Schalke 2-0 Benfica: two diamonds, little sparkle
Schalke eventually found a way past Benfica, in a game between two sides lacking confidence.
Schalke played a 4-3-1-2 / 4-4-2 diamond system, with Raul dropping off Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Jefferson Farfan was the midfielder with most inclination to get out wide.
Benfica played their usual ‘away European’ formation – the playmaker Pablo Aimar was omitted for the more hard-working Carlos Martins. In other words, the diamond was flattened, so something like a cross between a diamond and a flat four.
It’s a (very general) trend that Champions League matches start slowly before opening out as the game goes on – see Manchester United’s win over Valencia, for example. The first half here was completely the opposite – the first ten minutes were free-flowing and open, before gradually becoming a more bitty contest.
Both sides broadly played attack-minded football, however. In a clash between two diamondish formations, you might expect the respective points of the diamond to be doing battle against one another – but in fact, the shuttlers on either side were higher up the pitch and generally up against the opposite side’s full-backs as soon as they attacked. The two key battles here seemed to be Fabio Coentrao against Atsuto Achida, and Jefferson Farfan against Cesar Peixoto.
The addition of Martins into the central midfield zone means that Coentrao and Nicolas Gaitan can play slightly wider and higher up the pitch than they do in a normal midfield diamond, and this interesting often switched the formation into a 4-2-1-3 when Javier Saviola dropped deep, and the two wingers bombed on forward. David Luiz also brought the ball out of defence and started attacks from deep, meaning Garcia dropped in to become a standard centre-back.
Saviola didn’t make the most of the space he often found himself in, however, and also wasted Benfica’s best chance when he volleyed wide following a Maxi Pereira long throw. Jose Manuel Jurado, the Schalke playmaker, also had a disappointing game, although created a good chance for Raul, who hit the post.
The other switch in Benfica’s formation was when they dropped Javi Garcia into the centre of defence, to try and get out of the Schalke pressing high up the pitch. This shifted their shape into 3-3-3-1, as Saviola dropped deeper and Martins became the holding player.
Both sides’ problem was that they weren’t getting the ball quickly enough to their wide players, and in turn their wide players were not beating the full-backs quickly enough. Farfan looked more dangerous the more advanced and wide he played, whilst Uchida was clearly Schalke’s weak link, but Coentrao didn’t put him under enough pressure. At the other end, Benfica were defending quite well – the full-backs played narrow to cope with the Schalke tridente. By half-time, the game was fairly dull, with Benfica seemingly expecting Schalke to take the initiative, but Schalke trying to play on the counter-attack.
Both made changes towards the start of the second half, but it was the same systems and little changed in terms of the general feeling of the game. Uchida was taken off a minute after he was booked, such was the danger than he could have been sent-off, but Benfica became increasingly toothless, and Jorge Jesus removed Saviola and brought on Pablo Aimar, to play a deeper role and try to create.
The crucial first goal came from a simple defensive header – Lukas Schmitz got forward from left-back and hung a deep cross to the far post, but Peixoto missed his header, and Farfan finished well. There was little more to the goal than a basic defensive error from Peixoto, and until that point Schmitz had been fairly reserved. Farfan was by far the game’s best player, however, and it always seemed likely that a breakthrough would come from him.
Benfica tried to throw men forward late on, but they’d used all their substitutes, and both Cardozo and Saviola had been removed by this point. They never looked likely to get back in the game, and a second Schalke goal on the counter-attack always seemed likely. Huntelaar scored for the fourth game running, and that was that.
Not the best game from either an entertainment or tactical point of view – though Benfica’s shifts in formation were interesting, and Javi Garcia’s Busquets-esque centre-half role was pleasing to see.
A winger v full-back battle was the most likely source of a goal, and so it came from Peixoto’s error to let in Farfan. Neither side outmanoeuvred the other tactically.Schalke 2-0 Benfica: two diamonds, little sparkle