Europa League Final Tactical Review: Chelsea 2-1 Benfica
With Eden Hazard missing through injury and Victor Moses not fit to start, Chelsea began this one with Ramires on the right hand side and Oscar on the left. Frank Lampard and David Luiz took up the central midfield positions, with Juan Mata operating as the advanced midfielder.
Benfica left Pablo Aimar on the bench, but began with a very dangerous looking front three of Oscar Cardozo, Salvio and Nico Gaitan. At the back for them, the pacey, powerful pair of Luisao and Ezequiel Garay were tasked with dealing with Fernando Torres.
Early Portuguese Dominance
To say it took Chelsea a while to get going would be generous. They never really looked settled in their positions, which was probably down to too many players operating in relatively unfavoured positions. Unfortunately for Rafael Benitez, this was telling in the opening stages.
Ramires, in particular, looked lost in his right midfield berth. He was caught out constantly by the clever movement of Gaitan and failed to offer any kind of sustained cover to Cesar Azpilicueta.
David Luiz and Frank Lampard did not look at ease either. In the 4-2-3-1 system, the understanding between the two sitting midfielders is paramount to the rest of the team being able to function. But Luiz and Lampard never really looked on the same wavelength, with both having looked much more comfortable with a more defensively minded player next to them.
The duo were often too far apart and indisciplined in their defensive positioning. As a result, Benfica played around with them ease.
Nico Gaitan and Salvio got also had a lot of joy in wide areas. Attacking on the outside or inside, both looked a real threat as Chelsea struggled to maintain any shape. Gaitan in particular was continually floating into the space behind Luiz and in doing so, dragging Ramires into no mans land.
Benfica targeted Ramires, whereas Chelsea looked to exploit the space down their opponents left side:
This is turn opened up space down the left flank for the forward bursts of Melgarejo. It caused Chelsea no end of problems. It wasn’t for some poor finishing and a few timely slips, Benfica could have been out of sight.
Benitez, usually a very reactive tactician, initially did little to stem the waves of Benfica attacks. Chelsea were becoming desperate in their defending and giving away numerous free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Juan Mata was not really willing to drop in and help block the middle off. He played as more of a second striker, often taking up positions beyond Torres. Resultantly, Luiz and Lampard were continually outnumbered by Benfica’s central trio, who pressed quickly when Chelsea were in possession.
Benfica’s early pressing meant Mata struggled to pick the ball up in dangerous areas:
This meant that whilst Mata was regularly in space, Luiz and Lampard failed to find him in any real threatening areas. Chelsea were penned in by the Benfica pressure and as a result, started to take a much more direct approach.
Direct to Torres
Chelsea started to go direct to Torres looking for an outlet. The Spaniard held the ball up well and allowed Chelsea to build from the right channel, as the English side looked to exploit the space left by the attacking runs of Melgarejo.
It was only really ten minutes before half-time that Chelsea had a sustained spell of possession, which again started from Torres bringing others into play after controlling a long pass. Lampard worked an opening on the edge of the box which forced an excellent save from Artur. This was Chelsea’s only real opportunity of a frustrating half.
Chelsea were happy going direct to Torres:
Benfica came out looking strong after half time, whereas Chelsea continued to look for Torres early. The Spanish front-man battled well against the imposing Luisao, spinning in behind him a couple of times and springing a couple of dangerous attacks.
It was this direct tactic which brought Chelsea their opening goal. Torres turned Garay with ease on the halfway line before bursting through the middle and finishing with exceptional composure.
The goal gave Chelsea a huge lift. They looked sharper, quicker and more considerably more confident in their play. But as with Chelsea’s goal, Benfica also netted against the run of play.
In Benfica’s first real attacking foray after conceding, Azpilicueta conceded a penalty and Cardozo, as he often does, dispatched with consummate ease.
The latter stages became rather scrappy, Benfica made two changes prior to their equalizer and despite getting back on level terms, never really looked as settled in possession. Perhaps of most significance, Ola John came on to play off the left-hand side, with Gaitan reverting to left-back. The equalizer came a bit too early for them, as they were left to play 30 minutes of the game with a team lopsided with attacking players.
Ramires and Azpilicueta looked much more comfortable defending against John’s direct style in contrast to the Gaitan’s subtle movement. As a result, Chelsea were able to pin back Benfica down their left-hand side and the Portuguese outfit’s main attacking source suddenly became a defensive concern.
Suddenly it was Benfica who has a couple of square pegs in round holes. Chelsea’s players, by contrast, grew into their roles as the game wore on.
Resultantly, mainly out of frustration Benfica started to play it up to Cardozo much earlier.
The Paraguayan managed to fashion a couple of half chances, but Chelsea looked relatively comfortable with this approach. The English side were more than happy to sit deep and hit Benfica on the break through the pace of Ramires and Torres.
Ramires was able to exploit Gaitan’s defensive naivety:
The former in particular had much more joy getting at makeshift left-back Gaitan as Mata almost played him in a couple of times. Eventually, it was his energetic slalom forward in stoppage time that earned Chelsea the corner from which they won the game.
Triumph for Torres and Benitez
A result that was perhaps harsh on Benfica, as they played the better football and had the better chances throughout the contest.
But in Rafael Benitez and Fernando Torres, Chelsea have two figures that are primed for performing in European football. For all of Torres’s troubles this season, he has been excellent in the Europa League. His finish in the final showcased the type of composure Benfica lacked.
It is worth noting that Benitez failed to make a single substitution throughout the course of the contest. Maybe this was done with extra-time in mind, but it also allowed those players operating in unfamiliar roles to become acclimatized to their surroundings.
This was clearly the case, for as the game creeped into the latter stages, Chelsea always looked the most likely to nick a winner.
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