Jorge Jesus has been a common presence among Portuguese football fans for over 10 years and everyone that follows the Portuguese league knows what is his go-to formation.
He has pretty much always played in 4–4–2 (at least since he started training in the first division of Portuguese football) and there’s a few nuances where his system differs from the traditional 4–4–2.
The two midfielders in a traditional 4–4–2 are usually played as a “double pivot” but in JJ’s system, he uses a defensive midfielder paired with a pure box-to-box midfielder. His style of defensive mdifielder is usually not hard to find, his main qualities must be ball-winning and the ability to quickly pressure after winning the ball like Fejsa, Samaris, Arão or even Javi Garcia. Despite that he also showed that he doesn’t mind playing a more technical defensive midfielder like Weigl or Matic, even though both are far from being bad in those other aspects.
The real problem is finding a “number 8” for his team because that player needs to be great in so many aspects that it becomes hard to find a good fit. His box-to-box midfielder must have good progression through pass and carries, he must be able to defend decently and as the name says, he needs to able to be in all kind of zones in the pitch.
Over the years, we’ve had very good players for that position like Aimar in 09/10, Witsel in 12/13, Enzo Pérez in 13/14 and 14/15 and Renato Sanches in 15/16 but since the departure of Renato we’ve not had a player with those characteristics.
Pizzi was the one chosen to assume the “number 8” role but there was never a consensus over his performances in that position with the biggest argument being that he can’t defend and/or track back. Taarabt was also tried in that same position and sometimes it felt like he would be able to shine in that role but he isn’t regular enough to be a starter.
This summer, João Mário was signed from Inter to be played in that position and despite we only having a small sample of data to compare both players and Benfica not even playing in the same formation nowadays, we’ll compare Pizzi’s performances in 20/21 in the first six league games with João Mário’s performances in the 21/22 in the first six league games.
As expected, although Benfica has converted from a 4–4–2 to a 3–4–3, they pretty much occupy the same positions of the field with Pizzi’s heatmap being just a little more central than João Mário’s and João M. playing in deeper zones.
When it comes to passing, Pizzi is one of the best passers in the league and that is showed by his impressive number of progressive passes but carries is a whole different story, João Mário not only averages better progression number but he also has a lot of progressive carries starting in his own half. These may seem irrelevant but Jorge Jesus really likes that trait on his “number 8”. I think most Benfica fans remember those crazy carries Enzo used to do in 13/14 and 14/15.
The number of shot creating actions (from open play) are also higher for João Mário with 5 SCA and one big chance created in 332 minutes, while Pizzi only has 2 SCA in 278 minutes. Pizzi’s creativity and final pass is lost when is played in the midfield instead of the right-wing. He produced 26 and 16 big chances created in 18/19 and 19/20, respectively, when played on the right-wing in comparison to 11 and 6 in 17/18 and 20/21, respectively, when played as a box-to-box.
Both pass sonars are pretty much identical with a heavy left-oriented pass tendency due to Grimaldo’s qualities in buildup and on the ball being a lot better than any of the options for the right-back/right-wing-back position.
Also explained and analyzed here:
Benfica 20/21 Transfers and Liga Nos Review Using Data
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Pizzi loses the ball way more often than João Mário and that really hurt the team last year because they just couldn’t defend in transition. With João Mário in that position, not only is the team less exposed to the opponent’s transition because he loses less balls but he also loses the ball in more advanced zones of the field where the midfielders can quickly press and try to regain the ball.
If the opponent manages to play out of Benfica’s pressure, there’s still a three man line in defense while last season there was only a two man line.
This is by far the most surprising stat that I’ve seen, I don’t think there’s a single Benfica fan that would think that Pizzi completes more defensive actions than João Mário.
We need to keep in mind that Benfica’s 3–4–3 formation provides more defensive stability and for that reason, João Mário may not need to defend as much. Also interesting to see that Pizzi “defends” all over the pitch while the ex-Inter man defends mainly on the left side of the pitch.
All in all, I think João Mário was our best signing this season, he is a great fit for a position where we lack quality players and Jorge Jesus already knew him for his time at Sporting. I really think (and I don’t think they will do it any different) that Benfica should continue to play João Mário in the “number 8” position with Taarabt and Gedson as back-ups and have Pizzi playing in more advanced zones where he can contribute to the team with goals and assists.
Thanks for reading!