Friday, 25 October 2013

Could the trip to Olympiakos be Benfica's most critical game of the season?

As the final whistle blew to end Wednesday night’s “swimming” encounter between the Greek league champions and the Eagles, it was difficult to look past the deluge of water on the Luz pitch and contemplate the significance of the 1-1 draw.  In understanding most football matches, perspective is symbiotic to statistics and cold hard facts, and this was no different.  Olympiakos were a weaker team (on paper, at least), choosing to bench a couple of critical players (Saviola, ironically formerly of Benfica), playing away from home.  Benfica fielded a strong side despite the injuries to recent potential quality signings Markovic and Fejsa.  The consequence of the draw is that both teams sit on 4 points, separated by mere goal difference, in the Greek side’s favour.  In 2 weeks, Benfica travel to Greece

Those 90 minutes in the Southern European nation could be the most important of Benfica’s season.

Jorge Jesus: On borrowed time?

Jorge Jesus has looked under significantly more pressure this season.
(Image source -

I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s take a step back.  It’s not been a pleasant start for Benfica.  I’ve already lamented the concerns raised by their pre-season in a previous piece, yet there were many reasons to be optimistic, particularly in relation to transfers.  After the club signed Siqueira and Fejsa, the Eagles effectively ended the summer transfer window in a relatively unusual situation. No key players departed. The squad genuinely strengthened and substantially deeper in most positions. Siqueira’s signing was one of far more quality, one that turns left back in a potential strength for the first time since Fabio Ceontrão graced the Luz.  Fejsa, Markovic, Djuricic in particular all offer tactical depth and variety that is meaningful and potent. The talents of Matic, Pérez, Garay, Gaitàn and Salvio were all retained, despite some of them being heavily linked with moves away.

But from the word go, something has just looked wrong with Benfica this season.  Alfredo from the excellent TalkingToDaDoll podcast summed it nicely in a recent edition of the podcast – it’s as if the nightmarish end to last season has been seamlessly continued into this season and the damaging defeats in May are still heavy in the minds of the players.  Jorge Jesus isn’t his usual bombastic self – he’s appeared lost on the touchline, almost searching the pitch for ideas to change fortunes on it.  The team looks disjointed mentally.  Their work rates are inconsistent, only reserved for those inevitable moments of panic when the team falls behind.  Every win has had its own subtext to give Benfiquistas concern – Gil Vicente, Pacos were defensively poor and made it too easy.  Anderlecht were substantially weaker.  Guimarães and Estoril were both wasteful and unlucky not to claim a draw.

True, teams that win championships sometimes win playing poorly and are successful precisely because they grind out results when they’re needed regardless of whether they are deserved or not.  But a fair number of Benfiquistas are starting to question when the team is going to find the impressive form that drove much of the promise held last season.

And in the centre of it is the man with the flaming silver hair, who hasn’t managed to get it right.  He seems oblivious to his best formation, his best squad.  He has immense talents at his disposal, yet hasn’t been able to get the best out of most of them, the only exception arguably being Enzo Pérez.  The charismatic press conferences, the confident persona seems lost; one almost gets the impression Jorge Jesus is trying to convince himself as much as his players and the fans.

Contrasting the value of the Champions League and the Europa League

Benfica's participation in the Champions League is crucial for the club's revenues.
(Image source -

Naturally, there are many routes to solving these problems, and for many fans, the decision to change the manager is considered both extreme and decisive.  Some will argue Jesus deserves the time, but he doesn’t have circumstances on his side.  Porto, Sporting and Braga have all changed managers.  All 3 still possess – arguably – weaker 1st choice XI’s than Benfica when all players are available.  All 3 have less depth in their squads.  They do have their obvious stand-out superstars, but it’s clear that the expectation and pressure sits with Jorge Jesus, given these circumstances alongside Benfica’s summer spending and retention of key players.

These expectations have been somewhat defined and amplified by the club’s European adventures.

Benfica’s (and Portugal’s) European footprint has significantly been improved in recent years.  Consistent appearances in Europe haven’t hurt the Eagles by any measure, and they’ve been somewhat unlucky to lose in recent seasons to the eventual winners of the Champions League in 2012 and Europa League in 2013.  Last season’s Europa League final brought a romance not felt by Benfica and the club’s fans for over 20 years, and even though defeat was hard to swallow, it wasn’t contextually deemed a failure by many.

However, as with many things, the heart sometimes gets the better of the head, and this is a prime example.

Last season’s Europa League performance earned Benfica a total of €5,7 million in distributions from UEFA.  It’s a figure that’s slightly understated, given that the club would have also earned gate receipts money from the 4 matches in the knockout rounds.

But in comparison to the Champions League – it’s almost laughably inferior.  Benfica’s EXIT from the group stage in the 2012/13 edition earned the club €13,8 million.  This despite a massive missed opportunity due to finishing 3rd behind Celtic and Barcelona.

Benfiquistas may choose to laugh with irony at Porto’s exit from the Champions League last season at the round of 16, but that entire campaign was worth €19,7 million – MORE than the combined figure that was earned by the Lisbon club in their adventures in both of Europe’s club competitions.

For the 2013/14 season, UEFA has confirmed that Group Stage participants will collect at the very least a fee of €8,6 million.  With 1 win and 1 draw, Benfica could lose their remaining matches (let's hope not!) and still, in theory, earn €10,1 million from their Group[ Stage campaign.  If the Eagles make it past their group, even a round of 16 exit will earn the club an additional €3,5 million.  This EXCLUDES the market pool, additional funds distributed based on the value of the TV market in each country (to give an idea, this was worth €2,2 million of Benfica’s €13,8 million earned in the Champions League last season).

For a club like Benfica – this is important money.  Not just to keep the club afloat.  But also to pay for significant transfers.  To retain key players who command the higher wages in the club.  Players who often are critical not just to competing in Europe, but getting you there in the first place.

A European exit increases the risk of domestic collapse

Benfica's failure to win in Lisbon could have far-reaching implications.
(Image source -

Even in a situation where Benfica finish 3rd in their Champions League group and parachute to the Europa League, it’s hardly lucrative.  Excluding the market pool distributions, if the Eagles drop again to the 2nd tier competition, even if they repeat the feat and finish as finalists, the earnings would be a mere €4,5 million.

Benfica’s exploits in last year’s Europa League competition haven’t gone missed either.  A number of clubs across Europe are watching the club’s players, and a Champions League exit could play horridly into the hands of opportunistic clubs seeking to poach key players.  Benfica have become famous more recently for having huge release clauses, but financial strains could cause the club to becoming willing to consider lower offers for players like Matic, Pérez, Garay, Gaitàn and Salvio.  Predictably, it’s never the players you’d be happy to see the back of that often get linked with moves elsewhere.  And someone like Matic, as an example, already has the admiration of former club Chelsea and Liverpool.  Chelsea are likely to be able to offer the Serbian guaranteed Champions League football next season, while Liverpool are hopeful of their chances and could certainly afford to offer higher wages than Benfica.

Losing players like this, especially in the winter window, suddenly puts an already pressured domestic campaign into sharp perspective.  Benfica have grinded some results out largely by some good fortune, but the “<insert player name> get-us-out-of-jail-free" cards are likely going to run out sooner than later.  It looks unlikely Benfica would not be able to sustainably survive key player departures halfway through a season.  Last season’s departures of Javi Garcia and Witsel were miraculously solved by the emergence of Matic and Pérez, but there don’t seem to be the players waiting in the wings this time to step up and play at the required level should those players leave.  And those players would almost certainly be tempted by the advances of other richer admirers.

It’s not difficult to quantify the slippery slope after that.  A Champions League exit could lead to the very transfers Benfica feared during the summer window.  Those departures would all but expose the Eagles’ current flaw– if the best squad in the league (theirs) already sits 5 points adrift after nearly a quarter of the season, there isn't much hope for the progress of a weakened squad.  And with Porto being annoyingly consistent and Leonardo Jardim doing a substantially better job with Sporting, there’s a clear challenge for Benfica in reaching the all important automatic Champions League qualification spot that 2nd place in the Liga offers.  It will also be harder to attract quality replacements without the promise or likelihood of football in Europe’s elite competition.

Avoiding the Greek tragedy

Olympiakos deserved their point in Lisbon.
(Image source -

Which brings us to Olympiakos.  Benfica’s trip to Greece could be season defining.  Even a draw in the match ultimately hurts Benfica’s chances of progression.  Olympiakos were good value for their 1-1 halftime score against PSG, and they have the benefit of a home game against Anderlecht in the final group game.  The situation is unfortunately reminiscent of last season’s campaign, where despite back to back wins at home to Celtic and Spartak, Benfica went into the final game away at the Nou Camp needing a heroic win to progress – which wasn’t forthcoming.

The only way this ends positively for Benfica is to protect both the points and the head to head record by winning in Greece, and then in Belgium.  It’s a fair expectation that PSG will win their next 2 matches as well.  That would ultimately paint a situation of PSG topping the group on 15 points, followed by Benfica on 10, and Olympiakos on 4, effectively making the final fixture between Benfica and PSG irrelevant.  Even if Olympiakos produce a miracle to beat PSG, a 3 point lead and the advantage in the head to head record would keep the Eagles in pole position.

If Benfica draw or lose to the Greek side, it immediately complicates the equation.  Suddenly a win against PSG is the only guaranteed way to ensure qualification, unless Benfica pulls ahead on goal difference with a massive win in Belgium.  Benfica need to be playing their best to beat the team from France… and that unfortunately looks unlikely at this point.

An exit from the Champions League may spell the end of Jorge Jesus’ reign – but it could hurt the club in the mid-term as well.  So regardless of who is manager, be it Jorge Jesus, or any appointed caretaker or permanent manager should the club choose to ultimately wave the white handkerchief – it's a must win game against Olympiakos, due to its season defining consequences.  Financially, and for the retention and attraction of quality players.

Granted, all the above comes with that typical disclaimer of theory.  The club may still somehow survive another early Champions League exit with all their key players intact, even if it is coupled with a poor domestic campaign.  However, like many Benfiquistas, I’ve gotten used to the idea of Benfica in the Champions League.  Benfica is an elite club in their home territory – they should remain in Europe’s elite contest.

If they don’t – new manager or not – the damage could be seriously hard to repair.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Is Fejsa the missing piece of the Benfica puzzle?

Ljubomir Fejsa in his first full start for Benfica against Anderlecht
(Image source -
Transfers are an odd thing.  Spend a huge amount of money on a player and expectation tracks them like a spotlight on a stage.  Spend a small amount – and sometimes getting fans to notice you at all is half the charm.

This past week, Benfica played Anderlecht in their first group stage match of this season’s Champions League campaign.  The lineup, deeply affected by the injuries to first choice players Nico Gaitán and Eduardo Salvio, was adapted accordingly to allow for the presence of new signings Markovic and Djuricic, but one name in particular was new to the starting lineup.  Benfica’s new defensive midfielder, Serbian Ljubomir Fejsa made his 2nd appearance for the club since signing from Olympiacos in the summer. 

After the match, the unassuming Serbian was arguably Benfica’s most important player on the pitch.  Fejsa’s performance wasn’t spectacular, but was (crucially) tactically valuable… and it gave some indications that by luck or plan, Benfica may have very quietly signed a very important piece of their title-challenging puzzle.

First Impressions

Last season provided several examples of Benfica’s vulnerability on the counter attack, and much of it resulted from a lack of defensive cover offered by the shape of the team.  Nemanja Matic, a natural central midfielder (as opposed to a defensive midfielder) was often asked to play both protector of the back 2 as well as a key part of the build up play into the opposition area, and this often left the Serbian with too much ground to cover to defend against counter attacks.  Benfica’s vulnerable high defensive line would often leave gaps not only in behind Luisão and Garay, but also down the flanks (highlighted in yellow circles) due to the attacking endeavours of Maxi and Melgarejo.

The introduction of a proper defensive midfielder, however, immediately changes things for Benfica.  Fejsa showed tactical discipline against Anderlecht to ensure he protected the channel (as highlighted by the movement arrows and the yellow rectangle) in front of the centre back line.  He didn’t do it alone, obviously – Matic also played this role on the left of centre.  The team’s general shape against Anderlecht did illustrate however, the value Fejsa adds in offering proper protection against counter attacks and the attacking movements of the fullbacks.  The team’s shape ultimately ended up more of a 4231 – with the double pivot of Fejsa and Matic working well to offer defensive cover and attacking support.

Fejsa vs. Anderlecht

The question is of course, whether or not the tactical theory was proven by the actual performance of the team and Fejsa’s contribution to the game against Anderlecht.  Benfica lined up against the Belgian side in a loose 433 formation, with Fejsa largely staying just right of centre throughout the match in the middle of the pitch for most of the match.  While Fejsa wasn’t directly instrumental in the 2 goals scored by Djuricic and Luisão, his impact on the game defensively was obvious.

Fejsa’s defensive contribution was crucial to the Eagles, recovering the ball 6 times (out of 37).  The Serbian also contributed a quarter of the team’s interceptions (4) and tackles (7), including 2 crucially in the box.  Much of his defensive activity was down the right, to compensate for the movement of André Almeida and Enzo Pérez into forward positions to join the attack, or to assist Almeida with Anderlecht attacks down the flank.  Consider that in the absence of a Fejsa, one (or both) of 2 scenarios is likely – more successful counter attacks against exposed centre-backs, and / or an overworked Matic would have needed to make up the ground to cover the gaps.

Instead, Fejsa offered greater protection and the tactical discipline to make sure he protected the space in behind whoever was attacking down the right, minimizing the all too familiar risk of Benfica being caught on the counter attack.

That’s not to suggest Fejsa concentrated his positioning only in the central / right midfield.  He was responsible for a tenth of Benfica’s passes on the night (31 out of 317) and he managed to vary his positioning wherever the play required him to be.

What is also interesting about his passing are the recipients.  Fejsa’s passing distribution implied a comfort with allowing play to build up from the back via the flanks, something which Benfica needs to be doing more of (particularly in terms of controlling games with possession).  The most frequent recipient of Fejsa’s passes was Siqueira (6), while Luisão, Matic, Almeida, Ola John and Markovic all received 2 passes each.

The effect Fejsa’s presence had on Nemanja Matic was pivotal.  There’s a school of thought that Benfica’s best player of last season shouldn’t be playing as the defensive midfielder and his passing talents in particular would be better employed in the build-up towards goal further up the pitch.  The passing chart suggests that Matic still operated in a box to box manner, but for once, he didn’t have to operate across the entire pitch. He was able to cover more effectively for Siqueira’s moves down the left flank and link up more often in the attacking 3rd, as can be seen by his passing distribution.

Matic also spent more time providing the attacking play, with passes to Siqueira (10), Markovic (6), Djuricic and Ola John (5 each). 

Tactical Conclusions

Granted, one shouldn’t read too much into the Anderlecht match.  It’s one fixture, against a weaker side.  However, there’s certainly a case for Fejsa offering Benfica a whole new set of options in tactical versatility.  The most important aspect he offers is the ability to protect the centre back line more effectively, but there are many other benefits as well.  Matic and Enzo can now push forward with less concern of the protection needed behind them.  Given their ability to press, it gives Benfica further opportunity to regain possession closer to the opponent’s goal, offering additional advantages for Benfica to dominate games.

It also offers a proper double pivot in midfield.  The merits of a proper 3 man midfield have also been debated by several Benfiquistas, especially given Porto’s successful application of such a system in recent years.  Last season’s loss of Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel limited Benfica’s options in being able to leverage players in a 3 man midfield. Now, not only does Fejsa give that opportunity, but Benfica can use a proper double pivot to good effect in the manner that both Fejsa and Matic went about their business against Anderlecht.

Probably the most enticing aspect of Fejsa’s inclusion is the fact that he brings stability to the midfield to the extent that it offers the freedom to experiment, without fear of unbalancing the team’s defensive shape, with the configuration in the attacking 3rd.  Benfica could easily line up in a 433, 4231, or 442 Diamond formation and rotate the talents of Markovic and Djuricic especially, while still maintaining a core midfield duo of Fejsa and Matic.

Benfica's collective display was much better against the Belgian side
(Image source -

So in conclusion – a good start to Fejsa’s Benfica career, and some genuine reason to be positive about the contribution he could make to the team’s success.  Here’s hoping the master-stroke that brought the Serbian to the club is leveraged properly by Jorge Jesus… because if it is, Benfica may no longer be just a collective of talented individuals.  They may also end up with a midfield that not only rivals Porto – but surpasses them.

Get that right and Benfica may just yet become the cohesive unit - the true team - that they have the potential to be.  

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Benfica’s Preseason Posed More Questions Than Answers

In modern football, pre-season is a bit like a first date – if it seems to go well, your mind races ahead to all the possibilities that could develop, and there are more reasons that are prevalent as to why it could work, and why it will succeed.  But if it bombs, or goes less than planned, most will play it down, talk about the fact that “you can’t make a judgment on one date” and it may take time to get things right – ultimately a rationale to avoid reading too much into a “poor” start affecting future prospects.

In SL Benfica’s case, the pre-season campaign has produced the latter.  There are mixed feelings amongst many Benfiquistas – some of us are nauseatingly optimistic, convinced that ultimately the results and performances are irrelevant, because the campaign is all about preparing the squad’s various members to reach the required fitness levels. Others (like myself) can’t help but over-analyse the pre-season matches to provide a window to the season ahead, because especially after the heartache that was season 2012-13, many Benfica fans are desperately trying to find some obvious signals that the club won’t be making the same mistakes in the new season.

On the face of it, the results aren’t too bad.  Excluding the Taça de Honra games, the team’s record was 5 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats in 9 matches.  22 goals in 9 games is a healthy return, especially given the investments in the squad’s attacking resources.  But 15 goals conceded with no clean sheets for a team that invested in 3 new centre backs, 2 new fullbacks doesn’t sound healthy.

Money Well Spent

For the sake of balance, let’s start with the positives, because they certainly were there.  Benfica’s transfer activity in the summer was decisive and plentiful, with a large number of signings coming in early.  Given the nature of the signings, it’s clear the Eagles expected pressure in being able to keep certain key players at CB (Garay), and on the wings (Gaitan, Salvio).  It’s commendable that the club made a positive effort in dealing with the squad depth, which is certainly in much better health than last season. 

Some of the new players looked impressive in pre-season fixtures too, only adding to the confidence.  Steven Vitòria looked solid in most games, and illustrated some of the experience he already has in Liga football (having played with Estoril for 3 years).  The Argentine Lisandro Lopez looks reasonably quick and already has a goal to back up his uncanny knack for meeting opportunities at set-pieces.

While Sulejmani seemed to lack the fitness at times befitting of a wing forward role in the team, his technical ability looked special.  He showed a great ability to anticipate and follow up crosses toward the far post very well.  His footwork may not be of the same level as Salvio, but it’s not far off.  The Serbian winger is a typical Jorge Jesus type signing in that he has solid attacking instincts and great individual technique.

But without doubt, the main impressions created in pre-season came from Lazar Markovic and Filip Djuricic, both of whom contributed significantly, with the former scoring 4 goals and the latter creating 3 in the matches they played.  Markovic showed silky individual skills and the ability to create opportunities all on his own with little reliance on things around him.  The maestro has already been likened to the legend João Vieira Pinto (not least of which because of a similar build, appearance and playing style).  Markovic was the most expensive transfer for Benfica this transfer window and he’s shown enough already to suggest the money was well invested in a player who could already contribute substantially despite his current age (19).  Djuricic meanwhile has also drawn comparisons to another club legend, namely Rui Manuel Costa.  The comparisons are justified in the sense that the Serbian plays a similar role to the Portuguese Benfica fan favourite.  Djuricic seems the more like-for-like replacement of Pablo Aimar’s role in the team (a position I hoped would be filled in previous Benfica blogs). 

There were other positives too from the current squad.  Lima’s excellent form continued as he scored 6 goals, Salvio set up 4 goals across the matches he played in, and there were solid cameos from Matic, Amorim and Rodrigo, amongst others.  And while the end of the transfer window is still not upon us, the fact that Benfica still have the squad intact with the presence of Garay, Gaitàn and Salvio is highly encouraging from the perspective of retaining their quality and experience.  There’s no doubt that the team’s ability to accumulate the 22 goals it did in pre-season is a testament to the ability of Benfica’s attacking strengths to penetrate defences.

The best defence is a strong attack… or is it?

Now while those positives are obvious and certainly commendable, there are concerns, that if unchecked, could become not only significant, but ultimately crippling to a title challenges.  The biggest issue – hands down – is that the team's inherent weaknesses from last season don’t seem to have been addressed.  And if that the case despite making signings in those positions, then either Benfica bought poorly, or Jorge Jesus’ tactical setup isn’t working as it should.

I perceive the issue as an unhealthy mixture of both.  This is embodied perfectly in the signings at fullback.  Bruno Cortez’s nationality, appearance and attacking demeanor threatens to remind one of Real Madrid’s left back Marcelo… until you discover his touches aren’t as clean, and his positional sense is terrible.  Many an occasion in pre-season, he displayed an inability to track back when pushing up too far and allowing his colleagues to be exposed at the back.  But that’s not just a function of his poor tactical discipline, it’s also due to Jorge Jesus’ insistence to play an entertaining, but somewhat reckless and dangerous style.  Typically when teams use fullbacks to offer width, wingers will “invert” and come inside, while central midfielders are supposed to drop back to assist central defenders to prevent the counter.  Benfica aren’t very good at this exact quality, especially against sides with pace, or half decent tactical application.

The likes of Cortez and Silvio therefore, as new additions to the squad, haven’t displayed anything – yet – that gives comfort to the need for an improvement at left back.  Instead, the two signings offer as much doubt as there was with last season’s converted left back, Melgarejo.

Another concern defensively is that of goalkeeper Artur, whose form is questionable.  However, Benfica’s mismanagement of the situation regarding talented youngster Jan Oblak effectively has reduced the Brazilian’s competition to veteran Paulo Lopes, and rookie Mika, both of whom aren’t good enough to challenge Artur for a first team place.  The lack of proper cover could be a issue, if Artur doesn’t cease to bring nerves in Benfica’s backline.

Jorge Jesus also seems relatively insure of his favoured lineup, or favoured system.  Benfica’s use of a loose 4-4-2 formation, especially against Napoli was ineffective and did little to hide the soft centre in Benfica midfield.  This isn’t, of course, due to any lack in quality of Matic and Enzo, but rather again comes down to Jesus’ preference that the two of them push forward considerably, leaving the centre backs exposed.  It also isn’t clear who Jesus prefers at left back, or in the central attacking midfield position (Djuricic or Markovic).

One of the other controversial issues is that of the absence of Cardozo.  His potential exit leaves the team short of a player who lacks mobility, but not for technique, height, power and a consistency that the inexperience of Markovic or Rodrigo cannot replace.  Benfica’s style suits Lima, but ironically, 4-4-2 works better with Cardozo as the 2nd striker as opposed to Lima and Rodrigo, for example.  After Cardozo’s apology, it’s unclear if Benfica plan to even use him, but assuming they don’t, or that he departs in some form in the remaining days of the transfer window, the Eagles will certainly need to refine their approach and use of the current attacking options.  Goals from the inverted wingers need to become more extensive (which makes Salvio’s form in pre-season extremely encouraging), and the creative talents of Djuricic and Markovic will be especially important in leveraging the movement of Lima and Rodrigo.

Reading too much – or too little – into pre-season

Of course, in a sense, all these criticisms can ultimately be irrelevant observations that don’t speak anything over the team’s chances in the league.  There’s no real correlation between a relatively good / bad pre-season and a relatively good / bad season.  And in the case of Benfica, there still remains the divided opinion with respect to Jorge Jesus, and those opposed to him will likely be as cynical as I’ve been, if not worse.

Nonetheless, there are some key learnings from pre-season, made all the more complicated to assess since, out of all Benfica’s opponents (with respect), only Bordeaux and Napoli were remotely of a strength comparable to the level that Benfica should ideally be testing themselves against.  Benfica have still got considerable issues in balance.  While the effort to sign players to cover for weaknesses was certainly there, some of those players haven’t yet inspired confidence.  The team still looks likely to leak goals from tactical application of over-zealous attack, rather than developing the ability to get a 1-0 lead and control the game to a winning conclusion.

But there are considered positives as well.  The signings of Djuricic and Markovic, and the return of Amorim, gives the team the ability to use different tactical setups, and different variations of formations, which could come in handy.  The depth of the team is extremely healthy in most cases.  And even though Jorge Jesus loves to play high risk, high reward reckless attacking football, luckily in the Liga, there are arguably only 3-4 teams that really could cause Benfica problems, and Benfica have enough talent to get away with their chosen strategy to beat most of them.

Benfica faces the unusual situation of having all the pressure on them even though they aren’t defending the title.  The club’s reputation, the fallout of the near-treble success last season, the number of transfers and the changes in manager at Porto, Braga and Sporting effectively means that the Eagles are logically perceived as the team most well positioned to take the title.

Time will tell if Jorge Jesus’ team duly obliges.  Because if next season is as close as last season’s title race, it is quite obvious which match in the Liga calendar is most likely to decide the title.

Hopefully by then, pre-season’s a long distant memory, and Benfica enter the Dragão better balanced and prepared to beat Porto... and finally earn another Liga victory for Jorge Jesus.

Bring on the new season. Força Benfica.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The 2013-14 Benfiquista Wishlist

For some, the 2012-13 Benfica campaign was something special to behold.  The team’s progress in various competitions was incredible considering certain factors, not least of which was the departure of two of the side’s key midfielders in Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel.  Yes, all the trophies eventually escaped Benfica’s clutches, but to reach two of three possible finals and lose the league by one point is hardly the sign of a bad team.

Football, however, like most things, takes on a very different spin in certain context.  After winning the league in his first season as manager, Jorge Jesus has flattered to deceive as Benfiquistas have become painfully accustomed to being envious onlookers as Porto celebrate a third title in a row.  Admittedly, the last one was only lost by one point – a far cry from the 21 point gap in 2010-11 – but that’s little comfort.  The nature of the loss of the title in such dramatic circumstances didn’t exactly help boost the morale of a group of players either, many of whom have performed exceptionally well.

All the psychologists, interested onlookers and nauseatingly optimistic fans will no doubt emphasise, philosophically, that the team will be stronger for all these challenges that were faced.  Some were conquered, and some brought tears.  Either way, whatever side of the fence you sit on in how you assess Benfica’s season, a few things are clear.  As much as the margins for error were unkind to Benfica, there is room for improvement.  Lessons can be learned – and it’s evident some lessons have needed learning for more than one season.Some existing strategies are excellent and should be maintained – but Benfiquistas will hope that the obvious weaknesses in the team get some proper attention before next season kicks off.

So while it may be considerably early to already start talking about next season, Benfica have some time to analyze and understand their mistakes from this campaign.  Here’s my wishlist of items that I hope, come August, the Eagles will have addressed in some form or another.

1. Address the mentality – Respect opponents, implement a hunger to succeed and play without fear

Look at all the teams in recent years who’ve sustained extended periods of success, and a few common threads emerge.  One of the most common is the notion of mentality.  Respecting an opponent regardless of their quality.  Hunger to win that overrides all other possible emotions, especially the fear of losing. It’s a cliché, but the size in the fight of the dog really matters sometimes, because it’s the ingredient that gets certain teams to perform beyond the limitations of their squad or their own apprehension.  Mentally, Benfica are capable of being incredibly composed one game and impossibly paranoid the next.  As an example, against Fenerbache in the second leg of the Europa League semi-final, the team’s mental approach was undeniably superb and they rightly got the plaudits for it.  But after Benfica’s draw with Estoril put the league in the reach of Porto, the team looked incredibly nervous, and each subsequent game against Chelsea, Moreirense, and finally Guimarães, Benfica almost looked like they expected something to go wrong.

I for one believe that when the paranoia of such results is the dominant mental state facing the team, the team’s focus is already lost on the objective.  Porto never play Benfica with the fear of losing – they play with the hunger to catch their record.  Hunger is what characterizes those dangerous, energetic and difficult teams in Europe.  In the Champions League final, Bayern Munich were far and away the superior side on paper against Borussia Dortmund, but the men in yellow and black played with no fear, and were carried by the hunger to win, hence their impressive showing.

Benfica need to learn to play the same way.  And they also need to learn that disrespecting opponents will also not go far.  I agree completely with the sentiment raised in the excellent recent “Talking to The Doll” Benfica podcast, where it was suggested that Benfica didn’t approach the Estoril and Taça de Portugal final with the right levels of respect.  After the victory over Maritimo in the league, Benfica celebrated prematurely over possible Liga success – and the suggestion is that they didn’t take their next Liga fixture as seriously as they should have.  In the second half of the Taça de Portugal final against Guimarães, complacency was clearly evident.  Jorge Jesus’ argument that the team was trying to defend their one goal lead was by no means a convincing explanation to the Eagles’ poor levels of concentration that ultimately led to their defeat.

2. Make the changes to the squad that MUST be made

After the title winning side of 2009-10 was significantly diminished through the departures of Ramires, Di Maria, Luiz and Ceontrão in subsequent years, the team has been able to recover well in constantly developing reasonably strong sides, while leveraging savvy scouting that has identified solid talent like Gaitàn, Garay, Matic (granted, he was part of a swap deal, but Benfica still needed to be happy with what they were getting) and Pèrez.  The club’s loan strategy has also been interesting, often allowing fringe, but talented players to play elsewhere to keep up match fitness and skill development (especially the youngsters).

But the squad’s composition and use is a major issue that affects their success (or lack thereof). The squad isn’t correctly configured for the tactics favoured by Jorge Jesus, and ironically, some deficiencies from 2011-12 weren’t addressed last season. In transfer terms, Benfica already look set to focus too much on attacking acquisitions for next season, instead of taking special care with the defence. One hopes Benfica can learn from their mistakes and optimize their squad better, especially as their main rivals have already lost two hugely critical players – Moutinho and Rodriguez – to Monaco in the summer.

In my last article, I explained how Benfica’s tactical approach changed with the adjustments made in midfield due to the use of Enzo Pérez in a more central midfield role (as opposed to a central attacking midfield role) created more emphasis for the fullbacks Maxi and Melgarejo to push up to offer width in attack.  Benfica fans will recall in the 2011-12 season having major concerns with the mobility and pace of former left back Emerson, who was largely blamed as the exploited weak link in some big matches that season.  It stands to reason that while Melgarejo has played well under the circumstances, some of his performances this season have been very indicative of the makeshift left back that he is.  Benfica’s expectations don’t exactly give much room for a situation like that.

At right back, Maxi Pereira started displaying uncharacteristic displays of poor decision making and deficiencies in pace, something which Porto eventually leveraged for the crucial winner in the penultimate Liga game of the season.  Benfica are too big a club to afford complacency in players “that pick themselves”.  Almeida may already offer a viable solution to creating more competition for Maxi at RB, or becoming first choice LB (although the latter isn’t preferable due to him being right footed).

The risks of Benfica’s high defensive line combined with their preferred attacking approach means that central defenders, in particular, need to be able to recover ground quickly should opponents catch them on the counter attack.  With Garay largely expected to leave, and Luisão lacking pace, it’s clear that a major shakeup may be required in the core of Benfica’s backline.  Benfica have been linked with the Serbian Mitrovic, who certainly doesn’t seem to lack the height and muscle, but the issue is pace, and hopefully that’s something that’s prioritized.  Luisão isn’t going to get faster, making him a more vulnerable spot to exploit with each game that passes.  The easier and weaker teams in the Liga aren’t likely to break through the Benfica backline, and last season illustrated that.  But the more tactically savvy, adventurous “smaller” teams and the bigger teams (especially in the Champions League) will know only too well that it’s an obvious weakness to exploit.

Gaitan and Aimar are largely expected to leave as well – and Benfica seem to have found replacements, albeit very young ones in Serbians Filip Djuricic and Lazar Markovic, but neither player will produce the performances of the players they are replacing, so Benfica ideally need to recruit some experience, especially in Aimar’s position.  Another key issue is the management of fatigue.  Jesus would do well to bring in cover for Matic and Pèrez, and actually use it consistently.  Creating a situation of over-reliance on two key players and lacking options on the bench that are match fit, or match ready isn’t a good plan, and it also makes your team predictable after a while.

So assuming that the departures of Garay and Gaitàn are concrete, Benfica certainly have much to do in the transfer market to strengthen the team. That’s why a few more player sales wouldn’t go amiss in financing transfers in the positions of left back, centre back, attacking midfield and cover for right back, defensive midfield and central midfield.

3. Start showing tactical versatility – and stop making big tactical “bungee jumps” in big matches

For most games in the Liga, Jorge Jesus didn’t change much by way of his side’s tactical formation, shape and strategy.  For someone who has favoured 4-1-3-2 for some time, Jesus found ways to create meaningful variance to the tactical shape this season, particularly by using Gaitàn in the hole behind the striker, or applying the mobility of Lima vs. the muscle of Cardozo in the final 3rd.  Benfica’s tactical shape prioritises penetration and attacking flair above all else, which is understandably required in the Liga, where most teams that play the Eagles are going to sit deep and wait for counter attack opportunities.

Under Jesus, however, Benfica have displayed some obvious tactical vulnerabilities, which, assuming the transfer suggestions above are NOT followed, will need to be addressed in alternative ways.  The first and most obvious one is the tendency to suddenly make surprising team selections or tactical formations in big matches.  Sometimes the gambles can work, but Jesus’ Benfica do not have a particularly good record in those big matches.  A recent example is the Europa League, where the use of Rodrigo in the hole behind Cardozo was an unexpected and brave tactical move, which worked well in the first half until Chelsea played far more narrow in the second half, nullifying the Spaniard’s effectiveness.  Starting with Lima may have been more effective at refining those numerous missed opportunities at goal throughout the game.

We’re a far cry from the days Carlos Martins was used as a right wing, so things have improved, but the criticism here is simply that Jesus tends to try these (untested) adjustments in matches where the stakes are high – and the room for error small enough to mean the difference between success and failure.

Benfica also needs to recruit defensive options correctly if they’re going to persist with a high defensive line, especially against good sides capable of using this weakness.  None of the current Benfica centre backs give a sense of being particularly quick – and Matic’s skills often get demanded up the pitch in attack, leaving the last two defenders exposed to a counter.  Either Benfica prioritise speed ahead of height (which they don’t seem to have done with Mitrovic) in a central defender or defensive midfielder, otherwise Jesus needs to start using his taller centre backs properly.  As an example, defending with a deep lying defensive line but a high pressing attacking line would typically encourage the long ball aerial ball for a tall Benfica defence to win and control in the midfield.

Benfica also would do well to prioritise the recruitment of a proper attacking midfielder in the centre to become the “metronome” through which space can be created by pulling centre backs out of position in their box, something Aimar was exceptional at in his day.  Benfica’s strength on the flanks is obvious, but it makes them a very predictable team at times and often one gets the impression Jesus is relying on the extensive skills of players like Salvio, Gaitàn and Ola John to create penetration in attack rather than relying on tactical variations.

Jorge Jesus and his side also both need to learn how to defend a lead against big sides.  Against Porto and Guimarães, the strategy of “keeping the result” was allegedly attempted – and ultimately failed.  Notwithstanding bad luck, Benfica would do well to learn from other sides some very basic ideas in defending such leads.  For example – use two lines of four, the deepest line staying around the edge of the 18 yard area to deal with high balls and crosses into the box.  The other line sits slightly in front, picking up long range shots, through balls and runs into the box.  When the ball is won – keep it.  Don’t resort to pointless counter attacks.  Players who hold up the ball well and retain, or cycle the ball well are critical to such strategies.  There’s nothing more frustrating than chasing a side towards the end of the game, when you’re desperate for the ball to recover a goal to get back in the game.

Benfica’s approach instead makes it quite easy for opponents, committing too much in attack and paying very little attention to retaining the ball.  It’s not attractive football – but something tells me Benfiquistas won’t care too much if the results are earned because of it.  If they can’t do such things – they shouldn’t be trying to defend leads in the manner that they currently do, because it clearly doesn’t work.

4. Have a clear strategy to win the Liga… and learn from the last 3 seasons

If there is one element Benfica could certainly improve dramatically, it is their strategic approach to a league campaign, which almost worked this season, save for the team’s possible complacency in ensuring 3 points against Estoril.  Benfica shouldn’t have created the situation where they relied on the result in the Dragão to dictate their league campaign – because it’s clear the team wasn’t convinced that they could beat their rivals.  While the 2010-11 was a campaign where Porto’s squad and coach clearly showed tactical superiority, the last two seasons’ failures can be argued more by Benfica’s inability to win key games and manage their campaign combined with Porto’s opportunistic manner of “smelling blood” and taking advantage at just the right time.

It stands to reason – at the beginning of this campaign, surely the penultimate fixture of the season away to Porto stood out as a possible title decider?  Yet, going into that game, Benfica would have had 28 games – including one at home to Porto – where an unassailable lead could have been developed.  If Porto wasn’t going to be beaten at their ground, then the game against Estoril especially is where Benfica had to plan ahead and know that victory was essential.  Benfica shouldn’t have allowed this game to become a title decider, and they had 28 games before it to ensure that was not the case.  Irony and history now combine to illustrate that a possibly unassailable 4 point lead could have been taken into the Dragão – but after Estoril preyed on Benfica’s tactical frailties, Porto took full advantage of the timid approach shown by the Eagles.

That’s not to say that it’s acceptable the Benfica aren’t capable of getting a result at the Dragão – but Benfica, despite having an arguably better squad for two seasons, don’t seem to believe – or know – how they can beat Porto.

To win the Liga, it’s become quite a simple formula then – Benfica have to probably win 28 games, or figure out how to get results against Porto.  With Rodriguez and Moutinho leaving Porto, the opportunity for an arguably superior Benfica to make up ground in season 2013-14 could be ripe, depending on who Porto sign to replace their stars.

5. Prioritise the Liga and European competition… and rotate intelligently

One of the things that counted in Porto’s favour this season was that by the time Benfica visited the Dragão for that key fixture, Benfica were still fighting on three fronts.  Key players like Matic and Pèrez were playing twice a week consistently in the business end of these competitions, which is a risky strategy for the fatigue given their importance.

That’s not to say the idea of a treble (or quadruple, briefly) wasn’t romantic to Benfiquistas.  But the club has to prioritise.  The Liga will always be the bread and butter of Benfica’s success – always.  Domestic dominance doesn’t come from the Taça de Liga or the Taça de Portugal.  These are two lovely trophies with history, but if Benfica are going to progress as a club, there are only two competitions worth considering – the Liga, and the Champions League.

Consider for example, that the Eagles’ forage into the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2011-12 earned them €20,7m, compared to €14.2m in 2010-11, when an exit in the Champions League group stage was followed by a subsequent semi-final appearance in the Europa League.  As reference, Porto, who did not qualify for the Champions League that year due to a 3rd place finish in the Liga in 2009-10, earned a mere €7.9m from the Europa League in 2010-11 … and they won the competition!
The Champions League isn’t just about prestige – it’s about finances, and while Benfica’s scouting and transfer business has produced some deals to rival those of Porto in recent years (Luiz, Ramires, Di Maria, Ceontrão, Javi Garcia, Witsel in particular), the club shouldn’t be relying on lucrative player sales to finance its squad changes (especially since player sales often implies the sale of key players that Benfica can’t really afford to lose, but often do).

Benfica need to start prioritizing the Liga and the Champions League, and use the Taça de Liga and / or the Taça de Portugal as the competition where fringe or younger players are used to give them experience, or keep them match fit.  That’s not to disrespect the domestic cups, but ultimately, they matter little to the vision of making Benfica strong on domestic and European shores, simply because the Liga and Champions League have a far wider audience and financial profile. Porto may have been less successful in reaching the latter stages of the Champions League or the Taça de Portugal, but they’ve ended the season having benefitted from playing 9 matches less.  Considering that their squad was thinner than that of Benfica in certain positions, the fact that they’ve walked away with the Liga title is also a function of how they’ve prioritized and managed their squad over the season.

And so ends the wishlist.  There’s a simpler version for many Benfiquistas of course … do whatever it takes to win the Liga and beat Porto for once!  And for some others, an even simpler version than that – change the manager…!   And sadly, much of the above is not likely to happen unless Jorge Jesus’ challenges his own stubborn managerial ideals, or the Benfica structures do not support him with the signing of the players he really needs.

But either way, assuming he stays, whatever changes are made by Jorge Jesus and/or Benfica for season 2013-14, one thing is for certain – after the near-success of season 2012-13, expectations will be high to translate Benfica’s recent underachievement into fortune and glory.

Here’s hoping.

This article also appeared on Outside of the Boot in June 2013.