Benfica had started their season with seven successive league wins for the first time in 29 years by the time they defeated Barcelona 3-0 in the Champions League. They may have lost their last league game, but they head into their UCL clash with Bayern Munich confident of causing another shock. Aaron Barton runs his expert eye over Benfica’s brilliant start to 2021-22.

When Benfica finished in third place last season, it was the first time they had finished outside of the top two in Portugal since the 2008-09 season. In spending close to €100 million in the hopes of navigating the UEFA Champions League qualifying stage, what was the end result? They fell at the first hurdle. Jorge Jesus’ men were dumped out of the competition in the third qualifying round by Greek outfit PAOK, a side then managed by ex-Sporting player Abel Ferreira. To add further insult to injury, the man who scored PAOK’s second in their 2-1 win? Andrija Živković, who was playing in his first official game for PAOK since being sold by Benfica just seven days earlier.

Fast forward to 2021 and As Águias kicked off their Liga Portugal campaign with seven consecutive victories – their longest winning streak to begin a league season since 1982 – their run coming to an unexpected end at the hands of Portimonense.

In addition to their table-topping Liga start, they have made a spectacular return to the UEFA Champions League, eliminating Spartak Moscow in the third qualifying round and then PSV Eindhoven in the playoff round to qualify for the group stages. After two matchdays in Group E, Benfica have picked up four points, are the only unbeaten Portuguese side in the Champions League and are fresh off the back of humbling Barcelona 3-0.

So exactly what has changed for Benfica? We look at the data underpinning their superb start to the 2021-22 campaign.

At the beginning of 2020, Benfica embarked on a seven-game run in which they won just once. This dismal run included a 1-1 draw at home to Nacional, a side who were later relegated, a 0-0 draw away to Farense, another side who were relegated that season. Whilst those two results highlighted change was needed at Benfica, perhaps the most devastating result for Benfica supporters during this run was the 1-0 defeat to Lisbon rivals and eventual title winners Sporting.

19 game split

During this period, Jorge Jesus alternated between 4-1-3-2, 4-4-2 and 3-3-3-1 to shake things up and put an end to the club’s torrid run of form. When Jesus opted to go with a back three versus Braga at the Quarry – a match which Benfica won 2-0, with this only the second time that season that they used this system. From this point on, Benfica played with three at the back eight times in their last 11 league matches, winning seven and losing just once whilst using this system. This tactical switch at the end of last season, planted the seeds for the dominant and confident Benfica we are seeing this campaign.

In 2021-22, Jorge Jesus has gone with three at the back in some form or another (3-1-4-2, 3-4-3 and 3-4-2-1) in all but two of their matches in all competitions, and with results like these it’s no wonder he is sticking with it.

Since the beginning of the season, Benfica have simply been a cut above the rest across a plethora of departments. Not only do they have the most threatening attack, with 19 goals and an expected goals total of 21.3, Benfica have allowed their opponents the lowest quality chances overall with an xG conceded of just 5.43. If this wasn’t enough, they have controlled possession more than any other team in the Portuguese top-flight (65.7%) and averaged a league-high 494 successful passes per game. Even in their shock defeat to Portimonense on the last weekend of league action, the opposition goalkeeper had the game of his life to keep out Benfica in their 1-0 win – Samuel’s saves prevented nearly three goals (2.8) based on the quality of shots on target (xGOT).

The UEFA Champions League has been a competition that Benfica have performed poorly in in recent years. Before this season, Benfica had won just five of their last 22 games in the competition proper, including a dreadful 2017-18 group performance in which they lost every single match with a total goal difference of minus 13. 2021-22 has been a different story so far – not only have the results been positive, but the performances have demonstrated that Benfica are able to adapt when necessary.

During that rout of Barcelona on MD2, Benfica went long periods without the ball and finished the match with just over 40% possession – something which (particularly domestically) they aren’t at all used to. Playing against a side like Barça requires concentration, defensive organisation, tactical awareness as well as the intelligence to know when to spring forward and attack. Benfica had all of this and more.

According to official UEFA data, they ran more than Barcelona (119km to 116km), while we recorded Benfica’s xG as 1.95 – above that of Barcelona’s 1.24. What makes this more impressive is that Barcelona posed more of an attacking threat across the game than Benfica overall, but Benfica made it count and were impressively clinical when it mattered.

Benfica Barca momentum

With Jorge Jesus wanting to move forward with 3-4-3 or at least with some variation of this formation, it was of vital importance that he brought in another central midfielder to star alongside Julian Weigl.

When Jesus initially made the switch to a back three, he alternated between both Adel Taarabt and Gabriel Pires in that role alongside Weigl, but it was clear the club needed some fresh blood – they needed someone who could add some much-needed quality in the middle of the park. That somebody had just spent the season playing a stone’s throw away from the Estádio da Luz. That somebody was João Mário.

In the 2020-21 season, the Euro 2016 winner experienced somewhat of a career rebirth. He joined Sporting on loan – his third since signing for Italian giants Inter, having already had spells at Lokomotiv Moscow and West Ham United. His influence at the Alvalade was nothing short of monumental, playing 28 of Sporting’s 34 league games and helping them on their way to their first league title since 2001-02.

At the end of the season, the refreshed and rejuvenated Mário crossed the city, exchanging green for red.

Joao Mario passes

So far in 2021-22, he’s created the most chances in the league for Benfica (14), while completing the most passes both in the opposition half (221) and in the final third of the pitch (108). He’s also been involved in 38 open play sequences leading to a shot – only bettered by Rafa (40) in the Benfica squad.

Following the 3-0 rout of FC Barcelona, Benfica’s first home win in the Champions League since November 2019, Jesus claimed Mário is “perfect” for playing this central midfield role, adding that he thinks the midfielder has fitted “like a glove” since arriving at the club. Given his recent performances, it’s hard to disagree. In the match against Barça, Mário was magnificent. He had the most touches of any Benfica player with 61, played the most key passes (2) and played the most total passes (38), while also heavily involved in Benfica’s second goal which came 20 minutes from time. The midfielder played a cute give and go with Roman Yaremchuk which cut open the heart of Barcelona’s defence, cleverly evaded his defender to latch onto the return ball before firing a shot at Ter Stegen, the rebound fell into the path of Rafa Silva who lashed home emphatically to send Benfica on their way to a historic victory.

With the midfield issue rectified, another pressing matter which needed urgent resolution was in the striking department. At the beginning of the previous season, Benfica splashed out big, bringing in attackers Darwin Nuñéz, Luca Waldschmidt, Pedrinho and Éverton in the hopes of blowing the opposition away with their array of firepower. However, at the end of the season only one player had managed to hit double figures in the league, and it wasn’t any of the shiny new arrivals, but 29-year-old Haris Seferović. Benfica drew seven times in the league that season, the most they had amassed in a single league campaign since 2016-17. Too often they were simply unable to break down stubborn and deep defences despite having most of the ball. The midfield was becoming predictable and at times lacked creativity and the goalscoring burden was not being shared around amongst the team.

Of Benfica’s entire expected goals total in the league across 2020-21, Seferović was responsible for 30% (20.1), while he attempted 19% of their total shots (95) and his 22 goals contributed 32% of Benfica’s total in the season.

With Benfica’s aspirations to compete across numerous fronts the following season, they had to move away from their overreliance on Seferović. And that is exactly what they’ve done.

Benfica sequences

New signing Roman Yaremchuk has scored four goals and registered one assist in just five league starts, averaging out at 1.25 G/A per 90, the second-best ratio of any player in the league. Darwin Nuñéz has started his second season at the club very brightly with four goals and five starts, averaging 0.90 goals per 90 minutes, the fourth best of any player in the league. In addition to his fantastic league form, he also has two goals in three Champions League games. And it’s not just the forwards who are finding the back of the net, others are chipping in too. Defender Lucas Veríssimo has been proving he is as good in the opposition box as he is in his own, with two goals in the league so far, as well as one assist. Alejandro Grimaldo is one of the players benefitting most from the switch to a back three, the Spaniard has much greater attacking freedom as a wing-back and already has three goal contributions in five starts (one goal, two assists).

Assists are being spread around the pitch nicely too with Rafa Silva, Pizzi and Julian Weigl all registering two assists each after just seven league games, while only two players have higher open play expected assists totals than Rafa (1.77) and Alejandro Grimaldo (1.56) in the league so far in 2021-22.

It has been a blistering start to the season and with European giants Bayern Munich up next for As Águias, we will see a monumental test of Benfica’s credentials. As far as domestic matters are concerned, winning the title is and always will be, the number one priority. At Benfica there is not just a desire to win, there’s an obligation to win. And what would else could exacerbate this need to win more than watching your city rivals defy the odds to win only their second league title this century?

One thing is for sure, Benfica have all the motivation they need.