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UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: How SC Braga reached the UCL group stages after an 11-year absence – tactical analysis

In a season’s decisive game, Panathinaikos played against the Portuguese side SC Braga in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Play-Off this week. The match was disputed in the Athens Olympic Stadium, which, as usual, had quite a favourable impact on the home team, which needed a victory to pursue their objective. Having been absent for over a decade, both teams were competing for a spot in the Champions League group stage, hoping to face top sides like Manchester City, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.

Braga were ahead in this play-off after achieving a 2-1 victory at home, and Artur Jorge prepared this game, foreseeing the difficulties caused by the other side and the environment, which enhanced Panathinaikos’ performance significantly.

On the other hand, we have a team that did it all to hurt Braga. However, as we will see further, there was some inefficiency in front of the goal, which the team’s level can explain.

So, in this tactical analysis, we’ll discuss both teams’ respective ways of playing, the main reasons for Panathinaikos’ unfavourable result, and Braga’s accomplishment.


UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

The home team saved some players in their previous game and made five alterations for this decisive game against Braga.

XXI: Brignoli; Vagiannidis; Jedvaj; Magnússon; Juankar; Vilhena; Pérez; Palacios; Bernard; Mancini; Ioannidis

Braga made only two alterations to replace the injured Al-Musrati and to add Álvaro Djaló to the initial lineup.

XXI: Matheus; Gómez; Fonte; Niakaté; Marín; Vitor; A. Horta; Djaló; R. Horta; Bruma; Ruiz

Panathinaikos’ style of play and the obstacles in pursuit of their dream

Playing in a comfortable atmosphere, Panathinaikos’ head coach, Ivan Jovanović, instructed his team to expose themselves offensively. Their main game plan was a classic 4-3-3 where Tonny Vilhena and Bernard were the two leading figures, however, with different functions.

The Dutch often descended to support the backline during the build-up, which was crucial in linking the defence to the attack. Bernard, though positioned further on the pitch, especially between the lines, hoped to take advantage of his outstanding technical quality; however, how we’re going to see Artur Jorge created several problems for his performance.

Braga had a semi-high pressing block, and the Greek side had space and time to build up, forming a general 2-2-5-2 formation, which we are going to dissect right away. However, the direct game was also a valid option to start the play from Jovanović’s point of view.

So, as we mentioned, Vilhena support the build-up process by descending on the pitch and, most of the time, by being in the same line as the defensive midfielder Rubén Pérez.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

Rúben, as an alternative, was also seen incorporating a three-men-line during the build-up, another alternative for the Greek side. This movement gave Vilhena more space to explore behind Ricardo Horta’s back, as shown below.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

The full-backs were so deep and open that they reminded us of a winger’s positioning. Playing with this positioning, the full-backs could create dangerous combinations with the wingers or the centre-forward.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

Besides that, they were also in a better position to take crosses into the Braga’s box.

Our analysis shows that Ivan was clever and foresaw some of Braga’s weaknesses: Djaló and Burma’s defensive unawareness. In other words, he took advantage of this infirmity in Braga’s tactics and found a way to hurt them. He decided to play with the wingers inside, creating a numeric superiority with the full-back on the flank.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

With Bernard also looking for the space between the lines, however central on the pitch, the pivot and the full-back had to pick one player to mark. Yet it is essential to note that Mancini and Palacios’ positioning wasn’t static typically; they came from an external into an internal positioning in order to surprise the opposition.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

Even though Panathinaikos had a successful build-up, they had difficulties linking the game with the centre-forward. In our opinion, this was the main reason for their failed UCL mission: the difficulty in finding the striker and, most importantly, the inefficiency in front of the goal.

As we can see above, in 14 chances (10 inside the box), the Greek side could only convert one goal during the two hands of this Champions League Play-Off. Generally, it is essential to be efficient in these decisive games due to the lack of dangerous opportunities during the match. For example, the decisive goal of Braga comes up in transition right after Panathinaikos missed a chance to equalise the aggregate.

Braga’s strategy and where they made the difference

The Portuguese side had the challenging task of preserving their advantage in such a challenging atmosphere in Athens. However, during the counterattack, Artur Jorge produced an efficient and crucial defensive plan to obstruct Panathinaikos’ offensive process and take advantage of their inform wingers Bruma and Álvaro Djaló.

Let’s start with Braga’s offensive organisation, where they formed a 4-1-2-3. Braga’s identity is characterised by having the ball and building up from the back; however, in this match, they often played a more direct game, looking for their offensive reference, Alan Ruiz. According to Wyscout Braga, their average possession is 54.94%, and in this match, they only had 42%.

In the initial phase of the play, the defensive quartet and the defensive midfielder (Vitor Carvalho) were down on the pitch. They are more exposed in a domestic league game, and the full-backs are deeper. However, due to the importance of this game, Artur decided to have both of the full-backs backtracked.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

The brothers André and Ricardo Horta were the duo that played right in front of Vitor, whose primary function during this game was to win the second ball in the midfield and only then start to create.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

Concerning the flanks, Djaló felt more comfortable playing inside, where, in some cases, he supported Alan. Such positioning was due to the right-back’s offensive propensity and involvement.

On the other flank, the left-back has better defensive characteristics than offensive; as it goes, he is not a highly offensive-involved element. With that said, Bruma has more freedom to explore the different spaces depending on what the game is asking

In our view, the head coach used both Bruma and Djaló as wingers due to their superb recent form, especially to take advantage of their pace, explosivity and technical quality in transitions. Panathinaikos’ offensive exposure was most certainly analysed by the Portuguese coach, who decided to take advantage of it, as the decisive goal shows.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

Furthermore, a final note to Ricardo Horta’s positioning, which once again was a clear sign of his tactical understanding, giving him the possibility of high and crucial offensive involvement. He has been responsible for making Braga play in the last third of the pitch with his great key passes and goals and again made an assist for Bruma’s goal.

Braga inverted the triangle in the midfield without possession, and André Horta descended right next to Vitor, forming a 4-2-3-1. Their pressing plan was divided into two moments: when the ball was in the centre-backs and when a midfielder or full-back took possession.

While the ball was circulating between the centre-backs, the defensive task was given to the Spanish striker, whose function was to press and obstruct their build-up.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

The midfielders and wingers were instructed to mark a specific position, reminding a man-to-man marking. For instance, André and Vitor had the task of marking their corresponding midfielder and Bruma and Djaló their full-backs.

UEFA Champions League 2023/24: Panathinaikos vs Braga - tactical analysis

In our opinion, this was crucial because it didn’t allow Panathinaikos’ more influential elements to emerge. However, the fact that Braga’s wingers had to wait for the full-backs led to a mid-block formation, giving them a chance for the opposition to be more successful during the build-up.


It was a disputed and competitive match. However, the team who was more efficient and who committed fewer errors was the winner, in this case, Braga.

The Greek side showed they had the quality to play from the back due to their attacker’s movements, especially the wingers, who left Braga in a numerical inferiority situation several times. However, this will play and dominate the match isn’t worth it if the team cannot concretise the play and put the ball right into the net.

On the other hand, Braga was efficient in their chances and carried out a detailed and specific defensive plan, significantly reducing the impact of some players like Vilhena and Bernard. Besides, Braga’s wingers were fundamental to hurt the opposition not only in organisation but especially in counterattacks, which was the case of the goal.

However, we also revealed some defensive unawareness from these wingers, which left Braga’s team in numeric inferiority and could have higher consequences if the other side had higher-rated individualities.