After almost a month we finally got our first EURO finalist as Portugal beat Wales in Lyon. Portugal is returning after 12 years and, paradoxically, this time they are in same position as their opponents Greece were in that distant 2004 final.
Portugal has been bashed and ridiculed for their defensive approach as much as Greece was back then when they faced free flowing Portugal. I don’t find it fair as teams don’t break any rules playing defensively. Besides, they didn’t lose any game in the tournament either.
Wales came into the match without their best midfielder, Aaron Ramsey, and Tottenham defender Ben Davies. However, they have beaten one of the best team sheets in the tournament during the previous round, Belgium, and they were confident going into the match against inefficient Portugal which was unable to win in regular time whole tournament.
It is difficult to say who was the favourite before the match, but both teams entered the pitch with a clear idea not to make something stupid and get punished. They both refrained from high pressing in order to keep it tidy in defence. Overall approach quite similar to game Portugal played against Croatia in first knock-out round. Even during on the ball phase of play both managers refrained from any tactical surprises and played exactly as they did in previous matches.
Portugal initiated their active defence as their opponents approached the middle third. Throughout the knock out phase they weren’t interested in closing down opposition high up the pitch. In a way that is to cover lack of pace in defensive line, as high press usually involves high line, but part of it is due to Fernando Santos not being willing to risk his defensive shape to prospect of winning the ball higher up the pitch. As you can see below they allow opposition to get to middle third of the pitch and then they deny the passing option. There is no single Welsh player available for a pass once Portugal defence is set. Since they don’t press high and aren’t prone to losing the ball in their half, they have the defence set up pretty much always. Hence, conceding only once in three knock out matches.
Once the defence was set, only option for Wales was to either recycle the possession in defence or try their luck with direct balls to Robson Kanu or same type of risky passes for Bale who was running from deep. You can see how that worked on Welsh first half passing diagram pasted below. Portugal effectively denied them entrance in the middle third where Wales would be able to create something.
However, major part of Wales’ game plan was to find runs of their forwards and then quickly penetrate through Bale’s speed and technique into the dangerous positions. Problem is, while this worked wonders against Belgium which had the burden of the team that has to attack, thus it had to position itself higher on the pitch, it didn’t concern in the slightest the side of Fernando Santos. He was happy to take the blame for ugly football and sit patiently in defence while waiting for counter or a mistake from opposition.
In order to brake this defensive stance Bale frequently dropped deep to pick up the ball and help the midfield to carry the ball into more dangerous position. He was drifting all over the pitch, however, it was always against set Portugal defence.
You can see above Gareth Bale coming from deep with the ball and looking for pass. However, there really is no passing option unless he turns back and passes it to defence. All his team mates are either covered, or will be closed down even before they receive the ball. Only solution Bale has and uses is to float a cross into the box hoping Robson Kanu or King will get to it before four defenders and a goalkeeper.
This still image illustrates quite well how Wales attacked. Bale had a free role in the team and was able to drift wherever he could find space. King, who replaced suspended Ramsey was coordinating himself based on Bale’s movement. When Bale drifted right he would go left and vice versa. Difference of King’s role to that of Ramsey was that former was occasionally dropping deep to receive the pass and look for two forwards, midfielder running from deep, or one of two wing backs.
Since Ramsey wasn’t there against Portugal, his role was divided by Chris Coleman. Forward runs from deep were left to King, while Bale had often to abandon advanced position and drop deep to pick the ball in middle third as you can see on chart below.
While Wales was trying to organize their game to get in the middle third they were effectively denied space by Portugal. In the end they had to rely to direct balls to forwards which was also largely ineffective and posed little trouble for opposition. Allen and Leadley dropping to help defence bring the ball forward meant only easier job for their opponents to mark remaining Welsh players. Summed up, Portugal did very good job without the ball in denying any opportunities to Wales.
Going forward, Portugal showed nothing new compared to previous games. Adrien Silva, Renato Sanches and Joao Mario frequently exchanged places while Nani was drifting to right and Ronaldo deeper and left. They were largely patient in build up waiting for their offensive players to create space with movement. Occasionally they would send a direct long ball to Ronaldo from defence, but that was largely closed down by Welsh defence.
What Portugal loves to do in offence is overload left side of the pitch. They did the same thing during every match and it never really worked. Fernando Soares’ side completely transforms its formation when they get to this zone. In the image above you can see Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo exchanged positions and left back overlapped him and left winger Joao Mario. Sanches and Silva also try to confuse the defence with their movement.
Rarely defence bites this and goes out of shape. However, it allows more space for right back Cedric who is largely left alone on the opposite side. Depending on circumstances, in this case Nani, can chose to pass short and go on with overload, cross for Ronaldo or change the point of attack by passing to Cedric on opposite wing. He is then free to pick his cross while defence tries to shift to other side. This is actually the moment Fernando Santos is looking for as Ronaldo and other runners are able to escape attention of otherwise set defences. The move didn’t work once, however, it is viable option as we have seen by now that Portugal doesn’t need really much to score. A chance or two.
First half finished in stalemate, however, it was Wales’ game plan that didn’t really work. As far as Portugal was concerned, everything went according to plan. After all, nobody expected them to score before Cristiano Ronaldo runs up for first penalty in the shoot out.
A big surprise came in 50th minute as, first, we have found out the role of Joao Mario in the line up. He is obviously there to take set pieces, and two, Portugal scored after corner and cross from Raphael. Wales didn’t have time to digest first goal when, after three minutes, another cross from left was deflected to Ronaldo and his shot was put in the net again by Nani.
From then on, Portugal continued to play the way they always did while Wales tried to invent something. They got to 4-3-3 formation with Bale all over the place but did little to unsettle Portugal defence. While Wales was proud of their team play it was sad to see Bale trying to lift whole the weight of semi finals as he was going up and down the pitch, shooting from most improbable distances… In the end it was Portugal who won the game with team play.
To conclude, both teams came on fairly cautious. However, Wales’ plan didn’t work in the end as Portugal, yet again, did great job defensively while patiently waiting for their opportunity. Wales didn’t have answers in offence, but they didn’t have luck neither.