Benfica’s defence shows ‘as águias’ to be a cut above Tottenham Hotspur
Tottenham Hotspur had surprisingly high hopes for the remaining rounds of the UEFA Europa League this season despite just scraping past Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk in the first knockout round and with Tim Sherwood’s side having the perceived advantage of having the home leg first it was hoped Spurs would be able to take a lead to Lisbon in a weeks’ time.
Tottenham ended up being completely surprised by the Portuguese giants although admittedly Tottenham carried their poor form from Stamford Bridge on Saturday straight through to yesterday evening’s fixture. Benfica’s qualities should not have been a surprise to Tottenham, this was a team who failed to qualify from their Champions League group with ten points. To put this into context, ten points is usually the benchmark elite clubs set for qualification.
Benfica’s game plan for yesterday evening was based on being solid defensively against the home team who were expected to create much of the evening’s attacks whilst having enough quality on the counter attack to cause Spurs problems. Make no mistake however this was not a back to the wall job from Benfica, the visitors were more than adept at keeping the ball for long periods and making Tottenham do far more running than the home side were expecting.
Spurs were not just outclassed by a superior opponent but in what is becoming an increasingly worrying trend for Premier League teams in European competition, they were outthought.
Benfica’s pressing game was perfect. Like so many wonderful teams before them Benfica, after a ten minute period at the beginning of the match to take stock of the situation and team they were facing, simply gave Tottenham no time on the ball whatsoever.
The quick tempo of Benfica’s pressing game started from the front with Rodrigo and the quick Lazar Markovic giving the Spurs backline no time on the ball following a pass from Hugo Lloris. This continued right the way back to the Benfica back four who took an interesting tactic of squeezing high up the pitch when not in possession to ensure Spurs had absolute no time to work the ball Spurs’ main creative outlet Christian Eriksen.
With this tactic Spurs were encouraged to move the ball to the flanks and normally with the pace of Aaron Lennon it would be a huge advantage for Tottenham if an opposition’s defence pushes up so high, just look at the fixture against Arsenal at White Hart Lane in the 2012-2013 campaign. However Tottenham could not get Aaron Lennon in behind simply due to the speed of both Garay and Siqueira who were stationed on the left hand side and with that outlet closed and Christian Eriksen wasted on the left wing to accommodate the disappointing Harry Kane, Tottenham found themselves effectively throttled as soon as they took possession in the middle of the pitch.
Even more worryingly Tottenham looked bereft of ideas. Whether this comes from the manager or just is a reflection on the current state of the Premier League in relation to the rest of Europe, I’d point to a mixture of the two, Tottenham simply could not fathom another way of playing to the system which had failed from the beginning of the match.
At no point did Spurs think to move Christian Eriksen into his favoured number ten role where he could be more of a threat which could then see Harry Kane placed on the left where his speed could at the very least give Silvio a challenge on the flank.
Benfica on the other hand were always thinking, whether it was coming from Jorge Jesus on the sidelines or the players themselves, Benfica were always a move ahead of Spurs even if they didn’t really have to be. A key example of this on the job thinking as it were came throughout the ninety minutes with Benfica’s reshuffling of the defensive line.
Whenever Tottenham were on the ball it was a conventional back four with both central defenders guiding the more attack minded full-backs through the defensive side of the game, however whenever Benfica won the ball back the team knew they needed to push men forward to test Spurs and grab the away goal. Guilherme Siqueira marched up the pitch and became a winger, as did Silvio on the right whilst Benfica then switched to a flat defensive three.
Luisao moved to the right whilst Garay shifted to the left and Ljubomir Fejsa filled in as an auxiliary centre-half with the holding midfielder unlikely to offer much going forward. Luisao and Garay’s ability on the ball was put to the test here however both were excellent with the pair comfortable in possession and content to manoeuvre the ball within their own zone whilst the marauding full-backs returned to recreate the initial shape after an attacking move had broken down.
Benfica’s fluctuating defensive line was huge in the visitor’s victory, possibly not in the goals themselves but in the grander scheme of play. With Benfica retaining three at the back it meant the Portuguese team were still covered against a Tottenham counter attack however it also meant that Benfica could swarm the Tottenham half and outnumber the Spurs back four with the forward runs of Siqueira and Silvio.
Sulejmani and Amorim would move slightly closer together almost as a pushed up central midfield partnership when Benfica went to a back three and despite completely changing their shape at a moment’s notice throughout the night the team still looked competent and composed. This constant thinking was the difference maker in the match yet it is hard to see any English team possibly bar Mourinho’s Chelsea making such an on the fly change to win a match.
Tottenham didn’t make it unduly difficult for Benfica don’t get me wrong but it was clear to see that Tottenham were matched against a far superior team and this is a Tottenham Hotspur team let’s not forget who saw upwards of £100million leave the club’s coffers on transfer fees last summer.
Despite words to the contrary from the Tottenham hierarchy, Tim Sherwood’s future as Tottenham Hotspur manager looks bleak with the English coach expected to be replaced with Louis van Gaal in the summer. Whilst van Gaal may not be the perfect fit for a number of teams in the Premier League, even more so when you consider his disappointing end with Bayern Munich in 2011, the Tottenham Hotspur job looks perfect for him.
There are players in that team with unbelievable quality, Sandro, Paulinho and Christian Eriksen to name but three. With van Gaal at the helm you will never, ever see Christian Eriksen forced to play in a position where he is ineffective. Louis van Gaal knows the importance of creative talents such as Eriksen and at the moment it looks as if Tim Sherwood does not.
Whilst there is still a second leg to go, a 3-1 deficit looks rather difficult to overturn in Lisbon and with Benfica seeming to be so much better than Tottenham it looks as if Spurs’ continental adventure is over for another year.
Written by Chris Winterburn
Follow Chris on Twitter @Chriswin4