Monday, January 28, 2013

Why did Benfica defeat Braga?

Two days after Braga bid adieu to their last hopes of remaining in the Portuguese title race, it's time to dissect the motives that led to Benfica's superiority throughout most of the match - and why José Peseiro's team are less solid than Braga's versions over the last few years.

The last time Benfica came out as winners from the Quarry, Braga were coached by Jorge Jesus. Over the past seasons, the Eagles had found it hard to tear down the defensive, quick-breaking wall put up by Domingos and Leonardo Jardim - two coaches known for appreciating defensive solidity (allegedly one of the reasons why Jardim left Olympiakos). Therefore, there was some curiosity regarding both coaches' plans - would they battle it out in a gung-ho approach or would they rather go for a more cautious concept?

  • 1. The 4x3x3.

Without Cardozo, Lima was Benfica's only striker - a departure from their usual ways. With the introduction of Gaitán, Benfica were set up in a 4x3x3, with Jorge Jesus clearly aiming to control the centre. Matic, Enzo Pérez and Gaitán often formed a perfect triangle. While both Argentinians were authorized to push forward almost at will, Gaitán had the freedom to roam wherever he saw fit, in order to overload Braga's defence - in fact, he would turn out to be the match's decisive player.

The picture also shows that, even though Braga were more expectant than usual, Mossoró and Éder would often remain up front, removed from the midfield contest. Custódio and Hugo Viana, not the fastest players around, were clearly not enough for Matic, Gaitán and Enzo Pérez, not to mention Lima's movement.

  • 2. The 4x1x4x1 in the defensive phase.

Not only did Jesus prefer a 4x3x3 while attacking, he also chose a different shape to defend at Braga - in this case, 4x1x4x1, a typical defensive shape for teams that play in a 4x3x3. Certainly aware of Mossoró's threat, Jorge Jesus wasn't willing to let the Brazilian run the show with quick breakaways. With Matic behind Enzo Pérez and Gaitán, Jesus made sure there was always a player between the lines, Mossoró's preferred area of dominance.

This simple tweak kept Braga from succeeding in their quick transitions, particularly because none of Ruben Amorim, Viana, Custódio or Alan (nowadays, at least) are quick enough to accompany Éder or Mossoró in their forays. Braga would actually manage to get the ball out to Éder, who would find himself alone and have no other option but to try his luck, even when the circumstances did not recommend it.

  • 3. Benfica easily circumvent Braga's defence.

Braga's more cautious approach did not necessarily translate into a better defensive positioning. In fact, Benfica was not too troubled by their opponents' strategy and often found a way around it. In this particular case, Lima drops back from the centre-back (who tries to stick close to him) to collect the ball. He then gives it back to the unmarked Enzo Pérez, who in turn gives it to Gaitán.

After delivering the ball to Enzo Pérez, Lima quickly turns and exploits the space behind his marker. Without anyone to mark him (Viana tries to pressure Enzo Pérez, but to no avail), Gaitán has all the time he needs to pick his pass and play Lima in.

While this particular play did not yield a goal, it was a very good example of how Benfica saw nothing wrong with Braga's positioning.

  • 4. Salvio, the wingman.

Benfica ruled the match for approximately 75 minutes. Salvio, in particular, was the main enforcer, despite going against Ismaily and Ruben Amorim, supposedly deployed on the left to stop the Argentinean winger's threat. In the first picture, the ball gets to Salvio, who wastes no time sending it Gaitán's way. Lima's movement dragging the centre-back is most important. With Ismaily focused on Salvio and the centre-back on Lima, Gaitán (red) sprints past Hugo Viana and gets the ball in space.

Here, Gaitán (red) is once again able to pick his pass. By faking to check to get the ball, Lima confuses every Braga defender and Salvio (blue) will be free in the centre of the box.

Despite the presence of five defenders in their own box, Salvio will be able to shoot and collect the rebound to his own shot.

  • 5. Braga's poor defensive transitions.

First things first. See if you can count the number of Braga players in and/or around the box. In a potentially advantageous play for them, Braga have no less than nine players directly involved - which means there is only one defender and the goalkeeper behind this picture.

When the free kick is taken and it goes wrong, Braga immediately have four players in front of the ball, besides some who will only trot back.

Three seconds after the free kick, Benfica are already up 3v2. Remember, the play was originally intended to pose a threat to Benfica.

Five seconds after the free kick, this is what the situation looks like for Braga. Gaitán runs unchecked, with Lima and Ola John waiting for their moment.

Eight seconds after a potentially dangerous free kick in Braga's favour, Benfica are about to enter their opponents' box. Lima would eventually score the Eagles' second, thanks in part to Haas' less than stellar pressing and Beto's fluffing.

  • 6. Braga take 76 minutes to commit men forward.

After finding themselves trailing and with not many chances to get back into the match, Braga looked alive the very minute João Pedro came on for Ruben Amorim. It was basically the first time José Peseiro's charges insisted on driving forward. In the case of Braga's goal, Éder dropped back and, unlike previous situations, actually had someone exploiting the space he had just vacated. João Pedro (red) intelligently attacks the space between centre-back and full-back.

The second picture shows how João Pedro (red) is sprinting unmarked to connect to Éder's lobbed pass.

Keeping calm under pressure, João Pedro gets Artur out of the way and puts the ball in the back of the net. Braga had just pulled one back, but it was too little, too late.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

One question, if I may:

How can a throw-in in your favour end up as a goal in your own net?

Benfica v FC Porto - Detailed analysis

Last Sunday's match between Benfica and FC Porto has already been analysed in this blog, but now it is time for a more thorough breakdown of both teams' different aspects. Each team will have their own section, divided into attack and defence.

  • Benfica - Defence

  • Benfica started out by not pressing FC Porto goalkeeper. Benfica's two forwards, Cardozo and Lima, were instead instructed to keep an eye on FC Porto's centre-backs, with Enzo Pérez following the FC Porto midfielder that dropped back (usually Fernando).

  • Benfica were also less pressing than usual, often choosing to drop back, allowing FC Porto more time on the ball than expected, especially during the first half.

  • However, the team from Lisbon still found it hard to win back the loose balls from aerial duels, for instance. In this particular case, Jackson (yellow) is about to battle it out with Jardel. Due to the presence of Defour, Matic can't get as tight to João Moutinho (orange) as desirable. The Portuguese midfielder would end up getting the loose ball.

  • The first picture shows how vulnerable Benfica were to penetrations down the centre. With neither Cardozo or Lima dropping back to help out in midfield, Fernando and FC Porto centre-backs - in this case, Mangala (yellow) - could often progress without any hassle. The yellow dotted line represents the simple pass towards Jackson Martínez that split Benfica's defence open (as seen in the second picture).

  • Benfica - Attack

  • As a result of FC Porto's pressing, namely for the first 60 minutes of the match, Benfica were forced to somewhat speculative long balls towards Cardozo. However, whenever the Eagles managed to keep the ball down, they often tended to look for their strength - the wings. While Gaitán insisted on drifting towards the centre, the right flank was where most of Benfica's attacking threats stemmed from. The first image depicts Benfica's typical attacking situation, with five players overloading the wing. The second one shows how Sálvio (blue) looks for Máxi (yellow) to stretch the play, while Cardozo (orange) takes the middle. The third picture shows another similar situation, where Lima (yellow) drags his marker out of position in order to allow Sálvio (orange) into the centre.

  • FC Porto - Defence

  • The visitors were not afraid to defend high up and disturb Benfica's ability to play out from the back. The first two pictures are from the 5th minute and are displayed to exemplify the typical pressing exerted by FC Porto. Jackson Martínez would pay special attention to Benfica's right centre-back, whereas Lucho would be in charge of getting tight to the left centre-back (first picture) and/or the goalkeeper (second picture). The third picture is from FC Porto's second goal. While Artur has (correctly) been taking most of the blame, it is not less true that it only yielded results for the Dragons because the goalkeeper was under pressure. Notice how high up FC Porto are defending and how Jackson is close to Artur when he gets the ball at his feet.

  • Whenever FC Porto were not able to stop their opponents' build-up play, the team would get more compact, trying to close down most passing options for Benfica. Here Garay brings the ball forward. but has no passing option available. He would end up misplacing his aerial pass.

  • Unlike Benfica, FC Porto were very adamant at defending the centre, even though their rivals usually attack down the wings. In the first picture, Gaitán attempts to progress down the centre, meeting the opposition from all three FC Porto midfielders (red). Notice how Otamendi (yellow) is ready in case Gaitán managed to get by his markers (as he eventually did). The second picture shows Otamendi's good positioning and timing to frustrate the Argentinean's progression.

  • FC Porto - Attack

  • With James Rodríguez absent, there was some curiosity regarding Defour's positioning and movement. Any lingering doubts that Defour would replicate the Colombian star's maneuvres as closely as possible all but disappeared on the first minute. The first picture shows Defour's central position (yellow) while the ball is on the left. The second one shows how a simple backpass from Varela to Fernando was the trigger for the Belgian's run behind Benfica's defence.

  • With Defour's tendency to drift insde, FC Porto often resembled a 4x4x2 diamond, as seen on the pictures above, with Fernando further back, Moutinho to the left, Lucho González to the right and Defour behind Jackson Martínez, while the winger Varela offered the width on the left and the full-back Danilo did the same on the right.

  • This particular picture shows the uneven contest between the two midfields, with Benfica's Matic and Enzo Pérez having to fight against Fernando (blue), Moutinho (yellow) and Lucho González (red) - which meant one of them was free most of the times. Notice how Cardozo and Lima do not get involved in the midfield battle.

  • Fernando was indeed decisive in tipping the scale in FC Porto's favour as far as the midfield battle was concerned. In the first picture, you can see Enzo Pérez trying to press Fernando (yellow). All Lucho had to do was to make himself available for a pass, which he promptly did. In the second picture, Fernando (yellow) occupies both Benfica midfielders  with Lucho free to pick his pass towards the right wing. In the third image, it is possible to see Danilo's freedom - all of this a mere two seconds after Enzo Pérez was trying to press Fernando.

  • Finally, the importance of Jackson Martínez (yellow) dropping back. His willingness to make himself available not only opened up an additional passing option, but it also dragged one centre-back with him, which meant FC Porto had space to exploit behind said centre-back. Notice how Lucho González has got past Benfica's midfield, almost level with his team-mate.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A celebration of Portuguese football

Starting elevens

In an ever tighter battle between FC Porto and Benfica, there was a lot riding on last night's match. With the two clubs fighting neck and neck for every inch, there was some curiosity as to how they would fare against each other.

Every once in a while there's a match that has it all - lots of goals, thrilling action, tactical nuances, uncertainty about the winner. Last night's game was one of those times. The away team twice managed to get ahead, with the hosts immediately getting back on level terms two minutes later. The less than stellar performances from both goalkeepers might have had something to do with it.

Apart from the goalies' blunders and the two other goals from set pieces, there weren't that many clear-cut scoring chances - Cardozo's shot against the woodwork a few minutes from the final whistle the clearest of them all. The action-packed midfield area was where most of the game was played and both teams found it hard to find the necessary space and skills to make the key pass.

  • FC Porto in control

As expected, this was a match with high pressing - even though, oddly enough, FC Porto were the ones pressing higher and more effectively. In fact, the Dragon's extra man in midfield (Fernando and, most often, Defour) was decisive in bypassing Benfica's timid pressing. In fact, the Belgian midfielder was crucial for the northerners' supremacy in midfield, often appearing in areas usually not recommended for a (albeit nominal) right-winger.

While Matic kept a close eye on Lucho González, Enzo Pérez played high up to stop João Moutinho from starting the attacks - as he usually does - and therefore disturb FC Porto's passing rhythm. However, Lima seldom managed to get goalside of Fernando and the Brazilian holding midfielder often acted as a destination for his team's one-twos.

Benfica, in turn, found it quite hard to play out from the back, with Jackson Martínez often marking one centre-back and Lucho leading his side's pressing, running towards the goalkeeper and/or the remaining centre-back. With that approach, Vítor Pereira's charges were attempting to stop Benfica from having the time to take the best option to overload the wings and attacking in numbers, as they so often do. Under such pressure, Jorge Jesus' men were often forced to resort to long balls, where Cardozo was often overcome by Otamendi and Mangala.

During the first half, FC Porto were better at pressing and circulating the ball, while Benfica looked most dangerous when the ball got to the wings (particularly the right one). Despite their good defensive record thus far, the Portuguese champions didn't always look comfortable when dealing with Sálvio's penetrations. On the other hand, they found it very easy to attack their opponent via the centre - with Matic and Enzo Pérez drawn towards Lucho and Moutinho, Jackson and Defour found themselves in good positions to escape their markers. FC Porto would end the first half with a staggering 57% of ball possession.

The first 15 minutes of the second period were not dissimilar to the first half. Benfica were still struggling to play the ball on the ground - often giving away the ball too cheaply - and FC Porto kept their good pressing approach, even though Lucho kept dropping further back.

  • Benfica progressively improve

However, with the removal of Enzo Pérez for Carlos Martins, Benfica became more competitive, while FC Porto started to tire out (the squad's lack of depth became all too evident, Izmailov being the first substitute, 75 minutes in) and were no longer able to maintain their pressing. After Aimar came on a few minutes later for Lima (perhaps the night's biggest disappointment), the Eagles gradually found their stride and became more of a nuisance for FC Porto's back four.

With his team incapable of pressing as high and as much, Vítor Pereira happy with the result and less willing to take risks, instructing his team to drop back Buoyed by Martins' gritting approach and Aimar's better movement, Benfica ended the match on a better note than they had started - and could have even won the match, had Cardozo managed to bury the game's best scoring chance apart from the goals. In the end, the ball possession statistics was halved to perfection: 50% to each team.

  • Highlights

Even though such individuals honours are not usually awarded on this blog, there are two players worth setting aside for their brilliance and hard work. On one hand, Matic was critical on every aspect of Benfica's match. Besides keeping Lucho González on a short leash, not only was the Serb beyond reproach in covering for this team-mates, he also insisted on making himself available for a pass and kept finding boulevards for other players to run into. On the other hand, Defour might have come out of the game virtually unnoticed, but his combativeness and perennial movement led to FC Porto's supremacy in midfield - and ultimately to his exhaustion.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Benfica x FC Porto - tactical preview

Throughout the season Benfica and FC Porto have been involved in a two-horse race, leaving every other club in the dust. With Sporting no longer a factor in the battle for the title and Braga less consistent than in the past few seasons, Eagles and Dragons will be pitted against each other on Sunday evening, aware of the importance of this particular match.

Not unlike the Spanish league (although to a lesser extent), both clubs are involved in a fight of their own - draws having become the new defeats. In fact, both teams will get on the pitch still undefeated - with nothing but two draws on their league record -, as if they were completely unassailable for the remainder of the Portuguese top tier. The duel between the two sides has become so fierce that some of their tactical features are progressively becoming more and more similar. Over the next few paragraphs, we will be analysing the expected key battles.

  • High pressing

Benfica have been doing this ever since Jorge Jesus took the helm at the club, a coach determined to attack in repeated waves, put on a good show and stifle his opponents. FC Porto, in turn, were usually a more withdrawn side. However, despite some mishaps in the past season, Vítor Pereira has been able to improve his side's pressing (and, most importantly, its timing). In that regard, both teams arrive at this crucial tie with the habit of exerting high pressure upon their opponent and occupying their attacking turf. Will either team back down from that approach? If not, will FC Porto trouble Benfica like they did last year or, on the contrary, will Benfica take the most of playing home and smother FC Porto right out of the gate?

Secondly, both teams share the same issue when it comes to high pressing. While they are usually very effective at that level, they are often quite vulnerable when their opponents manage to get past that initial pressing phase. On those occasions, both sides are often left defending with three or four players at the most, with huge pockets of space to exploit. Against lower teams, that is not a problem most of the times, but against superior teams, it may prove costly.

  • Matic

When Benfica sold Javi García to Manchester City, fans feared the worst. The Spaniard had been the defensive fulcrum upon whom the whole all-out attacking approach depended. Despite his numerous goals from set pieces, García was happy to remain in the background, ready to get into action when the team lost the ball. His intensity and excellent game-reading abilities allowed him to break down many of the opponents' attacks, often in numerical inferiority. His departure did not seem to bode well for Benfica.

However, according to Jorge Jesus' own words, García was only allowed to leave because the coach thought he had a better player waiting for his chance. That player was Nemanja Matic. The Serb finally got the opportunity to show his worth and was integrated almost seamlessly into the team.

However, García and Matic are two very different players. The former Real Madrid midfielder was very much a defence-oriented player, excelling at frustrating the opponents' transitions into attack. Conversely, he was less adept in the offensive side of the game (except for the aforementioned set pieces).

Matic is the exact opposite. His great technical skills allow him to be more comfortable on the ball and, most importantly, to immediately turn a defensive situation into a scoring chance for his side due to his better passing ability. On the other hand, the former Chelsea player is slower to get back into position and is often exposed (along with his defence) in quick breakaways. If FC Porto manage to get past Benfica's immediate pressing, the Eagles may stand to suffer.

  • Defour

James Rodríguez's absence is a huge setback for FC Porto. Without Hulk on the squad, the Colombian young star has picked up the slack and become one of the most important player in the Dragons' maneuvers. His tendency to start on the right and drift inwards (often exchanging positions with Lucho González) means that FC Porto often have effectively four players in the centre - where Benfica usually tend to deploy just two. Danilo's progressive adaptation to European football and the manager's requests have also been making him more dangerous down the flank, allowing James Rodríguez to stay tucked in most of the time.

According to all suggestions, Steven Defour is likely to take the young starlet's place. The Belgian has played at times on the right wing, but mostly when Porto were desperate to get a win and went 4x2x3x1. As a similar player to João Moutinho, Defour is clever enough to take up virtually any position on the pitch, which does not necessarily mean he will excel at it. If he does end up playing as a right winger, he will also tend to drift centrally, like James.

On one hand, without the Colombian, FC Porto suddenly find themselves almost devoid of a creative spark, which so often comes in handy in such competitive matches. On the other hand, Defour's presence may put the Dragons in some sort of a 4x4x2 diamond formation, which will tilt the midfield battle in their favour, in all likelihood. If Benfica manage to concentrate the match on the wings, FC Porto may face an uphill battle.

  • Set pieces

Despite having conceded a mere six goals, FC Porto have looked shaky when it comes to defending set pieces - one of Benfica's fortes, as it turns out. The near post, in particular, is often quite vulnerable, especially when there is a slight deflection towards the far post. In such a tight contest, a poorly defended free kick or corner kick could end up deciding the result.

  • Squad depth

FC Porto do not possess an outstandingly deep squad. Without Atsu, James and Kléber, Vítor Pereira has only the raw Kelvin to resort to if things go awry - which is why the timing of Izmailov's signing may yet prove crucial. If the Dragons happen to concede first, fatigue may set in and the coach's lack of options may become very much apparent.

Benfica, on the other hand, are awash with attacking options, should the need arise for a plan B and an even more attacking approach. Nolito, Ola John, Rodrigo and Kardec will most likely sit on the bench, lurking in the shadows and waiting for the opportunity to punish their opponents when their legs are not quite as fresh.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Izmailov for Miguel Lopes - good piece of business?

Inconceivable in Spain, everyday business in Italy or not so unheard of in England, transfers among the top clubs are always a touchy subject in Portugal. According to the latest reports, Sporting's Marat Izmailov and FC Porto's Miguel Lopes are about to switch clubs. While such piece of business does not happen every day, these two clubs have managed to find a way through to each other whenever the need arose - from the Peixe/Costinha and Rui Jorge/Bino transaction to the swap of Hélder Postiga or João Moutinho. Still, the question remains: who stands to benefit from the latest exchange?

  • Izmailov

Izmailov had become a thorn on Sporting's side for some time now. At odds with the club's medical department, the Russian star has made things very hard for him at the club by speaking out against any injustices he perceived were committed against him. Despite being a high-quality player when he was at the top of his game, he never remained there for too long, always unable to consistently deliver the displays to which both he and the fans were looking forward.

In the first two of his six seasons at Sporting, he was often a game-changer, inspiring his team-mates with his amazing skills and flying the team's flag. The quality of his movement and ball skills was beyond reproach and it seemed he was destined for greater things. However, the repeated knee injuries turned him into a shadow of his former self, occasionally chastising the club's directors or medical staff through the papers.

In the seasons that followed, he would restart playing, only to be let down once again by the knee condition, disappearing once more from the team sheet for weeks on end. Every time he played, there were glimpses of the player he was and could be, but that feeling never lasted long, the player going back once again to nurse his injuries.

Lately, it seemed that the Russian winger was cornered at Sporting, no longer able to command the respect of the fans, coaches and team-mates. His loyalty and work ethics had started to come into question and he was no longer viewed as the game-deciding star he was once hailed as. A change could definitely do him good, particularly because at FC Porto he's not likely to be considered the most gifted player on the squad and will probably have to put up a good fight to play.

  • Miguel Lopes

The full-back Miguel Lopes' case could hardly be any more different. Having come through Benfica's ranks as a young player, he ended up promoted to Benfica B, only to see the team disappear in the meantime. He went down a tier and started playing for Portuguese minnows Operário. Rio Ave, then in Portuguese second division, noticed and signed him. Miguel Lopes was critical for the club's promotion to the top tier and he started drawing attention from the three big clubs during the first part of the 2008/09 season. He ended up signing for Porto in January 2009.

While he was not a sure starter with his coaches at FC Porto, he managed to somehow establish himself as a good alternative for both wings during the one and a half season he played with the Dragons. In August 2010, he was loaned out to Bétis (then in the Spanish second division) and once again contributed to his club's promotion to the top league.

The next season, he was once again loaned out, but a clerical mistake on Saragoza's part (for which the club ended up compensating the player) meant that he would be forced to wait until January 2011 for an opportunity to ply his trade elsewhere. That place was Braga, where he impressed on both wings. For that he got the nod from Paulo Bento and was included in the 23-strong team for Euro 2012.

In the current season, the Portuguese managed to get a few starts ahead of Danilo (still trying to find his footing), but he gradually went down in the pecking order and spoke of his dissatisfaction before the Christmas season. His time at FC Porto looked all but over.

  • Conclusion

With the departure of Hulk, Atsu's absence for CAN and Iturbe's intermittence, FC Porto suddenly found themselves with very few options on the wings. Considering that James Rodríguez has just been ruled out for four weeks, Izmailov could just prove to be what the doctor ordered. However, the Russian's signing is pretty much off-character for the northerners, since he is 30 years old, hasn't played that much over the past few seasons, has a serious knee condition and comes with a doubtful track record when it comes to loyalty. Furthermore, the Russian has no resale value. On the other hand, FC Porto give up on an accomplished 26-year-old full-back who could play on both wings and was just starting to make his way into the Portuguese national team.

For Sporting, this can only be considered a victory, since they get rid of a problem that had been consuming them for quite some time and they get some much-needed relief on the payroll. Most importantly, they get in return a quality right-back (preferentially) who can take the heat off the maligned Cédric and make an immediate impact. Miguel Lopes is a player with a bright future ahead of him and, if he keeps being called up to the Selecção, his market value will rise and Sporting might end up making a tidy profit.