Belenenses came into the 2019/20 season looking to push on from their impressive ninth-place finish last season, but upon an early cup exit, and failing to score a single goal in their first four league games, changes had to be made. Silas, the former manager, was sacked. Under 23s manager Pedro Ribeiro was promoted, but soon after stepped down. This set the scene for former Bundesliga player, and former Maritimo and Moreirense manager, Petit, to take over.
Since taking over, Petit has managed to garner three wins and two draws in eight games, averaging a relatively impressive 1.38 points per game. This tactical analysis will look at his tactics, his philosophy and how he has pulled Belenenses out of the relegation zone.
Since coming in, Petit has made it clear that his preferred formation is a 5-4-1. One of the key reasons for this is that he wants his team to have numerical advantages out wide, especially defensively. Across his opening eight games, this has been his preferred 11, with the second image below providing an in-game example.
However, something that could sometimes be seen (mostly during pressing stages) was the wide attackers getting further up and closer to the striker. This left the burden of midfield control on the two central midfielders.
Additionally, due to having adequate numbers defensively, one of the centre backs was often permitted to press the man in front of him to help the midfield if needed. This shows the structural flexibility that Petit wants from his team.
In regards to Belenenses’ pressing, it was quite clear that Petit had instructed his team to press upon triggers. The main trigger is when the ball gets played out wide from a central area. The striker would look to go behind the man on the ball, whilst the right central midfielder, right-winger, and right wing-back looked to swarm the man in possession as fast as possible.
The primary aim was to cut off passing lanes and force a misplaced pass. Statistically, Belenenses have made 27 ball recoveries in wide areas in their last five games, showing this approach. This often worked, as Belenenses committed up to seven men during a single wide containment press, whilst the opposition usually only had four or five realistic passing options, showing the Liverpool-like aggression of the team.
This example epitomises Petit’s press. The ball is played wide by Rio Ave’s middle centre back. It is visible at this point that Belenenses had not started pressing, but rather were sitting in their 5-4-1.
When the ball is received by the left-back though, all but two of his passing lanes have been cut. His remaining options were also risky due to incoming Belenenses players.
The ball is eventually played forwards to Rio Ave’s left-winger Nuno Santos, resulting in the Belenenses right wing-back (Tiago Esgaio) pressing him.
At this point, looking across the field, we see that all but one of the Rio Ave players are cut off, which forces Santos into an unfavourable duel, or a high-risk pass. He opts for the pass, which leads to former Ajax attacker Mateo Cassierra winning the ball back.
This is another example. In this image, we see six Belenenses players surrounding the man on the ball. There is also the striker preventing the ball over the top to the Rio Ave defender. For the man on the ball, pretty much all options have been cut off. However, as annotated, there is a large space behind the press, as to be expected.
This is the nature of such an aggressive press. More often than not, large spaces are left in the hope of regaining possession as soon as possible. Ideally, the left wing-back Nilton Varela would also push up to close off that space. This is just one of the times that we have seen Petit’s press have a flaw in his short reign so far.
The two examples above also show the flaw of preparing such a press. Often, the midfield line starts to move forward in preparation for a wide press, which creates a significant gap between the midfield and defensive lines.
When this is recognised by the opposition’s striker, as shown in the examples, it creates time and space for them to turn and find an out-ball. In this scenario, the ball was played out to the Boavista player, leaving the left-back in acres of space, which allowed a relatively easy final third progression for Boavista.
Likewise in this third image, we see clearly that the midfield line has pushed up more so than the defensive line. Whilst the ball was not played into this area, it was another chance to for Rio Ave to break the potential press. One solution for Petit could be to stagger his centre-backs, leaving one higher than the other two, who could clean up this area. Alternatively, Petit could instruct his defence to push up in tandem with the midfield. The drawback of this though, is that Belenenses would be susceptible to long balls over the top.
During the build-up phase, Belenenses move into a 3-3-2-2 shape, with the unique aspect of this being the positional movements of the players. The first bank of three remains the same, with the three centre-backs, but after this we see variations. The first way this formation is made is by moving one central-midfielder down to the number six role. He then stays horizontally in line with the wing-backs, creating the second bank of three. This is followed by the other central midfielder being higher, and inline (horizontally) with the left-winger (often Silvestre Varela). Silvestre Varela often drifted inside and tucked underneath the left-striker, but often ran the channels. Finally, the two strikers in the system were the right-winger (Lica) and the orthodox striker (Cassierra). At times though, when midfield options were lacking, Show would drop deeper to create a 3-4-3.
In regards to how Belenenses looked to progress the ball, it would often be through wide areas. The wide centre-back, wing-back and deep midfielder looked to combine, and one of the two players behind the strikers would look to run the channels to provide an option. Usually, this would happen on the left-hand side due to Silvestre Varela’s role in running the channels. Statistically, 67% of Belenenses’ attacks have come from the left, validating this statement.
In this first image, we see the 3-3-2-2 shape. The left centre-back (Chima Akas) is available and under a relative lack of pressure, so the ball is distributed to him. Despite this, we should also note the available passing options created by the 3-3-2-2.
Once the ball is received by Akas, he immediately looks to play the ball to the wing-back (Nilton Varela). At this point, we can note that the second central-midfielder (Show) has dropped deeper, in favour of creating more of a 3-4-1-2.
This is most likely due to the inevitable progression down the left, as well as a lack of accessible passing options due to the Maritimo press.
Once Nilton Varela receives the ball, he has four options, as shown above. He decides to play the relatively risky pass to inside left attacker Silvestre Varela.
Nilton Varela then provides an overlapping option. Adding to that, deeper midfielder Andre Santos looks to make an underlapping run, providing more options for Silvestre Varela. He is able to do this though, due to the previous movement of Show. As Show has dropped deep, it allows Santos to advance without the threat of leaving the midfield exposed. This also restores the 3-3-2-2 shape, as one midfielder is deeper, and one is more advanced, and horizontally in line with Silvestre. The ball is then played to Nilton Varela, from which he enters the final third, showing the build-up of Petit’s side.
Whilst this 3-3-2-2/3-4-1-2 formation has been most common in the attack for Petit’s side, they have sometimes built in another manner. On occasions, as opposed to the midfielder and wing-backs creating a bank of three, the two central midfielders along with the left-wing-back would create that bank. This allowed the right-wing-back (Esgaio) to be higher up the pitch, and he created the next bank of two with Silvestre Varela. One hypothesis for why this happened is that Petit aimed to pin back the opposition’s full-back quickly, and so rather than having Show go all the way out to the right, Esgaio pushes much further up, and leaves Show and right centre-back Phete to deal with the space he leaves.
These next images provide an example of this happening. After a quick long throw to Akas, the ball is given to Nilton Varela. From here, if we look around the pitch we see how far forward Esgaio is. He is practically in line with Silvestre Varela.
We also see Phete at right centre-back moving further forward than the rest of this defensive line, to cover the space Esgaio has left. Additionally, Show is deeper and looks to draw the Maritimo players away from Esgaio.
Moving on, the ball is played into Silvestre Varela, who is making his trademark run into the channel. Once he receives the ball in his stride, the strikers come into the picture. We can see that they have been acting like a front two, further showing the 3-3-2-2 shape Petit has deployed.
Silvestre continues his run as the strikers look to create space for each other by making opposite movements. What this does, is that it allows Esgaio acres of space on the right.
From this final picture, we can see the options. Eventually. The cross to Esgaio is overhit and sent out of play for a goal kick. However, this clearly shows the versatility in attack that Petit has looked to instil in his Belenenses side.
In regards to passing preferences, Belenenses looked to prioritise progression rather than possession deep. The ball would usually be played quickly from back to front, and do not use many lateral passes, shown through Belenenses only averaging 109 lateral passes per 90, 77 less than the league average. Additionally, Petit’s men have utilised partnerships deep on the wing well, with left centre-back Akas passing to left wing-back Lima being the most common linkup. There was also a preference towards medium passes in the middle and final thirds, and short passes in the defensive third. This is indicative of how Petit wants his team to play, with short passes to build up and then exploiting the space, as we have seen to a significant extent above.
However, we cannot disregard that Petit did not always instruct his team to build like this. In fact, Belenenses often used the long ball to the wing-backs or attacking midfielders, if nearby passing options were risky. If we look at the passing breakdown of Belenenses under Petit, 13% have been long passes. This is higher than the league averages, which shows the versatility in Belenenses’ build-up that Petit has employed.
When moving from defence to offence, Belenenses were cautious in the number of men being committed, and were wary of over-committing. Petit’s counter-attacks often consisted of three to five men. Counter-attacking opportunities haven’t been scarce though, with Belenenses averaging 4 counters per game, one of the highest in the league, showing the willingness to get right back to attacking after defending.
These examples show the number of players that Belenenses commit, with only three players making fast runs, and one more making a passive attempt at being involved. We have already theorised that this may be due to caution, but there could be another reason. During most counter-attacks, when the ball got to the final third, the man on the ball would look to slow play down, as shown above.
This allows the team to get back into their offensive shape, and create positional chances, which averaged around 80% of the chances they had. However, another reason perhaps for this slow-down is that Petit uses the counter-attacking opportunities to allow his defence to move up, and reposition themselves, as is also shown in the examples above.
Across this analysis, we have seen the start of Petit’s overhaul of Belenenses from a tactical standpoint. He has changed them from a regular four at the back Liga NOS team, and made them a fresh competitor in the league, looking to enter the ongoing battle for the Europa League qualification spot.
Belenenses have looked better on the counter, more tactically astute in the build-up, and more aggressive in their pressing so far. Petit will undoubtedly want more from his players and will look to build on the relatively successful start to his time at Belenenses, but he will be proud of the significant changes he has made to this side, as he looks to push them to the next level, and fight for a future European appearance.