In the Zone: Ajax 0-1 Benfica performance analysis
Monday, 21 March 2022
UEFA's Technical Observer panel analyses Benfica's backs-to-the-wall Champions League round of 16 win in Amsterdam, and the rapid transitions that meant they always had an outlet.
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Benfica set up a UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool next month thanks to a 1-0 smash-and-grab success against Ajax in Amsterdam.
In this article presented by Fedex, UEFA's Technical Observer panel assesses a victory built on a solid defensive foundation as Benfica sat deep before scoring from their first, and only, attempt on goal.
0-1: Darwin Núñez (77)
The Uruguayan's fourth goal of this campaign – and his side's third from a set piece – followed an inswinging Alejandro Grimaldo free-kick from the right. Darwin climbed above defender Jurriën Timber and profited from a moment's misjudgement by home goalkeeper André Onana, who flew out to attempt to clear the ball, only for the Benfica forward to reach it first with his head.
- Ajax 0-1 Benfica: Match report and highlights
- Champions League quarter-final draw: Benfica vs Liverpool
- In the Zone: Juventus 0-3 Villarreal
Player of the match: Darwin Núñez
In a match where no Benfica player managed more than five passes in the final third, this was a night for hard toil and the UEFA Technical panel praised Darwin for his efforts, saying: "He worked hard for his team, tried to cause problems for the Ajax defence throughout and showed real leadership. He capped all of that off with the goal."
Ajax set up in a 4-3-3 structure and it was interesting to see how they built play from the back with three of their defenders and the holding midfielder, Edson Álvarez (No4). He would join the two centre-backs – Timber (No2) and Lisandro Martínez (No21) – and one of the full-backs in creating a four-versus-three overload centrally to work the ball up the pitch. The use of wide rotations to create space was another factor in helping Ajax build through the thirds.
The visitors operated in a 4-2-3-1 formation in possession, though this quickly became a 4-5-1 out of possession on a night when Benfica were quite happy to sit deep, keep a compact shape and not press. In their 4-5-1 set-up, goalscorer Darwin (No9) was left alone to roam up front as the trio of Everton (No7), Gonçalo Ramos (No88) and Rafa Silva (No27) dropped back.
Rapid transitions were a key feature of Benfica's play in the first leg and the source of their second goal in that 2-2 draw. In Amsterdam, they defended in a low block and looked to counter where possible, though it was their defensive work that stood out. They had a clear plan to sit in, defend and frustrate Ajax and they executed it well to earn a fifth clean sheet on their European travels this season, qualifying rounds included.
Nélson Verissimo's men were willing to concede width and allow Ajax switches of play, while focusing on defending the width of the box with numbers. As a team they made 40 clearances – twice as many as the side with the second-most clearances in last week's ties (Villarreal). Jan Vertonghen alone accounted for ten of those clearances – the week's highest individual number – with right-back Gilberto and midfielder Julian Weigl making seven each (joint-second in last week's ranking, along with Villarreal's Pau Torres).
The pattern of the contest was Ajax controlling possession (68.9%) and Benfica defending stubbornly. The hosts had more touches (817) than any of the other teams in second-leg action on 15/16 March, and centre-back Lisandro had more than any other player (132), though arguably these were not always of the required quality and intensity. By contrast, Benfica recorded the fewest (468) touches and when they did have the ball, it was not always easy to play out with Ajax's front players going man-for-man in their attacking third, hence the sight of Benfica playing over the home press and up to Gonçalo Ramos.
With Benfica sitting deep there were plenty of opportunities for Ajax to get crosses into the box. Captain Dušan Tadić was the chief source with five completed crosses and a total of 12 crosses from open play – a number unsurpassed elsewhere last week. The visitors' best moment from a cross was probably an Antony header in the second half, which skimmed the top of the net from one of left-back Daley Blind's three completed centres.
Ultimately, though, Erik ten Hag's side paid the price for a lack of penetration, managing only two shots on goal from 16 shots. Benfica, for their part, ended up with an xG of 0.40 and just one shot on goal, but it was enough to advance to their first quarter-final since 2015/16.
Erik ten Hag, Ajax coach
"Our positional play was excellent. We were very good on the ball. Maybe only the creativity was lacking. So it's bitter that it's one lapse of concentration and you're eliminated."
Nélson Veríssimo, Benfica coach
"We couldn't play the game we wanted but if it doesn't work one way it has to be another. We didn't manage to have the ball, we knew we would have moments where it was necessary to have courage and commitment in the defensive process."