The final game of the UEFA Champions League Group G between Benfica and Zenit had much at stake. A win for the Eagles was mandatory to go through to the Europa League, while Zenit didn’t need the win to go through to the last 16 of the Champions League. It was a match that promised excitement and speed. In the end, Benfica came out on top with a brilliant 3-0 victory to knock Zenit out of all UEFA competitions, while RB Leipzig and Lyon went through to the last 16 of the “millionaire” competition.
This tactical analysis examines the tactics used by Benfica to get the key three points against the Russian champions. This analysis explores how Benfica took full advantage of the opposition’s mistakes by being patient in their attacking tactics.
Benfica have been using the same starting eleven for the past five games, winning four and drawing one game against Leipzig, after being winning the game until the 89th minute. As such, Bruno Lage seems to have found his favourite lineup, and this result surely solidifies his choice.
On the other hand, it seems Zenit have made minor changes from their last game in the Russian Premier League. Yordan Osorio featured once again in the team replacing centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy due to suspension, and Aleksei Sutormin gave way to Magomed Ozdoev in midfield. Regardless, both teams presented very strong line-ups due to what was at stake.
Benfica’s composure in attack
The hosts knew they had to dominate the game from start to finish if they wanted to have a chance of winning the game. As such, Lage’s tactics for his team were about keeping possession as much as possible. Besides the 61% possession, Benfica kept their players fairly close together to facilitate their passing options.
Such can be seen in the graph above, which represents Benfica’s passing map. It is clear to see the team stayed very close together, which allowed for a high number of short passes to recycle the possession from one side to the other. In total, Benfica had 624 passes with 88% accuracy, and this can be explained by the triangulations done on the wings.
The image above shows how Benfica set up its attacking phase to allow for these triangulations to take place. On the left side, there is a triangle formed by Grimaldo (left-back), Cervi (left midfielder), and Taarabt (centre midfielder). The passing links between those three were the highest of the game, which can be seen in the passing map above. On the right side, there is a triangle formed by Tomás Tavares (right-back), Pizzi (right midfielder), and Chiquinho (second striker). The passing links between them are also highlighted in the passing map above, which emphasises how often these triangles were used to circulate the ball and keep it away from Zenit.
Benfica were able to constantly create these triangulations by keeping a number advantage over Zenit on the wings. The image above is an example of the overloads created by the hosts to retain possession in the opposition’s half. This scenario was used on both wings to great effect. However, Zenit were able to stop Benfica from getting into dangerous crossing positions in the first half, thus why Benfica were unable to complete any of their 17 crosses. Due to Zenit’s compactness at the back, Benfica were not able to score in the first half, having a total of five shots, with three being from outside the box.
Zenit’s target man
On the other side, Zenit had a very poor match in terms of attacking opportunities. They only had one shot on target throughout the game compared to Benfica’s six. However, the merit cannot be taken away from the way Benfica pressed throughout the 90 minutes.
Benfica wanted to have control of possession at all times, which meant that they could not let Zenit be comfortable in playing the ball from their backline. As such, they used a four-man block in attack to force Zenit to play long balls in behind the defence. The image above shows how the first defensive block of Benfica gives Zenit no other option than to kick the ball long, which is exactly what Benfica wanted. This tactic can be validated by Zenit’s 73 long balls with a 59% effectiveness, compared to Benfica’s 56 long balls with a 70% effectiveness. This means Benfica were ready to defend against Zenit’s long balls.
Once again, Benfica’s pressing style is very aggressive, thus forcing Zenit to play long balls to their attacking players. Zenit adapted to this strategy by committing a lot of its players forward, as seen in the picture, where there are five Zenit players in defence and five Zenit players in the attack. As such, it shows that Zenit did have a strategy for this style of play.
Throughout the game, Zenit tried to match-up their target-man Dzyuba with Benfica’s right-back, Tomás Tavares, to gain the upper hand in an areal duel. Dzyuba was able to win 6/10 of his areal duels, while Tavares won 0/4 of his duels, showing that Zenit used this strategy to great effect. However, Dzyuba was not able to use this advantage as a threat to Benfica’s defence because he was never in a threatening position due to Benfica’s high defensive line. The areal duels won by Dzyuba were always recovered by Benfica’s midfield.
The moment Benfica won the game
In the 56th minute of the game, Zenit’s full-back Douglas Santos was shown a second yellow card for a deliberate handball inside the penalty box. As a consequence, Zenit played the last half hour of the game 2-0 down to ten men. Benfica already had the upper hand in the second half before this incident, but it solidified their tactics and helped to follow through with the victory without much worry. Regardless, Benfica still tried to score more goals until the final whistle, and they took advantage of having one extra man to win the battle in the midfield.
Benfica used Pizzi and Chiquinho to overload the final third of the pitch, by gaining an advantage over Zenit’s holding midfielder Barrios. The image above shows how the Zenit midfielder had to deal with the Benfica playmakers at the same time due to Zenit’s front block of three men. As such, Benfica were able to penetrate through the centre of the pitch with greater ease, thus why they attempted fewer crosses in comparison to the first half.
Even when Zenit dropped its front block to create a more compact defensive structure, Benfica’s playmakers were still able to take advantage of the space in between the lines since Barrios could not cover two passing lanes at once. The numerical advantage helped Benfica have more dangerous attacking situations, and nearly scored a fourth goal if it wasn’t cleared off the line by one of Zenit’s defenders. Additionally, Benfica were also able to put more pressure on Zenit’s defenders when they tried to play out from the back.
The image above shows how Benfica intensified their pressure after Zenit being at a number’s disadvantage. Zenit were still trying to isolate Dzyuba against Tavares (bottom left), but Benfica had a number’s advantage in defence as well (four versus three). Each attacking player is man-marking a Zenit player, and Gabriel (centre of the pitch) is left alone to roam around and help in the defence and the attack. Benfica knew that a Zenit goal away could knock them out to the fourth place, so they took no chances and pressed Zenit until the final whistle.
This tactical analysis gives an in-depth understanding of the tactics used in the final game of Group G in the UEFA Champions League between Benfica and Zenit. The game was regarded as a flawless victory from the Eagles in a tactical perspective – by dominating possession from start to finish, dictating the tempo and playing style of their opposition. Zenit should be disappointed in how poorly they adapted to Benfica’s tactics, and not being able to respond to such conditions meant they were knocked out of all UEFA competitions for the 2019/2020 season.
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