The Portuguese football season officially started last night in Algarve with the final of the Portuguese Super Cup. The winner of the Portuguese League, Benfica faced the winners of the Portuguese Cup, Sporting, in a game which is considered the biggest derby in Portugal. After a very positive preseason which ended up with a victory in the International Champions Cup, Benfica arrived at this game as favourites against a Sporting team which, besides the fact that they did not win any game in preseason, showed solid performances against Liverpool and Valencia.

This tactical analysis will focus on explaining the tactics used by both teams. Following the below key points:
– Benfica’s offensive organization (Pizzi and Rafa’s roles)
– Benfica’s defensive organization against Sporting’s three at the back formation
– Sporting’s defensive organization
– Raúl de Tomás’ performance

Lineups

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics

The ‘Eagles’ shaped up with no surprises in a classic 4-4-2. The only two new faces in Benfica’s first XI were Raúl de Tomás (RDT)(who took the vacant spot left by João Félix) and Nuno Tavares; the 19-year-old left-back played his first official game for Benfica at right back.
The ‘Lions’ used a 3-5-2 formation (transformed into 5-4-1 in the defensive organization as in the image), with Luís Neto (Sporting’s new signing), Coates and Mathieu composing the back three. The flanks were left to Acuña and to the youngster Thierry Correia. In the middle, Wendel and Doumbia were the holding midfielders, while Bruno Fernandes and Raphinha had free roles to support Bas Dost. Later in the game, Marcel Keizer changed the formation to 4-2-3-1.

Pizzi/Rafa inside roles and Grimaldo runs

One of the most well-worked moves in Benfica’s side is the positioning of Pizzi and Rafa in the central zones of the pitch when Benfica is in the offensive organization. This movement aims to explore the space between the defensive and midfield lines of the opponent. Both players are constant references to receive the ball between the lines and then face the opposing defence, where Pizzi’s passing quality and Rafa’s speed with the ball are serious threats as they can create situations of imbalance on the opponent’s defence. If it is not possible to receive and face the opposition’s defensive line, the option is to play a simple pass to the supporting midfielders (usually Gabriel), who immediately seek to explore the space left on the flanks by Rafa and Pizzi to launch Benfica’s full-backs. Sporting had a lot of problems to counteract these moves; when they tried to shorten the space between the lines and have the left and right midfielders closing the inside space, Gabriel would have time to launch the ball on the flanks to the full-backs; when they tried to press Benfica’s midfielders the ball would quickly enter the space left by Sporting midfielders.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
Pizzi and Rafa occupying the space in front of Sporting’s defensive line and on midfielders back. Gabriel ready to receive the pass from Pizzi and change the centre of the game to the outside zones. Grimaldo is the player in charge to provide the width and explore the depth on the left side. Sporting’s right back and right midfield attracted to inside zones leave free space on the flank.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
Pizzi and Rafa constantly taking inside roles, Grimaldo once again making the run to receive Gabriel’s pass on the back of Sporting’s defence. Sporting are in a 4-5-1 formation in the moment of defensive organization.

Benfica’s defensive organization

Benfica effectively controlled the three defenders in Sporting’s building up. Instead of having both strikers pressing the Sporting back three side-by-side, Raúl de Tomás dropped back to pressure one of Sporting’s midfielders. Benfica would press Sporting’s midfielders with Raúl de Tomás and Gabriel/Florentino (depending on the side of the ball) and leave one free midfielder (Gabriel/Florentino) to cover the space between the midfield and defensive lines. This resulted in a high number of balls recovered by Benfica’s midfielders when Sporting tried to play the ball through the middle. As Sporting struggled to counteract the well-organized Benfica’s press, the solution was often to play direct long balls to the sides.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
Seferovic presses the centre-backs, while Raúl de Tomás pressures the Sporting midfielder Wendel. Gabriel is marking Doumbia while Florentino covers the space between Benfica’s lines. Defensive organization in 4-1-4-1

Defending in numbers does not mean defending well

Besides the fact that Sporting presented a 5-4-1 formation in the defensive organization, the team eventually got disorganized at some moments of the game. In Benfica’s first goal two of the three central defenders are attracted to the side of the ball, creating a situation of 2×3 in Sporting’s penalty box.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
Pizzi with the cross to the penalty box where Benfica have 3 players against 2 Sporting defenders to attack the ball. Coates and Mathieu completely out of the position.

On Benfica’s 2nd goal, Sporting were again disorganized; all the defensive line players were out of position. Benfica generated a situation of superiority near Sporting’s penalty box. These moments of disorganization can be explained by the lack of routine on playing with a 3 centre-back formation (Sporting did not test this formation in any of the preseason games) and by the difficulties of controlling the space between defensive and midfield lines where the Benfica players often received the ball.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
Mathieu trying to cover Acuña (who has been beaten in a 1×2 situation against Pizzi and Tavares) Coates, Neto and Thierry are slow to adjust the position and covering the spaces between the defensive line. Benfica with 3 players ready to attack the penalty box.

Raúl de Tomás

Yesterday was the first official game of the most expensive Benfica signing this season. The Spanish striker took the vacancy left by João Félix and even though both players have totally different characteristics, Benfica fans surely did not miss the now Atletico de Madrid star.
Although the Spaniard did not score, we saw an impressive work rate and tactical commitment from him. Without the ball, RDT was in charge of marking and pressing one of Sporting’s midfielders to not allow them to receive the ball in the first building up phase, which was crucial for Benfica’s success in the defensive organization. High levels of intensity and aggressiveness resulted in balls recovered immediately in Sporting’s half and a number of duels won.
With the ball, Raúl de Tomás showed excellent technical attributes and good decision making. He used his mobility to perfectly exploit the spaces between Sporting’s lines and be a solution for the player on the ball. This was a promising start for the Spanish striker for whom early signs point towards a productive season in Portugal.

Portuguese Super Cup Final 2019: SL Benfica vs Sporting CP - tactical analysis tactics
After receiving a ball recovered by Florentino Luís, Raúl de Tomás makes a superb pass to put Seferovic one-on-one with the goalkeeper.

Conclusion

This was a surprising victory for Benfica against their old rivals; despite being favourites, not even the most optimistic supporters would have expected to end this game with a 5-0 result. It was a game of two halves – the first half registered a great balance between the teams where Sporting had the first few chances to score the opener but Benfica scored the opening goal in the 40th minute. In the second half Benfica started better with higher intensity and faster ball circulation. After the 2-0 (60’) Sporting were never able to come back into the game, not even through a tactical change to a 4-2-3-1 formation right after the second goal. In fact, it changed the course of the game and Sporting ended up conceding two more goals in the next 15 minutes (64’ and 75’). There’s no denying that Benfica were the better side in this final but it was a painful and unfair result for Sporting.

This can definitely be the kind of result that launches Benfica towards a good season. Beyond the numbers of the result, Benfica showed great team dynamics following what was seen in the latter half of the previous season when Bruno Lage took charge of the team. Another positive aspect of Benfica’s performance was the physical condition and intensity of playing presented by the players in this early stage of the season.

On the other hand, Sporting have had a false start to the season. Besides losing against their biggest rivals by a heavy result, the team faced a lot of problems in the offensive organization, when trying to connect the plays between the lines and were unable to find solutions to counteract Benfica’s pressure. Another negative point was the inability to react to the result. After the 2-0 (60’), the majority of the players started to show signs of being both physically and mentally destroyed.


Total Football Analysis Magazine #11: July 2019 - tactical analysis tactics
Artwork by @chapulana

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Ricardo Casaleiro

Portuguese football lover.
Currently studying a Master's degree in Performance Analysis of Sport.