Tactical Analysis. Benfica – Zenit

The ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about affection. Their language contained four words for the different types of affection that we as humans feel. One of these, storge, is used to describe the familial affection experienced by family members for each other, the affection one feels for a pet, or the affection Zenit have had recently for playing in Portugal. With the Russian champions having won their last three encounters on Portuguese soil, most of Zenit’s players no doubt have enjoyed racking up the air miles on their flights to and from the Iberian Peninsula.

Sometimes, however, relationships turn sour. Zenit’s imports from Portugal, both player and coaches, were unable to stop their impressive streak from ending on Tuesday night on their return to the country that many of them made their name in.

Zenit lined up without many surprises. The injury to Smolnikov required veteran right back Anyukov to make his 89th appearance in UEFA competitions. The rest of the backline comprised of the more solid of Zenit’s central defensive pairings, in Garay and Lombaerts, with Criscito at left back. Yuri Lodygin started in goal despite question marks over his recent form. Javi Garcia and Axel Witsel formed the base of a midfield flanked by Shatov and Hulk, with Danny playing off Dzyuba up front, in his usual battering-ram role. Benfica also went for a 4-2-3-1, with Gaitan, Jonas and Pizzi playing behind Mitroglou. Samaris played alongside teenage sensation Renato Sanchez in midfield.

Zenit’s Defensive Strategy

Andre Villas-Boas made his intentions for the match very clear from a very early stage. His team would look to sit deep, deflect attacks wide where they would look to win back the ball and counter using the pace of their forward players, coupled with the strength of Dzyuba to hold the ball up as a platform for building attacks when needed.

In order to do this, it was clear that Zenit would have to defend with great diligence. However, their implementation of the defensive strategy threw up some problems. The first line of defence, Danny and Dzyuba, were poor in their directional pressing, giving Benfica’s central defenders time and space to dictate where the game would be played. Jardel, and in particular the young Swedish centreback Lindelöf would be given free rein to play their team high up the pitch, pinning Zenit into a deep defensive block. The lack of intensity and balance in forward pressing also allowed Lindelöf to drive forward into Zenit’s half through their left halfspace, creating overloads and playing havoc with their defensive structure. This in turn would drag Witsel out of position to deal with the temporary introduction of an extra man in Benfica’s midfield, leaving dangerous spaces on either side of Javi Garcia, his midfield partner.

Zenit’s vulnerability in the halfspaces was compounded by the positional references of their wide players. Out of possession, the wingers would essentially man mark the Benfica fullbacks. Given that the fullbacks, Eliseu and Andre Almeida would look to play high and wide when their team had the ball, this would often result in Shatov and Hulk being very far away from their central midfielders, and sometimes, especially in Shatov’s case, acting as an addition to the defensive chain. In both cases, this resulted in a chasm of space either side of the Zenit central midfield in the halfspaces. With Benfica’s positional interactions between their fullbacks and wingers being fairly strong, Pizzi and Gaitan would more often than not be populating these areas, requiring Witsel and Javi Garcia to shift across to cover, leaving bigger gaps on the other side.

While Witsel and Javi Garcia were very position-oriented in their defending, Shatov and Hulk would often be dragged far away from their teammates in the middle of the pitch. Shatov here even gets sucked into the defensive line.

While Witsel and Javi Garcia were very position-oriented in their defending, Shatov and Hulk would often be dragged far away from their teammates in the middle of the pitch. Shatov here even gets sucked into the defensive line.

Benfica would look to exploit the halfspaces opened by Shatov’s positional referencing of Almeida.

Benfica would look to exploit the halfspaces opened by Shatov’s positional referencing of Almeida.

This was only made worse by the approach of Zenit’s fullbacks. Criscito and Anyukov man marked Pizzi and Gaitan respectively when the play was on their side. Through clever rotation play between Benfica’s wide players, they were often able to pull Criscito away from his left back position. Between this movement and the tracking of Almeida by Shatov, Zenit would often find themselves in a compromising position on the left hand side, with Shatov and Criscito on the same horizontal line ahead of their defence, with the gap between the two being easily playable by either Lindelöf or Samaris. Key in these situations was the movement of Jonas, who would dart diagonally behind the ailing Zenit duo, looking to receive in a dangerous area with only the defensive line to beat. Thankfully for Zenit, the central midfield screen of Witsel and Javi Garcia were able to mitigate most of these threats by drifting over to their left, thereby congesting the area and making it difficult to find passing lines through to Jonas. On a couple of occasions though, especially when the ball was quickly switched from one side to the other, these lanes would be large enough to play though.

Jonas was able to find acres of space in dangerous areas thanks to his intelligent diagonal movement and the positional play of his teammates.

Jonas was able to find acres of space in dangerous areas thanks to his intelligent diagonal movement and the positional play of his teammates.

Lindelöf was very impressive in this respect. In his first Champions League appearance he made several incisive vertical passes through the Zenit midfield to take advantage of Benfica’s positional superiorities on that side. One passage of play saw him, for once, directed towards the flank by Danny’s pressing, only to then use a burst of pace and strong dribbling to cut straight through the avenue afforded to him by Pizzi and Almeida’s manipulation of Criscito and Shatov respectively.

Lindelof Dribble

Poor Attacking Structure

Within the first minute of the game it was clear that Zenit would look to play primarily on the counter. This is an approach which has served them well in Europe before – soaking up pressure, allowing the opposition to advance, leaving lots of space for players such as Hulk, Shatov and Danny to exploit when their team wins the ball. However, for a multitude of reasons, the Russians did not have great success in this regard on Tuesday night.

Benfica were able to halt a lot of Zenit’s attacks before they even really got going through their excellent offside trap. Artem Dzyuba in particular was often caught out. This is hardly surprising given Dzyuba’s style of play. As a target man striker, looking to act as a pivot up front for quick layoff passes to onrushing attacking midfielders – and with the physical build to boot – he is not ideally suited to chase balls played in behind a back line high up the pitch as they would be at the launch of a counter attack. Given Lindelöf’s ability to recover quickly, Dzyuba often started his runs too early for the intended pass, causing him to often be caught offside.

Zenit didn’t fare much better when they managed to escape the offside trap. Combined with many individual technical errors, there was often a lack of support for the ball carrier, which allowed Benfica to often isolate them and win the ball back with relative ease. In addition, the work which Shatov, and to a lesser degree Hulk, were forced to do defensively in tracking Benfica’s fullbacks as they marauded deep into Zenit’s half often meant they were in no position to support a counter attack. The result was very few counter attacks each consisting of a handful of players against a well organised Benfica team against the ball, and ultimately very few scoring chances.

The problems Zenit had when they occasionally did manage to develop a sustained attack reached hair-tearing, screen-screaming levels of frustration. Poor attacking structure has been a hallmark of AVB’s tenure at Zenit. It could be very easily argued that Zenit are only “bettered” in this respect by Arsenal in European football. On Tuesday night, Zenit once again struggled greatly to get effective, efficient positioning of their players in Benfica’s half.

A very evident deficiency in Zenit’s structure was their lack of central occupation. Often they would have no players in the middle of Benfica’s defensive structure. Rather there would be players disconnected from the ball up front – often Dzyuba and Hulk –  and multiple players positioned along the same passing line, effectively blocking one another in their cover shadow. As a result of these structural inefficiencies, Benfica were never forced to defend anything within their block for any sustained period of time. With the play in front of them, and no one looking to receive between the lines, Benfica were able to keep very compact against the ball when pushed deep into their own half, thus not opening any dangerous passing lines through their midfield to Dzyuba or other players looking to receive in behind the defensive line.

Zenit were very poor in their support for the ball carrier. In addition, Benfica’s midfielders had no real danger to consider behind them when shifting from side to side.

Zenit were very poor in their support for the ball carrier. In addition, Benfica’s midfielders had no real danger to consider behind them when shifting from side to side.

Miguel Danny

In theory there should be a player able to rectify this conundrum. Danny, Zenit’s number 10, as part of his attacking role should be the one looking to play in those tight spaces between the lines. By receiving the ball, say between the centrebacks and central midfielders, Danny would be able to attract considerable attention and pressure from any number of the four players in his immediate vicinity. Meanwhile he has the considerable technical ability to receive such a pass, draw pressure from a nearby opponent – thereby freeing up the space he vacates – before moving the ball on through either a pass to a teammate who can look to exploit the newfound space, or by dribbling at the defensive line. Even if he were not to receive that pass, his mere presence would no doubt cause the Benfica midfield to place a high importance on screening him whilst making their lateral shifts, leading to perhaps an opening for another Zenit player to move into to attack the Benfica defence.

Danny does none of these things. Instead he plays a highly frustrating role. He would often vacate that space between the lines in order to receive the ball in front of the Benfica midfield – exactly where they want one of Zenit’s finest needle-players to play. He rarely makes good supporting angles for his teammates, and often lands them in trouble in doing so. On one occasion he gave the ball to an under pressure Criscito inside his own half, then refrained from making a supporting angle, choosing to walk away up the pitch whilst his teammate searched desperately for a way for his team to keep the ball, before being crowded out in a dangerous area.

Danny perhaps encapsulates perfectly what this Zenit team is like. It is so frustrating to see a player with such a huge amount of talent no perform to his full potential. Had Danny played with the same positional sense and selflessness in movement as, say, Witsel when the Belgian played in that position during pre-season, he would no doubt be a game changer for Zenit week in, week out.

Instead he’s underperforming massively. Much like the team itself.

 

Half Russian and living in Glasgow, Alex Lawrence is fond of Dick Advocaat for reasons different from half his home town population. He’s had the same Kerzhakov magnet hanging on his fridge since 2005.


Follow Alex on Twitter: @thetenspace

Author: Alex Lawrence

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