Season two of life with Benfica has started off pretty well.
You can read about the buildup, pre-season and summer transfer activity here, but as far as the first part of the season, it’s been pretty good. Technically, it’s not the first half of the season at least in terms of games in the league, but we’ve managed to turn into January 2024 where we’re very much in contention for honours, we’ve made a bit more progress on the domestic cup front compared to last year and, thankfully, we’ve come through the Champions League group stage and into the knockouts for a second consecutive season.
The 5-2-3 / 5-4-1 (depending on how you look at it) is holding its own and has been deployed as the primary for this year despite playing virtually the entire of last season in a pressing 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 and with just over a third of the league games played, we’re unbeaten.
12 straight in the league
At the time of writing, we’ve just passed the 12-game mark in the league. It’s a 34-game season so we’re not exactly at the halfway stage but we’re close enough and as far as starts go, this is possibly the best start I’ve had to a season since my stint at River Plate in FM21.
The first post in this series had a look at fixtures up to the middle of September culminating in the Champions League hat-trick for Goncalo Ramos (who’s beginning to garner plenty of attention). From there, barring a blip in the Allainz Cup Third Phase (Taca de Liga / League Cup), it’s been a solid unbeaten run with Rafa very much coming into his own this season. Don’t get me wrong, he was a top form last year playing as an AMC in the shadow striker role tucked in behind Ramos up top but this season, particularly with the 5-2-3 being deployed, he’s loving life out on the wing, left or right.
That defeat to Gil Vicente was a disappointment as beyond the league, the focus for me this season was very much on the domestic competitions. The competition itself is a quick round-robin but you really need to win your two group games to advance. We didn’t, so we suck it up and move on.
The Champions League clash with Aris at the start of October saw us take an early lead only to try and rescue a draw, Morato popping up on a late corner. We let them have it at the end of November with a 5-0 thumping to close out the Champions League group stage.
Tactically, this is where we’re at – creating a lot of positive action in the final third, and leading to possession-heavy games.
Liga Bwin table after 12 games
I’m not getting carried away and calling this a ‘runaway’ season already, but we’ve done fairly well to this point. The big one was in getting wins over both Porto and Sporting while Braga and Gil Vicente have probably underperformed in comparison to last season.
Defensively, both ourselves and Porto are the only ones to have conceded fewer than 10 goals after 12 games we’re we’re averaging a goal conceded every other game, while our scoring average tips the 2.5 mark per game.
The Champions League
Having come through the group stage with four wins and two draws, we’re through to the knockout stages of the Champions League for a second consecutive season. The whole way throughout the draw I’m thinking “please not Liverpool, please not Liverpool” following our undressing at the same stage last year, beaten all ends up in both legs. With Liverpool facing Jurgen Klopp’s old stomping ground of Borussia Dortmund, we’re getting the short flight to Madrid to take on Real, first leg away from home.
The draw for the knockout stages has been pretty decent, City and Bayern set to eliminate one of the favourites early on while Spurs face a tough test against Inter. Porto are still involved as well with Barcelona their last-16 opposition.
One of the standout performers across all competitions has been Rafa. He missed a week in early August with a twisted knee, then spent Christmas at home with a cold but in between he’s been Mr. Consistency. He’s got himself six goals in 12 starts in the league (we’ve edged on one game since the table was taken), averaging a 7.43, also starting all six Champions League games. At 30, his stock is still rising but that natural pace (16), fitness (17) and his off the ball (17) movement have been key on the wing.
Both Milan and Man City are sniffing around as we head towards the January transfer window. A big money offer mid-season would be easy to turn down for me but I’m hoping that’s the same for him. We’ll see where things go at the end of the season.
Standout: Goncalo Ramos
Ramos looks like he was born to score goals. He hit 29 in 31 in the league for Benfica last season and he’s already hit 9 in 13 this season with two assists to his name with a further eight goals in the Champions League group stages. He’s training well, behaving himself and I’ve been able to deploy him as a poacher and a pressing forward with a defensive mentality. That seems to allow him scope to drop back another 20 yards and become more a part of the build-up play, then break off the shoulder and finish close to the goal. A lot of his tally this year has been coming from close-range finishes but he’s able to get into the right spot at the right time.
Everybody gets a game
I mentioned this on Twitter during the week but something I’ve been trying to do with every team I take on in Football Manager is that everyone who’s part of the first team squad has to get at least one start in the season. For some, they live on the bench, Onni Valakarri is a prime example with just one start but 13 appearances off the bench.
I’m probably rotating a bit more this season, something I didn’t really do last season and it cost me in Europe and on the domestic front. It hasn’t annoyed anyone too much bar poor Federico Gatti who could really do with some game time but I think he’s become a casualty of over-packing my defence with loanees during the summer window. I forgot to add the option to terminate his loan deal during the initial negotiations so I’m half hoping he’ll be recalled and save a headache later on.
On we go
So, for now, we’re sat on top of the league with 12 wins from 12, we’ve come through our Champions League group stages and will take on Real Madrid in the last-16 and we’ve managed to navigate the Taca de Portugal to the sixth round where we’ve got a date with Braga in the middle of January.
The next update will be the last in the current season for Benfica but you’ll be able to follow updates and heartbreaks on Twitter @tacticalmanager. Until then, boa sorte!