“Very forward and very attack-minded”: The tactics behind Benfica Feminino’s exceptional league form in 2022/23 – scout report
Fans of Portuguese women’s football currently have a lot to celebrate, with the national side sealing a first-ever place at the World Cup finals last week after seeing off Cameroon in a play-off final. However, those who also claim Benfica Feminino as their team of choice will be especially satisfied with life as things stand, with the team sitting top of the Campeonato Nacional Feminino (the Portuguese women’s top flight) and yet to drop a point after 13 games of the season.
Some might say that this level of dominance reflects badly on the overall quality of the league, and there is some truth to that. However, it also shows just how good Benfica have been on the field, with there being plenty of tactical reasons for their strong form as well, and the fact that the Lisbon-based club provided tough tests for both Barcelona Femení and Bayern Munich Frauen in this season’s Champions League group stage shows that they are a side who cannot be taken lightly.
Under Filipa Patão’s stewardship, they have developed a “very forward and very attack-minded” style of play, as Rangers Women manager Malky Thomson stated in September before facing them in a Champions League qualifier, and this tactical analysis will take a closer look at why opponents have found them so hard to defeat. The scout report will break down their attacking play, explain why their rotations are so important to their overall success and show why their defensive tactics have helped them to remain strong at the back and only concede three times in the league to date.
However, before looking at those defensive aspects of their game, it would be prudent to begin the analysis by focusing on just why Benfica Feminino have been such a force when they have possession, with them finding the net 61 times so far (an average of 4.67 per game).
A lot of what has gone well for them this season has come down to their ability to use their opponents’ tactics against them, with many sides who have faced them in the league opting to allow Benfica to have the ball (leading to them averaging 67.05% possession per game this season) and getting numbers behind the ball in a mid to low block.
However, the danger of playing that way is that it gives Benfica no end of opportunities to pick out passes around the field and control the flow of the game, putting their opponents under constant pressure and targeting the areas where they see weak points that can be exploited. In this case, Torreense Feminino’s defensive line has moved too far forward and left a significant amount of space open behind them, which has allowed Spanish midfielder Pauleta to give Portugal forward Kika Nazareth a chance to run towards the goal.
However, whilst Nazareth is clearly the main target for Benfica here, the player who holds the key to keeping the attack alive is Cloé Lacasse, with the Canada striker recognising what Nazareth is looking to do and moving to occupy the space behind her. In doing so, she is getting ready for the second ball, ensuring that, should the initial pass be met by a Torreense head, Benfica can quickly gain control of the ball again and keep their attack alive.
Despite being a goalscorer by trade, it is not uncommon to see Lacasse move into deeper or wide areas during games, with this touch map indicating how much territory she has covered during the season so far. It is this that has made her such an important part of Benfica’s overall game plan, with her versatility enabling them to build attacks all over the pitch and put pressure on their opponents.
They will no doubt be delighted to still have the Canada international at the club, with there being many reports in January that Arsenal Women, who were looking for a new striker to offset the losses of Beth Mead and Vivianne Miedema to ACL injuries, were very interested in acquiring her services, and it is clear that any hope of Benfica maintaining their winning run when the league gets back underway at the weekend will depend on how much she can have an effect on their performances.
Lacasse is not the only player to have a key role on the field though, and another who has added a lot to their play this season is Pauleta. Her main role is to sit in deeper areas of the pitch and to find teammates around the field with her wide range of passing, as she did in the previous situation, and it is players like her that allow headline grabbers like Nazareth and Jéssica Silva to really shine.
What is evident about Pauleta every time she gets on the ball is that there is a great deal of intelligence in what she does, with her constantly making good decisions and knowing when to move the ball across longer distances and when to not take risks. In this case, with no obvious way for Benfica to break Amora Feminino down in the wide channels (as is their usual preference), she plays the ball into the path of another of the club’s Portugal internationals, forward Andreia Norton, allowing her to run at the Amora defensive line through the middle and see if there is any weakness there that Benfica can exploit.
Therefore, she is at the heart of a lot of what her side have done well this season and has undoubtedly played her part in making the whole system function to its full capability.
Having particular players on the field is not the only reason that they have been so difficult to keep out this season though, and their ability to get the detail of their attacking play right is another reason that they have been so potent when moving up the field. Here, Lúcia Alves has moved into a dangerous position and is looking for a way to break Braga Feminino’s line down, and it initially looks as if her options are limited by their organised defensive setup.
However, Norton has realised this and so points towards a gap in the line, having realised that there is a way for her side to access the Braga goal area. This is where the detail comes in, as Norton knows that, to have the best possible chance of moving the ball behind the Braga players, she needs to get the timing of her run right, because going too early would lead to her being closed down and going too late would make it easy for Braga to clear their lines.
On this occasion, she got everything right and was able to set up Ana Vitória to shoot at goal, and even though the finish was poor and failed to hit the target, the chance would not have come about had every element of the build-up to it not been executed well enough.
That theme of getting tactical detail right continues when looking at how Benfica Feminino’s players have continually rotated their positions during games, with them constantly moving around the pitch and taking up different roles as they try to make themselves as unpredictable for their opponents as they can.
This is where attention turns towards Jéssica Silva and what she brings to the team, with her known for her goalscoring abilities, having found the net on 12 occasions so far in the league. However, there is more to her game than simply testing the opposing goalkeeper, and it is common to see her roaming around the pitch in a similar manner to the way that she plays when in the Portugal national team, getting into areas where she can affect the game and help to build attacking opportunities, and there is no doubt that giving her this freedom is a key reason for Benfica carrying such a significant threat in the final third.
However, in order to maintain the balance in the team and not leave spaces open, it is also important to have players available to take up the central role when she does go towards the ball, and that is where the rotation comes in. This time, it is Norton who has gone forward to cover for Silva, but it doesn’t matter who it is because the important thing to note is that all of these movements are instinctive and happen without players needing to think about what they are doing, demonstrating their strong teamwork and ability to work together in all areas of the field.
The effect on Benfica’s opponents of this constant rotation is also evident, with their positional changes designed to manipulate them into leaving spaces open and allowing the league leaders to create clear routes through to goal.
In this case, Brazil forward Valéria has possession on the nearside of the pitch and is looking for an option further inside, but Torreense have held firm and set up with an organised backline whilst also tasking one player with closing the ball down. As a result, Valéria has nowhere to go, which is why Vitória’s run towards the wing was so vital. By making that run, she caught the attention of the player nearest the ball and the defender nearest the wing, with both concentrating on her and not on the whereabouts of the ball, and at that point, they have fallen into Benfica’s trap and given Valéria enough space to drive infield into.
Again, this shows how their rotation has helped to cause problems for opponents and played a key role in Benfica’s ability to create goalscoring opportunities, and it undoubtedly needs to be taken into consideration when looking at why they have been able to take maximum points in the league so far.
However, rotations are not only used to create spaces in the final third, and have also helped Benfica to cover ground at speed and make significant territorial gains during their transitions. Here, Nigeria midfielder Christy Ucheibe has the ball near the halfway line and is looking for a way to play through Braga, who have once again got numbers back to limit what Benfica can do with the ball.
On this occasion, two players swapping positions will not have the desired effect, so Ucheibe instead links up with Nazareth and another Portugal international, versatile wide player Catarina Amado, to move the ball between the Braga players and take them out of the game, before then linking up with Marta Cintra once beyond the first line of defence to break down the defensive line.
Benfica have an impressive passing accuracy this season of 83.6%, which shows how they rarely make mistakes and are tidy when they do look to move the ball around the field, and the fact that Ucheibe ends up being the one to get a shot away despite starting a long way back is another clear indication of how their rotations have been key to their dominance of the league so far.
It would be easy to assume, given what has been looked at so far in this scout report, that the reason for Benfica Feminino’s strong form this season is their ability to put together phase after phase of effective attacking play. However, their defensive work should not be forgotten, because their hard work once they lose the ball has been just as important to their good fortune.
They have mainly played with a back three this season, with them favouring a 3-5-1-1 (used 27% of the time) or a 3-5-2 (used 24% of the time), and, whilst that gives them numbers in attack, it also provides a solid defensive unit who can suppress opposing counterattacks early and stop the ball from travelling too far up the field. Here, Albergaria Feminino are looking to do just that, having reclaimed possession inside their own half, and there are spaces available due to Benfica pushing players into advanced areas to support their previous attack.
However, the three centre-backs instantly narrow up once their side lose the ball, and this compact shape makes it difficult for the ball to travel too far up the field before Benfica have had a chance to get players back into position. With the counterattack brought to a halt, Pauleta is able to apply pressure on her opponent here and force a pass to be made quicker than Albergaria would have liked to, and their only option is to send the ball across the field and to see their momentum come to an abrupt end.
The midfielders aren’t always tasked with winning the ball back though and are sometimes asked to fill gaps in the defensive line and allow others to close the ball down. Here, Pauleta and Cintra are doing just that, and that enables Ana Seiça to move out towards the ball when she would not have previously been able to do so.
This again forces Albergaria to move the ball quicker than they would have originally wanted to, and this time there are no obvious passing options due to them being closed off in the middle of the pitch by Pauleta and Cintra as they were moving back up the field, so the only choice left is to shoot at goal, with the ball missing the target as a result.
As with their attacking play, Benfica play with intelligence when without the ball, as players recognise when to engage in duels and when to focus purely on slowing their opponents’ progress down.
In this case, Seiça has worked hard to stay with her Valadares Gaia Feminino opponent as they moved into Benfica’s half of the field but has expended a lot of energy whilst doing so. Therefore, rather than lunging in and risking making a poor tackle that could give away a dangerous free kick, she instead simply holds her position and ensures that the ball can’t be sent into the middle.
This means that Valadares Gaia’s only option is to move the ball backwards, which turns this from a 1-v-1 battle into a 2-v-2 as Brazil striker Nycole Raysla gets involved. That makes it doubly difficult for the attacking side to create a goalscoring opportunity, and the fact that Benfica have players back when the ball does eventually get sent into the middle means that the cross is overhit and Benfica can clear their lines.
As mentioned, Benfica have conceded three goals in their 13 games so far, so aren’t completely invincible when opponents get into their third of the field. However, the fact that they have won 66.1% of their defensive duels this season shows that, more often than not, they have been successful in thwarting their opponents’ attempts to break them down, and this ability to work hard and be robust is another reason that they are currently sitting top of the table on maximum points.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has taken a closer look at Benfica Feminino’s winning run in the Portuguese domestic campaign, identifying the tactics that have helped them to see out the first half of the season without dropping a point, and it has become clear throughout the last months that they don’t fear anyone who comes up against them and will always find a way to break them down.
Whether they can maintain their run is a difficult question to answer at the moment, and their biggest opponent when the league gets back underway this weekend will be complacency because there is still a long way to go between now and the end of the campaign and many games in which they could slip up. However, the way that they have been playing, there is no doubt that they will continue to demand the best from each other and will keep fighting for every point available, and it will be worth keeping an eye on their progress to see if they can go the whole season without losing a point.