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Portugal 1-0 France

Portugal dispatched of hosts France to claim their first major international trophy courtesy of an extra-time winner from Eder.

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Didier Deschamps named an unchanged XI that narrowly snuck past Germany in the semi-final.

Fernando Santos welcomed back William Carvalho into his holding midfield role, while Pepe returned to the XI to form a centre-back partnership with Jose Fonte.

Portugal stuck to their defensive brand of football here, but Deschamps’ inability to alter his broken system witnessed Santos’ men strike late once again to become European champions.

Deschamps goes 4-2-3-1

Deschamps’ major decision ahead of kickoff was whether to return to the system he started the tournament with or aim to maximize Antoine Griezmann’s talent in a central role. Despite being completely outplayed by Germany in the semi-finals the French manager opted for the latter, which meant Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba formed a double-pivot ahead of the back four, while N’Golo Kante started on the bench.

Though the system caters to Griezmann’s strengths, it certainly decreases the impact France can produce in central areas. With Kante on the bench, Pogba and Matuidi were often adopting deeper positions to ensure the hosts weren’t overrun in midfield, thus making France’s attack quite predictable. It was simply based around knocking balls into striker Olivier Giroud, but only Griezmann was free to play off the striker or run beyond the defence, as the midfield duo were required to maintain their positions.

Portugal without the ball

The pattern of the match suited a Portuguese side that was never keen on being proactive. Their run throughout the knockout round has witnessed Santos’ side drop off into two banks of four, aiming to congest space between the lines and in central zones within their third.

To be fair, Santos was probably pleased that France went 4-2-3-1 because it ensured his men didn’t have to cope with the midfield runs from Pogba and Matuidi. Instead, Nani often attempted to sit goal-side of Matuidi, Adrien Silva stepped forward to Pogba when he received the ball around the halfway line, and William Carvalho was tasked with tracking Griezmann’s movement between the lines.

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Full-backs Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna were harried by Joao Mario and Renato Sanches when they received possession, which ultimately deprived France of natural width. Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny were free to carry the ball forward, and had no other option but to find the attacking midfield trio who sought out space between the lines, but this was what Deschamps must have expected considering Santos made no changes to his defensive approach.

France shape

Apart from the opening 10 minutes of the match, similar to their opponents, France equally dropped off into two banks of four and were reluctant to press the Portuguese defence from the front. This may have backfired against a German side containing genuine creative outlets possessing excellent passing range, but Santos midfield are renowned for being functional and dynamic. Therefore, the hosts could afford to allow Portugal monopolize the ball in their half while they conserved energy.

Giroud and Griezmann occasionally pushed forward to half-heartedly close down the centre –backs – on one occasion the former’s pressing forced Pepe to concede possession and Dimitri Payet instantly located Griezmann drifting across Fonte, but the forward’s nodded effort was pushed over the net by Rui Patricio – and William Carvalho was free to drop deeper to create 3v2 overloads. France, however, covered space in midfield superbly with Matuidi and Pogba closing down their markers, so apart from long-balls over the defence Portugal struggled to bypass the midfield zone.

Cristiano Ronaldo suffering from a collision with Payet in the early stages of the first half, combined with sloppy passing in transition meant Portugal’s offensive threat during the opening half hour was scarce. Perhaps Deschamps could have encouraged his men to win the ball in advanced zones, but Portugal rarely threatened despite receiving space in their third to build attacks because of their poor passing, so Deschamps’ decision was justified.

Santos adjusts

Ronaldo’s unfortunate substitution could be considered the turning point of the match, as it forced Santos to make a key decision regarding his shape. Santos could have summoned Eder to lead the line here with Nani playing off the striker to maintain their 4-4-2 system, but the Portuguese manager decided to alter his shape.

Impact substitute, Ricardo Quaresma, replaced Ronaldo and shifted to the right of a midfield band of five (it was effectively a 4-1-4-1) while Nani remained upfront as a lone striker. This made sense due to Nani’s impressive movement upfront – in the opening three minutes he received a half chance following an intelligent run behind Koscielny to receive Raphael Guerreiro’s long diagonal, but the Portuguese forward fired his effort wide.

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Nani’s passing in the final third was sharp, and on the rare occasion Portugal drifted into France’s third he looked capable of creating a half chance at minimum. Likewise, the system alteration provided Portugal with cover in wide areas, and now gave Renato Sanches and Adrien sole marking jobs against the France double-pivot.

Sissoko

The most peculiar feat of the match, though, was that Moussa Sissoko was the standout attacking player throughout. Renowned for excelling when provided space on the counter attack for now relegated Newcastle United, Sissoko’s inclusion on the right of a 4-2-3-1 offered defensive discipline and powerful running.

However, here, Sissoko darted infield from the right or into deeper central positions to receive the ball and instantly motor past opposing defenders to earn corner kicks. Although Sissoko’s impact decreased significantly in the second half, he still forced Rui Patricio to make a key save when he received a pass from Umtiti between the lines and subsequently tested the keeper from 30-yards – the move illustrated one of the structural flaws Portugal encountered out of possession.

With France lacking invention and penetration in the final third, Sissoko’s quick change of pace and direct running highlighted the structural issues Santos’ men faced. But it equally showcased France’s sole route of attack when Portugal put numbers behind the ball, obviously indicating that Deschamps system wasn’t maximizing the strengths of his star players.

France attack

It was France who created the better chances from open play, yet apart from Sissoko’s individual slaloms through midfield, the hosts generated their attacks predominantly down the left flank. Karim Benzema’s suspension from the national side meant Giroud would always be the first choice striker at this tournament, and while the Arsenal man receives criticism for his production in front of goal, he remains a useful focal point upfront.

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It was evident Giroud was instructed to nod down balls into Griezmann’s path, whilst bringing other teammates into advanced areas – he effectively created chances for substitute Kinglsey Coman, and a combination with Griezmann led to a Sissoko chance, but Deschamps may have envisioned this route of attack would create space beyond the Portuguese back-line.

Secondly, Giroud and Griezmann constantly stormed down the left behind Cedric to get into good scoring positions. The opening minutes witnessed Matuidi nod the ball behind Cedric for Griezmann, but the Frenchman fired his effort wide of the net. Both strikers received opportunities to take the lead via precise incisive passes from Coman, but both failed to beat Rui Patricio at the near post.

France weren’t particularly poor going forward, but their attacking moves appeared fairly individualistic rather than cohesive. The wider players were now nullified, and the midfielders rarely ventured near the box, so the hosts’ intent to cleverly play quick passes around the Portuguese defence rarely occurred. More so, they were solely relying on Coman and Sissoko’s penetrative runs narrow positions to unlock Portugal’s defence.

Second half

The second half followed a similar theme until the managers made personnel alterations. Deschamps replaced Coman for Payet, which should have resulted in natural width from the left to create more space for Griezmann centrally, and another dribbler/crosser. But Coman’s positioning was identical to Payet, yet he offered pace and quick combinations to fluster the Portuguese back-line. The French substitute forced Santos to react, as Coman’s arrival sparked a brief French resurgence.

Coman created the game’s golden chance when he cut onto his right foot and clipped a cross to the far post that saw Griezmann glance it inches over the net. And along with creating chances in half space for both strikers, he equally combined with Giroud at the edge of the box, and broke away from Fonte, but his heavy touch led to a poor shot at Patricio.

Santos turned to Moutinho for the tiring Adrien, and with the overall tempo of the match decreasing significantly, Portugal improved when they retained possession. Meanwhile, France’s preference of waiting for Portugal to push forward as a unit helped the midfielder settle, and Portugal began to create some half chances from both flanks, but lacked a striker to attack crosses into the box.

The other significant change occurred at the same time with Andre-Pierre Gignac replacing Giroud and Eder being summoned in exchange for Renato Sanches. Gignac moved laterally into the channels to receive the ball and his sole contribution to the match was decisive, as he received Evra’s low cross from the left, subsequently turned Pepe to the ground, but scuffed his shot off the post.

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Eder, on the other hand, provided an alternative threat to Portugal’s attack. The Portuguese midfield were now provided a penalty box threat when they delivered crosses into the box, but more importantly, his hold up play brought his teammates further up the pitch, and equally forced the French centre-backs into committing needless fouls. Eder’s arrival resulted two bookings – Umtiti and Matuidi were both cautioned – whilst pushing Nani to the right flank, which saw the Portuguese veteran expertly negate Evra’s threat from left-back.

1-0 

Nevertheless, it was fitting that the game’s defining moment featured the two impact players Santos brought off the bench. The goal came seconds following Raphael Guerreiro’s brilliant free kick that smashed off the crossbar, and it vividly illustrated the positive contrast in Portugal’s game following Santos’ substitution.

Moutinho dispossessed Griezmann following an Evra throw-in and quickly combined with Quaresma before playing the ball into Eder with his back to goal. The Portuguese striker easily shrugged off Laurent Koscielny and ran towards goal – Umtiti retreated backwards to his box – and fired a low shot past goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.

Moutinho provided the forward penetrative passing and ball retention Portugal lacked for large portions of the match. Likewise, Deschamps’ men couldn’t cope with Eder’s physical presence, and regardless if whether Lloris was at fault for conceding the long distance drive – or slightly injured trying to save Guerreiro’s free-kick 30 seconds prior – the Portuguese striker represented an unlikely goal threat within the final third.

This was simply the case of proper game management from Santos, while Deschamps panicked following Eder’s winner, and immediately introduced Anthony Martial without a legitimate method of attack to rescue the match.

Conclusion

It’s difficult to find anyone other than Deschamps culpable for France’s downfall. Unable to identify his best XI, the French manager persisted with a 4-4-2 that didn’t get the best out of his dynamic midfielders and equally left his side exposed in central areas. While Deschamps did get his initial system wrong, what’s more disappointing was his inability to acknowledge his mistake: Martial’s mobility and willingness to run the channels and take on defenders was wasted, while Kante was forced to watch from the bench with Pogba and Matuidi being virtually ineffective from deeper midfield zones.

The semi-final against Germany was a prime example that France were unable to reach an elite status if changes weren’t made. Against Portugal they provided scares in brief spells, but Deschamps reluctance to alter his ineffective approach proved crucial. While basing the side around the in-form Griezmann was logical, following his missed opportunities, it’s difficult to understand why Deschamps didn’t alter formations — in short, that’s where he deserves blame.

Santos deserves credit for Portugal’s triumph as he out-witted and out-coached Deschamps on the night. Portugal were unconvincing for large portions of the tournament, and relied on a few standout performers on their road to success, but they remained unbeaten throughout the tournament which validates their success.

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Ultimately you need a bit of good fortune to win a cup competition, and finishing third in their group turned out to be a blessing as Santos’ men avoided the few elite sides in the tournament. More so, this was bigger than Ronaldo, which is once again credit to Santos for properly displaying how to effectively utilize a squad throughout the tournament as all 20 players featured at Euro 2016.

Moving natural wingers upfront saw Ronaldo and Nani transition into timely penalty box poachers, and though his side’s defensive shape wasn’t perfect, it was surely enough to ensure Portugal remained unbeaten at Euro 2016.

Nonetheless, Portugal’s European Cup run epitomizes Santos’ tenure thus far: uninspiring, scrappy games that were ultimately won in the latter stages of matches. With majority of the experienced players likely to be phased out, now, Santos is tasked with building an identity the current winners severely lacked throughout the competition.

Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Rui Patricio and Nani were outstanding throughout the tournament, but now they must develop a coherent brand of football to build on this success. They were far from the best team at the tournament, but it’s fitting that a centre-forward is responsible for Portugal’s first major triumph following their decade long search to fill the void in this position.

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: France – Portugal

Although we’ve possibly witnessed the best games of Euro 2016 in the previous stages of the knockout round, France’s showdown with Portugal is built to be a fascinating prospect.

Two teams that have attempted to join world football’s elite over the past decade offer several intriguing clashes prior to kickoff. Neither France nor Portugal have been remarkable throughout the tournament, but have found a way to cruise through favourable matches thus far.

Germany presented France’s sole threat in the previous round, and Didier Deschamps were completely outplayed for the first half, and were fortunate to pounce on mistakes committed by Joachim Low’s defence. Deschamps men won’t have to worry about spending long periods without the ball or intelligent playmakers across the pitch against Portugal, but the system isn’t relatively convincing.

Possibly the biggest decision the French manager must make is whether to persist with the 4-4-2 or revert back to a 4-3-3. The 4-4-2 has been the catalyst to France’s best performances against Iceland and Ireland, but against the Germans, they were completely outplayed for large portions of the match.

Against a Portuguese side containing the best player in the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo, Deschamps may have to rejig his shape. Deschamps’ obsession with the 4-4-2 is based around the tournament’s leading goal-scorer, Antoine Griezmann, playing closer to Olivier Giroud in a central role, whilst receiving the space to maximize his talent.

If Deschamps were to opt for a 4-3-3, Griezmann would be pushed out wide, but France would have a solid shape in central areas as they transition to a 4-5-1.

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In ways the system can still be effective with Griezmann and Payet attempting to overload William Carvalho between the lines, as it’s evident both men strive in central positions. Olivier Giroud will attempt to hold off Pepe and bring his teammates into play, but with two roaming space invaders, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba should receive space to penetrate.

However, this leaves Pogba and Matuidi with defensive roles ahead of the back-line, which ultimately decreases their ability to charge forward towards goal. Kante’s inclusion provides a midfielder filled with dynamism and the ability to break up plays and swift counter-attacks, which is exactly what the hosts lacked against Germany in the opening half. France were guilty of leaving too much space between the lines and ahead of the midfield bank – Griezmann and Giroud did very little from a defensive aspect – against Germany, which offered players like Mesut Ozil, Toni Kroos, and Jerome Boateng space to excel.

Luckily for the hosts, Portugal doesn’t have midfielders at their disposal that are capable of dictating the tempo of a match like the aforementioned German stars. Fernando Santos identified his best XI in the knockout round, as Portugal has operated in an unorthodox 4-1-3-2 en route to the finals, with wide players in Ronaldo and Nani leading the line.

In fairness, neither France nor Portugal have been consistently good throughout the tournament despite their easy road to the final, but the latter in particular has been fairly uninspiring. Apart from a few standout performers in Pepe, Raphael Guerreiro, Adrien Silva, and Nani, there’s very little to get excited about the Portuguese side.

Their attacking play has been predominantly based around crosses from the full-backs, and their functional midfield has been unable to supply service to the frontmen, who in fairness, have made excellent runs throughout the tournament. More so, they struggle to put together slick passing moves in the final third along with exploiting space between the lines.

Frankly, the goals Portugal have scored in the knockout round are telling – Ricardo Quaresma’s counter-attacking goal came when Croatia pushed too many men forward, Renato Sanches’ equalizer against Poland followed one of the game’s few nifty combination plays, whereas Ronaldo notched a set-piece winner and his scuffed shot was fortuitously redirected by Nani to eliminate Wales.

Santos essentially fields three gritty midfielders ahead of William Carvalho that are quite similar in terms of skill level and traits, but severely lack creativity and guile around the penalty area. Meanwhile, although the full-backs have been great from a defensive aspect, their contributions in the attacking third have been equally scarce.

William Carvalho’s return from suspension should see the midfielder push Danilo to the bench, following his difficult afternoon against Gareth Bale in the semi-final win over Wales. Assuming Portugal stick to their current defensive approach and willingly drop into two banks of four out of possession, Carvalho will still face a huge defensive task on the night.

Portugal haven’t been quite convincing out of possession when they transition into a flat 4-4-2, and with Griezmann and Payet aiming to find pockets of space in central zones, William Carvalho could be susceptible of being overrun via a combination of quick incisive passes and deep midfield runs. Likewise, Deschamps has several counter-attacking threats within his XI, so it’s unlikely that Portugal will push several men forward as it would increase the likelihood of being exposed in transition.

The other major talking point involving Portugal is their goal source. Nani and Ronaldo have been positive in this respect, scoring timely goals from minimal service from their teammates. The former’s movement towards the channels has posed issues throughout the tournament, and he’s developed a knack of poaching goals within the penalty box.

Ronaldo’s winner against Wales displayed his set-piece threat, and if Portugal’s full-backs can deliver quality crosses into the box, Santos’ talisman could be the decisive factor. It’s likely Ronaldo will aim to drift to either back post when crosses are played into the box due to his height advantage over diminutive full-backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra.

The Portuguese forward’s opener for Real Madrid in the 2012 Champions League knockout round against Real Madrid witnessed Ronaldo leap over Evra to score against his former employers, and here, he may attempt to replicate that feat. It would be expected that Portugal can also rely on counter-attacks if Kante starts on the bench, yet oddly, their transitional attacks have been underwhelming.

In wide areas, both full-backs have become adept to providing width, but there could be a hint of caution displayed from both, here. Cedric and Raphael will be wary of a French counter, and while Sagna and Evra have improved as the tournament’s progressed, Ronaldo offers arguably the greatest threat on the counter ever, which may see Deschamps’ full-backs limit their adventurous positioning.

While set-pieces can prove significant, there are still many key decisions both managers have to address that could impact the outcome. Portugal’s protection of the back four, along with Deschamps’ decision to play a two or three-man midfield will be pivotal. Nonetheless, this is equally poised for Ronaldo to produce on one of the biggest stages for his country, and it will be interesting to see how Santos aims to utilize his captain.

It can’t be overstated the significance of the first goal, but this could be a cagey affair until one team is forced to push forward.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Germany 0-2 France

Germany were dominant for large portions of the match, but they committed two suicidal mistakes in their penalty box which handed France a route to the Euro 2016 final.

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Joachim Low was forced to make a few changes due to suspensions and injuries and once again altered his system. Thomas Muller moved upfront for the injured Mario Gomez, which allowed Julian Draxler to return to the starting XI. Emre Can slotted into midfield for Sami Khedira and Benedikt Howedes shifted to centre-back alongside Jerome Boateng.

Despite Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante being available for selection, Didier Deschamps named an unchanged lineup.

Didier Deschamps may have got his tactics wrong, but France’s clinical finishing overcame an impressive German display.

Low’s system change

Similar to the quarter-final stage, Joachim Low’s decision to alter his stem was the main talking point of the round. Here, Low turned to the 4-3-3 that was successful at the World Cup, and it appeared Can’s inclusion was with the intent to offer a physical presence in the midfield zone.

Low probably assumed Deschamps would recall Kante into midfield, but the French manager’s decision to persist with a 4-4-2 left the hosts vulnerable in central areas as neither are natural holding midfielders.  Bastian Schweinsteiger dropped between the centre-backs for additional cover, which enabled the centre-backs to push into midfield and the wing-backs to position themselves in advanced positions by the touchline.

This was another example of Low’s growth as a manager, as his tactical rejig was responsible for Germany’s dominance throughout.

France’s issue

Deschamps didn’t instruct his men to press higher up the pitch, but he focused on limiting space in central areas to exploit. The hosts maintained their two banks of four out of possession, but the peculiar aspect to their approach was the reluctance to close down Germany’s chief passers in Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos, and Boateng.

Kroos dropped deep to receive possession and was occasionally pressed by Paul Pogba, but in comparison to the Italians instructing Graziano Pelle or Eder to stick tight to the German, this was a contrasting defensive display. Boateng, on the other hand, was free to step into France’s third of the pitch to hit diagonals to the advanced full-backs, but fortunately for the hosts, neither Hector nor Joshua Kimmich translated their dangerous positions into quality chances.

Besides allowing Germany’s creative passers time and space to dictate the tempo of the match, the main issue Deschamps’ men encountered involved their ability to break on the counter. Apart from positive combinations between Antoine Griezmann and Blaise Matuidi, and the former with Patrice Evra down the left, France didn’t appear capable of testing Manuel Neuer from open play.

Although Germany’s counter-pressing played a factor, but ultimately it was down to sloppy passing in transition that halted possible counter-attacks. There were two situations that witnessed Griezmann launch an attack only to have his pass cut out by Schweinsteiger, and then playing a poor pass back to the Germans.

In many ways, France were responsible for their shortcomings in the first half. Their reluctance to press Boateng, Kroos or Schweinsteiger enabled the Germans to retain possession, and when they did so, it wasn’t cohesive and created space for the attacking midfielders to exploit between the lines. Likewise, this also meant the full-backs, pegged the wingers deeper into their half, so when Griezmann did receive opportunities to break forward, he lacked passing options, which is partially responsible for his poor decision making in transition.

German possession

Nevertheless, the biggest mystery heading into half-time was how France found themselves ahead. The Germans territorial dominance merited a goal, and they used space wisely throughout the final third.

It was evident Germany aimed to exploit space down the right to exploit Dimitri Payet’s unwillingness to protect his full-back. Germany essentially had three players operating in this zone in contrasting directions – Ozil drifted centrally, an advanced Can darted vertically or diagonally into the right channel, whereas Kimmich offered width by hugging the touchline. There were shades of the positional understanding between players on the opposite flank where Ozil passed the ball to Hector and immediately sprinted towards the touchline, with the left-back aiming to cut infield from the flank.

In truth, Low’s approach was working to fruition – the midfielders were able to play forward passes and the advanced positioning of the full-backs enabled Draxler, and specifically Ozil freedom to receive the ball between the lines. More so, Thomas Muller’s sluggish performance proved decisive. Muller was easily marked by both centre-backs in the box, and doesn’t offer an identical penalty box presence to Gomez, who has been the key component to the German attack.

Therefore, Germany struggled in the final third, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering Muller has failed to excel as a lone striker for his country. Meanwhile, Germany’s attack has been predictable and lacking the quick combinations to get behind a low defensive block without Gomez.

The few chances Low’s men created stemmed from the right, and despite the clever passing and interchangeable movement, poor penalty box finishing proved costly.

1-0

With that being said, France took the lead during injury time of the first half courtesy of another German blunder. Boateng was culpable for an additional 30 minutes of extra-time following his hand-ball against Italy, and here, Schweinsteiger committed the same mistake.

It’s unusual to see experience players on elite teams make silly errors, and this was nearly identical to Boateng’s hand ball. Evra attacked a near post corner ahead of Schweinsteiger, and nodded the ball into the German’s hands, which led to Griezmann converting a penalty to put the hosts ahead.

Second half

Griezmann’s opener encouraged the French to sit deeper out of possession, while Low’s men stuck to their initial approach and probed within the final third. Germany’s best chance in the opening 15 minutes of the half witnessed Ozil drop deep to receive and the ball, and subsequently clip it over Bacary Sagna to Hector but the German defender couldn’t control the pass.

Perhaps the German’s created minimal chances in the second half due to France remaining more compact with a deeper shape, but Boateng’s departure for Shkodran Mustafi decreased their creativity from deep. Kroos still dropped deep to cycle possession throughout, but even a change to a 4-2-3-1 with Draxler and Mario Gotze upfront was unsuccessful.

Germany continued to find joy down Payet’s flank so Deschamps turned to Kante to offer protection in midfield and negate Hector’s forward runs by transitioning to a 4-3-3. Oddly, France sealed the game seconds later, as they finally pressed the German back-line in their box for their first time as a unit, and were able to see Griezmann confirm their place in the finals.

The game suddenly became stretched with Germany pushing for a goal. Although it seemed logical France would receive more chances to win the game now, Deschamps’ men still struggled to cause havoc via the counter-attack, whereas Kroos’ set-piece deliveries placed his teammates in several key areas where they failed to convert their chances.

Conclusion

This was arguably one of the best performances of the tournament from Low’s German side, yet they failed to win due to silly errors from their defence. Low displayed his tactical nous by altering to a 4-3-3 which witnessed the Germans dominate central areas, and prevent France from breaking on the counter attack.

Injuries played a significant role in Germany’s road to the semi-finals as Khedira’s dynamism, Hummels’ passing, and Gomez’s presence provides variety to Low’s attack. It must be said, that without a natural centre-forward, the Germans often lack penetration in the final third, which increases the belief that a false-nine system can be futile for a side that doesn’t possess runners breaking beyond the opposing defence.

Still, France’s standout performers – Lloris, Umtitti, and Sissoko – offer hope that the hosts may be capable of utilizing this system in the final, but it would be hugely surprising if Kante doesn’t return to the XI. Deschamps hasn’t been afraid to make bold decisions or change his XI, but the first half against Germany suggested that they’ll need a holding midfielder to avoid being overrun in central areas.

Sacrificing creativity for a solid defensive foundation would be the logical move in a major cup final, and after being outwitted tactically, and outplayed in every aspect, Deschamps could use this fortuitous victory as a learning tool for the final.

 
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Posted by on July 9, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: France – Germany

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Courtesy of Flickr/William Morice

France’s showdown against Germany has the potential of being the tournament’s standout match. A rematch of the 2014 World Cup quarter-final witnesses a youthful French squad receive another opportunity to place themselves amongst the few elite international sides in the world if they can overcome the current world champions

Both sides altered their traditional systems to secure their quarter-final triumphs, but now it’s interesting to see how Didier Deschamps and Joachim Low approach the match. Needless to say, semi-finals tend to be tight, cautious affairs that are decided by fine margins, and both managers have several key decisions to make prior to kick-off.

Deschamps is expected to recall Adil Rami alongside Laurent Koscielny following his quarter-final suspension, but the main talking point is whether N’Golo Kante will be included in midfield. France have been at their utmost best at the tournament operating in a 4-4-2 with Antoine Griezmann closer to Olivier Giroud and Paul Pogba partnering Blaise Matuidi in midfield, yet with Kante in midfield, France possess solid defensive cover ahead of the back four.

France were able to overturn a 1-0 deficit against Ireland and dispatch of Iceland 5-2 in those matches, but Germany offers a larger threat going forward. Neither Matuidi nor Pogba are natural holding midfielders and would likely encounter difficulties coping with Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, and Julian Draxler between the lines, so Kante’s return would be logical.

That means France would operate in a 4-3-3 with Payet drifting centrally from the left and Griezmann darting from the right flank to combine with Giroud. Griezmann and Dmitri Payet have excelled from a central role at this tournament, but conceding too much space between the lines in exchange for creativity would be quite the gamble.

Low, on the other hand, could return to a 4-2-3-1, but may consider adopting a 3-4-2-1 if Giroud plays alongside Griezmann. Mats Hummels’ suspension would see Benedikt Howedes partner Jerome Boateng at centre-back, but if Low were to persist with a three-man defence, Shkodran Mustafi would make his first start since his opening match goal against the Ukraine.

Bastian Schweinsteiger should be fit to start in midfield with Toni Kroos, which ensures competent passing in central zones, but equally deprives the German’s of dynamism going forward. With Payet and Griezmann roaming between the lines, Schweinsteiger and Kroos will need to be cautious with their positioning, as France will aim to exploit the former’s limited mobility.

Low’s main dilemma involves replacing the injured Mario Gomez. Thomas Muller hasn’t been at his best throughout the tournament, and though he’s struggled in a no.9 role for his country, he still offers an aerial threat upfront. Mario Gotze started the tournament in a false nine role, but Germany were frankly too predictable in possession and unable to create multiple chances from open play. Gotze can still feature in an attacking midfield role, with Muller moving upfront, as precise passing and quick interchanging between the lines would pose several issues for the French.

Germany can also turn to Andre Schurrle who has been utilized as a super sub over the past few years. Schurrle offers a direct threat beyond the defence, and his pace would force the French back-line to sit deeper, which could prove beneficial with Boateng and Kroos’ range of passing. In truth, Gomez’s absence is a massive blow for the Germans, because the striker offered a threat in the penalty box, thus offering variety to an attack that can sometimes become too predictable.

Nevertheless, Kroos still remains the key man for Germany. France will have to be wary of Germany’s threat between the lines, but halting Kroos’ ability to dictate the tempo of the match is equally crucial. Italy were forced to have Graziano Pelle and Eder stick tight to the German throughout, and Olivier Giroud may be tasked with this duty. But with Boateng capable of deputizing as an additional playmaker from centre-back, Deschamps will have to instruct Pogba or Matuidi to press forward and negate Kroos’ threat.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to predict how this match will unfold. Both managers can utilize several formations and are capable of shifting between systems throughout the match. Ultimately this could be down to which midfield can negate service between the lines, but both managers may opt for defensive-minded systems to ensure they avoid defeat.

While majority of the matches at this tournament have been fairly predictable, this showdown offers several plot twists that are truly fitting for a cup final.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Tactical Preview: Wales – Portugal

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Courtesy of Flickr/Jon Candy

Euro 2016’s first semi-final will feature the top two players at the tournament. Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo may be teammates for Real Madrid, but they stand in each other’s path of claiming their country’s first trophy at the international level.

Surprisingly, while the two men are capable of single-handily winning matches, it’s arguable that the work-rate of their teammates has been pivotal towards their success thus far. Portugal and Wales have been labeled as “one-man teams” prior to the tournament, yet their progress illustrates the significance of working as a collective.

Tactically, this could prove to be another underwhelming showdown between two sides that prefer to play on the counter-attack. This was supposed to be the case between Wales and Belgium, but the latter’s poor defensive structure ensured the former received ample space for Bale to constantly launch counter-attacks.

Portugal offers an entirely different challenge. Fernando Santos’ men won’t be naïve out of possession, and they pose a larger threat on the counter attack that should worry Chris Coleman considering Wales weren’t entirely stellar in that aspect despite out-playing Belgium in the previous round.

Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment revolves around the players suspended for the semi-final. Portugal will be without William Carvalho, whereas Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have also been suspended for the semi-final. In comparison to Portugal, Wales’ quality is limited and it’s evident that the suspensions could prove decisive.

Three-man defences have fared well thus far, and it will be interesting, yet equally surprising if Santos were to replicate Joachim Low’s decision to alter his system. In many regards, on paper at least, Chris Coleman’s system may frustrate a Portuguese side that severely lacks width.

Wales’ centre-backs prefer to engage in aerial duels, and their man advantage at the back ensures Ronaldo will be positioned in many 1v2 positions when he attacks crosses, or aims to cut centrally from the left. Then, similar to their triumph against Belgium, Coleman could encourage his wing-backs to position themselves higher up the pitch to negate Portugal’s main source of width.

The main issue for Wales could be the Ramsey suspension solely due to his role in midfield. Ramsey has been impressive throughout the tournament, offering diligent work-rate, tenacity, and an additional body in midfield.

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Likewise, he was provided the freedom to join counter-attacks with Bale and the selected striker, whilst covering his box-to-box duties. The build up to Hal Robson-Kanu’s quarter-final winner epitomized his significance – Ramsey made a diagonal charge from the half way line into right half space to meet Bale’s dinked pass, and the midfielder instantly delivered the cross that resulted in the goal.

Without Ramsey, Coleman may transition into more of a 3-4-2-1 with Jonny Williams joining Bale behind the striker. Williams is more of a raw attacking threat – he plays nifty passes into tight areas and is capable of dribbling beyond opponents – in comparison to Ramsey, and though it doesn’t affect Joe Allen and Joe Ledley’s role ahead of the back four, Wales will likely need another body central areas to cope with Portugal’s gritty midfield.

This could interest Coleman to field Bale in a midfield role – he’s displayed he can be disciplined defender in a reactive system during his time at Real Madrid – and have Robson Kanu playing off Sam Vokes to ensure Wales have a focal point upfront. If not, Williams will be forced to play a more functional role alongside Ledley and Allen.

On the other hand, William Carvalho’s suspension also affects a crucial aspect of the match. The game’s pivotal battle will be whether Portugal can cope with Bale’s threat on the counter. In terms of form, Bale is the best player on both sides ahead of kick-off. The Welshman consistently displayed his threat via set-pieces, on the counter-attack and hints of creativity from deeper positions.

While it’s arguable Danilo is better suited in Portugal’s 4-1-3-2 opposed to William Carvalho, he faces a difficult task in coping with Bale’s running on the counter-attack. Assuming Coleman will avoid engaging in a physical battle between Vokes and standout defender Pepe, Kanu’s decoy diagonal runs into wide areas could fluster the Portuguese back-line. Ultimately, if Danilo struggles against Bale’s runs, Pepe may need to exceed the superb performance levels displayed throughout the tournament.

In truth, Portugal must improve in open-play. Wales will happily concede possession to Santos’ men and welcome crosses into the box, and the intent of quickly facilitating passes into Ronaldo may not prove successful considering the Portuguese talisman will be outnumbered upfront.

Renato Sanches’ physical presence and powerful running is one of the few positives during this semi-final run, but Santos may turn to Joao Moutinho alongside the 18-year-old and Joao Mario. Moutinho is the sole genuine passer at Santos’ disposal – his pass over the Polish defence to Ronaldo in the second half of the quarter-final was evidence – and with the full-backs likely to remain cautious due to Bale’s threat, it’s difficult to highlight how Portugal will get behind the Welsh defence.

Here, we have two teams utilizing diverse systems: Coleman’s success has been based around a collective effort whilst maximizing the talents of his best players. Santos hasn’t been afforded that luxury – Ronaldo hasn’t been effective in the final third, but individual performances from Nani, the defenders, and Renato Sanches combined with previous tournament experience has sufficed.

The threat of Bale and Ronaldo will dominate pre-match talks, but a place in the finals will rest on which side can perform better as a unit.

 
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Posted by on July 5, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Italy 1-1 Germany

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Courtesy of Flickr/Itaru Chiba

Germany advanced to the semi-finals by avenging their Euro 2012 defeat via penalty shootout against Italy.

Joachim Low completely altered his formation and made one change to his starting XI. Bendikt Howedes slotted into a three-man defence, which ultimately forced Julian Draxler to the bench.

Antonio Conte, however, was also forced to replace the injured Daniele De Rossi in midfield. The Italian manager therefore turned to Stefano Sturaro to join Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini in midfield.

Joachim Low was at fault for altering his system when Germany exited the competition four years ago against the Italians, but his decision to also instill a three-man back-line proved successful in a tight affair between two elite national teams.

Low makes bold change

The announcement of Germany’s XI was the main facet of the match considering Low’s bold move four years ago, and the repercussions that followed. Nevertheless, Low decided to stray away from the patented 4-2-3-1 to field a three-man defence.

Ideally, this made sense considering Italy’s success against Spain, who also pride themselves in dominating possession. But more importantly, while the decision to play an identical system risked a dire encounter where both teams cancelled each other out, it ensured Germany wouldn’t be overloaded or left vulnerable in isolation situations against the Italian forwards.

Now, the wing-backs pressed the wing backs, the midfielders combatted in central zones, whereas both sides, on paper at least, would have a numerical advantage at the back.

Italy Press

Low deploying a three-man defence equally helped the Germans cope with Italy’s pressing from the front. Graziano Pelle and Eder took turns pressing Toni Kroos, and occasionally alternated roles in this respect – when one pressed the German, the other cut off passing lanes into the midfielder – but the Italians’ attempt to suffocate the Germans within their third proved unsuccessful unless Giaccherini or Sturaro stepped forward.

Although pressing Kroos negated his ability to dictate the tempo of the match, Germany still possess excellent ball-playing defenders in Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels, and while the former was often forced to play the ball towards both flanks, the exterior centre-backs were often spare outlets that received time to play passes into midfield.

Hummels was Germany’s main threat in this respect by clipping passes into Gomez that just missed the striker and a delivery to the far post that substitute Bastian Schweinsteiger nodded past Gigi Buffon only to be penalized for a foul on Mattia De Sciglio. Germany’s possession was patient and over-elaborate, and while Italy’s pressing was partially responsible for the world champions’ pedestrian attack, they didn’t successfully thwart the opposition’s creativity.

Germany without the ball

The Germans, however, adopted a slightly contrasting approach out of possession. Low was wary of Leonardo Bonucci’s passing, and Giorgio Chiellini charging forward so frontmen Mario Gomez, and Thomas Muller quickly closed the defenders down. Gomez, in particular, was pivotal with his positioning as he prevented Bonucci from playing long balls over the defence, whilst negating passing lanes into Marco Parolo.

Italy’s difficulty playing out the back hampered their entire approach. Conte’s men found it difficult to instantly play passes into the strikers, and even spare man Andrea Barzagli was unable to play forward passes with Mesut Ozil occasionally cutting off passing lanes into Sturaro, while Muller’s pressing equally deprived Giaccherini of service in midfield zones.Where Conte would have preferred Hummels didn’t receive ample time and space on the ball, Low didn’t mind Barzagli carrying the ball forward.

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Considering Italy’s midfield is based around brawn opposed to creativity, Germany’s intent to prevent the centre-backs from spreading play to the attackers was quite significant. Where Italy allowed Howedes and Hummels to push forward with the ball, Low encouraged his attackers to limit proactive passing lanes.

Blunt attack

The one issue that often arises when two opponents utilize identical systems is the possibility of a dull game. Therefore, one of the few ways to create openings ultimately comes down to which team can win their battles in certain areas of the pitch.

In truth, neither side was convincing in the opening half when they attempted to bypass the opposition: The Germans dominated possession whereas the Italians retreated into a 5-3-2, with the intent of breaking forward on the counter. Although Conte’s men deserve credit for their defensive discipline, Germany’s patient buildup lacked a link between midfield and attack.

Ozil and Jonas Hector rarely combined, whereas the former struggled to outfox Sturaro in central areas. On the opposite side of the pitch, Schweinsteiger was unable to offer the vertical running and dynamism Khedira showcased in the opening 15 minutes, which appeared to be a plausible route to goal. Apart from Hummel’s lofted passes beyond the Italian defence, Low’s men were underwhelming in the final third.

Meanwhile, the Italian’s decision to sit deeper and break on the counter also proved unsuccessful. When Conte’s men regained possession in deep areas, their sloppy passing was responsible for their inability to bypass Germany’s counter-pressing in midfield. Similar to the Germans, Italy’s best chance of the half was created by their ball-playing centre-back: Giaccherini stormed past Schweinsteiger to latch onto Bonucci’s pass in left half-space, but his pull back pass saw Sturaro’s deflected shot earn a vital corner.

Ozil

Oddly, the least effective attacking player in the first half played a crucial role when moved to the right. Initially, the move witnessed De Sciglio receive space and freedom to run at Kimmich, with Ozil unsure of his defensive duties on the right – Schweinsteiger was positioned slightly deeper in various scenarios in the opening half, whereas Ozil roamed around pockets of space in advanced positions before he was caught out.

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However, Ozil improved as the half continued by varying his movement from the right, and completing nifty passing moves with Muller and Kimmich. When Ozil dropped deeper he was free to play the initial pass to ignite lengthy spells of possession, and his disguised reverse ball to Gomez illustrated his threat in those positions.

Ozil didn’t produce the best performance of his career, but the freedom he received following his move to the right was pivotal. He was more involved in passing triangles, identified space between the lines to receive the ball, and both his passing and movement were crucial to Germany’s best attacking moves.

1-0

Germany’s opener briefly shifted the complexion of the match, but there were so many elements to the buildup that went against Low’s approach. Italy’s attempt to press up the pitch saw the Germans pull Conte’s frontmen out of position before Manuel Neuer cleared his lines. Yet, on one of the few occasions where Gomez drifted laterally to the left flank, Florenzi slipped due to the striker’s attempted challenge.

More so, it was Gomez’s stellar reverse ball into half space for the advanced Hector that saw Ozil direct the left-back’s low cross like a legitimate poacher. It was one of the few times Germany offered a third man running into the box, but Gomez drifting away from pressure to produce a moment of brilliance surprised an Italian defence that appeared comfortable coping with the striker’s threat.

Italy react

Gomez’s squandered chance subsequent to Ozil’s opener enabled Conte to adjust his initial approach. Italy suddenly transitioned to a 3-4-3 with Giaccherini pushing forward to press Howedes, whilst the defence maintained an extremely high line.

Julian Draxler’s inclusion for the departed Gomez suggested Germany now offered a threat behind the defence, but Italy’s pressure pegged Low’s men deeper into their box, as their ball playing midfielders were unable to supply the attackers. Perhaps the buildup to Boateng’s mistake didn’t correlate with Italy’s sudden improvement, but the minor alteration resulted in one goal opportunity – De Sciglio’s pull back that Pelle snatched wide – and a brief spell of dominance from Conte’s men.

Conte, though, was aware of the risk his side took by attempting to regain possession in Germany’s third, and quickly instructed his side to revert back to a 3-5-2 following Bonucci’s equalizer. With that being said, the remaining 40 minutes of the match was drab – Germany continued to dominate possession without finding many openings, and though Italy received more opportunities to break as legs tired, it was an over hit Draxler pass in a 3v2 counter-attack that served as the closest chance either side came to winning the match.

The recurring theme of uneventful extra-time periods at this tournament continued, here, and though Germany finally defeated Italy at a major tournament, the overall match offered very little tactical talking points.

Conclusion

The decisive factor throughout 120 minutes was Low’s decision to move to a back three. Germany stifled Italy’s creativity with their pressing, and Conte’s men failed to consistently filter the ball to their attackers and break as a unit. A few last-ditch tackles aside, Germany’s defence were hardly tested which justifies Low’s bold move.

It’s difficult to criticize Conte’s Italy considering they were a few penalty kicks away from defeating the World champions. Italy’s defensive solidity was unprecedented, and their attention to detail and ability to carry out Conte’s instructions with devastating efficiency provided two memorable results against the tournament’s highest ranked team in Belgium, and holders Spain.

More so, Conte utilized this stage to display his tactical prowess. A move to a 3-4-3 steered the Italian’s back into the game, and frankly a lack of genuine creativity – due to injuries – halted what may have been a memorable title run. Germany, however, set their sights on France, and with several key players unavailable to suspensions and injuries, Low be called upon to outwit the hosts.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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Portugal’s non-existent identity guarantees tough road to Euro final

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Courtesy of Flickr/All Rights are with hayvehayveson

Portugal’s narrow win over Croatia could possibly be remembered as one of the worst games to be played at the international level.

Ricardo Quaresma further justified the significance of substitutes at Euro 2016 with his extra-time winner serving as the game’s sole shot on target. An underwhelming spectacle featuring two cautious sides that feared defeat appeared to be destined for penalty kicks, yet it all unraveled within minutes.

Many believed this would be one of the better games of the round, but unfortunately it was considerably dull. Perhaps the belief that Portugal would improve against well-known opposition, combined with Croatia’s result against holders Spain can be held responsible, but stylistically, both sides appeared content with a slow-burning contest.

Croatia’s undermanned triumph over Spain was based on deep organized defending and quick counter-attacks, whereas Portugal excel playing in a similar manner. However, the round of 16 clash witnessed both teams wary of conceding space to the opposition, therefore thwarting any possible offensive threat in the final third.

Fernando Santos’ men deserve plaudits for keeping a clean sheet throughout the 120 minutes, led by impressive individual displays from Pepe and Raphael Guerrero. Adrien harried Luka Modric into deeper midfield zones, and though at times the Croatian easily waltzed past the Portuguese midfielder, the Real Madrid star was unable to dictate the tempo of the match as preferred.

Mario Mandzukic’s fitness issues ensured the Portuguese defence were rarely tested, as he offered very little coming short and lacks the pace to pose a threat beyond the back four. And where Santos’ men shifted well laterally to contain Croatia’s threat on the flanks, on the few occasions Croatia received space to counter, Ivan Rakitic, in particular, was quickly fouled. Rakitic isn’t renowned for his movement between the lines, so majority of Croatia’s buildup play was facilitated through the flanks, and while Darijo Srna served as a legitimate attacking threat, Portugal were only troubled via set-pieces.

However, Santos’ men suffered similar issues in possession, which fully explains both sides combining for one shot on target. For all of the quick intricate combinations in central areas ahead of the box, Portugal simply lacked the final ball beyond the defence to create clear-cut chances. Meanwhile, poor service from midfield nullified Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani’s intelligent runs into the channels.

Essentially, that’s the issue that’s constraining the Portuguese at the moment. Still an excellent side on the counter, and probably better equipped defensively under Santos, now, the midfield is too functional and brawn. In the past, Portugal could turn to Rui Costa, Deco or even Joao Moutinho for creativity, whereas now, even with the latter in the squad – his form has dipped significantly since Euro 2012 – Santos’ side remain lacklustre in the final third.

In regards to the midfield, Santos clearly hasn’t identified his best XI, but this hasn’t been an issue solely because his options are practically at the same skill level and considerably raw. Therefore, squad rotation isn’t harmful, but the scrappy nature of the midfield personnel is partially responsible for the poor service to the forwards and the issues Portugal encounter when they come across organized defences that sit deep.

The current Portuguese system includes four central midfielders across the second band, and though they’re deprived natural width under these circumstances, it ensures they remain competitive in central areas. But with many teams preferring to play on the counter, identifying space to penetrate has become a nuisance to Santos’ men as they’re failing to break beyond the opposition – often seeing their moves collapse as they approach the edge of the box.

In truth, the four goals scored thus far epitomize their overall approach. First it was Vieirinha’s cross that found Nani at the near post that briefly gave Portugal the lead in their opener against Iceland. Then in an open encounter against Hungary, both forwards exploited slack defending by making simple diagonal runs across defenders to convert chances –  two were from wide areas, and the initial equalizer stemmed through Ronaldo’s exceptional pass from midfield.

The winner against Croatia illustrated Santos’ side at their best – in transition, Renato Sanches’ powerful running through midfield enabled Nani and Ronaldo to break forward, with the former’s inch-perfect pass meeting the latter in the box, and Quaresma nodding a loose ball into an open net. It was the first time in the match when Croatia took initiative to push men forward, and despite hitting the post and creating arguably their best moves of the match during this brief period, it provided Portugal space to threaten on the counter.

Although, it was strange to see Croatia revert to such caution – though they may have attempted to limit space for Portugal to exploit in transition – Ante Cacic’s defensive-minded proved beneficial. Perhaps poor finishing can be associated with Portugal’s shortcomings in the opening matches, but going forward they continue to excel when there’s ample space to run into – hence why they often perform well against superior opposition.

Nevertheless, Portugal possibly hoist the easiest road to a major international final, and though it appears another opportunity to claim silverware is straightforward, stylistically, their side of the bracket presents several cagey encounters.  Crossing is undoubtedly a method of attack that can be mightily predictable throughout a match, but the intent to play quick intricate through central areas has been anonymous.

Unlike Portugal’s group-stage opposition, Poland and Wales are better suited adopting an extremely deep defensive back-lines, and have players in Robert Lewandowski and Gareth Bale that represent legitimate goal-threat in open play and via quick counter-attacks. Belgium, on the other hand, are also better suited to attack in transition, and a showdown with Portugal could set-up a pattern similar to their showdown with Croatia.

The main issue, however, is that Santos’ options are fairly limited. Jose Fonte does represent an improved option in defence based on his mobility, whereas Sanches’ power and directness can help the Portuguese dominate the midfield zone and break forward instantly. Still, against Poland, in particular, it’s difficult imagining the Portuguese will receive many opportunities to catch the Poles out of position, providing they don’t score an early goal.

Despite the late goals that have defined Santos’ tenure as Portuguese manager, it’s difficult to highlight this current side’s identity. They remain combative in midfield, and have the pace and counter-attacking threat of Nani and Ronaldo upfront, but there are still many questions to be raised regarding their attacking and defensive ploys.

Though poor finishing and some heroic goalkeeping can be associated with Portugal’s issues in front of goal, the lack of a genuine passer in the final third halts any possibility of improvement barring a Ronaldo master-class. Frankly, at this stage specifically, finding a way to win remains decisive. But considering the possible awaiting opponents in the upcoming rounds, from a stylistic and tactical viewpoint, perhaps the opposing side of the draw was better suited for Santos’ men.

 
 

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