Why Benfica are struggling

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Benfica suffered yet another defeat last Saturday and while it's too early to write them off as title contenders, the warning bells are already ringing.

It's quite amazing that not long ago everything seemed to be in the right place for the Eagles. Under coach Jesus, they scored 29 goals in pre-season and convinced supporters and pundits alike that they still possessed the offensive dynamics that carried them all the way to the title last year despite the loss of mercurial duo Angel Di María and Ramires.

Same formation, different players
It shouldn’t be that difficult to remain close to the 2009/2010 season-winning formula: it would suffice to acquire a pure left winger similar to Di Maria, a versatile central midfielder in the same mould of Ramires and a right midfielder since the team has none. But while Benfica were active in the transfer market, the truth is they bought the wrong players and are now paying the price on the field.

Benfica v Nacional (21.08.2010)

The picture above shows Benfica’s formation and starting XI: most of it remains the same but Nico Gaitán played on the left, and Ruben Amorim slotted into the inside-right midfielder role.

The argument against Gaitán is not that he’s a bad player – though it's debatable whether a €8.7m signing shouldn’t be a ready-made top player. The problem is that he’s not a winger. He’s clearly more comfortable in central midfield, and he lacks the pace and trickery of Angelito.

Since Ruben Amorim isn't a wide man either, it was Javier Saviola who ended up drifting to the wings to stretch the Islanders’ defence and create more opportunities for the Eagles. With his diminutive size and no towering presence to protect him, he was much less effective - as was Oscar Cardozo. The Paraguayan barely touched the ball on Saturday and his limitations were blatantly exposed: he looked as slow as a funeral procession and unable to drop deeper to free his team-mates.

One has to wonder why Benfica possess seven forwards – Cardozo, Saviola, Franco Jara, Alan Kardec, Weldon, Rodrigo and Nuno Gomes – and no clear winger. There’s an imbalance in the team that's choking the connection between midfield and attack, which at the moment could be corrected with the 4-3-3 formation tested in pre-season.

Of course that formation would raise other questions. Would Cardozo play as effectively in that role? Assuming Jara and Saviola play on the wings in such a formation, Benfica would need a player who could effectively link up with them and not simply wait for an incoming ball. Maybe a three-pronged attack of Jara, Saviola and Kardec could work but it would always be a gamble to use it right away.

An €8.5M problem named Roberto
Now, you may have noticed a black circle with a question mark on the picture above. That’s because no matter which formation Benfica play, they still have to deal with that HUGE problem in goal.

Roberto Jiménez’s latest blunder (watch it below) proves he needs to be dropped. It's no longer a question of anxiety or bad luck – it's not being good enough. Had Benfica played with Nacional’s goalkeeper Rafael Bracali on Saturday they would have at least recorded a draw. But they had the Spaniard again and are now left with a decision: what to do with him?

Oops I did it again – click to watch video

There is a term in economics that might help them: ‘sunk cost’. A sunk cost is defined as an amount of money that has already been spent and therefore cannot be recovered, no matter how big that amount is, making it irrelevant to any future decision. Benfica spent €8.5M on Atletico Madrid’s third-choice goalkeeper, something they’re already ruing. However, with the money already agreed, there’s no use in playing Roberto just to see whether he’ll one day live up to his lavish fee. Unless, of course, Benfica are trying to boost merchandising sales by creating the most popular piñata ever.

They must replace Roberto with Júlio César Jacobi or Moreira, because at the moment he’s in no condition to play. The goalkeeper is the backbone of a team: his job is to guarantee the other 10 players can focus on scoring without worrying about conceding a silly goal. His presence can transmit serenity, but if he’s not that good it can also make the other 10 players underperform. At the present, it is clear that the back four do not trust their keeper and therefore something needs to be done.

Benfica have a very hot September: after the next home match against Setúbal, they will travel to Guimarães, host rivals Sporting, travel to Madeira again to face Marítimo and meet rivals Braga. If they don’t get their act together quickly, Jesus may very well be on his way to the cross. More to read...
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