Portuguese Liga champions Benfica earned themselves a shock 2-1 win at home to Juventus on Thursday evening in the Europa League semi-final first leg, and they are now daring to dream of avenging last season’s disappointing loss in the 2013 Europa League final to Chelsea. So how did Benfica pull it off? And what did Juventus do wrong against them?
Benfica manager Jorge Jesus set up his side, as he always does, to hit teams hard on the break with pace down the flanks. It paid dividends, as Benfica overloaded in the wide areas to full effect against the Serie A champions-elect.
Juventus have been advocates of a 3-5-2 formation and lined up with it once again against the Portuguese outfit. The opening 15 minutes saw the tactic failing horribly, as Benfica were taking advantage of Juve’s lack of support in the wide areas. As you can see, Juventus' wing-back is getting drawn in to press the ball, which leaves space into which the Benfica forward can run.
Their bright start led to their opening goal. Juve were forced to concede a corner following a Benfica break, which led to defender Ezequiel Garay's header.
Pressing Juventus High Up the Pitch
The Portuguese side did their homework on Juve’s penchant for playing the ball out of the back, pressing the Italian giants high up the pitch early to limit the time they had to pick out passes.
Chief orchestrator Andrea Pirlo found himself stifled at times, and he was ineffective from Benfica’s high pressing. That led to Juve having to play very direct from deep positions, which saw them frequently giving away the ball. The midfielder is being blocked off from receiving the pass from Kwadwo Asamoah in the shot, which meant he was largely ineffective.
With Juve not blessed with pace in the spine of their side, distribution is essential. In the picture, you can see there's no pass on for the Italian outfit to get forward. One of the Juve players is even offside. It summed up the opening passages of play until the Serie A holders started to settle.
Benfica’s Counter-Attacks Causing Juve Problems
Another deciding factor was Benfica's counter-attacks. The side would break with outstanding speed, and their runs would overlap either side of the ball to give options left and right of the player in possession. As Juve committed numbers to their own attack, the manner of Benfica's breaks meant they were forced to go player-for-player against the opposition, which left gaps to exploit.
Benfica continued to break with pace to try to find the important second goal in the game by hitting Juventus on the break in this manner. The lack of protection down the flanks for Juve meant sights such as this were a regular occurrence throughout the game.
It also meant Juve wing-backs Stephan Lichtsteiner and Asamoah became fearful of pushing high up the pitch, They knew they'd be caught out of position, as shown above.
Juventus Too Narrow on the Ball
For Juventus's 3-5-2 formation to be successful, the wing-backs have to support the play when they're in possession and overlap like natural wingers would. But such was the threat from their opponents on the break that they remained very deep. Asamoah, most notably, was barely in shot when the Italians had the ball in Benfica's half. That led to the play being very narrow and very predictable from the Serie A outfit.
Asamoah is being of no help to his side by sitting back. Juve were chasing the game and in need of a goal, but their play was easily snuffed out by Benfica. Had more players made runs from deep for the Italians, they could have attacked with more pace to create clear-cut openings.
Asamoah Finally Gambles and Gets an Assist
It was no coincidence that the one time Asamoah gambled and made a run beyond his opposite marker led to a goal following his cutback into the area. The 25-year-old was the highest player up the pitch for Juve on the left side, and with one touch, he picked out the advancing Carlos Tevez free in the area to score.
Benfica Overlap the Wide Areas to score Winning Goal
Juventus eventually threw the game away by not heeding the warning of Benfica's threat from wide areas.
A simple ball into the space in the middle of the pitch then saw the Benfica player follow his pass and run around the back of his teammate Enzo Perez on the right-hand side. His overlapping run wasn't picked up quick enough by any Juve player, and after collecting the pass, Perez plays the ball into the middle, it's cleverly dummied by substitute Ivan Cavaleiro, and eventually rifled home by the onrushing Lima to win the game for Benfica.
Benfica did their homework and knew what Juventus' weaknesses were. Cutting off the supply to their chief creator Andrea Pirlo and pressing the side high up the pitch to force them to go long played into the Portuguese side's hands. Jorge Jesus' men were fast on the break and specifically targeted the flanks. Juve had no protection from the wide men, as they weren't playing with natural wingers to aid the full-backs in defence.
It was Juve's first defeat in the Europa League this season, while Benfica now have a slim lead to take into the second leg of the semi-final.