Sunday, August 19, 2012

Welcome back!

Starting elevens

First things first: what a great start to the Portuguese league. An entertaining match, two teams aiming for the victory, uncertainty about the result, subtle tactical changes, one penalty and one sending-off. One can only hope this is but an appetizer for what's to come throughout the remainder of the competition.

One of the key aspects worth noting is the difference in Braga's behaviour. Not so long ago, most teams were expected to play a timid game at the Luz, eager to give the initiative to the home team. It was a very refreshing and positive sign to see José Peseiro's men wanting none of that and looking to control the match. In fact, Beto was probably selected ahead of Quim precisely because of his better ability with his feet, which enabled Braga to play among the central-defenderes and their goalkeeper to avoid any potential pressure Benfica might exert up front - sometimes exaggeratedly so.

On the other hand, Jorge Jesus seems to be set in his ways and his chosen eleven almost looked like a testament to his will not to give any fire power up. In matches as even as this, prudence would probably recommend a more balanced squad (as seen last season, for instance), but Jesus was having none of that and went with Cardozo, Rodrigo, Bruno César and Salvio up front. This meant that Benfica were even willing to initiate their attacks with Javi García dropping back, almost transforming the team in a 3x3x3x1.

Javi García dropped back and both centre-backs widened their positions,
with Maxi Pereira and Melgarejo pushing forward. 

Braga, in turn, had a distinct notion of where and when to pressure, usually allowing any of the three players from the back time on the ball and then pouncing on Witsel (or any other player that might drop back), meaning that Benfica were finding it very hard to play out from the back. Peseiro seemed to have instructed his players to exploit the space behind Witsel (and the other four attacking players) and it worked for a couple of times before the half-hour mark.

The strengths

One of Peseiro's qualities known to everyone is the amount of work dedicated to ball possession and combination play. Not only did Braga's back four seem quite comfortable on the ball, but we were also able to see how well the players move with the ball and in space. Furthermore, with Viana, Mossoró and Lima on the team, this is a side that can shift the ball around like few others and tire their opposition.

Mossoró often moved towards the right, trying to create overloads for rookie Melgarejo (such an unfortunate first match for Benfica from the young prospect), who had little support from Bruno César. To make matters worse for Benfica, Lima would frequently move away from his (supposed) markers and create confusion about who should be marking him, keeping Javi García from aiding Benfica's recently appointed left-back.

On the other hand, Jorge Jesus is known for his well-drilled set pieces, which have worked wonders in the past, particularly in this sort of matches. Tonight's match offered perfect evidence that even a free kick as simple as this one can offer a clear scoring chance, provided everyone knows what their job is.

Bruno César (red) provides the screening, keeping any Braga player
from tracking the run from Maxi Pereira (green).
With a simple, coordinated move,
Maxi has no opponent in front of him and almost provides an assist.

Second half

The second half brought the sizzle that had beenmissing - the goals. It started out with Benfica's first, 49 minutes into the match. Given that they had been in control for most of the first 45 minutes, it was odd to see the away team a bit detached - and, at the same time, it showed the importance of keeping the lines close to each other.

Rodrigo attracts two opponents and Ismaily (blue) correctly provides the coverage.
Oddly enough, no other Braga players seemed worried about Salvio (yellow).

As expected, the rebound falls to Salvio, who is all alone,
with Custódio still trotting back.

Benfica were in front and the team from Minho looked a bit lost for a while. Despite a stuttering performance, maybe this was what the Eagles needed to up their game and take control of the match. Nevertheless, Benfica offered yet more evidence how hard they find it to dictate the tempo and lull their opponents into submission a few minutes later. As it was often the case last season, the centre of the field remains unprotected and Javi García and Witsel are often overrun. Braga's goal was a good example.

Paulo Vinicius plays a simple pass to Lima (blue), who had dropped back.
Afraid to lose his man, Garay (red) tracks him and opens up space.
Maxi is worried about Amorim (green), who drifts inside, clearing the way for Ismaily.

Ismaily has open road ahead of him.
Garay (red) remains stranded and opens up a hole in the middle.

After that, the match slowed down quite a bit, the exception being Rodrigo and Mossoró. The two remaining goals came from almost random situations, rather than as a result of carefully thought out plays or movement. Still, it is worth noting that, while Braga coped well with the numerical inferiority, Custódio, Viana and Amorim looked exhausted as the match drew to an end, no doubt due to their presence in the Euros.


All in all, this made for a very interesting match. Even though this is just the beginning of the season, Braga looked well-equipped for the upcoming months, with very interesting notions while in possession, which will tend to improve as the competition progresses. As for Benfica, it was hard not to see some of the mistakes from last season, but Jesus is an intelligent coach and will surely know how to coax the best out of their players. After all, this was just the first of many, many matches.

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