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.