Chelsea 2-1 Benfica: Chelsea outplayed in the first half, but improve after the break

May 16, 2013

The starting line-ups

Chelsea won the Europa League thanks to Branislav Ivanovic’s stoppage time header.

From the side that lost to Porto at the weekend, Jorge Jesus left out Lima and Ola John, bringing back Oscar Cardozo and Rodrigo to the starting line-up. Lorenzo Malgarejo replaced for the suspended Maxi Pereira, with Andre Almeida switching flanks.

Rafael Benitez was without Eden Hazard, so used Ramires in a wide position, with Frank Lampard and David Luiz in the centre of midfield.

Benfica were better in terms of pressing and passing, outplaying Chelsea for long periods – but they wasted some excellent first-half opportunities.

Benfica pressing

The first half was all about the difference in approach without the ball. Benfica were proactive without possession, which was particularly obvious when Petr Cech had the ball. The wide players would move forward to close down the Chelsea full-backs, while Nemanja Matic and Enzo Perez would shut down passes into David Luiz and Frank Lampard.

The pressing was about positioning rather than constant energy. Chelsea were so reluctant to try to play through Benfica’s lines with smooth passing, that they instead resorted to hopeful forward passes into the opposition half. Possession was frequently squandered cheaply, and Benitez’s side took a considerable period of time before they actually put together any passing moves of note.

Chelsea stand off

In stark contrast, Chelsea didn’t press heavily from the front. They kept a reasonably high line against Oscar Cardozo, so with Fernando Torres dropping back close to Juan Mata, it was a familiarly compact Benitez side.

However, with Matic playing very deep in midfield, he allowed Benfica to create a simple 3 v 2 at the back, allowing both Luisao and Ezequiel Garay time to move forward and knock good passes into more creative players. This was the primary cause of Benfica’s first half dominance (62% of possession and more than twice as many passes into the final third as Chelsea) – they put Chelsea under pressure quickly, but Chelsea didn’t reciprocate.

Benfica attacks

Benfica put a strong emphasis upon attacking down the flanks. Eduardo Salvio and Nicolas Gaitan started in wide positions but drifted inside, allowing both Almeida and Malgarejo forward on the overlap. Both full-backs were able to influence the game in the final third – Almeida crossed towards Cardozo for the game’s first real chance, while Malgarejo waltzed past Ramires before making a poor decision when under little pressure.

When the ball was wide, Benfica also frequently had a man over at the far post – either Salvio or Gaitan – as if Chelsea’s full-backs were keen to help defend in central positions when the ball was on the opposite flank.

Overall, Benfica created chances through simple pressure – there were some neat passing combinations in midfield around Luiz and Lampard, who were often too far apart. They got the ball into dangerous positions from wide, and won free-kicks close to the edge of the penalty area – one of the chances should have been converted.

Chelsea attacks

Chelsea’s primary method of attacking in the first half was through Ramires on the right – both Luiz and Lampard hit long diagonal balls in behind Malgarejo for the Brazilian to run onto.

These rarely came to anything, and Ramires had a running battle with the offside flag, but it was interesting that both Matic (who committed a very cynical foul in the opening stages) and Garay were frequently forced to move over to the left flank to sweep up behind Malgarejo.


The interesting thing about Benfica’s pressing when Cech had the ball was that Mata was the freest player. With Matic and Perez drawn to Lampard and Luiz, Mata was theoretically the responsibility of the two centre-backs – although rather than one pushing up to get tight, Benfica simply tried to keep it tight between the lines.

They remained vulnerable to movement towards the ball from Mata, however. His drifts into deep zones were crucial in Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United last month, for example, and here he almost played an excellent through-ball to Oscar midway through the first half. Aside from a drift to the left and a dangerous cross shortly before half-time, Mata was rarely involved because Chelsea simply lacked composure on the ball in deeper positions to find him.

Chelsea improve

Shortly before half-time, Oscar won a free-kick in a dangerous position when brought down by Garay. Nothing came of the resulting free-kick, but the situation arose because Oscar nipped in ahead of two Benfica players to win possession deep inside the Benfica half – something Chelsea had barely done until that point.

That pointed the way for Chelsea in the second half, and they significantly upped the tempo in their approach without the ball. Oscar and Ramires played higher up the pitch to close down the Benfica full-backs, pinning them back, and neither Malgarejo or Almeida had such a large influence in the second half.

Pressing doesn’t come naturally to Chelsea, and the pressure lacked cohesion and was rather ‘broken’ between the front four and the rest of the side, meaning Benfica had plenty of space in midfield. However, that simple energy higher up prevented Benfica from working the ball forward easily, and after Benfica enjoyed 62% of possession before the break, it was 52% in the second half – almost too marginal a majority to consider significant.

More interestingly, Chelsea worked the ball into the final third more than in the first half, and Benfica much less.

Cech finds Mata

Chelsea’s opener was very interesting. Having rectified their lack of pressing, Chelsea’s two other major problems in the first half were (a) an inability to work the ball forward from Cech and (b) an inability to get Mata involved. These issues were solved simultaneously on 55 minutes for Torres’ goal.

Cech’s pintpoint throw found Mata between the lines in space – Almeida tried to cut out the pass, but Mata touched the ball on for Torres, who took his chance excellently – although Mata was also up in support, ready for a square pass.

That situation – Mata in space, and able to help Torres fight Benfica’s two centre-backs – was Chelsea’s area of advantage against Benfica’s pressing, they simply needed to get the ball there quickly. Chelsea’s players rushed to Cech to celebrate, as if they fully appreciated how his excellent throw had found a way past Benfica’s pressing, the Portuguese side’s key tactic.

The line-ups at the end of the match

Jesus changes

Jesus responded quickly to the goal. Lima replaced Rodrigo in a straight swap upfront, but the real gamble came on the left. Quick winger Ola John replaced Malgarejo, with creative midfielder Gaitan moved to a very unfamiliar left-back role.

It was an extremely attacking move, and immediately goalkeeper Artur looked to that flank from his first goal kick after the changes – John and Gaitan combined, and eventually the passing move resulted in Benfica winning a penalty, and equalising.

Ramires v Gaitan

The fact Benfica equalised almost immediately meant they now had an overly attacking line-up for a match at 1-1 with 25 minutes still to play – Gaitan was a very uncomfortable left-back. Jesus had few options to replace him, however, and the injury Garay suffered – with Jardel replacing him – meant Benfica used up all their substitutions anyway. Benitez, meanwhile, didn’t make a single change.

Benfica’s left-back zone was now the key area of the game, with Ramires’ energy coming into play very late.

He constantly made runs past the nervous Gaitan, both inside and outside of the Argentine. Matic and substitute Jardel were both continually forced to move across and clear the danger – Ramires’ umpteenth burst forward resulted in Jardel being dragged out of position to concede a corner, from which Ivanovic headed in.


Benfica outplayed Chelsea for long periods – the contrast in pressing at the start of the game ensured their dominated in terms of possession and territory, and they created more chances as a result. Jesus justifiably feels his strategy was highly effective over the course of the game, and the only thing lacking was finishing quality.

“For most of the 90 minutes Benfica were better – better organised, technically and tactically superior to a very strong Chelsea side,” he said. “We looked the side most likely to make it 1-0, then 2-1 – small details made the difference, especially in the penalty area.”

But Chelsea improved in the second half, responding to being outpressed early on. They pressed higher themselves, but also played past the Benfica pressure – Cech’s throw to Mata, Chelsea’s key player, summed that up.

Jesus’ determination to make an attacking shift became crucial – Benfica had more dangerous players with the ball, but playmaker Gaitan’s presence at left-back played into the hands of Chelsea, and Ramires in particular.

Overall, the tactical battle shaped the game, rather than decided it.

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