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Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo still has room to build all-time great legacy at Juventus’ expense

For the first time in over a decade, Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t the main topic of discussion of a major cup final featuring the Portuguese star. With Real Madrid on the verge of being the first club to retain the Champions League, the Portuguese forward has occasionally floated amongst the peripheral this season.

Nevertheless, the trials and tribulations of eight years in Madrid may result in Ronaldo’s greatest achievement since moving to the Spanish capital. A La Liga/Champions League double at the expense of city rivals Atletico, and Lionel Messi’s Barcelona would validate their dominance as world football’s alpha club. All this in the latter stages of the 32-year-old’s career.

A career that was supposed to be on the decline continues to enjoy the success that many could only dream of. Ronaldo equally remains one of the key components to Zinedine Zidane’s outfit, as the transition from high-flying roaming left-sided forward to a clinical forward has been seamless.

“Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front,” Ronaldo said. “That is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should.”

From a silverware perspective, the last 12 months have been the greatest Ronaldo’s ever experienced. Yet, oddly enough, the final in Cardiff means more. Not solely to build on Real’s trophy haul, or representing the focal point in another Champions League milestone. For once, this is about Ronaldo.

No mentions of Lionel Messi. No distraction of a summer move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabeu. With guidance from Zidane, Ronaldo has been working hard for this moment. A chance to produce a display that will be cemented in football history for years to come.

Perhaps that’s one of the few, if not, sole criticism left in the anti-Ronaldo arsenal. Although it can be deemed extremely harsh, very few can argue that greatest players of our generation delivered genuine world-class final’s moment. Whether it be Lionel Messi’s 2011 Champions League final master-class, Xavi’s metronomic control in both the 2009 Champions League Final and 2008 European Final or Ronaldo’s goals in the 2002 World Cup final, the small group of players that dazzled over the past 20-years have shifted the game in some manner.

At the conclusion of his career, Cristiano will be mentioned in the same breath as the aforementioned greats, but what sets him apart is the lack of a truly defining moment. The infamous Copa del Rey winner in 2011 along with the goal that practically clinched La Liga in 2012 were magnificent moments in Real history, but on the biggest stage, Ronaldo hasn’t been able to provide the extra bit of quality we’ve grown accustomed to.

This is not to say that Ronaldo “doesn’t show up for the big games.” Frankly, the 32-year-old’s ability to score goals is unparalleled and he epitomizes the ultimate modern day “big game” star, but even when you examine his performances in recent title triumphs, the Portuguese forward has been fairly underwhelming.

During the earlier stages of Ronaldo’s prime at Manchester United resulted in the opening goal in Moscow, yet he was subsequently denied by Petr Cech in the shootout. The following year, Ronaldo was merely a bystander in a fairly one-sided defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.

Oddly, Ronaldo’s significance decreased in Real’s success over Atletico. However, the 32-year-old still managed to score a penalty in both finals – with last year’s goal securing Real’s second Champions League title in three years. Even in last summer’s European Championship, Portugal defeated host nation France following the captain’s first half departure due to injury.

Frankly, much of Ronaldo’s inability to showcase his optimum talent on the biggest stage has been associated with fatigue. This year, however, Zidane’s altered his talisman’s training regimen and opted to rest the Portuguese international in pivotal domestic games against inferior opposition.

“He knows himself that sometimes he has to not play,” Zidane said following Real’s first leg semi-final victory over Atletico. “It’s not just this year; it’s an accumulation over the years. He knows that himself because he is intelligent.”

In return, Ronaldo discovered the best form of his career post-May since the turn of the decade, which has witnessed the forward single-handily guide Madrid to the final in Cardiff.

He arguably eliminated two favourites en route to the final with hat-tricks against Atletico and Bayern Munich, scoring 8 goals over both legs. Likewise, Ronaldo scored six goals in Real’s final four league games to edge out Barca in the final week of the La Liga season.

Though, far from tactically competent, and still lacking balance in certain areas, Zidane’s Real compliments Ronaldo’s transition into a conventional forward. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of the finest ball-playing midfielders in world football, whilst Marcelo and Dani Carvajal offer crossing from advanced full-back positions.

If Zidane prefers width, Karim Benzema can operate in the channels, whereas Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez have offered pace and defensive discipline from wide areas. Then, there’s Isco who has helped Real overload central areas but also provides the guile Madrid can lack if Kroos and Modric aren’t floating around the penalty area.

Where Mourinho’s counter-attacking Madrid benefitted Ronaldo’s pace, power, and trickery during his prime, Zidane’s version – stemming from Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival that led to a proactive outlook of the game – provides ample service for the reliable Portuguese goal-scorer. Under Mourinho, Ronaldo was the ultimate counter-attacking player, but his evolution along with the Real methodology alteration under Ancelotti and Zidane suggests he’s now the ultimate forward.

In truth, although Ronaldo continues to maintain an unprecedented level of excellence at 32, the decline many have harped about could limit what would be an advantage for the newly-crowned Spanish champions. On paper, Ronaldo charging into space behind Dani Alves and running at Andrea Barzagli appears to be an area that would concern Juventus in previous seasons.

But this version of Ronaldo may prefer to exploit the Juventus defence with his athletic and aerial superiority. Apart from a few moments of brilliance from Lionel Messi, Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve have been susceptible defending crosses from wide areas – a route to goal Ronaldo utilized to dispatch Bayern and Atletico – and will encounter difficulties preventing the 32-year-old from scoring.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Ronaldo’s first Champions League triumph, and despite the various heartfelt narratives surrounding the final, football’s biggest stage is still about him. At 32, he remains the best, and most dangerous player on the pitch, capable of deciding a match within seconds.

History beckons in Cardiff, but with nothing else to prove to the cynics, the possibility of being the first team to retain the Champions League in this era presents Ronaldo with another opportunity to enhance his football immortality with one memorable performance against Juventus.

 
 

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Zidane’s Real Madrid wins battle in wide areas against Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich

Real Madrid’s quest for a historic European cup/league double was under significant threat when they drew Bayern Munich in the semi-finals, but as typified under Zinedine Zidane’s tenure, the reigning European champions squeaked past Carlo Ancelotti’s men.

Notching two away goals at the Allianz Arena placed Real in a great position to knockout the tournament favourites, and stylistically, suggested the hosts would receive opportunities to break on the counter.  With Gareth Bale unavailable due to injury, Zidane altered his side’s shape to a 4-3-1-2 with Isco floating behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.

Zidane’s tactical tweak was possibly intended to ensure Real dominate the midfield zone, whilst providing space for the full-backs to push forward to provide width. Real’s heroic first leg fight-back was largely responsible to the proactive positioning of Dani Carvajal and Marcelo to exploit Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery’s reluctance to track-back, and it was likely both outfits would aim to dominate wide areas.

Ironically, the hosts encountered issues in the opening stages of the match in wide areas. Bayern’s first legitimate goal-scoring chance involved David Alaba overlapping Ribery in half space to pick out Thiago, but Marcelo blocked the Spaniard’s shot, while Robben smashed the rebound into the side-netting.

Robben also made similar moves into half space to receive passes from Philip Lahm, but Bayern’s productivity in wide areas – specifically Alaba’s crosses – was underwhelming. The away side equally received space in the channels to break in transition, but the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lewandowski failed to launch these swift transitional moves.

But where Bayern easily found space behind the Real full-backs in the channels, the hosts’ full-backs still surged forward behind Ribery and Robben. The other issue Bayern encountered was Xabi Alonso’s immobility ahead of the back four – he played extremely poor passes, was dispossessed when pressure was applied, and easily overrun in midfield – and Real breaking into space behind the full-backs.

Carvajal delivered a cross into the box that Manuel Neuer pushed into the path of Sergio Ramos, but the Spaniard’s effort was cleared off the line. Ronaldo also wasted a chance when he broke into a breakaway down the right channel, and also spurned an opportunity that stemmed from a brilliant solo Marcelo run.

Nevertheless, what proved to be an extremely open match in the first half swiftly changed as Bayern took ascendancy by retaining possession for extensive periods, whilst persisting with creating overloads in wide areas. Kroos and Modric’s protection decreased as the match wore on, thus leaving Carvajal and Marcelo unable to cope with Bayern’s wide threat.

Alaba and Ribery combined down the left with the former charging into half-space to create Robben’s chance that was cleared off the line. While Robben subsequently attacked the aforementioned space to earn a penalty that was converted by Lewandowski. Lahm and Robben continuously overloaded Marcelo with the latter lofting balls to the far post and attempting to clip forward passes over the Real defence, as Vidal, Alaba and Ribery spurned chances in the box.

Zidane, however, deserves credit for sacrificing Benzema for youngster Marco Asensio, and eventually Isco for Lucas Vazquez as Real reverted to a 4-1-4-1 to ensure there was proper protection for the full-backs. Real remained deep out of possession but with ensured structure, thus enabling Carvajal to lead a 3v2 counter-attack which should’ve resulted in a goal.

The general pattern of the match altered in the latter stages with Bayern’s sole chances stemming from Robben attempting to clip balls from the left over the defence, whereas Real began to locate Ronaldo in the box. The Portuguese forward struggled throughout the match, but similar to Real’s first leg triumph, Ronaldo eventually isolated Lahm to level the score-line.

Coincidentally, Thomas Muller’s introduction pushed Thiago deeper alongside Alonso, thus providing Lewandowski support around the box.

Bayern fortuitously regained the lead via a ball over the top for Muller to chest into the path of Lewandowski, and although the Polish striker didn’t score the goal, the move highlighted the shift in the away side’s approach following Zidane’s formation alteration. Robben also attempted a pass over the top for Muller in half-space to tee up Vidal but the Chilean’s shot was blocked.

Ultimately, Vidal’s harsh dismissal drastically shifted the pattern of the match. Ancelotti turned to Joshua Kimmich for Lewandowski, which pushed Muller upfront and the young German alongside Thiago in midfield. Bayern were now heavily reliant on Robben’s counter-attacking threat from the right, whereas Marcelo’s running also proved crucial.

Ronaldo began to locate pockets of space in the final third to receive possession, and although his final two goals were offside, it equally highlighted the Real talisman’s evolution into a classic goal-poacher. Mistakes from the match officials will continue to dominate headlines, but in pivotal moments throughout the tie, Ronaldo’s ability to adopt dangerous positions was the decisive factor.

In a tie heavily dominated in wide areas, where Bayern were deprived a fully-fit Lewandowski, Real could rely on arguably the best no.9 in the sport. Albeit Bayern’s potential second half fight-back, Real were worthy winners, and Zidane deserves credit for making significant alterations over both legs to ensure Real preserved their status as Europe’s dominant club.

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2017 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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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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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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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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Fernando Santos’ Portugal live and die through crosses against inspired Iceland

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ST ETIENNE, FRANCE – JUNE 14: Ronaldo (L) of Portugal objects to Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir (R) during the EURO 2016 Group F football match between Portugal and Iceland at Geoffroy Guichard Stadium in St Etienne, France on June 14, 2016. (Photo by Evren Atalay/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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.

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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.”

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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.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2016 in Euro 2016, Published Work

 

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