Birkir Bjarnason’s second half equalizer earned Iceland a historic draw against Portugal, but Fernando Santos’ side produced a positive performance that merited maximum points.
Over the past decade, the one issue preventing Portugal from becoming a genuinely good side has been the lack of a competent centre-forward. The wide players were the main attacking threats in a 4-3-3, whereas the midfield and defence usually compensated for their occasional shortcomings upfront.
Nevertheless, Santos’ reign with the national team has seen a transition towards an unorthodox 4-4-2 with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani upfront. Essentially, the movement of the front two could confuse the opposing defenders, but with Portugal’s strengths now based around a youthful group of talented midfielders, Santos opted to shift the culture, stylistically.
Ironically, Portugal’s width was pivotal throughout their opening group match despite Santos tweaking the formation. Once upon a time, Ronaldo was renowned for cutting in from the left, and Nani produced crosses from the right, but here, two central midfielders in Andre Gomes and Joao Mario operated in wide zones.
The main weakness in Portugal’s XI is the back-line, so the decision to field four tenacious midfielders that can remain compact and narrow evidently benefits the Group F favourites. On paper, it appeared the Portuguese may encounter difficulties incorporating natural width, yet surprisingly, it was the main facet of their buildup play.
Gomes and Joao Mario drifted centrally to deliver crosses into the box, whereas right-back Vieirinha surged forward at every opportunity to join the attack. Coincidentally, it was Gomes and Vieirinha’s swift combination down the right flank that created Nani’s opener, thus justifying Santos’ insistence to play through wide areas.
Though Portugal were unable to penetrate the Iceland defence with incisive passes in the final third, they showcased a legitimate threat via crosses from either flank. However, Nani and Ronaldo squandered several opportunities in the opening half – in truth, Portugal could have been up by three or four by the half hour mark.
Nonetheless, Santos’ decision to start Ronaldo and Nani upfront is logical due to their experience operating as wide attackers in previous tournaments. However, although Ronaldo has developed into an exceptional poacher, he still prefers to roam around the final third opposed to solely attacking crosses. This presented an issue to the Portuguese attack even with the duo maintaining balance.
“I don’t know if it is my favourite position, but it is where the coach puts me,” Ronaldo said. “I like more to arrive from the wing to the centre, but I have the freedom to go where I want. I will have to get used to it.”
For the most part, Ronaldo drifted wide, whereas Nani stayed central and vice-versa – both men created super chances for each other in this manner but were denied by Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson. Yet, there were times when they were both guilty of drifting into the channels, which deprived Portugal a crossing target in the box. Ronaldo and Nani simply didn’t operate as a natural strike partnership, and neither player consistently aimed to link play with teammates, thus limiting Portugal’s threat around the box.
Iceland equally posed a threat in wide areas by initially attacking make-shift Vieirinha in the opening stages of the match, but were only tested Rui Patricio once in the first half. Bjarnason’s equalizer may have not stemmed from the right flank, but the make-shift defender was culpable because his poor positioning ultimately left the Iceland attacker unmarked at the far post.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s combination via aerial duels was initially promising, but as Iceland were pegged deeper into their half, their impact decreased drastically. Heimir Hallgrimsson’s men sustained lengthy spells of pressure due to their inability to retain possession, and when they aimed to push out of their zone in unison, neither striker was capable of linking play with the midfield.
Santos’ decision to introduce Renato Sanches, Ricardo Quaresma and then Eder in the final 20 minutes saw the Portuguese increase the tempo in their forward passes, as they suddenly transitioned into a 4-2-4. Sanches quickly turned defence into attack on a few occasions, Quaresma always ran towards goal from the right flank, whereas Eder’s presence created additional space in the box for Ronaldo.
The score-line and result flatters an Iceland side that barely posed a threat to Santos’ side, and although they should still feel comfortable in topping the group, Portugal’s attacking structure is fairly interesting. Portugal’s final two group games are expected to follow a similar pattern, and though they could turn to set-pieces for goals, they must discover another attacking ploy from open play.