Benfica 20/21 Transfers and Liga Nos Review Using Data

After having a seven point lead over Porto and managing to lose the title, Bruno Lage was sacked and Jorge Jesus was brought back as his replacement.

The transfer window saw Benfica spending over 100M in new players, mostly as a political statement from the current detained president, Luís Filipe Vieira.

Transfers Review:

Darwin Núñez — 24 M — 21 years old

The young Uruguayan striker arrived in Lisbon after Benfica failed to secure the signing of his fellow Uruguayan teammate Edinson Cavani. Darwin is a strong and mobile striker that it’s best utilized when he has spaces to attack since he has some technical difficulties that make it difficult for him to play in tighter spaces. He also showed a lot of problems in his decision making as you can see in this video:

Even though he finished the season with 24 G/A in all competitions, it still feels like he wasn’t that good especially considering the big amount of big chances that he wasted throughout the season.

My Rating: 5/10

Éverton — 20 M — 24 years old

The brazilian winger arrived here as a special request from Jorge Jesus as he considered him the best winger in the Brasileirão. Éverton played a discrete season but showed signs of starting to playing better in the end of the season. The amount of defensive work that he has to do in this 4–4–2 system doesn’t benefit him too.

My Rating: 5/10

Pedrinho — 18 M — 22 years old

He was signed before Jorge Jesus took charge and barely played this year. Whenever he played, he showed a lot of potential and most people would have liked to see him be given more chances in the number 10 position or behind the striker. I especially remember these two passes against Estoril:

My Rating: 3/10

Luca Waldschmidt — 15 M — 24 years old

He was our best player in the first two months, scoring and assisting with ease. When Benfica lost against Boavista and Braga consecutively, Jorge Jesus started using Darwin — Seferovic instead of him. Our best player playing in between the lines with great decision making and final pass, it’s a shame the coach lost confidence in him and also that he played him so many times falling to the right instead of the middle where he belongs.

Perfect example of what he is capable of doing:

My Rating: 5/10

Nicolás Otamendi — 15 M — 32 years old

I’ve always thought he was good enough to replace Rúben and in the long term, I was right. He made a lot of mistakes in his first months but stepped up afterwards and was one of our best players this season. He was decent on the ball and had a good positioning, it’s a shame his brain stops sometimes and he makes stupid mistakes. We suffered from his and Vertonghen lack of pace but that’s more a collective issue rather than a individual issue.

My Rating: 6/10

Lucas Veríssimo — 6.5M — 25 years old

He only arrived in February but showed that he is a decent center-back. His pace was a major help since Ota and Jan are not that fast and we were always prone to concede in defensive transition when we let a ball behind our back. Despite that, he showed some positional problems which were “exposed” in the games against Arsenal.

My Rating: 5/10

Gilberto — 3M — 27 years old

Let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.

My Rating: 2/10

Hélton Leite — 1.5M — 29 years old

A decent keeper, I don’t think he is better or worse than Ody but Jorge Jesus as opted to play him. He has an hard time controlling the space in front of him as displayed here:

My Rating: 5/10

Jan Vertonghen — Free Transfer — 33 years old

I expected more from him if I am being honest. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t play bad but never took any risks, always played the simplest pass, many times opting for a useless long ball. He was solid defensively despite his lack of pace hurting us a bit (again, more of a collective issue rather than an individual issue). Jan was one of our best players this season despite all of this.

My Rating: 6/10

Season Review:

Benfica finished in third place for the first time in over 10 years, the last time they had such a bad season was in 08/09 with Quique Flores as the manager.

Here are some basic stats from this season:

Even though Benfica outperformed their xG and xGA, it wasn’t enough for them to take the title because Sporting won almost every game in spite of having one of the worst goalscoring records ever by a champion. The last time a winning team scored so few goals was in 2013/2014 when Liga Nos only had 16 teams with Benfica scoring 58 goals in 30 games.

Seferovic was Benfica’s top scorer and the second best in the league behind Pote who scored 23 goals from 11.03 xG (crazy outperfomance). If we compare Seferovic’s scoring stats with past winners of Liga Nos Golden Boot, we can see what most of his critics (including me) say: in 17/18, Jonas won the Golden Boot with 34 goals and only 12 big chances missed and in 16/17, Bas Dost won the Golden Boot with 34 goals and only 9 big chances missed.

Both times Seferovic scored more than 20 goals in Liga Nos, he missed 17 and 21 big chances, respectively. If we compare him to the top scorers of the top 5 leagues, only Cristiano and Lewa missed more big chances than him (27 and 25, respectively) but both scored more goals than him too (29 and 41, respectively)

Grimaldo finished the season with 9 assists and 20 big chances created in what seemed a bad season from him but in reality, his creative output was still great.

“Grimi” also doesn’t benefit from playing in a three at the back formation since he is a wingback who enjoys to play from outside to the inside, especially when we are building from the back and with this formation he needs to always stay wide to give width to the team. Despite all of that, he proved that he is Benfica’s best crosser by a long distance.

Formation

Benfica mostly played in a 4–4–2 with Jorge Jesus using a 3–5–2/3–4–3 in the latter games of the season or when they faced Porto/Sporting/Braga.

As we can see, in the first half of the season Jorge Jesus only used the 3–4–3 against Porto and Sporting.

In the second half of the season, it was a different story, the three at the back formation was used a total of eight times and Benfica won six of those eight games.

The 3–4–3/3–5–2 was used mostly as a way to try to fix the team’s issues in defensive transition because having that extra man in the defense would decrease the chances of getting outnumbered in transition. Although this works on paper, Gil Vicente was able to punish Benfica in transition when they won 1–2 in Estádio Da Luz back in April which showed that most collective issues where still there.

The rest of the review is gonna be divided in three chapters/phases:

  • Offensive Transition Phase
  • Defensive Transition Phase
  • Buildup and Positional Play/Offensive Organization

Offensive Transition Phase

After the first six seasons coaching “O Glorioso”, Jorge Jesus left as one of the best coaches that Benfica has had in recent years. He was particularly know for making his team deadly in offensive transition.

However in the 20/21 season, his team was nowhere near as good as they were in the past which is somewhat normal because 13/14 and 14/15 teams had guys like Jonas, Gaitan, Enzo and Matic, still that doesn’t really explain it all why they were not that good this year even when compared to the 18/19 team.

This “viz” shows us that Jorge Jesus’ team is able to press higher on the pitch and force the opponent to lose the ball closer to their goal. Using this information we know need to try to know what kind of passes and/or carries Benfica is doing after winning the ball so that we can assess what they are doing wrong or right.

Before that let’s just see where Benfica “ranks” in ball recoveries when compared to the other teams in the league:

We can clearly see that Benfica is the best team at high-pressing in Liga Nos and I think that doesn’t come as surprise to anyone according to the eye-test.

When succesfully recovering the ball in one of the wings, Benfica is more or less able to progress the ball with a pass but when recovering in interior zones the amount of “progressive” passes is way lower. Even when they win the ball back on the wings, they don’t usually pass to the halfspaces or to the zone 14.

When you recover the ball, it’s more likely that the opponent is going to disorganized leaving more spaces to explore but since Benfica often played with the pairing of Darwin and Seferovic or even when Waldschmidt played, he was often closer to the right side, there was no one to receive the ball in the space between the defensive line and the midfield line, the most dangerous zone to defend in football.

That fact made Benfica’s attack become too predictable, most times they would just try to overload the wing and play a cross to the area.

When winning the ball in their own half or closer to the halfway line in the opponent’s midfield, Benfica is able to progress from the middle almost as good as from any of the sides even though one could argue that there are too many sideways and back passes.

From other perspective, one could argue that Benfica forced too many transitions this year because there were a lot of moments where they should have calmed down the game instead of constantly trying to accelerate it.

While Weigl is a midfielder with that kind of profile, Taarabt is the complete opposite, he tries a lot of progressive passes and runs when they are not really necessary.

As written above, Taarabt is the midfielder who attempts the biggest ammout of riskiest passes but that doesn’t really makes him better than the other midfielders. As I said earlier, Weigl has a completely different profile when compared with Adel, the german is a master in dictating the rhythm of the game, he knows when he should accelerate the game or when he should keep the ball and calm it down.

When looking at failed passes, it was always obvious that Adel would have the biggest amount given the type of passes he usually does. In this 4–4–2 system, Taarabt shouldn’t lose the ball so many times because with only a two man midfield and with Benfica’s weak positional play, whenever he lost the ball the other team had a great opportunity to attack Benfica on transition (but this will be addresed in the “Defensive Transition Phase”).

I defined transition as the ten next events after a successful defensive action or the events happening in the next 20s after a successful defensive action.

I decided to use xThreat (explained here: https://karun.in/blog/expected-threat.html) to try and rank all the teams in Liga Nos in transition. I defined transition as the ten next succesful actions after a successful defensive action or the next 20 seconds after the successful defensive action.

As we can see, Benfica ranks third in the league after Porto and Sporting. It can be used to prove that Benfica hasn’t been that good in transition when compared to what’s normally expected from a JJ’s team. On a side note, Braga’s option to favor attacking in offensive organization/positional play is clearly shown here.

Benfica scored (at least) eight out of sixty nine goals in transition and we can even see that despite me saying that Benfica’s transition was lackluster there was a lot of good-scoring opportunities that were wasted especially because Darwin and Seferovic finishing was subpar this season and they were the ones that had the most chances in transition of all the players (they had 18 out of these 48 chances).

Buildup + Positional Play/Offensive Organization

When Benfica’s possessions start in their own third and with the centre-backs having the ball, the CDM will drop to the same line as the two centre-backs and the wing-backs will push forward. The other central midfielder will be isolated in the middle while the two wingers will come inside and the two strikers will stay forward.

Jorge Jesus is known for always using this approach but I, personally, don’t think it really works because not only will always force your team to build from the wings because the central midfielder will (almost) always be alone in midfield which makes it very hard to progress through the middle, not only that but if your wing-backs aren’t that good playing out from pressure, it will make everything even harder because most teams will know when and where to pressure Benfica.

Inspiration came from: https://statsbomb.com/2021/02/aston-villa-2020-21-deep-dive/

We can see in this “viz” what I just said about Benfica’s ability to progress through the middle since most possessions progress through the wings.

We can also see that they prefer to build onto the left side and that can be explained due to Grimaldo’s amazing qualities playing out from the back, either “hugging” the sideline or even progressing to more inside zones.

As shown by this “viz”, both Pizzi and Taarabt are not really able to make the ball progress when they receive the ball which would not be so bad if another midfielder or the second striker dropped to help link up the game. Since that doesn’t happen and especially when they receive the ball in more interior areas, they are often forced to return the pass or just keep the ball moving.

On a different note, Taarabt is better at dealing with the opponent’s pressure than Pizzi and also tries (and succeeds) to avoid the pressure by getting out of danger zones by the way of carries (especially in deeper zones). It’s also surprising that Pizzi misses more passes than Taarabt while building up.

Jan is clearly the best center-back when it comes to ball progression, even though he also benefits from always playing in the left where he has the help of Grimaldo whereas Otamendi usually plays on the right side and nor D. Gonçalves nor Gilberto are even remotely close to the level of Grimi playing from the back.

Benfica’s inability to buildup/progress through the middle is also demonstrated by Weigl’s progressive passes. He is usually the middle man in the three man line and as we can see he’s not really able to play progressive passes to more interior zones and instead ends up with (almost) the same amount of progressive passes to the wider zones.

Unsuprisingly, Benfica completes the biggest amount of passes from the corners (winger and full-back to create numerical superiority and cross) and from both half-spaces which comes as a bit of a surprise to me.

Grimaldo’s creativity on offense is well displayed here because while Diogo and Gilberto pass to the box mostly from wider zones, Grimaldo’s passing range extends to inner zones.

All of reception and passing maps are almost symmetrical even though Grimaldo receives the ball a bit more in inner zones than both right full-backs.

As we can see, when receiving deeper, Grimaldo tends to come inside, that is because his most common left side partner Éverton benefits from receiving in wider zones.

Without taking away any merits from Grimaldo because he was one of Benfica’s best players in the 20/21 season but when your most creative player is a full-back, you should really worry that something is wrong with the way your team creates chances. And to be fair, his numbers are a bit boosted because he takes free-kicks and corners.

Rafa is a super versatile winger, despite playing more minutes on the right he proves that he can play in either sides with almost the same efficiency. Benfica’s best winger in 1x1 situations and with the biggest amount of progressive carries could be world class (or near that level) if his decision making and last pass was on the same level as his dribbling ability.

Everton and Grimaldo connection is displayed in the brasilian’s progressive passes. We can also conclude that “Cebolinha” is much more confortamble playing wider instead of a classic Jorge Jesus inside winger.

When receiving in his own half, both Pizzi and Taarabt are constantly forced to play a back pass to the centerbacks because (and as we demonstrated earlier) they are always very isolated in the midfield.

And looking at Weigl’s cluster in his own half, it’s easy to note everything we said about Benfica’s buildup phase being mostly done through the wing-backs.

Luca Waldschmidt stands out having the second most big chances created per 90' and it confirms that he is one of Benfica’s best players when it comes to decision making and that final pass. Despite all of this, Jorge Jesus often relegated him to the bench and prefered to use a two-striker combination upfront. Pizzi also stands out as the player who is able to play more passes to the box despite not creating many big chances.

The most progressive passer of the three center-backs is (and as stated before) Jan Vertonghen with Lucas Veríssimo, the second best, not coming anywhere close to the Belgian’s figures.

It’s interesting to see the different profile of both DM’s, while Weigl is the most secure player of team on the ball having the least ammount of lost balls per game, Gabriel is the most progressive passer in the team despite losing the ball more often than the german.

If initially Jorge Jesus thought Gabriel’s verticality was the best choice for his side, in December he changed ideas and went for the more secure player in Weigl. The ammount of chances suffered in transition may have played a big part in this change of mind.

Seferovic is your classic poacher striker with most of his shots coming from very good positions and inside the box. Surprisingly, he carries the ball before his shot a lot more times than Darwin.

Darwin tends to receive the ball more to the left and drift inside (I would like to see him play a role identical to Werner’s in Leipzig). Even though he had a lot of very good chances, his finishing efficiency wasn’t there.

Benfica’s set-pieces were not that good, they managed to score seven times from set-pieces and neither of those goals (except the direct free-kick) was in the action following the corner-kick or the free-kick.

Defensive Transition

This was (in my opinion) the worse Benfica’s phase of play. The team never looked confident when defending in transition and Jorge Jesus agreed and so he made the change to a 3–5–2 in the second half of the season.

Using such a high defensive line with not so fast players like Otamendi and Jan requires the team to be very disciplined on offense and both wing-backs and midfielders to be always good positioned to instantly defend when you lose the ball.

As expected, Benfica loses the ballway more often in the attacking third because they spend most of their time on attack. In the defensive and middle third, there’s a bigger tendency to lose the ball on the right but it’s not very different from the left side.

Progressive passes are displayed in yellow

Due to the lack of pace from Otamendi and Jan and the inability to press quickly after losing the ball, the opponent is able to play passes behind their backs when Benfica loses the ball in the attacking third.

When losing the ball in the middle/defensive third they are more or so able to stop the opponent from progressing the ball quickly in the first pass after the opponent wins the ball.

When comparing the amount of shots allowed in transition, Benfica is the worst of the top 4 and even when just comparing goals allowed, they still rank after Porto, Braga and Sporting.

On a side note, Sporting’s shot map shows why they won the league last season, only conceding two goals in transition and limiting their opponents to very difficult shots, with most of them coming from difficult angles and/or from outside the box.

Once again and to confirm what I said above, Benfica is the team from the top 4 who loses the ball more often and not only that but they are the team who allows more shots after.

Benfica’s opponent transition leads to a shot more often when it’s followed by three or four passes after the defensive action that won the ball. We can also see a tendency in the use of long balls when the opponent is starting the transition.

All in all, Benfica conceded (at least) seven goals in defensive transition which is more or less 26% of all the goals conceded in Liga Nos 20/21.

The End

As a Benfica fan, it was a pretty disappointing season, the results were subpar and the “artistic note” (nota artística) as Jorge Jesus says was nowhere to be found. We finished third for the first time in thirteen years and had to play UCL playoffs for the second season in a row.

One month has passed since the 21/22 season started and Benfica hasn’t lost a single game yet and it is displaying better footbal than last year with Jorge Jesus fully embracing the 3–4–3/3–5–2 formation, let’s hope it continues and improves like that.

Thank you for reading.

https://twitter.com/PositionIsKeyPT

Post-Article Notes

I feel like I used a lot of redundant vizzes but I think that’s a normal thing when you are just starting in football analytics. Given that this is my first article using data, I don’t think it’s bad but I know some things where I can and will improve in the future like by using some video footage to prove my points and my writing needs to improve a lot because not only I’m not an excellent writer but I’m also not English fluent.

I need to be more impartial when analysing a team that I really dislike the manager. I hate Jorge Jesus both as a human being and as a coach and I feel like that influenced my writing and analysis in a bad way.

GitHub Repo:

https://github.com/tomaslb26/Benfica-20-21-Season-Analysis

Football Analysis and Player Reports https://twitter.com/PositionIsKeyPT