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Tactical Analysis: Benfica 0-1 Manchester United | Goalkeeping Mistake Decides Close Encounter

Hiko Seijuro provides a tactical analysis about the Champions League match that ended Benfica 0-1 Manchester United

SL Benfica hosted Mourinho’s Manchester United in what was a battle for control of Group A with United having 6 points and Benfica trailing them with 4 points.


Benfica (4-4-2): Mile Svilar / Douglas – Luisao – Ruben Dias – Alex Grimaldo / Pizzi – Felipe Augusto – Ljubomir Fejsa – Diogo Goncalves/ Raul Jimenez – Eduardo Salvio

Manchester United (4-2-3-1/ 4-4-2): De Gea / Valencia – Lindelof – Smalling – Blind / Matic – Herrera / Mata – Rashford – Mkhitaryan / Lukaku

Benfica manager Rui Vitoria chose to set up his team in their usual 4-4-2 formation with Jimenez playing as a target man and Salvio feeding off of him. Jose Mourinho also stuck with their usual 4-2-3-1 formation with Herrera pairing Matic to act as shields in front of the defense. The only change was that Blind came in at left back in place of Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young who had played there in recent games.

Both teams attack the flanks

During their attacking moments, both teams based their attacking play primarily down the flanks though they did that in different ways. While Benfica sought to use combinations between their wingers and fullbacks in order to get their fullbacks into good crossing positions, Manchester United sought to constantly find their wingers – particularly Rashford by making in to out diagonal runs to latch on to through balls.

Benfica ensured that there were at least two players in the box when crosses came in as the ball near wingers stayed wide or in the half-space to combine with the fullback, the ball far winger indents and joins Jimenez in the box.

Here again we see Benfica’s emphasis on having at least two players in the box but this time it’s the winger Goncalves crossing the ball.

During their build up early in the game, Herrera played higher than Matic, but Benfica’s 4-1-4-1 targeted Matic successfully and prevented United from progressing, forcing them into a lot of long balls.

Matic being man marked by Jimenez with Hererra acting higher

Man United executed a 4-2-3-1 shape with Herrera taking up a position horizontally from Matic in order to ensure a stable build up; the fullbacks also started from fairly deep positions in order to offer out balls and would usually attempt long passes into the space behind the defense upon being pressed. 4-4-2-ish shape with Mata constantly inverting into the midfield and Rashford joining Lukaku to offer a threat in behind. The Englishman rarely held the width like a “pure” winger but constantly positioned in the half-space to get as close as possible to Lukaku. In the moments when he didn’t do this, Mkhitaryan went closer to Lukaku, this was because of the long ball tactics used by both teams, the close positioning was to ensure that there was always someone to contest for the second ball after the initial aerial battle.

Mata has inverted into midfield and Rashford is positioned in between the centre back and the fullback. From there he can now make a run out to meet a through pass from Blind

His initial positioning means he has created space in between the fullback and centreback which Mkhitaryan can exploit with an inverted run but United rarely made use of such openings, instead preferring to attempt to find Lukaku with crosses from those positions

With the problems encountered by Man United in build up, they sought to counteract Benfica’s midfield pressing through two play sequences: the first, Matic would execute a form of salida lavolpiana but instead of dropping between the centre backs, he would drop to the side of the centre backs and become the free man as Jimenez was usually unwilling to follow him that far considering that he would be outnumbered in the first line. From such positions, Matic could receive free from pressure and drive forward with the ball both to provoke the press and attempt line breaking passes.

Matic (in the circle) has dropped outside the centre backs in order to be free from pressure when the ball does get to him. This also has the effect of allowing the fullbacks to push up higher

Here again we see Matic dropping to receive but this time, Jimenez is unwilling to follow him that deep and he is able to bring the ball out from the back comfortably

In the second sequence, Herrera would vacate his higher positon in the right half-space which would then be taken over by Mata inverting from the right wing, and drop deeper in order for United to have more bodies in the build up. Mata’s inverted positioning kept the Benfica central midfielder from following him out and so Manchester United were able to execute a stable build up on the right.

This image clearly shows all the factors in Man United’s attacking focus: Herrera (circled) has dropped to assist Matic in the build up, while Mata (in the box) has dropped and inverted into the right half-space to prevent Benfica from stepping out to press him and also to ensure that United have enough numbers between the lines to progress their attacks. Daley Blind (also circled) has moved up higher on the touch line – to Benfica’s last line! While Rashford is acting as a second centre forward positioning in the half-space in order to narrow Benfica’s backline and make space for Blind.

Manchester United’s passmap courtesy of @11tegen11. See how Mata’s inverted positioning and Rashford acting high in the half-space controlled United’s attacking principle


This was a tight encounter between two teams with somewhat similar systems and styles, both teams focused heavily on attacking the flanks and defending the centre and also used a lot of long balls to directly attack the opposition. However, despite attacking the same spaces, they went about their attacks in different ways and generally cancelled out each other. In the end, Manchester United came away with the win thanks to a goalkeeping error by the young debutant and the victory leaves them firmly in control at the summit of group A and boosted their chances of reaching the last 16. Benfica on the other hand will feel unlucky as they probably deserved more from the game, they can take comfort in their performance however as they are still in the running for a place in the round of 16.

Hiko Seijuro

Hiko Seijuro

Hiko Seijuro is a student of Mass Communication in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He's an avid football lover and a fan of FC Barcelona. He is obsessed with the tactical side of the game and
adores Pep Guardiola. His favourite players are Messi and Sergio Busquets
Hiko Seijuro

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