March 18, 2014

Benfica focus

Thursday night was a somewhat humbling evening at White Hart Lane, where an organised, compact, counter-attacking, talented team made mincemeat of our disorganised, open and insipid set of players. The tie does, sadly, seem to be over at the halfway point, with Spurs needing to score three against a team that had conceded one goal in their last fourteen matches prior to the first leg.

Benfica, managed by Jorge Jesus since June 2009, tend to rotate players frequently and were missing key men, but still looked like one of the most slick, cohesive units to visit White Hart Lane this season. In contrast, Spurs struggled to string more than a few passes together at a time, illustrated by the fact that not a single player finished the game with a pass completion of 90% or more – pretty unusual for Spurs this season. Indeed, our most important creative element, Christian Eriksen, ended with a 69% completion, which reflected his poor decision-making throughout the game.

Sherwood brought Harry Kane into the line-up as a number 10 to add strength and another player with the ability to play with his back to goal; it was unfortunate for Harry that his most eye-catching moment was a poor loss of possession in a dangerous area, from which Benfica won a corner and, eventually, scored a goal. He made up for it to an extent a few minutes later by winning the free-kick from which Eriksen scored, and was actually one of the only players to show a creative spark in the match – getting his head up and using the ball intelligently at times.

For me, the most frustrating element of the defeat was that all of the goals that we conceded were preventable. From the first – where Eriksen gave the ball away with a poor pass selection, and Naughton made the wrong decision too in not following his man – to the two set pieces, where our man-to-man making went to pot. Kaboul, a big favourite of mine, will be disappointed with his part in both of the set piece goals; he was blocked off for the first, and not tight enough for the second.

Adebayor missed a wonderful chance to level the game on 48 minutes but, aside from that, Spurs barely created a thing in response.

With Jan Vertonghen suspended for the return leg, Tim Sherwood has to decide whether to go with Zeki Fryers and Younes Kaboul at centre-back, or whether he will go for broke and play a midfielder alongside Kaboul in the hope that we can play out from the back.

Before the first tie I wrote a preview for the excellent PortuGOAL website and the website owner and Portuguese football expert Tom Kundert (@Portu_Goal on Twitter) was kind enough to answer my questions about Benfica in response.

Benfica performed impressively at White Hart Lane – was that match typical of how Benfica have played this season?
Very much so, especially the last four months. From the moment coach Jorge Jesus took over in 2009/10, Benfica’s approach was non-stop frenetic attacking, leaving them vulnerable at the back. It was terrific to watch, but led to costly draws and defeats. This season there has been a noticeable shift to a more controlled, counter-attacking style. For the first time in years the defence has been the team’s strong point.

What did you make of Spurs’ showing?
They struck me as a team lacking a clear idea of what they should be doing. Player for player the two sides are probably quite well matched. Players like Eriksen, Paulinho, Lennon and Adebayor are exactly the type of players Jorge Jesus likes to work with, but there was no discernable pattern to Tottenham’s play, and when that happens a player can only shine through an individual moment of inspiration – like Eriksen’s beautiful goal. Jorge Jesus almost always gets the very best out of his players, but overall you got the feeling Tottenham’s lack of cohesion was preventing their most talented players from showing their best. The individuals were working for the team but the team wasn’t working for the individuals.

Do you have any fear at all that Benfica won’t progress in the competition?
It’s a funny old game and all that, but to be honest, no.

With the tie looking dead and buried, will Jorge Jesus take the opportunity to rotate the squad?
Yes. Benfica pretty much threw away the last two championships after leading Porto until near the end of the season and a big reason was because of poor (or complete lack) of rotation. Jorge Jesus has learned from his mistakes and has rotated heavily this season. Given that Benfica played on Monday night, I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes 5 or 6 changes to the side. But as he’s done that for most of the season none of the players are coming in completely cold so I wouldn’t expect Benfica’s performance level to drop significantly.

Jorge Jesus’ touchline antics – what did you make of the incident?
It wasn’t pretty and he’s been slated in the Portuguese media for his antics. Several commentators even said he managed to ruin what should have been a memorable night for Benfica. He’s got previous in this regard. He once waved four fingers at Nacional coach Manuel Machado after Benfica scored a 4th goal against them, then made a lame excuse saying he was telling his team to play four at the back!

In Portugal what really shocked people was the way he treated his assistant and two Benfica legends who are part of the staff – Rui Costa and Shéu. It would obviously be preferable that he carried himself better, although if I’m perfectly honest, it makes for terrific entertainment. He seems to fall into a different zone during games. A flawed genius, you could say.

Finally, some more general questions: what do you make of the current state of English football, and how does it compare to football in Portugal?
I don’t follow English football very closely nowadays, although I’ve caught a few games this season as for the first time in a long time it seems quite an unpredictable battle for the title. As for comparing the two, the quality of the EPL is much deeper all the way down the league, but Portugal’s best one or two teams are often almost as good or as good as the best in England, which is quite amazing given the discrepancy in revenue, i.e. a top Portuguese side will have to sell its best one or two players every summer, while an EPL side would think little of splashing many millions on reinforcements.

I can only conclude that Portugal have better coaches, better scouting set-ups and are better at developing their players. I suppose in England there is so much money that most of the time when things go wrong the solution is to spend, spend, spend rather than building something with more solid foundations.

Having said all that, there are many aspects of the English game which Portuguese football should try to emulate. Full stadiums and passionate crowds, more respect for fair play (less diving), not blaming every refereeing mistake on corruption.

You have a pretty tough World Cup group (Germany, USA, Ghana) – where do you see the national team finishing in the group?
Portugal always thrive when they’re given a tough mission. At Euro 2000, the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 they landed in the “Group of Death”, but in all three tournaments they progressed and were only narrowly beaten by the eventual winners and at both Euros they made it to the semis. I’m confident they’ll get through the group in second, beat Belgium in the last 16 and set up a Ronaldo-Messi shoot-out in the quarter-finals. You heard it here first.

Many thanks to Tom for taking the time!

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  • Nick Moore says:

    Another good read . Watched the game twice I gather ! Pretty damning saying premiership scouting , coaching and player development is poor compared the Portugal

  • Andy says:

    ‘The individuals were working for the team but the team wasn’t working for the individuals.’ Sums up the season.

  • Sweetsman says:

    Jorge Jesus is close friends with the new manager at Zenit and has mentioned Sherwood’s involvement in AVB’s departure. I think he will do his best to humiliate TS.

  • bonse says:

    Well that was quite a ride.

    I’ve seen a lot about Chadli exploding into life in the second half, but to be fair, he was largely the driving force of our attacks in the first half too, some powerful runs into the wings and at least once some neat interplay with Soldado. On the other hand Townsend largely did all the things that make me wonder why the hell we persist with him, I think he has a talent but he needs to learn that there are other people on the pitch and some of them are on his side.

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