Positioning and movement of Aimar, Mata and Gaitan in Chelsea 2-1 Benfica

April 5, 2012

The starting line-ups

Chelsea have progressed into the Champions League semi-finals after a 2-1 victory over Benfica, winning 3-1 on aggregate.

The game wasn’t as interesting as it could have been, mainly because of Benfica’s indiscipline. Javi Garcia’s clumsy tackle on Ashley Cole resulted in a penalty and an uphill struggle, then Maxi Pereira picked up a silly second booking to leave Benfica down to ten men before half time. They struggled on manfully, and did well with ten, but the game (and tie) was a little disappointing.

However, this was a game featuring three very intelligent playmakers: Pablo Aimar, Juan Mata and Nicolas Gaitan. The latter two owe much to Aimar – Mata has described him as his favourite player when younger, while Gaitan has clearly benefited from playing alongside him at Benfica. All are technically gifted, are 5′7, have great balance and good appreciation of space.

It was that final quality that was most obvious in this game. The match was surprisingly open – partly because Chelsea went with a much more attacking line-up than in Portugal, while Benfica needed to score, so pushed forward. This meant plenty of space for the three playmakers.


Aimar was brilliant here, the catalyst for Benfica’s excellent attacking moves in the first half. He was up against John Obi Mikel, and frequently burst past the Nigerian, particularly towards the left. Chelsea’s problem here was that Mikel was left to fend for himself – Frank Lampard played too high up, particularly at the start of the game. Lampard was trying to get tight to Axel Witsel, and with the Belgian moving laterally across the pitch, Lampard often followed. Aimar found space behind him, and had plenty of shots.

The positioning in the Chelsea midfield was odd – at kick-off, Lampard lined up directly ahead of Mikel, and that’s pretty much what happened throughout the game, with Mata also in a central position higher up. Chelsea’s midfield was essentially three men in a vertical line, and Aimar made the most of the space to either side, constantly playing good, direct forward passes.


Juan Mata was fielded as the central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, in a system where the wide players dropped back to help out the full-backs and form a second bank of four (rather than in the 4-2-3-1 briefly used by Andre Villas-Boas, where the wide players pressed the full-backs and left the defending to the deeper six players). As such, Mata was the closest support to Fernando Torres throughout the game.

His positioning was interesting, because the natural man to pick him up was Nemanja Matic, Benfica’s deepest midfielder. However, Matic was playing as the left-of-centre midfielder, with Witsel to his right. Therefore, it didn’t suit the task of picking up Mata, who tends to move to Chelsea’s left. He did that here, and picked up the ball unchallenged towards the left flank, in particular.

The other way Mata tested Matic positionally was to move very high up the pitch – a little like Mesut Ozil at the World Cup – and basically move into such an advanced zone that Matic felt uncomfortable following. With Benfica’s makeshift centre-back pairing focusing on maintaining a spare man against Torres, Mata often became free in the centre of the pitch. He was caught offside three times in the first half – so he wasn’t quite timing his runs correctly, but he was making the right runs.

Mata's varied positioning - despite playing as a number ten, he barely ever picked the ball up in a central position, and instead ventured to the flanks. Three times he did get the ball in a central zone were when moving high up the pitch and getting caught offside


The most interesting movement was that of Gaitan, the Benfica left-winger. He was up against Branislav Ivanovic, who was very cautious in coming out from the back four. On the other flank, Ashley Cole is a natural full-back and very mobile, and covers a large amount of ground when shutting down a winger – he can move high up the pitch, or a long way out to the flank.

Ivanovic is a converted centre-back and prefers to stay tight to the right-sided centre-back, in this case David Luiz. This meant that Gaitan had time and space to come inside into the centre of the pitch and pick the ball up to the side of Mikel, and combine with Aimar.

The different areas covered by Ivanovic and Cole

It also meant that Gaitan often got into strange, wide and deep positions when Benfica had possession, into a zone where Ivanovic didn’t want to venture out to. The positions of his attempted take-ons (dribbles) are very deep, and he tended to get the ball and then drift around the outside of Ivanovic when he got up to full speed, before crossing the ball.

Chelsea’s imbalance in the full-back positions wasn’t a huge problem because of the different roles of the wide players. Ivanovic was static but had the energy of Ramires ahead of him to help out, while Salomon Kalou could stay higher up the pitch on Chelsea’s left.

How Chelsea's midfield four defended

Tags: , , , ,