Croatia v Portugal analyisis: Croatia had better players but lesser manager

Sometimes you lose a game, because you are unlucky, and sometimes because you are inept. That is the short story of a long hard fought battle Croatia and Portugal played in last 16 match at EURO. Having 17 shots and not a single one on goal, might be unlucky in some cases. It might also mean that one of the sides basically didn’t know what it was doing. Or whatever it was trying, was trying the wrong things. As the stakes are huge in knock out stage both teams came on the pitch determined not to get caught in possession allowing easy chances. They were both disciplined in defence and applied little to no pressure on opposition defence line. Initially, in possession, Croatia was looking for long balls from defensive line to Ivan Perisic who seemed a good target for such approach with his 1,87 m against 15 centimetres lower Southampton right back Cedric.

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long passes to Perisic in the first half

However, this didn’t work well as Perisic was quickly crowded out by Portugal defence or there were not enough Croatia players to pick up the flick-ons and profit from this mismatch. Combined with these high balls to Perisic, Croatia was using every other possible occasion to channel the play down either wing as you can see in their 1st half offensive zone passing.

croatia 1st half offensive third passing
Poor use of midfield and ineffecting wing play from Croatia in 1st half
However, as they were still quite cautious not to get hit on counter, full backs Srna

and Strinic didn’t go far enough to create overload in wide areas so Portugal dealt with them easily. Below you can see a good example of Portugal defence as the left winger Andre Gomes closes down Srna allowing Raphael to worry only about Brozovic Adrien Silva can position himself to pressure either Brozovic or Modric while Rakitic ‘s run is already under attention of William. Defensive line, in fact whole Portugal, is positioned as in defending schoolbook and they indeed played team defence throughout the game.

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Team defence from Portugal
Below shot shows huge space in centre midfield as Rakitic pushes forward out of the picture. Space vacated by him isn’t used as both, Modric and Badelj, were firmly anchored on centre line since Croatia is channelling their play through the wings. This way they lose natural 3 on 2 advantage in this area and, as they are too cautious to commit full backs forward, they don’t create any sort of overload in spaces they actually want to attack. Whole Croatia idea of offense was playing into hands of Portugal. Even when they managed to put some crosses in, and they were only eight (two successful), Fernando Santos cleverly replaced agile Ricardo Carvalho with slower but stronger and taller centre back Jose Fonte. Combined with Pepe, those two dealt with everything Croatia could offer in first half.
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Croatia game plan didn’t include using of midfield center zone

Portugal was all to happy to defend and was fairly successful doing so. While Croatia had to change something as they had the ball but nowhere near danger zones, Portugal had to wait and react. And indeed Croatia came out of dressing room more eager to do something. For the beginning they started employing much higher pressing. Thing we have seen in the game against Spain that gave them few chances through balls recovered higher up the pitch and that cost them the goal after poorly executed pressing on Spain defensive line.

Additionally, Srna and Strinic pushed forward while Perisic went more central, although still in left wing slot. Despite this more aggressive approach, Croatia still remained true to their long diagonal balls from Corluka or Modric for wingers to get into dangerous position. Not surprisingly, in second half they had the same number of long passes as in the first half when they tried it 26 times. This says that despite more aggressive full backs the main game plan that produced only three low quality shots didn’t really change. You can see below how Croatia is still unwilling to use most dangerous zones of pitch.

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Even in second half Croatia is stubborn to put in ineffective crosses  abandoning the middle

What changed was number of crosses that Croatia doubled in the second half. The result was again the same and lot of low quality shots were made resulting with more frustration.

However, really significant change came from Portugal. As Croatia went for more dubious quality pressing, suddenly spaces opened for Portugal. Their passing went more direct, in a way as a result of higher pressing that made for rushed clearances. However, as this pressing often wasn’t executed well, it offered better quick long passes. Noticing this, Fernando Santos made two crucial decisions. He put in 18 year old Renato Sanches and changed his shape from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 with wide wingers Nani and Qaresma. While Sanches was disrupting Croatian game with his physical presence wide wingers occupied vacated spaces of Croatian full backs that pushed up.

The second half situation is really best illustrated by comparison of Portugal offensive passes during 90 minutes of the game. You can see that in first part of the game Portugal was focused mainly down the flank where Cristiano Ronaldo was dropping deeper. Even those passes that came from right were largely aiming at him. However, the second half debunks the idea of Portugal as only one man team.

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Change of formation and approach mid through second half

If you look at above diagram you will notice two things. Most obvious shift of point of attack to the right. This is due to more attacking play of both Croatian fullbacks, but also as targeting the weakest link in Croatia, Lazio reserve Ivan Strinic. The other important change compared to 1st half is the nature of passes. Suddenly there are a lot more of direct long balls into central and wide areas. This, however is due to Croatia poor pressing and great reaction from Fernando Santos who changes shape and uses whatever Croatia was giving him.

In the end, the goal came after Strinic was caught in possession deep in the Portugal half and again the man of the match, Renato Sanches, pops up to run whole length of field before passing to Nani on the edge of the box.

To conclude, the key to the game was Croatia and it’s stubbornness to (poorly) use the wings abandoning the centre of the pitch despite the obvious talent there. As an effect of this, Portugal coach makes change in shape and uses strong Renato Sanches to disrupt that little movement of ball in the middle that Croatia made. Also, Cristiano Ronaldo finally playing disciplined game for the team. As a last words… No doubt this was adaptive Fernando Santos’ winning over stubborn one dimensional Ante Cacic.

Thanks for reading!

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IREvsITA passion and tactics win over tactics

“It is stuff dreams are made off”, said Robbie Brady after the match Ireland had, and did, win against sturdy Italy’s Conte side that reinvented “catenaccio”. Sides played a match in very different circumstances in Lille. While Ireland had to win or die trying, Italy already knew it was through, it was first in the group and no matter what, will play Spain in next round. The few doubts were only in the head of Antonio Conte who still wasn’t sure who is his first team left wing back and how to make Bernardeschi, a natural wide striker, play as a right wing back. That was the context that shaped the game.
Conte sent eight new players on the pitch searching for answers about his reserves and made little changes to his overall tactical approach to the match. He knew Ireland will have to come onto him and he was more than happy to let them do it. After all, it is the same scenario from the beginning and great win against Belgium that imposed Italy as a formidable opponent in the tournament.
Martin O’Neill, though, had everything to play for. It is rarely so evident when the players in the team occupy relatively different positions in offensive and defensive phase of the game.

 

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Majority  of Ireland went down left flank in the first half. You can see that by the ammount of work Italy had to do in that part of the field

 

Above is the defensive diagram for Italy in the first half. You can see all the work that had to be done on the side where Bernardeschi, Sturaro and Barzagli were operating. It is doubtful O’Neill was targeting especially Fiorentina striker who has been playing out of position. I’d guess it was just lucky coincidence as Ireland has Ward, McClean and Brady who are all left footed with prolific cross. What wasn’t a lucky coincidence was that O’Neill picked all three of them to overload the Italian right side and it was working well from the first whistle.

 

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Ireland attacking shape trying to overload left flank with three left footed players well adept at crossing

 

Although primarily a winger or left full back, Robbie Brady had a very distinguished role in the team once O’Neill set him to play as a central midfielder. He was constantly overloading the left flank allowing McClean to push further forward and occupy Barzagli. Depending on Brady’s movement, he would either drag away Sturaro or let Ward ping his deep crosses into the box. McCarthy played an important covering role for him, but also for Hendricks who was always surging in the centre midfield from the left wing leaving space for Coleman to widen the pitch and keep De Sciglio occupied on the far flank.

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Ireland passing and positional diagram shows important role Brady and Ward had in supporting each other and McClean

 

Lovely diagram from 11tegen11 (twitter @11tegen11) above shows the Irish game plan clearly. Players who have seen the ball the most have the biggest circle and you clearly see that Brady and Ward were the players looked for by their team mates. This overload created a lot of pressure on Italian right flank and produced numerous crosses into the box.

 

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Result of left flank overload is 14 crosses in first half that didn’t connect too often but kept Italy under constant pressure

 

Despite crosses weren’t connecting it still kept Italians on their toes. This pressure didn’t subside even when Ireland didn’t have the ball. They would press high up the pitch, once again compromising their “default” 4-4-2 shape. Long and Murphy were instructed to close down Ogbonna and Bonucci while McClean piled off his nominal left midfielder position and went closing Barzagli. Thiago Motta, Italian player designated for connecting the defence with midfield was kept in check by Hendrick while Brady was allowed to drop off and conserve the energy for other tasks.

 

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High pressing employed by Ireland to prevent long precise passing from deep and obstruct circulation to main link between defence and offense – Thiago Motta

 

The pressing forced some errors in possession for Italy but Ireland wasn’t able to use them to any significant effect. The same happened when Ireland had the ball in their defensive zone. Technical weakness of their defensive line showed every time they had to circulate it behind but Italians were more worried about their own shape so that went by just well for Ireland. In fact, everything went well for them as they had everything they wanted and planned except the goal.

Paradox is, Conte felt absolutely the same. Above all he was interested to see his reserve players in the game and how would Bernardeschi fare as right wing back. They were more than content to keep Ireland pinging the crosses into packed defence and concentrated on direct long passes to their centre forwards. The pattern from the first two games reappeared whenever Italy got the ball. It was either direct long ball to one of the strikers that went to flank just to be crossed back again, or long pass directly to one of the wing backs to the same effect.

 

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Whole tournament Italy played pattient game with direct passing from deep to forwards or wings. This was no different

 

As Conte had Thiago Motta instead of De Rossi in the line up he was happy Motta did the distribution alongside Bonucci. However, all these balls (39) failed to connect but Conte was perfectly happy with it. As in all previous matches he was patiently waiting for that right one. Except changing the personnel he really didn’t change anything in his overall approach and that continued in the second half.

Conte was aware Ireland has to open up more as the time comes and he was confident the team can weather the crosses and overload on his right flank. To up his chances in 60th minute he subbed Daniele Bernardeschi with Darmian who is more adept in playing defensively and that was his last defensive move.

O’Neill on the other hand had to do more as the time passed and ordered his right back Seamus Coleman to go more offensive. Attacks down the overloaded left died off and his approach was more balanced as Coleman also provided an option up the pitch.
Chasing the game O’Neil made several changes and shifts as the end was getting closer going all out attack in last 15 minutes when he brought Hoolahan. As soon as Conte sensed this he came out of his nutshell. Not that he changed his game plan but he first subbed Insignie for Immobile and after Hoolahan entered on pitch Conte ordered EL Shaarawy to substitute De Sciglio on left wing back.

He was right thinking those pacey offensive players will have more time and space once Ireland open and he was gambling theirs skill, and one on one ability, will give him opportunity to finish off Ireland that went gung-ho. However, despite sound approach it all went the other way as often does in football. The man with very special task Robbie Brady connected with Hoolahan cross.

What we can conclude in the end is that Conte anticipated exactly the game and played it very well. He was confident his defence could wait and soak the pressure. He anticipated once that happens Ireland will open up and then he swung his daggers with Insigne and El Shaarawy to finish them off. However, sheer passion and will from Ireland prevailed over cunning plan of Italian master tactician and rightfully so.

quickness brings historic victory to Albania

Sometimes you will hear people saying there are those big, must see, matches and then you have the rest. I really don’t think that is a valid point, although I do understand smallerteams aren’t as attractive to wide football masses as are powerhouses who always play to win the tournaments. Match between Albania and Romania is surely seen as a small” match not really worth the proper” attention but it is finest example of a match that will go into football history books in Albania. So that can’t really be a small match, can it? Besides, this game gave us perfect opportunity how, normally neglected, throw in routines can be decisive for a football match. Before the game both teams needed a win to have a chance of reaching the knock-out stage and both set up as expected. Romania was a favourite to win the game so they went out with an idea to hold the ball and control the match. Not surprisingly,

Gianni  De Biasi sent his team of The Eagles on the field with the same game plan they had in previous two games. Very disciplined in defence and even faster and more decisive going for counter-attack. First half kicked off with above premisses, and Romania found itself with problems in possession immediately. Confronted with very disciplined Albanian defensive formation, they had too few players in the opposition half that were covered without problems. As Hoban and Prepelita  dropped to pick up the ball they were left with only five players in the opposition half and their game plan of controlling the match was undone right there. Albanian defence did good job, but unwillingness to push fullbacks further up the pitch was crucial for ineffectiveness for Romania and their loss of control.
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Romani failed to involve full backs in the game and made nothing to over run comfortable Albanian defence
You can see on the above screenshot how much space fullbacks have to receive the ball. However, even when they did receive it, they seldom sought to overlap and add the numbers in the offensive third. The picture that tells even more is the passing overlay of two Romanian fullbacks. They both finish their involvement in the game about 35 yards from the goal line. To make it worst their combined stats for take ons and crosses stops at two! One cross (that didn’t connect) from Sapunaru and one take-on from Matel. That is their whole offensive work. So how does that relate to their game play?
lbrb overlay
You see above what a measely contribution to the game made the Romanian fullbacks. Against organized defence Iordanescu should have be more brave and send the upfield to overload the Albanian defence
As they are firmly closed in the middle having numerical disadvantage  (usually Prepelita dropped deep to pick the ball from centre backs), all they can do are long diagonal, or direct, balls into the lap of Albanian defence. In the end they finished with 34 of those long passes of which only third connected and none in any dangerous area. In other words – Albania completely owned them and did what they do – counter. Just as Romania, Albania repeatedly searched long direct balls once they had won it back, usually in the middle. However, it was against disorganized defence.  They were incisive, changing point of attack and, as the rule says, within 5 to 10 seconds they were either in front of opposition goal or given the possession away, usually as Sadiku was caught off side.
However, their best opportunity came not after the counter but as Lenjani and Abrashi

outplay the opposition on the left in 23rd minute.

24 clear chance counter over left into center to right and back into cener 3 misses
Albania normally threatened via counter-attacks but their best chance came after connecting few passes on left taking whole defence out of equation. Lenjani missed open goal, though

 

Quick passes caught their opposition completely out of shape and Sadiku finds himself with plenty of space and time to passes into for Lila. It all ends with far post cross that Lenjani who isn’t able to convert on open goal.

Even if Albania was really good on counter, what really changed the game were swiftly executed throw-ins. It is such a neglected aspect of play that most statistics don’t even include number of throw-ins. Yet, Albania managed to execute four of those on right flank. Three of them caught the opposition unprepared and finished with the shot on goal. One of this came in 43rd minute and decided the game.

By the end of the first half Albania had better idea what to do on the pitch, they defended really well waiting to rob the ball and quickly transition to attack with direct passing. If they were technically more gifted bunch they would be even more dangerous as a lot of those balls ended out of play since the pass or the first touch were inaccurate. Then again, if they were indeed technically better, they would probably seek more possession and had a different game plan.

Slowness and ineffectiveness in offensive phase was dully noted by Romanian manager Angehel Iordanescu who decided to act immediately at half time. Prepelita was substituted with Sanmartean who looked more decisive on the ball. He was keen to take on the opposition surging forward like Ivan Rakitic does in Croatian national team, and he looked for more short, precise passes forward. However, despite higher work rate, more movement in the final third Romania never seemed to believe they can change anything.

From Albanian point of view nothing really changed in the second half. They continued business as usual and secured the historic first victory in EURO. In the end, two things decided the game.

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A monument to Albanin defence as not a single pass penentrates them in dangerous area

 

A magic force field around the Albanian box is one. A true monument to their defesive work as not a single pass penetrates inside, as you can see above. The second was general idea of direct counter attacking game but particularly a small neglected part that De Biasi won’t be commended for, despite it is precisely his brilliance that brought victory, by instructing the players (Hysaj above everyone) to take quick throw-ins when needed.

On other hand, Iordanescu failed to risk by pushing forward the full back losing the opportunity to potentially unbalance the opposition defence. More aggressive movement and forward play in second half wasn’t enough against well organized Eagles defence.

EURO 2016: Italy – Sweden post match analysis on Italy

After great display against Belgium, there was a lot of expectation on Italy to confirm the first win with another good performance. On the other side, Sweden failed to win the “easiest” game against Ireland and was under pressure to get at least some result before the last game with one of the tournament favorites Belgium.

However, Italian manager Antonio Conte didn’t succumb to hype and didn’t feel he needs to prove anything. His sole aim was in line with Italian tradition and that was to get the result and result he got. His counterpart on Sweden bench, Erik Hamren almost got what he wanted in what was labeled the most boring game of EURO so far.

I can understand that feeling, but games at this level often aren’t played for fans but for result and literally, in the end, Italy got it. Apart swapping Darmian with Florenzi Conte didn’t change anything in his game. If there was any significant change it was playing even more cautious than against Belgium when in possession.

While Bonucci often surged upfield with ball in first match, this time Conte ordered him to be more disciplined. After all, Sweden got only Ekdal and Kallstrom in central zone of midfield and Italian manager was satisfied with numbers advantage there. There was really no need to risk with Chiellini pushing forward when in possession as it was the case in match against Belgium who fielded three classy players in center field.

The other change in gameplan Conte employed was more pressing on opposition defensive line. While against Belgium he was satisfied to wait for a counter or a good long ball, Italy accepted the role of favorite in match against Sweden and pushed the defensive line a tad bit more. Not enough to compromise whole defensive shape, though.

In all other parts, the gameplan was identical to first match. It was all about long balls from De Rossi, Bonucci and Chiellini. They went either diagonally to wide players pushing high up the pitch or to Pelle and Eder. The idea was always the same. Once the diagonal ball went to flank it would be crossed in front of goal.

long passes ita
However, those long passes largely missed the target as Pelle failed to cope with Swedish centerbacks which led to his substitution in the end. As shown in the diagram above. Italians had a bit more luck with diagonal long balls, but subsequent crosses were again out of reach for Pelle. In fact, only four out of 16 reached the target and two of them came after corners.

Italian game with the ball really wasn’t working as intended by the end of the half, but that was the same as it was in the match against Belgium until it actually worked and opened up the game. However, Antonio Conte was more interested in not losing the game than winning and he knew Sweden needs the points more. As he was sound in defense and Sweden was as much as impotent in attack as Italy, he decided to wait and play the game as he played against Belgium waiting for that long ball or that cross to finally connect.

lopta s  l boka na desni - ita

This is typical Italian attack after the long ball has been played either, directly to wide backs Candreva or Florenzi, or passed to them from centerfield. Arrow shows where could Italian midfielder move if they were really interested to keep the ball. However, that would mean compromising defensive shape and open up to possible counter-attack. A thing Conte really wanted to avoid even if that meant way less chance to threaten the Swedes.

It was a game where both teams weren’t really prepared to lose. Italy covered space and made futile any attempt from Sweden to effectively cross or pass vertically, while Italy felt secure they won’t let any goals in and happy to wait for their chance. That came very late and proved Conte was right while Sweden might have regret the points lost they really didn’t do enough to endanger opponents.