In one of the more well-rounded groups of the UEFA Champions League group stage, Benfica travelled to Groupama Stadium midweek to face off against Olympique Lyon in the fourth round. Lyon have had a mixed string of results this season, currently sitting 10th in Ligue 1 despite scoring the second-most goals in the league alongside 15th-placed Monaco. Benfica, on the other hand, are firing on all cylinders under manager Bruno Lage: they had won their previous five matches with a goal ratio of 13:1 in that span, and have lost just once in the Portuguese first division this season. They are atop the league in goals scored (23) and least goals conceded (3). This crucial away match, however, resulted in an uneasy loss, which severely damaged the Eagles’ chances of advancing in the Champions League. This tactical analysis will examine Benfica’s tactical faults and explain the strategies behind Lyon’s convincing performance.
Lyon manager Rudi Garcia has played various starting lineups throughout this Champions League season. In this match, he opted for a slightly more balanced group. The back line included Joachim Andersen and Jason Denayer, both of whom would be a major part of Lyon’s buildup. Thiago Mendes and Lucas Tousart began as the defensive midfielders, with Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Houssem Aouar out on the wings next to Memphis Depay. Moussa Dembélé started at striker after a strong season start which included eight goals in 11 league matches.
Lage meanwhile chose what some considered to be a mixed eleven in terms of quality. Right-back André Almeida was kept on the bench in favour of Tomás Tavares, while attackers Pizzi and Haris Seferović were also surprise omissions from the starting lineup. Carlos Pizzi currently leads the Primeira Liga with seven goals. Gedson Fernandes and Florentino Luis started in the midfield four, both touted as up-and-coming standouts that Benfica are known to produce.
Lyon’s attacking progressions
Lyon positioned themselves in a 4-2-3-1 in possession. With Benfica defending in a medium 4-4-2 block and only utilising a front press when the French side moved into the opposing half, Lyon were able to comfortably begin their attacking buildup out of the back four.
This was prevalent in the early stages of the match. Here, Andersen passes the ball laterally to Denayer. The lack of pressure allows Denayer to ‘move’ the opposition using deception. The Belgian both looks and points his body shape towards the wide left area. This led the striker Chiquinho to believe left central midfielder Tousart was the primary option for the centre-back’s passing intentions. Chiquinho’s shift wide to block off the passing outlet opened up a passing lane between Benfica’s strikers to Denayer’s true intended passing target, Mendes.
From there, Lyon continued to penetrate Benfica’s defence. The reigning Portuguese champions struggled to defend in an organised manner, in part due to the speed of Lyon’s final third progressions.
After receiving the ball through the central area from Mendes, Depay advanced forward along with Reine-Adélaïde. Benfica centre-back Ferro pressed the ball, and left-back Alejandro Grimaldo moved inside to cover the space left by Ferro and cover Reine-Adélaïde’s run. This however opened up space wide right for Lyon right-back Léo Dubois to receive a pass in a dangerous area in Benfica’s box.
Lyon quickly found this as a frequent advantage on the ball and opened the scoring as Andersen headed in Dubois’ cross from the ensuing corner kick.
Lyon also used switches of play into open space as another method of advancing possession.
This specific case shows Lyon utilising an effective switch of play. Dubois’ dribble into the right half-space and central area pulls Benfica’s 4-4 defensive shape inward. The full-back then passes back to Mendes, who finds Aouar in a wide expanse down the left wing.
Tavares had an overall poor defensive performance on that side and was dribbled past on Lyon’s second goal.
After Aouar dribbled past Tavares down the left, both of Benfica’s centre-backs chose to mark Dembélé’s deep run to the bottom of the box, leaving space open in the middle of the box. Depay slowed his central run, and Aouar’s nicely weighted pass assisted the Dutch talisman.
With the two-goal lead, Lyon increased their time spent out of possession in a defensive block. Instead of using a high frontline press like Benfica, Lyon sacrificed pressure for structure. The only major movements in defence were the marking of passing outlets and the dropping back of the low to medium-block-positioned back line when Benfica advanced the ball into the final third. Both were successful.
In this scenario, each of the Benfica players are marked either using proximity or a cover shadow. Benfica’s centre-back substitute Jardel had little choice but to attempt a long central pass to Benfica striker Carlos Vinícius. This progression attempt was easily disrupted by Andersen, who immediately initiated a counter-attack.
Here is an example of the drop-back defending manoeuvre from Lyon. As Benfica attempted a fast attack down the right wing, Lyon’s back line retains its organised shape. Fernandes whips in the cross, but the centre-backs suffocate the central passing target and clear the ball out of the dangerous area.
Here is another instance of Lyon’s organisation in defence, as Denayer’s pressure and Andersen’s and Dubois’ marking halted the attacking progression. Even when Benfica were able to break the first line of the 4-4 block, the back line again smothered any potential options in the box.
These defensive strategies are evidenced by two primary statistics. While a majority of the team statistics of this match are similar (possession percentage, total shots, xG, etc.), one area where the two sides differ is in passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA). Benfica showed a more aggressive press with an 8.49 PPDA. Lyon’s more receded defensive block led to a PPDA of 11.67. The map below is the second statistic proving Lyon’s defensive device.
This is a map of Lyon’s interceptions throughout the match. Only four were passes were intercepted in the attacking half, as Lyon were content defending their two-goal lead in their own half.
Benfica’s comeback attempt
Into the second half, Lage altered Benfica’s defensive tactics. Rather than using a front press in a medium block, the Eagles defended deeper and more organised, not too dissimilar to Lyon’s defensive tactics. This led to a less penetrable block.
The above scene was one of Tavares’ better moments of the match. With Benfica’s back line already positioned deep, organisation and structure were easier to come by. Note Grimaldo marked the far-side outlet using his vision. With aiding pressure by Luis, Tavares forced Reine-Adélaïde into turning over possession.
Once again, Benfica’s adjusted defending held firm. The amount of scanning that occurred in the five seconds around this sequence above would make any manager proud. Grimaldo was again marking the man behind him and the man beside him, the midfielders moved to block the centring passing lanes, as was captain Rúben Dias, scanning the area to confirm every option for the opposition was covered. Tavares pressured on and forced a poor pass, which was easily intercepted by Gabriel Pires.
In turn, Lyon’s structure was able to be bypassed. Paired with the substitutes Seferović and Pizzi, Benfica’s more confident defending allowed possession to be more aggressively utilised.
In the image above, Lyon are found in a compact block out of possession. Using a long ball over this block, Pizzi connects with Seferović minutes after the former was subbed on, and the play ended with Benfica within one goal of their opponents.
Ultimately, however, Lyon’s lead and defensive reservations forced Benfica to abandon the new low block tactic and reapply the aggressive front press. This again backfired and led to a third goal for the hosts and a 3-1 final score.
The result left Benfica at the bottom of the group with two matches remaining. Their press and overall defence were too vulnerable to start the match. There is still little doubt Lage is a brilliant manager, but his adjustments after analysis simply came too late for his side to recover the two-goal difference.
Lyon played well for a majority of the 90 minutes. Their talented attack and especially durable defending led them to win a valuable three points. The effectiveness of their tactics this match and a third straight win will give them a revived confidence heading into the heart of the season schedule.
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