Tactical breakdown: how Benfica’s attacking prowess won the game

It was first against second as Porto took on Benfica at the Estadio do Dragao, with just one point separating the two teams going into the derby. It was also the best defence against the best attack with Benfica leading the scoring charts with 64 goals and Porto having conceded the league’s lowest total of 13 after 23 games.

It was a tight affair and the game was played at a fast and furious pace right from the kickoff. Despite Porto taking the lead through Adrian in the first half, Bruno Lage’s Benfica managed to turn around the deficit and come away with a 2-1 victory to send them top of the Primeira Liga.

Lineups

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Credit: Wyscout.

Unsurprisingly, both teams lined up in their usual 4-4-2 formations. For Benfica, the youngster Ferro continued to partner Ruben Dias in defence in the absence of the injured Jardel and German Conti.

Porto manager Sergio Conceicao once more left out star defender Eder Militao, who hasn’t started a game since being caught clubbing in the early hours of the morning two weeks ago. January singing Manafa was preferred at right back.

Defensive midfielder Danilo Pereira had recovered from injury but Conceicao decided to stick with Oliver Torres as Hector Herrera’s midfield partner. This meant that Herrera would take on the defensive duties in central midfield.

Up front, Moussa Marega made a surprising return to the starting lineup after a month out due to injury.

Frantic start

Both teams came storming out of the blocks, with Benfica’s Greek-German goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos forced into making a low save from left-back Alex Telles’ long-range effort after just 20 seconds. This was to set the pace of the game. Both Porto and Benfica looked to attack at speed, often bypassing the crowded midfield to get the ball to the likes of Moussa Marega or Haris Seferovic in advanced positions.

Porto’s high-energy press in the midfield led to them opening the scoring. Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias attempted a pass to Rafa who appeared to be in space to receive the ball but Torres was too quick for him. The Spaniard got there first, quickly laying the ball off to Brahimi, who ran straight for goal, forcing Dias into fouling him. The Portuguese defender picked up a booking for the challenge and the resulting free-kick ended up in a goal for Porto as Adrian found the bottom corner after his free-kick had rebounded off the Benfica wall.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Rafa looks to receive the ball from Dias, unaware of the danger posed by Torres.
Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Torres wins the ball and lays it off to Brahimi who starts his run.
Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Brahimi glides past Samaris before being brought down by Dias on the edge of the area.

The goalkeepers

One way in which the two sides did differ somewhat was in their goalkeepers’ methods of distribution and how they played the ball out from the back. Even though both teams managed exactly the same number of successful long balls, 32, the statistics reveal that for Benfica these often came from the goalkeeper. To be precise, 14 of Benfica’s 32 successful long balls were played by Vlachidomos. In comparison, Iker Casillas only managed five successful long balls for the home side. As can be seen below, centre-back Felipe and the central midfield partnership of Herrera and Torres played their fair share of long balls from slightly more advanced positions.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Credit: SofaScore

Porto’s build-up play

Whereas Benfica’s goalkeeper Vlachodimos almost always played the safety-first long ball, Iker Casillas’ distribution was much more varied.

Often the ex-Real Madrid player would prefer to pass the ball out to the centre backs, who occasionally spread wide as Herrera or Torres tucked in to form a three in order to play the ball out patiently.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Torres comes deep to receive the ball as Pepe and Felipe spread wide.

The Dragons’ insistence on playing out from the back was to cost them dearly in the 26th minute. Casillas found himself with very few options to pass to and instead of playing it long he made a risky pass to his compatriot Adrian.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis
Casillas plays a risky pass to Adrian, who immediately loses the ball to the on-running Gabriel.

Gabriel easily dispossessed Adrian and seconds later the ball was in the back of the net as Seferovic squared to Joao Felix who slotted home at the far post, 1-1.

Second half

The second half started in much the same vein as the first, with both teams working hard to press each other in central midfield areas. It was Benfica who took the lead though in the 52nd minute, as Pizzi and Rafa combined in a classy one-two before Rafa unleashed a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.

As the second half wore on Porto had more and more of the ball and tried to get crosses into the box. Only 26% of these crosses connected with their target though, as Benfica’s back line held firm.

Red card

Benfica could have thrown it all away as they went down to 10 men with 13 minutes remaining. Midfield playmaker Gabriel was given two yellow cards for pulling on Octavio’s shorts and angrily pushing his fellow Brazilian to the ground.

Bruno Lage made the obvious decision to switch Joao Felix to the right flank, forming a 4-4-1 with Seferovic now as the lone striker.

Formation changes

In the 81st minute, Conceicao brought on defensive midfielder Danilo in place of Oliver Torres. However, the Portuguese international immediately signalled to his teammates that he was, in fact, going to slot into the centre of defence. The Dragons’ coach had chosen to switch to a back three, allowing Manafa and Telles more licence to get forward on the flanks as they frantically tried to find target-man Manega in the area.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis

Benfica’s former B-team manager Lage was quick to react. Sensing that his back line might be too narrow to cope with Porto’s extra width, he brought on Sevilla loanee Sebastien Corchia with two minutes remaining. The Frenchman saw out the remaining minutes at right back, as Andre Almeida tucked inside to form a back five.

Porto Benfica Primeira Liga Tactical Analysis Analysis

The final countdown

By that stage, Porto were looking desperate, as cross after cross was cleared by Benfica’s backline. The away side’s Portuguese centre backs Dias and Ferro, both 21, made as many clearances (16) as the whole Porto team put together.

A speculative effort from Brazilian defender Felipe tested Vlachodimos from range, and the German-born keeper made a very good close-range save to deny Marega in the closing minutes. But time was not on their side, Vlachodimos was booked for time-wasting and Lage brought off Felix in the 92nd minute as the Eagles looked to use the substitution to run the clock down and see out the 2-1 victory.

Conclusion

This was a hard-fought and very tight affair decided by the closest of margins. Playing matching formations and styles, the two sides almost cancelled each other out. Considering how Porto ran out of time in the closing minutes though, they may be left wondering whether spending so much time bringing the ball out from the back was really worth it.


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Gareth Thomas

Keen football analyst currently based in Lisbon.