The ugly, the bad, the Wales v Portugal semi finals

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.

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Portugal allows opponents to come into middle third but then they close down all passing options very efficiently

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.

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Bale was often coming deep to get the ball. By the time he came upfield, most of the options were already taken away

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.

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You can see Bale’s touches in first hald were all over the pitch. Rarely in really dangerous position. It was even worst in the second half

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.

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Portugal tends to overload left flank and then goes either for cross, short pass or switch to opposite flank for yet another cross

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.

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EURO: Wales – Belgium analysis: Clueless Belgium

After England and Iceland game, we have seen yet another upset in Euro quarter finals as Wales surprisingly easily dealt with heavily favoured Belgium side. Although for different reasons, both favourites got an early lead and failed to progress against “smaller” side. While England succumbed to pressure, Belgium seemed to have no coherent plan how to beat their opponents to begin with.
While Wales came into the match knowing it will be a hard battle they prepared for it, while Belgium seemed confident their quality in attack will be enough to cover for depleted defence. However, it was their attack that really disappointed and not the defence thatconcededd three goals. At times it seemed asWilmotss was playing a match of FIFA on playstation, passing the ball to Hazard and hoping he will dribble it into the net eventually.

However, the game started rather confusing for Wales. Joe Allen lost couple of balls as he passed horizontal long balls, an action that is under “Don’t do it” section in football manual. Apart from dubious passing decisions in possession there was a lot of confusion in early minutes in Wales defensive positioning.

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Wales started off a bit unsure. Theri passing and defensive positioning was dubious at times

Davies is completely distracted leaving Carrasco on side, Bale is pushing forward instead of covering Witsel and huge space behind him with Lukaku and Meunier completely free to receive the ball. In this instance Nianggolan chose to ping a long direct ball to Carrasco. However, he is so late in his decision making that, despite the hiccup in Welsh defence, right winger ends up in off side.

Opening 15 minutes were plagued by Welsh poor defensive positioning and soon after, instead closing down Nianggolan, Ramsey decides to cover the goal. That produces one of the best goals of tournament as Nianggolan hits a thunder strike into the top corner.

At that moment psychology started to influence the game heavily. Belgium seemed as they thought that Nianggolan’s individual brilliance is just a small part of what is to come while Wales actually picked themselves up defensively. On offence they were quite dangerous already.

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After conceding, Wales picked up and controlled the game till the half time

However, above you can see how much more of the ball Wales had between 12th, when Nianggolan scored, and 30th minute when Williams got an equaliser. While Bale initially started on the left side of Robinson Kanu he slowly moved to right as somebody has reminded him there is young Lukaku Junior, Denayer (making his d√©but at EURO) and Hazard who doesn’t track back.

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Belgium had trouble tracking runners from deep and coordinating their defensive line

Just a minute before conceding Belgium allowed one of characteristic counter attacks from Wales you can see that above. Belgium lost the ball and failed to track back into defensive position. Quick play sees Ramsey in possession and, within three touches, Bale is released behind the defensive line. Hardly any of Belgium players are in good defensive position. Hazard is notoriously released from tracking back, Lukaku is completely out of position while the worst is Denyer who can hardly deny a pass to Bale with his body orientation and positioning so close to Alderweireld.

Everything that went on for Wales went over Ramsey and Bale. Bale was crucial moving in half spaces from deeper positions while Ramsey was designated as the link between midfield and attack. This link was so effective due to clever movement by Welsh players, however, a lot of credit goes to Marc Wilmots’ side.

They were defending extremely deep, probably to deny space for Bale’s runs, however that obviously didn’t work as Bale wasn’t playing on the shoulder of the defenders. He was coming from deep to pick the through balls or for solo runs.

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Even when they were in defensive shape, Belgium did a poor job on positioning leaving n umerous opposition to receive a pass

Above you can see how poor Belgium positioning is. Taylor on the ball isn’t pressed by anyone, he has his head high and calculating his options with time. He has Allen, Leadley, Bale and Gunter(on the right touchline out of view) to pick from. Intensity, or lack of, the Belgium defence was appalling. They half bothered to pick up players in their zones of responsibility, defended too deep and let all the time on the ball for Wales to pick their options during whole first half.

At half time it was evident Wales was targeting right flank where Lukaku and Denyer failed to cope with runs of their opponents. They didn’t try at all to disturb Wales’ entering the middle third and allowed easy avenues for Wales to go down right flank.

After initial 15 minutes when they scored, they failed to create anything apart crosses for Lukaku who was lost between three defenders. Only visible attempt to create space was Lukaku dropping deep to open up the space for De Bruyne who was advancing from CAM position. However, that ended in the lap of three center backs. Anything else was up to individual decisions and qualities of their offensive players.

With second half kick off Wilmots made few changes in personnel and their approach to the game. Belgium finally showed intention to close down Wales in their defensive zone in attempt to win the possession a bit higher.

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With second half Belgium started to press high. However, it was again un coordinated and always left a free man

However, this was usually poorly coordinated between Lukaku and rest of offensive trio De Bruyne, Nianggolan and Hazard. Wilmots also substituted Carrasco with Fellaini who was supposed to help Lukaku with those high balls. This brought changes in their shape as well. De Bruyne was moved wide while Fellaini came closer to goal exchanging his place with Nianggolan on CAM position. However, general idea of play didn’t change at all.

As time passed it seemed as intention was to give the ball to Hazard and hope he will do something with it other than get clogged in eight men Welsh wall. Other part of Wilmots’ plan with Fellaini’s presence was to rise the number of Crosses. From 15 in the first half Belgium got to 19 during the second. Only three of total 34 crosses connected. Sadly, there was nothing else to their game. They took away the possession from Wales but failed to do anything with it. Below is still shot of their typical attack.

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With the ball Belgium was as clueless as without it. Crowding the central area and congesting much needed space

Hazard who was playing on the left wing is bunching up with Nianggolan at CAM position while at the same time De Bruyne cuts in from right wing and Lukaku dropping deep. Even Witsel is coming to the party from his covering position. Although Welsh defensive positioning is far from perfect in this instance, they have taken half of Belgium squad out of the game.

In meanwhile, on the other side of the pitch…

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Poor defending and ineffective pressing led to second goal as Bale passes a direct long ball to unmarked Ramsey

Belgium was poor at defending in first half, but with beginning of second, when they started to press higher up the pitch, lack of defensive cohesion became apparent. As Bale makes a long direct pass for Ramsey’s run, Denayer and Fellaini fail to track while Lukaku is occupied with Gunter. Ramsey is free to run into space left behind the defensive line and another poor defensive display lets Robson Kanu to free himself from three Belgians and score.

As time went on Wilmots and his player were ever more nervous and, as they didn’t have sound plan to attack Wales, things got only worse. Changed to sort of 3-4-3 and then 3-3-4 in dying minutes meant only more confusion as players tripped on each other in front of Welsh goal and in the end another break down the right finished off the game.

To conclude, we can point few crucial moments. Above all it was Belgium that went on the field expecting an easy win after they trashed Hungary. However, Wales defended much better and Belgium ran out of luck and space for their star offence to shine. Furthermore, they were appalling in defence which was, kind of, expected, but offensive class should make up for that. If Wilmots had any idea how to attack.

Wales on other hand didn’t have the hardest job defensively as Belgium worked against itself for the most part of the match. With the ball, however, they did amazing job first half as opposition failed to cope with deep forward runs from Bale and Ramsey. Again, Belgium had their part in it as it was defending very deep and didn’t make an attempt to close higher and prevent Wales from getting to middle third. However, we have seen why in the second half. They are just too disjointed when pressing high to be effective leaving even more space for runners from deep.

If anything, as Belgium commited in attack, they left more space for Ramsey and Bale to run behind disjointed defensive lines.