What Did We Learn In Portugal?

Written by Dan on August 2, 2010

When Martin O’Neill says that you can often learn more from a defeat than a victory, as cliched as it’s become, he’s not wrong. Feyenoord put out a young side, we should of beaten them, we did. Benfica were a much tougher prospect and given the circumstances, they should probably have had the beating of us. They did. Comfortably. But did we learn anything?

Well, firstly, some perspective. Benfica are an extremely good team, they play some wonderful football and to describe them as “attacking” would be an understatement. As I mentioned in the preview, they tend to play a tight diamond with Saviola behind the front two – one of which usually being the brilliant Óscar Cardozo – but in practice it’s generally more of a 4-3-3 and, with the width coming from the full backs, it frequently turns into an old fashioned 2-3-5. With Luiz playing as centre half-cum-attacking midfielder, I don’t know what you’d call it. It’s impressive anyway.

And to add some further perspective, here’s what Benfica manager Jorge Jesus thought of his side’s performance:-

Aston Villa finished sixth in England and is a quality team with international players. But we made the game easy with a spectacular first 45 minutes.

Few teams will be able to stop this side playing this way. We have been improving and this was our best game of pre-season. We want to get stronger over the next week and of course we have room to improve, but we are already very strong.

Javier Saviola described it as “almost perfect”. Almost, Javier, but not quite. John Carew blotted their copy book in the second period of course and could have had at least one more if not for Luiz’s goal line clearance.

So it clearly wasn’t the most impressive Villa performance we’ve ever seen, but we have to credit Benfica, they not only carried out their own game plan, they did very well at shutting down most of what we could muster, more so during the first half, but there was no coming back from that deficit in any case. It may have been a friendly, but they weren’t shy about throwing the odd shoulder in here and there.

Did we learn anything? Maybe the odd suspicion confirmed more than anything new learned I would say. I had a few, you probably did and, I suspect, Martin O’Neill did as well. My own concern remains the middle of the park; we constantly seem to lack craft, guile, guts, creativity, the lot in the middle. Even if James Milner were to stay, I don’t think he provides the full solution, we still don’t have someone truly capable of owning the centre of the field.

The loss helps focus on the shortcomings, while the win over Feyenoord can cause us to paper over the cracks. We know Sidwell and Heskey can score those sorts of goals, they just don’t do it often enough and I saw little to make me think that would change much this season. I would love to be wrong.

I hate to dismiss pre-season friendlies, or any friendlies for that matter, I always think that winning can be habitual, but it’s important not to go over the top with the reactions either. The conditions favoured Benfica, they definitely were able to put out a stronger team and they really did score some spectacular goals. The only thing that surprised me a little was the strength of the side fielded with their friendly against Tottenham in Lisbon tomorrow night in mind.

Speaking of which, with Tottenham recently suffering a 4-1 defeat themselves at the hands of Villarreal at White Hart Lane, it might be an interesting benchmark to see how they perform against this Benfica side who will be hungry to retain their own Eusébio Cup. Kick off is at 7.45pm GMT, worth watching if it’s available where you live.

As for Villa, well we have one more rehearsal; Valencia at Villa Park on Friday. As I mentioned before, the Spanish side will also be playing at Eastlands the following night, so that’s likely to have a bearing on their team sheet.

A moral boosting win similar to the Inter Milan game three summers ago wouldn’t hurt though, regardless of who plays at Villa Park, but let’s hope we don’t get carried away whatever happens.