Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FC Porto win, but fail to finish Málaga off

Starting elevens

FC Porto and Málaga offered a much awaited Iberian duel between two of the most entertaining teams to see which team would progress to the Champions League's next round.

With James Rodríguez only fit for the bench, FC Porto coach Vítor Pereira stuck with Izmailov deputising for the Colombian star and Varela got his starting place back after Atsu played against Beira-Mar. Málaga coach Manuel Pellegrini, in turn, chose to play Roque Santa Cruz up front, with Joaquín in his usual position out wide and Isco on the left. In the middle, Toulalan and former União de Leiria midifelder Iturra fought an unfair battle against the home team's central trio of Fernando, Lucho Gonzáles and João Moutinho.

Pereira's men came out pressing out of the gate, trying to stifle the opposition and convey a message of dominance. Moutinho or Lucho would be the first man to lead the pressing as soon as Willy Caballero put the ball in the centre-backs' feet, since all four of Málaga's back line looked uncomfortable on the ball.

Oddly enough, Pellegrini favoured Júlio Baptista over a third player in midfield, which would eventually prove costly. With Isco nominally on the left (even though he would never hug the touch line), much of Málaga's threat was diminished, with the Argentinean coach seemingly putting his faith in a more direct approach.

Because Isco was deployed on the left, he was supposed to pick up Danilo's runs - something he did not seem too willing to do and that opened huge pockets of space both for Danilo and Lucho as well. With Izmailov frequently acting as a fourth midfielder (just starting a bit wider), Toulalan and Iturra often found themselves overwhelmed in the middle, with too much ground to cover.

Indeed, unlike most 4x2x3x1 and 4x4x2, Málaga were surprisingly different while defending, choosing not to form two banks of four, allowing Moutinho and Lucho to roam free and dictating the match's flow and tempo. FC Porto would start their moves on one of the flanks, quickly move the ball into the centre and swiftly displace it towards the other wing, where numerous 2v1 situations kept being created.

FC Porto found large holes in the middle against Toulalan and Iturre.

However, despite all the space the Portuguese champions benefited from, they were not able to convert it into clear-cut chances, missing a creative spark or a bit more aggressiveness on the wings. Danilo, in particular, regressed in his ways and did not offer any threat out wide, tapering FC Porto's play toward the centre even further.

As the match wore on, Málaga started looking like undoing themselves, becoming ever more disjointed, especially in transitions into defence, Toulalan and Iturra still trying to cover as much of the pitch as possible, with little help from Málaga's forwards (when asked about it in the press conference, Pellegrini would deny that lack of protection was decisive).

The second half did not seem to offer any news, with Málaga apparently content with the result and not willing to commit too many men forward and become exposed - ironically so, since their forwards contributed very little while attacking and even less while defending. James Rodríguez started warming up and as he was summoned to go on the pitch, João Moutinho scored the match's only goal from Alex Sandro's accurate assist. It was basically the first time a FC Porto midfielder had tried to make a run into the box and confuse their opponents' marking duties.

The Dragons were quicker and more precise throughout the ten minutes that followed the goal, but the simultaneous presence of James Rodríguez and Izmailov annihilated FC Porto's presence out wide. The home team would look more dangerous after Atsu took the place of the Russian winger, stretching the play and making Sérgio Sánchez and De Michelis pay for their sluggishness.

All in all, the Spaniards managed to fend off most of FC Porto's attempts to break them down the middle, but were virtually non-existent in attack. If they are to mount a serious challenge for a place in the next round, they will have to up their game quite a bit. The question remains, though: Will FC Porto resort to a more cautious approach and let Málaga dominate (thus opening space at the back) or will they insist on stifling their rivals' potential threat?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bayer Leverkusen v Benfica: The pics

After the initial breakdown, it's now time for a more detailed analysis of last night's match between Bayer Leverkusen and Benfica. Indeed, there are some curious (and revealing) facts about the performance of both teams.

Interceptions made by both sides.

Let's start off with both teams' interceptions. As stated in the previous article, the two teams seemed to switch roles to perfection. Because Benfica handed Bayer Leverkusen the initiative, the German team were much less effective when it came to defending. Used to sit back and pounce on the break, Bayer Leverkusen were often caught off-guard after giving the ball away. Notice how Bayer Leverkusen's interceptions are very near the touch line.

On the other hand, Benfica's chalkboard provides a very interesting reading. Instead of going for the jugular, as they so often do, the Eagles dropped back and were happy to soak up pressure. If you look carefully at Benfica's chalkboard, you will see that only 2 of their 20 interceptions were made (just a tad) after the halfway line.

Another interesting aspect of yesterday's match was the fluidity of Bayer Leverkusen's 3 forwards - Stefan Kiessling, Gonzalo Castro and André Schürrle. Even though they all had nominal starting positions, their movement was constant and their interplay was worth noticing. Kiessling, for instance, was crucial by dropping back to collect the ball with his back to goal, allowing Schürrle to exploit the space Kiessling had just vacated.

Kiessling and Castro's versatile displays.

  • Split in two

While the flow of the match was not exactly divided in two perfect halves, it still proves interesting to break down the data between first and second half. Let's begin with Castro's contrasting performances.

Castro's dashboard divided in both halves.

Castro was one of the most decisive players throughout the first half. Even though he started out on the right and remained there for the most part while defending, the right-winger would often drift centrally whenever his team had the ball. With this, not only did he create several numbers-up situations against Benfica's duo of Matic and André Gomes (similarly to what FC Porto's Defour did against Benfica), but he also freed the wing for Hogasai to venture forward. In the second half, however, his contribution was much more limited, partly because of Gaitán's higher defensive work rate.

Bayer Leverkusen's passes in their attacking third - first half and second half.

Thanks to the three forward's movement and guile, Bayer Leverkusen enjoyed large spells of possession and good positions to create danger from (even though they rarely got around to finishing the moves) during the first half. As you can see in the chalkboard above, not only did the German team insist on playing to the wings, but they also found it easy to penetrate down the centre and link up play. In the second half, their forays down the centre were much more speculative and their wing play was often frustrated by Benfica, as opposed to what happened in the first half.

Bayer Leverkusen's shots - first half and second half.

Although they benefited from a better run of play throughout the first period, the chalkboard above shows how Bayer Leverkusen were limited to long-range efforts for the most of the first 45 minutes. It was in the second half that they got closer to Artur Moraes' goal, at a time when they were getting more and more desperate to at least score a goal. Their best, most fluid play was no match for the more direct approach they favoured in the second half, particularly after going one goal down.

Benfica's passes in their attacking third - first half and second half.

As for Benfica, dividing their play between the two halves also provides interesting insight. By looking at the chalkboard above, you will see that the passes made in their attacking third were often lateral and that the central route hardly ever worked. However, there were still some attempts to knit a few short passes together. If you take a look at the second half's chalkboard, you will see that Benfica's passes are much more direct and incisive (hardly ever through the middle), typical for a team dedicated to counter-attacking.

Benfica's shots - first half and second half.

Even though there is no staggering difference between the first and second halves in terms of shots, it remains clear that not only did Benfica manage to shoot more, but they were also allowed to shoot from more favourable positions.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Benfica on their way to Europa League's last 16

Starting elevens
Bayer Leverkusen v Benfica was (together with Tottenham v Lyon) probably the most attractive fixture of this round of the Europa League. Two very good teams, with very different approaches and formations were expected to battle it out for a place in the next round.

If ever there was the need for evidence that the Europa League does not command the same amount of respect and interest from clubs (and therefore fans), last night's match offered proof enough. Both coaches chose to rotate their squads, seemingly more worried about next weekend's matches in their own leagues (Bayer, for instance, will be playing against a team that lies second from last). Benfica coach Jorge Jesus rested Máxi Pereira, Enzo Pérez, Lima and Sálvio. Sasha Lewandowksi and Sami Hyppia followed a similar path and made several changes in defence and midfield, the attack remaining intact.

When both teams got on the pitch, there remained no doubts: Bayer Leverkusen would deploy a 4x3x3, a system that often creates problems for Jesus' charges. There was some talk ahead of the match that Benfica and Bayer Leverkusen might switch roles as home and away teams - Benfica pressing intensely and Bayer Leverkusen playing on the break -, but the exact opposite happened.

Despite fielding an eleven jam packed with attack-minded players, Jesus' strategy was much more cautious, with Ola John and Urreta mindful of their defensive duties. This, in turn, forced the German team to resort to a sort of game they are not comfortable with: taking initiative and having time on the ball. Nevertheless, it should be said they managed to adapt their strategy quite well for the first 25 minutes. As so often is the case when playing against a 4x3x3, there was a void in the middle, since Gaitán - who was playing off Cardozo - did not drop back, meaning Bayer Leverkusen always had an extra man in midfield.

In fact, both Matic and André Gomes felt the need to push up towards Bayer Leverkusen's midfielders to prevent them from having too much time on the ball, but that frequently left Benfica's back four against Bayer Leverkusen's extremely fluid three-pronged attack - Castro on the right, Schürrle on the left and Kiessling as the striker.

During those first 25 minutes, the home team found numerous passing lanes right through the middle, with Kiessling checking to collect the ball and return it to either Schürrle or Bender, Bayer Leverkusen's most attack-minded midfielder. Thanks to Hosogai's forays down the right (with Castro drifting centrally and opening up the space), the Germans would often find find themselves in very good positions, only to be let down by their touch or decision.

After the first period's initial half, Benfica gradually took over and started taking control of the match. Even though the Eagles were not exactly wreaking havoc in their attacking third, Bayer Leverkusen looked very fragile whenever they gave the ball away, usually too slow to get back into position, a typical trait of a team more used to playing on the counter-attack. In many case, the positioning of the centre-backs, in particular, left much to be desired.

  • Second half

The second half brought no significant changes, apart from the odd decision from Bayer Leverusken's coaching duo to remove Schürrle in favour of Sidney Sam. The team immediately looked less dangerous - in fact, Sam never had the chance to leave his mark -, which played right into the hands of Benfica. The match was becoming more and more stagnant, particularly because Enzo Pérez came on for the injured André Gomes and Gaitán probably got an earful from Jorge Jesus in order to help out defensively.

Benfica struggled a bit in set pieces and they were almost made to pay for it on 60 minutes, but the scramble ended up yielding nothing but a corner for Bayer Leverkusen, who insisted on committing many men forward on such occasions. After the aerial duel, the Eagles were very quick to break away and Cardozo had all the time (and skill) to fake a first shot and then calmly chip the ball over the goalkeeper.

The goal seemed to awaken the German team, who by then were more willing to take chances in attack and were once again more fluid. Benfica tried to cool the tempo of the match, but were still vulnerable here and there to combination plays down the middle. The match would end with a last ditch interception near Benfica's goal line, a crucial moment for a more relaxed approach in a week's time.

Bayer Leverkusen find themselves in a very awkward position. A draw with no goals would put them in the driver's seat, but now they will be forced to get exposed in a type of game that does not favour them. Besides, Benfica are always much stronger when they play in their own turf and it is hard to envision the round taking a wrong turn for the Portuguese vice-champions.