Newcastle’s victory over Fulham at the weekend was a large step towards guaranteed Premier League survival, although many will feel the limitations of their relegation rivals already makes this a formality, so Alan Pardew should be willing to gamble on some of his half-fit squad members for a must-win European tie. Newcastle’s injury list remains extensive, but Cheick Tiote may be risked in midfield alongside Yohan Cabaye and Massadio Haidara should come in at full back. With Yoan Gouffran cup-tied Jonas Gutierrez and Sylvain Marveaux are likely to play out wide.
Jorge Jesus has no such problems, meaning Benfica can name an unchanged side from the first leg, although Lima may push Rodrigo for a place in attack.
In a battle of two fairly traditional 4-4-2 variations the tie is likely to be decided between the lines and by the depth of the respective midfields.
Moussa Sissoko vs Rodrigo
The two main exponents of the space between the lines will be Sissoko and, should he start, Rodrigo. Both play alongside a natural striker and are tasked with linking with midfield to create chances for their attacking partner. In theory both teams play a 4-4-1-1 shape, with split strikers, but whereas Benfica line up in an old-fashioned manner more reminiscent of the 1990s, Newcastle’s more conservative arrangement is far more contemporary.
When the 4-4-2 system started to appear too rigid and inflexible in the Premier League 15 years ago teams began forming forward partnerships not from two out-and-out strikers but with a ‘Number 10’, a forward capable of dropping deep and creating chances – think of Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola. Essentially this is what Rodrigo offers, a forward presence but one capable of finding space in deeper positions. In contrast Newcastle have adopted the more modern approach, and their 4-4-1-1 is very much a 4-5-1 variation. Sissoko is a central midfielder by trade but offers strength and power in an advanced role in the same way as Yaya Toure is occasionally used for Manchester City, or Steven Gerrard was used behind Fernando Torres at Liverpool. Whereas Rodrigo starts high and drops deep, Sissoko does the opposite.
Slightly unusually for a European fixture neither team deploy a recognised holding midfielder, so both players will be key to find space from which to create chances.
Continuing from the last point, both Pardew and Jesus will be wary of the need to structure their midfield properly. Both teams pair a destroyer (Tiote and Nemanja Matic) with a passer (Cabaye and Enzo Perez), but the combinations are positioned in different ways. Assuming both managers instruct one midfielder to play deeper to occupy space between the lines, Newcastle are likely to use Cabaye for the role, whereas Benfica will turn to Matic.
This subtle difference has large implications. Cabaye is a playmaker capable of dictating play from deep, not dissimilar in the way Michael Carrick does for Manchester United and Xabi Alonso does for Real Madrid. Like both players he is also strong defensively and adept at marking space, making him an option to play in a deep role ahead of Newcastle’s back four. His partner Tiote is more dynamic but less disciplined, and cannot be trusted to hold his position between the lines. However what this combination offers Pardew is a ball-winning presence in the middle of the pitch and a playmaker capable of finding space in a deep midfield zone. Benfica’s combination is the opposite – Matic operates as a defensive midfielder and is as comfortable occupying space between the lines as he is engaging the opposition in midfield, whereas Perez looks to move the ball forward from the middle of the pitch. This gives Jesus a primarily defensive player guarding his defensive, and a more creative one further upfield.
Neither combination is specifically better than the other, but rather they can suit different sitautions. If both ‘Number 10s’ have influential games, Benfica may benefit from having a naturally defensive player in that zone. If space is at a premium in midfield, Newcastle may prosper by having Cabaye find space in deeper areas.
An interesting tactical contest between two teams that play relatively uninteresting systems. The subtle differences in personnel used in specific roles gives this game a degree of intrigue that may otherwise have been absent.
With respect to the outcome, Benfica are in a strong position and clearly benefit from Newcastle’s injury disruption. The Portuguese side are the far more settled and experienced side and should qualify, but Newcastle at St James Park are not to be taken lightly and in Cabaye, Sissoko and Cisse Pardew has players capable of causing a shock.