Our Europa League campaign took a turn for the worst, as it finished Spurs 1 Benfica 3 in the first leg of our last-16 clash at the Lane.
The Portuguese were extremely well organised, playing in a compact shape, strangling the middle of the pitch and then hitting swiftly on the counter attack.
Jorge Jesus lined his team up in a 4-3-3 formation, but the key to much of the game was the way in which his side pressured us throughout.
It started at the top with Rodrigo and Cardozo closing down quickly, often forcing the ball back to Hugo Lloris who had to kick it downfield, as he had no other option. If we tried to play it out, they were able to trap, just as they did on dispossessing Harry Kane in the build up to their second goal.
This pressure often meant that the ball went forward from back to front, as we went long to either Harry Kane or Emmanuel Adebayor.
Younes Kaboul was a prime example. Anything he sent up-field was turned over, with Luisao and Garay cleaning up in the air.
The pressure wasn’t relentless, but it was constant and was backed up by congesting the centre of midfield.
No space in central midfield
If the book on beating AVB’s Spurs was sitting deep and not to allow any space in-behind, the one to take advantage of Tim Sherwood is to congest central midfield. Norwich 1 Spurs 0 saw the Canaries do this to beat us and the Bluebirds stifled the centre in Spurs 1 Cardiff 0 as well.
Benfica were also very well drilled in getting as many bodies in here as possible, as they played tight and compact with four or five players squeezing this zone.
Markovic and Sulejmani tucked inside and combined with Amorim and Fejsa to frequently get four bodies in here.
As you can see above, all of Benfica’s ten outfield players are in shot, showing how tight and compact they were. This meant that the space was out wide, but Spurs didn’t exploit it enough for two reasons.
Firstly we didn’t move the ball quickly enough. Secondly, we had a right footer at left back in Kyle Naughton who struggled to get forward on the overlap on his unnatural side. Ahead of him, Christian Eriksen was drifting in-field to try and get extra bodies in the centre for us.
Eriksen was our biggest threat and he played a neat through ball for Adebayor. This was one of the few times that we beat the sheer number of Benfica players centrally, as three rushed towards him.
What was needed in this game were two natural wingers and two full backs on their correct sides.
At the start of Tim Sherwood’s rein we saw our side set up to cross, hitting 25 balls in to the box on average in his opening matches. Here we attempted just 12 and this is where the space was and what we should have been doing.
As a result of all this central congestion, Harry Kane struggled to find any room in the number ten position and Paulinho was also pushed back, rarely getting in to the final third as his passing map showed.
Benfica’s quick counters
Benfica were able to win the ball back in central midfield and then were looking to launch quick counter attacks. Rodrigo, Markovic and Sulejmani all have good pace and were looking to run in-behind.
Benfica’s opening goal was an example of just that. Christian Eriksen was tackled with several opposition players in attendance.
The ball was then swiftly moved forward by Amorim, who sent a perfectly weighted pass through our defence for Rodrigo to run on to and finish.
The back line was caught square and Naughton’s hesitation as to whether to play offside or not was fatal.
Benfica’s threat from counter attacks was present throughout and they almost made it four on the night from one at the death. Sigueira raced forward from his full back position to support the breaking Nicolas Gaitan. The Argentine fed him the ball, but he couldn’t beat Hugo Lloris.
Spurs were being stifled in the centre of the park, so it was natural our goal came from a set piece situation after a foul in this busy area. Harry Kane played a one-two with Christian Eriksen before being felled in amongst the congestion.
Benfica scored twice from set pieces. One was the result of their pressing, a feature of their game, forcing a turnover from Harry Kane that won a corner. The other was from a free kick earned from a counter attack, as Markovic raced up the field and played the ball out to Nicolas Gaitan. Kyle Naughton, who had been beaten for Benfica’s first goal, was suckered in to a challenge by the Argentine’s quick feet.
Luisao scored from each set piece situation with sloppy marking to blame on both. Younes Kaboul stood to far off him and was screened on his first goal. Then he got drawn to the ball and was in no place to recover as it ricocheted to the Brazilian on the second.
The game was well and truly over.
Spurs 1 Benfica 3 overall
The touchline antics of Jorge Jesus and his spat with Tim Sherwood may have taken some of the gloss off what was a solid away performance. Spurs were thoroughly outthought and outplayed here.
Benfica’s pressure was a key feature of the match and this lead to their quick counter attacks.
Spurs really needed to get more natural width in to the game to counter the congestion in the centre of the park. We also needed to move the ball much quicker. The pedestrian build up was reminiscent of the start of the season. It was highly noticeable that our best chances came when we increased the tempo, with both ball and men moving quicker.
Now we need to score three times at the Stadium of Light and while it’s not mission impossible, it looks more like mission improbable.
Final score: Spurs 1 Benfica 3.