There is no doubting that FC Porto have been the most dominant Portuguese side of this century. Shrewd signings and high-profit sales fuelled a staggering 11-year period in which Porto won 26 domestic, European and international titles between 2002 and 2013. In the same timeframe, perennial rival SL Benfica could only manage eight – of which just two were league titles.
While Porto earned plaudits for the development of a long list of talents under a long list of brilliant managers, with the most noteworthy being current Manchester United boss José Mourinho, Benfica struggled due to crippling debt and years of mismanagement of the club from top to bottom.
The seeds of revival, however, were planted in 2009 when Benfica welcomed enigmatic manager Jorge Jesus to the club. At the time, Benfica could boast a squad containing David Luiz, Ramires and Angel Di Maria. They won the league in the 2009-10 season but a fire sale was imminent and sustainable and reliable streams through which Benfica could replace these players were not yet clear.
Jesus provided an unusual stability for Benfica and many of the club’s problems were deflected by the absurd nature of their manager, whose personality reflects a Portuguese version of legendary Czech coach Zdeněk Zeman.
Meanwhile, Benfica’s state-of-the-art Seixal academy was beginning to bear its first fruits. André Gomes and Bernardo Silva were the first notable graduates of the academy. However, in the fledgling years of the academy, a disconnect emerged between the youth division and the first team. Jesus was not prepared to give academy graduates the opportunity to stake a claim for consistent first-team football – undermining the existence of the academy itself.
Benfica’s re-emergence would not be complete without the interference of Portuguese football’s third most influential player, Sporting CP. On 5 June 2015, Jorge Jesus announced he would not be renewing his contract at Benfica and would instead join Sporting, their bitter crosstown rivals. At the time, it was not yet known that this would be next step in Benfica’s evolution.
Former Benfica youth team coach Rui Vitória was signed after a wonderful season at Vitória de Guimarães and immediately set about implementing a familiar policy at Benfica which had served him so well there. That policy would involve maximising the use of the academy.
Now, Benfica top the pile in Portugal. They have won three consecutive league titles, including a nail-biting victory against Jorge Jesus’ Sporting in last year’s domestic campaign. But that is only the start of the good news emanating from Lisbon.
The first-team is bursting at the seams with academy graduates, even without the sales of Gomes, Silva, Renato Sanches, Ivan Cavaleiro and João Cancelo, which have cumulatively earned the club over €100 million (not including potentially massive add-ons from Sanches’ Bayern Munich move). Since Rui Vitória’s arrival, young players like Viktor Lindelöf, Gonçalo Guedes, Ederson Santana and Zé Gomes have all made contributions to the first team, with Lindelöf and Santana being notably influential.
These academy graduates have been joined by an extensive list of clever, cheap and young recruits, headlined by the majestic 19-year-old left-back Alex Grimaldo who was signed for just €1.5 million from Barcelona in January. Joining Grimaldo are Franco Cervi (€4.1 million), André Horta (€400,000), Nelson Semedo (free), Andrija Zivkovic (free), Danilo Barbosa (loan) and Rafa Silva at a slightly more expensive €16.4 million.
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Read | The unique relationship between Benfica and Portugal’s politics
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This introduction of youth is not slowing Benfica down either. Still dominant in Portugal, they even enjoyed their best start to a league season in 2016-17 – no mean feat considering the greats of yesteryear.
Furthermore, Vitória has implemented an exciting, fast-paced brand of football that takes advantage of the incredible depth of quality the club possesses in wide areas. This is also the most efficient way of utilising his veteran core through the centre of midfield and defence, which sits deeper and offers the younger creative players the chance to be expressive and to press higher.
The experienced Serbian Ljubomir Fejsa is at the heart of this. He fills a number of defensive gaps vacated by the attacking wing-back pair of Grimaldo and Semedo. In addition, Lisandro Lopez has become an increasingly clever and composed centre-back and, when paired with the menacing Giorgio Chiellini-like Lindelöf, the two complement each other wonderfully well. As a partnership, they are yet to truly be thwarted.
The solidity of that duo has contributed to the incredible attacking output of Grimaldo and Semedo at wing-back, who frequently chip in with goals and assists. The former, with his La Masia-nurtured impeccable technical quality, has taken Portugal by storm this season and is establishing himself in a similar way to Héctor Bellerín at Arsenal last season. The latter, despite a serious knee injury that hampered his 2015-16 season, has cemented his place at Benfica and is now challenging for a starting spot at international level with Portugal. His pace and willingness to run both ways is elite.
Further up the pitch, André Horta has become one of the shrewdest signings in all of Europe as he accustomed himself to the attacking midfield position in Benfica’s 4-2-3-1 seamlessly. Not only that, Horta’s style of play is great to watch. His touch is immaculate and his ability to break the lines with a perfectly weighted pass is similarly eye-catching.
In attack, Franco Cervi and Gonçalo Guedes are not yet providing massive attacking outputs. Despite this, they have made strong contributions in the early stages of their career and Guedes looks as though he could become a high-volume goalscorer in the future. Out wide, Cervi is a pocket-rocket; he is constantly bouncing around in the final third chasing loose balls, pressing and making a general nuisance of himself.
It makes for a feel of general good will around the club. Benfica sit atop not only their domestic league table but are also excelling in Europe again. Debt is being drawn down, and a new TV rights deal will see Benfica earn €40 million per season for the next decade. They even posted a €20 million profit in the 2015-16 year.
The club faces an enormous task to reduce their debt burden in the long-term – believed to be in excess of €300 million – but the foundations are perfectly laid for the club to minimise this debt over the coming decade. This is important because, with greater financial security, Benfica will hold more leverage in their attempts to keep their best talents. This has the potential to elevate the Portuguese champions from elite talent producers to a truly elite European team.
Eventually, most of the wonderful talents will leave the club, and likely for large sums of money. More will replace them and they too will leave. But during these neo-formative years, Benfica are still asserting a dominance that fans will be undoubtedly excited by. All the while, Champions League knock-out round adventures, domestic titles and great football are becoming the norm in at the Estádio da Luz.
By Stephen Ganavas. Follow @Marottanomics