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.
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.