Benfica 2-3 Porto: pressing, transitions, set-pieces and substitutions

March 2, 2012

The starting line-ups

A stereotypically brilliant match between these two sides ended with a narrow win for Porto, who now have a crucial lead in the title race.

Benfica coach Jorge Jesus named the side that was largely as expected. In fact, it was exactly the same XI that played in the 2-2 draw in the reverse fixture.

Porto coach Vitor Pereira’s side was very different from that day, however. Marc Janko has since arrived to play upfront, Lucho Gonzalez has returned in the middle, while Djalma played on the left and Maicon was at the back.

This was a very attacking, aggressive game that went through various phases and was highly influenced by substitutions.

Early stages

Possession was pretty much even (51-49) in the first half, and the formation battle was as expected – 4-2-3-1 v 4-3-3. We know what to expect from these battles – the midfield triangles closely aligned, 1 v 1 battles on the flanks, and a spare man at the back. The key in positioning terms is to look for movement and fluidity.

We had this from both sides in the holding positions, though in different ways. Javi Garcia dropped into the back to push the Benfica centre-backs wider, the full-backs moved higher, and make Benfica roughly a 3-3-1-3 with the ball, once the wide players had moved forward and Axel Witsel had become the sole central midfielder. Porto, however, featured rotation in their midfield triangle, meaning Fernando stormed forward a couple of times, with Joao Moutinho becoming the deepest midfielder.


More important than formations or movement when in possession was what the sides were doing without the ball. Both pressed heavily in midfield, with Porto doing this more effectively than Benfica, who suffered slightly from Pablo Aimar’s lack of work rate, and confusion about whether he was meant to be pressing one of the centre-backs or Fernando, plus the issue of Fernando’s forward movement.

Porto dominated the early stages because they were more energetic and more combative in midfield, with Gonzalez a key factor. When Benfica shifted briefly to three at the back with the ball, the Porto wide players tracked the Benfica full-backs, but the central midfielders continued to press Garcia and Witsel, meaning they actually ended up in advance of Hulk and Djalma. Porto went ahead through a Hulk thunderbolt – a freak goal, but one that reflected their dominance at that period.

The early second half line-ups, with the key changes highlighted

Fouls and high lines

The pressing from both sides meant three things for the game. First, it was played at a very high tempo. Second, there were lots of tackles, fouls and cards, which would prove crucial later on. Third, it meant both sides played with a high defensive line, which was not a huge problem because both Janko and Oscar Cardozo are both threats with their height and strength rather than raw pace.

However, Benfica did then create a couple of chances by lofting the ball over the top of the defence – Cardozo flicked a shot into the hands of the goalkeeper, then Aimar had a header saved.

Towards the end of the second half the pressing dropped in intensity, but both sides continued to do it. This meant the press was easier to get out of, transitions became more obvious, and Benfica grew into the game. They could get their wide players (and Aimar) involved in the game more easily to carry the ball forward, and again, while Cardozo’s equaliser didn’t arrive because of a particular tactical feature of the game, Benfica had looked strong at that point, and had forced three Porto players to go into the book after fouls.

Second half

This is when set-pieces started to become an obvious feature of the game (naturally, with so many fouls) – and Cardozo, unmarked in the centre of the goal, headed in a free-kick.

Jesus then made a substitution, with Aimar off and Rodrigo on to play slightly higher up the pitch. An Aimar injury may have contributed to Jesus’ decision, but although it left the midfield a little more open, the change made sense – Benfica wanted more energy high up the pitch, and Rodrigo could run a lot faster, and a lot further, than Aimar.

James and Djalma

But the crucial change came from Pereira, who made the extremely bold move of taking off centre-back Rolando, and bringing on wide forward James Rodriguez. This prompted a reshuffle – Maicon came into the centre, and previously anonymous left-winger Djalma moved all the way across to right-back.

Gaitan was moved to left-back

Djalma played brilliantly at right-back, and as Porto pushed forward, that was to become the key battlezone. That said, they were leaving space at the back for Benfica to counter into, and the game suddenly became a contest all about playing on the break. Porto’s goal actually came from a counter-counter-attack – Benfica had broken and left their midfield bare, so Porto went up the other end and James, playing narrower than Djalma, finished a sweeping move brilliantly. Pereira’s move was an inspired decision in that respect, but it could just as easily have been 3-1 as 2-2 at that point.

10 v 11

The substitution got even better, because Djalma continued to motor forward. Porto played predominantly down that side, and this may have contributed to Emerson fouling Hulk and picking up his second booking. He was off, and now Benfica had a real problem in the zone of the pitch they were already looking weak in. Jesus was made to pay for not having Joan Capdevila (hugely out of favour) on the bench, and instead he had to put creative midfielder Nico Gaitan there.

This was clearly not an ideal situation. Benfica sat back with two banks of four and Cardozo upfront, but Porto continued to get the ball out to Hulk. Eventually, the uncomfortable Gaitan dived in and conceded a free-kick in that left-back zone. Sure enough, Porto scored from the set-piece, with Maicon up from the back to head into the net. Porto were then comfortable for the final few minutes with 11 v 10.


Last season Benfica suffered one of their most humiliating defeats to Porto when they lost 5-0 at the Dragão. The problem there was a complete inability to defend in the left-back zone, with David Luiz terrible in particular. Hulk running riot, and all five goals coming from that zone. The same position turned out to be a huge problem tonight, and this may have a significant impact upon their title hopes.

That turned out to be the key factor in a game that featured pressing, counter-attacking and poor defending at dead ball situations. It was a fantastically open game, and Pereira came out on top with his brave substitution.

Match report at

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