After losing at the Dragão in disheartening fashion and barely squeezing past Famalicão in the cup semis, Benfica hosted high-flying Braga in search of a win that would get them back on track in their title pursuit. What happened was very far from that.
Vlachodimos: 7. There is no such thing as an unfair goal in football. However, he has some right to feel hard done by in the first goal: that corner came after he saved a shot from less than a meter out. Once again, he had several impressive saves from short range and did everything he realistically could to prevent the loss.
Tomás Tavares: 5. Although he started off poorly, getting dribbled past by Galeno in exuberant fashion, he grew into the game.
Rúben Dias: 4. He despicably shoved Raul Silva after Braga’s goal and could have easily been sent off for it. An okay performance overall.
Ferro: 4. Overall, tonight’s performance wasn’t as poor as some that preceded it, but the center back still had a depressing moment: he lost track of Palhinha for Braga’s opener.
Grimaldo: 5. The first half was his best 45 minutes in a while. As Benfica’s game became more and more reliant on crossing, his offensive contribution was gradually limited to crosses into the box, most of which were far from dangerous.
Pizzi: 4. His lack of pace limits his effectiveness in offensive transitions. Had a few good combinations with Tomás Tavares in the first half but created very little in the second (which is mostly due to reasons outside his control that will be highlighted below). He, alongside a few other players, has looked fatigued over the past few games due to Lage’s insufficient rotation.
Weigl: 5. When Benfica attempted to build-up, he was usually marked by Paulinho, rendering him useless in the first stage of Benfica’s creation. All in all, tonight was another match in which Weigl isn’t provided with adequate passing options in order to play anywhere near his best.
Taarabt: 6. He wasn’t at his best but he still had a lot of important contributions. As I’ll highlight below, part of the danger Benfica managed to create in the first half was through him: the few times he barged through Braga’s midfield attracted opposition markers and opened up more space out wide.
Cervi: 5. Had a positive first half overall, with Grimaldo’s inspired 45 minutes reflecting positively on him. Benfica’s limited control of the match in the beginning of the second half started to vanish when he was subbed off for Seferovic.
Rafa: 3. A nothing game from him. After returning from injury in red hot form, he has faulted for the past few matches.
Vinicius: 4. Missed a few clear-cut chances in the first half, in uncharacteristic fashion. He created a dangerous opportunity for himself in the first few minutes of the second half but that was the closest he got to scoring.
Seferovic / Chiquinho / Dyego Souza: -
Benfica had many more goal opportunities than Braga in the first half – some of which were clear cut chances – but it was Braga who scored first, just before half time. However, they weren’t brought about through new-found quality in Benfica’s offensive play. They were generated mostly by exploiting the space out wide that appeared when Braga’s wide forwards didn’t track back fast enough. Benfica took advantage of those situations either by overlaps from the fullbacks or through Taarabt dribbling in the middle – the Moroccan would beat a few players, attract Braga players towards him in the center, creating further space out on the wing.
Throughout the game, Benfica were once again incapable of creating through the middle. The space exploited by them during the first half vanished in the second: finding themselves in the lead, Braga positioned themselves tighter and further back when defending, thus occupying the space on the wings that they had left open in the first.
Lage’s subs are farcical. Finishing another match with three #9 strikers is nonsensical and reminiscent of Rui Vitória’s worst. Lage resorting to that at the Dragão laid bare that there’s no defined plan B besides route-one football; resorting to that again tonight after it proved to be an abject failure against Porto is inexcusable. The manager gives up any control of the match through posession and fully embraces anarchy-driven cross-and-pray football.
The match against Braga was not remarkably poor – until the Seferovic sub, it was an average game for Benfica this season. There have been worse games this season that weren’t criticized by most because they ended as a win. Although these past three results are outliers, quality-wise they've been on par for the rest of this season - and there's no reason to expect the game against Shakhtar will be an improvement.