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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.