everyone for being a high-pressure and very intense one), one that didn't fit the players he had at his disposal - mostly players on the wrong side of thirty.

In a wide open contest, Benfica win it very, very late

Starting line-ups
Last Saturday, Benfica and Braga played one of three crucial matches to decide the next Portuguese champions. Aware that FC Porto had won their match a few minutes earlier, both teams knew a win here was crucial. Therefore, we were presented not with a cagey match, rather with an unbelievably open match that either side could have won.

Last night was the ultimate example of what either team did best. On one hand, Benfica kept their proverbial foot on the throttle (perhaps overcompensating last Tuesday's blander performance against Chelsea) and played relentless attacking football from the get-go. On the other hand, Braga were their usual composed selves and defended bravely and were masters at taking advantage of breakaways.

As usual, Braga's defensive approach was an almost perfect 4x4x2

The Eagles tried to smother their opponent right from the start, with Rodrigo taking the place of the suspended Aimar. The Spaniard was actually one of the reasons why Benfica had such a good start to the match. Indeed, not only did he drop off Cardozo, but he kept drifting to the left, overloading the wing with Gaitán and Capdevila (who, playing in the position of Emerson, offered different options at left-back). Braga, in turn, clearly knew what they were doing and didn't think twice about counter-attacking mainly through their left side, exploiting the space that both Maxi Pereira and Witsel (playing higher up than usual, in a similar position to the home Zenit match) left behind.

Witsel (red circle) played higher than usual

Benfica were quite good at getting the ball back high up and managed to do it often, particularly during the first half. However, when Braga got past the first pressure area and the ball got to Hugo Viana, they were extremely dangerous and often found acres of space and few opponents in front of them. Oddly enough, such an open contest didn't produce many scoring chances during the first half.

After getting past Benfica's initial pressure, Braga often found huge pockets of space to exploit.
Notice how much space and how many opponents Mossoró has in front of him.

The second half was more of the same, only crazier. Neither team could afford to drop points (especially the hosts) and, therefore, it was not surprising to see more scoring chances in the second half's first 10 minutes than in the entire first half. Benfica were even more inclined to attack in numbers, opening up spaces behind them. With Alan less defensively cautious (he was not a winger, rather a right-midfielder for the first 45 minutes), it was very hard to tell who would get the first goal.

60 minutes into the match, Jorge Jesus' men started tiring out, encouraging the away team to try their luck and get something more than just a point from the game, turning it into a free-for-all scoring-chance galore. Ironically, the first goal would come from the penalty spot, after a reckless header from Elderson - hitting Bruno César rather than the ball. Four minutes later, Braga's left-back would redeem himself tapping in a ball that bounced off Artur, after he saved Hugo Viana's free kick. The last goal came in dramatic fashion on the 92nd minute, at a time when Braga were defensively unbalanced after replacing Mossoró, Alan and Hélder Barbosa.

In short, it was strange to see such an open match from two teams that have played so well in Europe (Benfica in this year's Champions League quarter-finals and Braga as last year's Europa League runners-up), which is usually an indicator of the ability to control a game.  In tactical terms, it was interesting to realise how much last night reflected a whole season for both teams - for better and for worse - and it didn't look like a typical title decider at all. If anything, it resembled the high-scoring matches between the top 5 of the Premier League.