In 2014, Benfica had dropped out of the UEFA Champions League group stage, and into the Europa League which was filled with heavy-hitters such as Juventus and Tottenham. The previous year, Benfica’s hopes of European glory through winning the Europa League was dashed in the final. This was their year to make amends. Despite being underdogs against Conte’s infamous Juventus who were on track for yet another Scudetto, Jorge Jesus and his men would not go out without a fight. With the stage set, the first leg took place in the Estadio de Luz, Jesus knew he would have to pull one out of the hat to get his team through.
This tactical analysis of the match will look at the tactics deployed by Antonio Conte and Jorge Jesus, and how Jesus managed to win the first leg, despite not massively deviating from his usual setup.
As mentioned in the introduction, Jorge Jesus did not change away from his main setup of 4-4-2. Similarly, neither did Conte, opting for his preferred 3-5-2. Conte also started with his usual three-man midfield of Pogba, Pirlo, and Marchisio. From the start, what we can expect based on the lineups is that Juventus will look to go man to man with their strikers against Benfica’s centre-backs, whilst exerting a midfield dominance due to Benfica only having two players in the midfield. From Benfica’s point of view, the match plan will be to keep the ball wide as often as possible and look to exploit 2v1 situations on the wing with Juventus only having the single wing-back covering the whole flank. Let’s now look at how the game actually panned out, using in-game examples and diagrams.
Juventus’ Wide Midfield
Something that was perhaps not expected from Conte here was how wide his midfield was. Often enough, the distance between Pogba and Marchisio was the width of the pitch. One reason why Conte may have chosen to do this is to stretch the midfield of Benfica as wide as possible, and then exploit the manipulated space with either the striker dropping deep (as was sometimes seen with Vucinic).
The image below also shows how wide Pogba was on the right hand side.
As we can see, Caceres at right centre-back has pushed further right, and so has Pogba in an attempt to create width in the side. This, combined with the extra man (Pirlo) deep in the build-up, results in a quantitative advantage on the wing for Juventus, having Caceres, Pogba and Lichsteiner against the left-winger and left-back of Benfica.
With this however, Conte also left his midfield very exposed and unmanned, with Pirlo more often than not dropping deeper and into the defensive line, Pogba staying wider, and Marchisio looking to do similarly on the opposite side. This resulted in Benfica using the central areas more often than expected, and too great success as well, as shown below.
In this situation, we see Pogba pushing wider, and Marchisio not tucking in as you would expect from the left central midfielder when the ball is on the right. This left a lot of space for the two strikers to operate, and drag the centre-backs around.
Here, we see the ball has been played from the wing and into the feet of the Benfica striker Cardozo. As highlighted, we also see the huge amounts of space left for the other striker, Rodrigo, to use and make himself an option. Had Marchisio tucked in though, the space would be far less open, and it would be much harder for Rodrigo to manipulate the space and centre-back next to him. This situation highlights the risk vs reward system. He risked leaving huge amounts of space centrally, for the potential reward of immediately utilising the wide midfielders, and not having to wait for them to make runs towards wide positions once Juventus win the ball back.
Benfica’s back three in build-up
In the build-up phase, Benfica created a back three with left centre-back Garay becoming the central one, Luisao at right centre back pushing a bit wider out, and Andre Gomes or Siqueira dropping into left centre-back position. This, along with the rest of the teams shape, is shown below.
This stopped Benfica from falling into the trap of Conte’s press when Benfica looked to build from deeper positions. This is because instead of going two vs two (Juventus strikers vs Benfica’s centre-backs), the extra man allowed for a quantitive advantage in favour of Benfica, resulting in them progressing the ball from deep positions successfully frequently. The image below also provides clarity over the position of the wing-back when Benfica have the ball in their own half.
This was not what Benfica had done for most of the season, where they usually did, in fact, build-up in two at the back and used one of the central midfielders who would drop deeper in the midfield line to link up the play. This was another smart move from Jesus, as he managed to avoid leaving his defenders constantly on the back foot, and instead gave them option to build-up, which eventually led to Benfica’s second and match-winning goal, which will be analysed in the next section.
Here is where we see Benfica specifically shine. Starting with Juventus though, the pairing of Bonucci and Chiellini was tried and tested, and they had played seasons worth of minutes alongside each other, which evidently helps in understanding off the ball movement and passing the ball to each other.
However, the understanding between Benfica players seemed to be on a whole different level. The aspect of the game which epitomised this was the high volume and quality of dummy runs. Dummy runs can be attributed to the coaching quality, but also require a high level of understanding, which is what we saw from Benfica. Let’s look at an in-game example.
Juventus sat defensively in their 5-3-2, but often their bacs looked flat and were not staggered. This means that instead of placing yourself ahead or behind of your teammate in the same bank, you are exactly horizontally in line with them. This made it easy for Benfica to utilise dummy runs, as shown through the goal below.
From this first position, we see the passing options available to Pereira on the ball. He also has the run of Gomes coming around. Instead of rushing a pass, Pereira waits for Gomes to complete his run to drag Marchisio out of position late in the game. Eventually, the ball is played to Gomes as Marchisio presses the man on the ball rather than blocking the passing lane for the runner. Before we move on, notice right-striker Rodrigo pointing into space. This is again showing the level of squad cohesion, as he knows that a third man run is going to be needed.
As we said, the ball is played out to Gomes, which leads to space being created behind Marchisio. Left striker Ivan Cavaleiro also then makes a run towards that space, to offer himself as a passing option for Gomes. Now, going back to Lima who had been directed to drop deeper, we can see he has now done so. Watch his movement throughout the rest of these images.
After making the pass, Gomes continues his run, which draws the attention of Gyan away from the man on the ball. This is accompanied by a run in behind by Lima who we have been watching as this all unfolds. Cavaleiro, on the ball, proceeds to then lay the ball off to Lima who executes the intention of Rodrigo perfectly, whilst he keeps Bonucci busy, creating the space for the run.
Space which is attacked by the third man runner of Lima is highlighted here and made by a great team understanding, as Gomes, Rodrigo, and Cavaleiro all had roles to play. The resulting chance is then converted at the near post, which wins Benfica the tie. The goal, however, was simply a reward for such tremendous play. This was a key area which separated Benfica from Juventus across the pitch.
The scoreline may have been a bit harsh on Juventus, as they had a few good chances in the game, but ultimately, tactical decisions made by Conte such as sacrificing his midfield didn’t work as planned on the day, as this analysis has shown. As for Benfica, although the performance may not have been spectacular, the result was what they were after, and Jorge Jesus’ men showed their tactical flexibility to adapt to Juventus‘ game plan, and went on to win the match that eventually decided the tie, with the second leg ending in a draw, and Benfica ultimately going all the way to the finals of the 2014 Europa League.