Benfica 0-2 Barcelona: Sanchez and Fabregas exploit the space between Pereira and Jardel
Barcelona constantly attacked into an inside-left position in their comfortable victory over Benfica.
Jorge Jesus chose 4-1-4-1ish system with Nemanja Matic sitting deep in midfield and Bruno Rodrigo having most license to get forward. Oscar Cardozo wasn’t fit, so Lima started alone upfront.
Tito Vilanova brought back Carles Puyol into defence, while Cesc Fabregas played in Andres Iniesta’s left-centre midfield position.
That turned out to be a crucial part of Barca’s gameplan – Fabregas stormed forward to turn Barcelona’s front three into a front four and overwhelmed the Benfica defence.
Jesus’ strategy was to remain very compact from back to front, trying to prevent Barcelona getting space between the lines. Initially, they sat very deep, attempting to deny space in behind the defence, although Alexis Sanchez’s early goal necessitated a more positive approach without the ball – there was more pressing, and therefore Barcelona could hit balls over the top.
Benfica’s transitions were often impressive – when they won the ball they evaded the first Barcelona press by playing the ball wide or forward quickly. They got plenty of forward runners up to support Lima, who wasted a good early chance.
Barcelona were focusing their play down the left. This, in itself, is notable – under Guardiola they fielded Dani Alves as an attack-minded right-back, and were therefore more cautious down the left. Now, the addition of Jordi Alba means they can vary the threat between the two flanks. But it was a surprise that they played down that side in this match, considering Benfica’s weak link is their left-back, Melgarejo, who hasn’t yet learned his positional responsibilities as a full-back rather than a winger. With little to deal with, he wasn’t exposed here.
Part of Barcelona’s threat was the simple ‘false nine’ tactic – Lionel Messi dropped deep and dragged Ezequiel Garay and Jardel out of position, then tried to slip the ball through for one of the wingers. Messi varied his positioning more frequently than usual, often popping up on both the left and the right to escape the attention of defenders. Pedro kept his width more throughout this game (with Alves not overlapping regularly), and it was Sanchez who burst forward more frequently, making his favoured diagonal runs from left to right in behind the defence.
Benfica’s problem was furthered by the attacking intent of Maxi Pereira. While he’s a much better player than Malgarejo on the other side, at least Malgarejo kept his position. Pereira seemed determined to attack, and was fortunate on a couple of occasions that Eduardo Salvio covered for him. In playing high up the pitch, he increased the space Barcelona had to play through down that side.
While one would never bet against Messi getting a goal, the two goalscorers (Sanchez and Fabregas) weren’t unexpected based upon the pattern of the game.
Sanchez’s goal wasn’t typical of the approach, but his movement was excellent throughout. The Chilean’s role was very interesting. While he often attempted to get in behind the defence himself, he was very aware of Fabregas’ movement into the gap between Pereira and Jardel, especially when the ball was on the other side of the pitch. When Fabregas was in a position to get in behind, Sanchez would stay wide, draw Pereira towards the flanks and allow Fabregas more space to break into.
Fabregas, meanwhile, benefited increasingly as Benfica moved high up the pitch, bursting behind the defence to receive longer balls. The second goal was a perfect system goal – Messi dropped deep, drew a few defenders towards him, Fabregas was able to run through and exploit the space and finished coolly. Messi wasn’t at this best, misplacing a couple of simple passes which prevented Barca furthering their advantage – and yet he was still the game’s key player.
Barcelona’s possession play throughout the game frustrated Benfica – Xavi Hernandez played deeper than usual alongside Sergio Busquets – maybe conserving energy ahead of the Clasico.
Barcelona also did well by forming triangles towards the flanks – Alba-Fabregas-Sanchez or Alves-Xavi-Pedro – and playing quick passes through these combinations. Messi would wait in the centre for the pull-back, while the winger on the opposite side would become the striker.
Benfica were unable to get back into the game. Carlos Martins replaced Cesar at half-time in order to reinvigorate Benfica’s pressing high up in midfield, but they tired quickly because of Barcelona’s dominance of the ball.
In the end Benfica became frustrated, and the game became scrappy. Various players made bad tackles on Messi, Busquets got annoyed and was dismissed late on, almost as if the referee had been driven to frustration by the general bitchiness of the second half – Fabregas’ goal had sealed the win.
Barcelona had a gameplan and carried it out effectively. Messi would drag the centre-backs out of position, Sanchez would draw wide and occupy Pereira, then Fabregas would steam past into space. This approach created one goal, a couple of other good chances, and various promising situations not fully exploited by Barcelona.
Benfica didn’t perform especially badly. Their gameplan – staying compact, transferring the ball quickly into attack and getting midfield runners forward – was promising in the first few minutes, but conceding the early goal meant the approach allowed Barca a lot of the ball, even by their standards, and in turn this tired Benfica.