There is quite an outrage in media and social networks after Portugal won against Poland and progressed to semi finals of EURO without winning a single game in regular time. Quite unfair, as far as I am concerned, since Portugal is playing within the rules and did nothing wrong. If anything, they have adapted very well to opposition in the knock-out phase much of credit goes to Fernando Santos who is one of those managers that aren’t afraid to change when they see they made a mistake.
Poland came into the match after late winner against Croatia, and compared to that game, were much more willing to decide the game in regular time. Soares wasn’t so impressed with Poland. He expected attacks down the wings and was fairly confident he can block those. Well, until second minute when his right back, Cedric, missed an interception and allowed an assist to Lewandowski. Nevertheless, Portugal remained positive, reacted well and continued as nothing happened.
Poland on other hand came in the match after penalty shoot out with Switzerland full of confidence they can hurt once mighty Portugal team. And they did, perhaps sooner than they had hoped. First 20 minutes they had an advantage mainly as Portugal failed to break the link from defence to midfield due to few factors.
First, there was a lot of transformation going on as Poland progressed into middle of the pitch that Portugal found hard to track. Krychowiak dropped deep and full backs pushed high, while Lewandowski was taking up position of Krychowiak they transformed into sort of unbalanced 3-5-2 in which left winger Grosicki went very high to play as wide attacker along with Milik. You can see this transformation on the still image below.
Whenever this worked, Lewandowski or Blaszczykowski were able to turn with ball and spread the attack to either wing, usually left to Grosicki and Polish transition worked very well in this regard creating lots of problems with crosses and players running from deep.
However, this didn’t last long as Fernando Santos adapted midway through the first half and moved Renato Sanchez to right to disrupt this transition with his physical presence. Portugal was mainly pushing down the left trying to tie together a number of short passes with frequent change of positions from advanced players. Once around the box they went either for crosses by left back Eliseu or combination of passes to penetrate into the box. Doing so, they often overloaded the left offensive zone as even right winger, Joao Mario, Adrien Silva or, later Renato Sanches, drifted centrally allowing space for lone Cedric who would venture forward widening the play and giving an option to switch the point of attack as seen bellow.
Portuguese attackers are marked with red circles while midfielders are blue and full backs yellow. Image was taken in 6th minute while Joao Mario was playing on left and Adrien Silva on right. However, you can clearly see Adrien Silva also on left while Cristiano Ronaldo dropped back into Silvas’s nominal position. Frequent changes of positions to overload left is similar approach Portugal had taken against Croatia. It also has sense as Croatian right back Srna and Poland’s Piszczek are quite offensive and the latter even more so.
However, despite few crosses, and blocked shots, Portugal failed to do anything particularly dangerous in first 25 minutes. It is the second half of the first period that made Portugal more of a danger to Polish defence. Once Fernando Santos adjusted, and put Renato Sanchez on right side, Adrien Silva in center and Joao Mario left, Portugal was less predictable, more balanced in their approach to goal and more dangerous.
Renato Sanchez wasn’t drifting in center as Joao Mario and Adrien Silva previously did and he offered much more support to his right back Cedric. As Polish defenders didn’t have only one player to take care of in that area, passing on the right became much more precise and convincing as you can see on the diagram above. After all, Portugal manages to connect few quick passes that release Renato Sanchez on edge of the box and his long shot ends in the net.
Despite the equalizer, Poland manages to recover and the half ends in, statistically, fairly even match despite Poland creating more dangerous chances down the wings on counter attack than Portugal managed with their short passing game.
Poland upped their game at the beginning of second half, at least in sense they had more possession on the ball. This was mainly due to better positioning in their defensive zone which allowed them to take the ball into middle third of the pitch with fewer problems as Portugal pressing was largely ineffective due to better spacing. However, this brought little to their game as Portugal was largely able to negate them any significant chances, while being able to threaten nonetheless.
You can see above how Poland managed to break the Portuguese pressing, however, they found them self without passing options. While this transformation to 3-5-2 was working to a point in first half, you can see that in second period with Renato Sanches on right, things closed down for Poland. Even if in this shot Sanches is out of position, he is actually covering for Cedric who went up the field to close down. A move Joao Mario rarely did which was a reason that Grosicki was able to maraud high up Polish left flank.
Above you can see how Polish game down the left slowly winded out during the second half shifting to right as the time went on. However, they failed to find same incisiveness they had in first period and game slowly went in favour of Portugal after 70th minute.
It is roughly the same time Portugal formation changed to more of 4-3-3 with Cristiano Ronaldo as lone striker while Renato Sanches and Nani occupied wide winger roles. With Quaresma entering the game in 80th minute, the marauding Sanches changed to middle again while Quaresma remained on right till the end of the match.
Whether it was this tactical move midway through the second half that shifted the game, fatigue or fear of losing, Poland failed to get the grips on it and failed to adapt. Adam Nawalka reacted to Portugal domination by changing his defensive shape to 4-1-4-1 as you can see bellow.
Neither of changes produced significant advantage however, Portugal seemed more comfortable with the ball and ready to take any chance. While the team was, Cristiano Ronaldo certainly wasn’t since he missed a few before the game went to penalty shoot out.
To conclude, Poland had an edge in the beginning but Fernando Santos adapted very well to neutralize right wing by moving Sanches there which disrupted Polish flow and produced a goal for Portugal at the same time. Even if Poland got possession at the beginning of second half Portugal adapted well enough again by changing to 4-3-3 and remained in control of the match till the end.
While it was pretty even encounter, credit has to be given to Portuguese manager who did right moves and looked more interested to score than Pollocks.