Pitchside Europe

Chelsea and Benfica’s break with tradition

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Jorge Jesus cuts an animated, almost rakish figure as he patrols the touchline for Benfica, and nothing we have seen so far this season hints that the flamboyant tactician will be anything other than strained during Wednesday’s Europa League final against Chelsea.

Benfica have the illustrious history, both of free-flowing attacking football and of sustained European success, although their continental presence has diminished almost in tandem with Chelsea’s rise.

The perceived wisdom is that the Portuguese giants are a dangerous attacking force who can cause Chelsea’s occasionally flaky defence enough problems to land what would be seen as a slight upset, with the Blues 6/4 to win in 90 minutes at the time of writing, Benfica at 2/1 and the odds of an overall victory for the West Londoners narrowing slightly the longer the tie goes on (both sides are 9/1 to win on penalties).

And both clubs have endured similar European seasons in some respects, failing to get out of Champions League groups that, while always deemed tricky, they were expected to negotiate, before impressing in the continent’s second-tier competition.

However, the statistics point to a different reality. While not taking into account the relative strength of opposition, Chelsea trump Benfica on almost all attacking fronts in Europe this season, despite a relatively weaker performance in the Champions League (more on that later).

In the 14 European matches both sides have played, Rafael Benitez’s men have a superior possession ratio (50.6% to 46.4% for Benfica), greater accuracy of distribution (82.4% to 76.3%), more shots on goal (185 to 162) and a greater efficiency with their attempts (52.97% to 46.91% accuracy; 16.76% to 11.73% conversion). Indeed, the only attacking element in which Benfica find themselves superior is unexpected when comparing so-called Latin and British teams – the Portuguese are marginally better at crossing the ball (28.6% to 24.3% success).

Combined CL + EL stats Chelsea Benfica
Games Played 14 14
Goals 31 19
Shots, Total 185 162
Shooting Accuracy 52.97 46.91
Shot Conversion Rate 16.76 11.73
Average Possession 50.6% 46.4%
Passes 6615 5309
Passing Accuracy 82.4% 76.3%
Crosses/Corners 301 322
Crosses/Corners Accuracy 24.3% 28.6%

Benfica’s superiority at delivering the ball from wide can in part be explained by the man Benfica are aiming those crosses at – powerhouse striker Oscar Cardozo, their top scorer in Europe with eight goals so far.

Cardozo has managed goals from a total of 19, while Chelsea have racked up an impressive tally of 31 goals from their 14 matches, going some way to prove that statistics do impact on wider success at the front end.

Moving away from percentages, the source of Chelsea’s goals gives more joy to fans of Benitez’s team.

Benfica are over-reliant on Cardozo, with their second-top scorers in Europe Ola John and Lima, with two apiece. Chelsea, meanwhile, have Oscar (6), Victor Moses (5), David Luiz and Juan Mata (both 4) behind their leading scorer, Fernando Torres, who also has eight to his name.

The varied sources of Chelsea’s goals are crucial here – they have been playing a possession-based game in Europe, no doubt helped by David Luiz’s utilisation as a defensive midfielder, and a possession-based game increases the chances of midfielders finding the target.

This game suits Chelsea on multiple fronts, not least because it reduces their reliance on a sole striker, particularly useful given Demba Ba’s ineligibility for the tournament, and Torres’s tendency to misfire – the Spaniard may be Chelsea’s top scorer in Europe, but his struggles to convert opportunities are well documented, and again borne out in the statistics, with a chance conversion ratio of just 16.7%, significantly less than Cardozo’s (27.6%) and just over one third of Oscar’s (42.9%).

Player Team Goals Conversion Rate
Cardozo, Óscar Benfica 8 27.6
Torres, Fernando Chelsea 8 16.7
Oscar Chelsea 6 42.9
Moses, Victor Chelsea 5 31.3
David Luiz Chelsea 4 28.6
Mata, Juan Chelsea 4 25.0
John, Ola Benfica 2 22.2
Lima Benfica 2 11.1

And what of the source of the respective attacks and goals? Again, Chelsea trump Benfica both in numbers and variety, as while Juan Mata tops both assists and chances created charts with eight and 40 respectively, his team-mates are following suit on all counts, with the Portuguese side lagging behind.

Player Team Assists
Mata, Juan Chelsea 6
Lampard, Frank Chelsea 4
Hazard, Eden Chelsea 3
Lima Benfica 2
John, Ola Benfica 2
Ramires Chelsea 2
Player Team Chances Created (inc. assists)
Mata, Juan Chelsea 40
Hazard, Eden Chelsea 27
Torres, Fernando Chelsea 21
Gaitán, Nicolas Benfica 20
John, Ola Benfica 17
Pérez, Enzo Benfica 16
Oscar Chelsea 15

Regarding the overall dictation of tempo in possession, Chelsea’s success in Europe can be attributed to David Luiz’s excellent performances in the competition, both in defence and midfield, where he is surely set to feature in Wednesday’s final, despite the injury to John Terry.

Even if Terry fails to recover, Benitez should resist the temptation to use the Brazilian as a centre-back as his remarkable improvement as a central midfielder is key to Chelsea’s success, the ex-Benfica man topping the passing table with 585 such touches in Europe this season. Juan Mata’s superior accuracy means the Spaniard is actually the better distributor of the ball, but David Luiz’s ability to dictate the tempo while protecting the back four is vital to their continental form.

Conversely for Benfica it’s a Chelsea ‘reject’ who is their key playmaker, midfielder Nemanja Matic (532 passes), while centre-back Ezequiel Garay is an important cog to their counter-attacking style with an impressive tally of 528 balls.

Player Team Passes Passing Accuracy %
David Luiz Chelsea 585 81.4
Mata, Juan Chelsea 567 85.7
Matic, Nemanja Benfica 532 78.8
Ramires Chelsea 529 83.7
Garay, Ezequiel Benfica 528 81.1
Hazard, Eden Chelsea 484 79.8
Pérez, Enzo Benfica 472 84.3
Oscar Chelsea 442 83.3
Lampard, Frank Chelsea 435 79.8
Mikel, John Obi Chelsea 423 87.7
Melgarejo, Lorenzo Benfica 422 72.5

All this leads to a seemingly straightforward tactical solution for Benitez: give Ramires and David Luiz a secondary role to stifle Matic, while Torres – always a game runner whatever his woes in front of goal – should be handed a brief to close down Garay, primarily operating as a defensive forward to disrupt Benfica’s gameplan and give the midfield runners more options to retrieve the ball. Restrict those two and the rest, one assumes, will follow, although attention will have to be paid to Cardozo, attention that Branislav Ivanovic is more than capable of providing in aerial and physical terms.

You can count on Benitez to get it right too. What he reportedly lacks in man-management skills over the course of a season he more than compensates for in tactical acumen, particularly in European matches. His record stands up to this throughout his career, and it is arguable that the only reason Chelsea are not at this stage in the Champions League is that he was not appointed soon enough, the Blues’ interest in that competition well out of their hands by the time Roberto Di Matteo was dismissed.

Things look more complicated for Jesus. The logic would be to place a defensively-minded midfielder on Luiz, but then what to do with Mata, Oscar and – if fit – Eden Hazard? And if Hazard is unavailable, Frank Lampard’s guile in movement will be almost impossible to track. Such a tactical ploy would also reduce Benfica’s already limited attacking options – should Nicolas Gaitan make way for an Andre Gomes or Carlos Martins? It seems a hefty sacrifice.

Going forward, Benfica may thus take a reductionist, binary approach to attacks – they are superior to Chelsea in conventional wide positions (see previous crossing stats), although the Blues attacking midfielders operate more centrally, and should try to exploit the pace of Ola John and the aerial ability of Cardozo. Chelsea are slightly vulnerable in the full-back positions (particularly on the right, unless Ivanovic is used there ahead of Cesar Azpilicueta), while Petr Cech can flap under the right kind of pressure.

All this leads to a non-traditional landscape for Wednesday’s match – in theory, Chelsea should control the ground-game, while Benfica utilise a more direct counter-attacking approach, getting the ball wide and aiming for the head and gangly frame of Cardozo. It is atypical given the respective strengths and weaknesses in these countries’ national game, but club football has long failed to represent location.

Former England and Benfica boss Sven-Goran Eriksson claimed Benfica to be a more ‘gifted’ side than the Chelsea team he came close to managing. He is wrong but Jesus’s side can still spring an upset, provided they have been suitably recharged following the crushing disappointment of a last-gasp defeat to Porto that will probably cost them the domestic title.

And that simple trick of human motivation could prove more vital to Benfica’s hopes than any stroke of tactical genius Jesus can spring.

Reda Maher in Amsterdam – on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

All statistics provided by Opta

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