Thursday, June 28, 2012

Portugal lose, but pave the way

Starting elevens

It is seldom easy to be content, let alone happy, after a defeat. Regardless of one's efforts, there is a distinct feeling that one was found wanting. On the other hand, Phil Jackson, the former NBA coach who led different teams to 11 titles, once said that there were defeats that clearly built a team - the ones where the players had given their all and surrendered their egos on behalf of something bigger than them. Tonight was one of those times for Portugal.

Both coaches chose their favourite eleven, with one change on either side - the striker. While Paulo Bento's was a forced one, due to Hélder Postiga's injury, Vicente Del Bosque surprised everyone by choosing Negredo ahead of Torres and Fàbregas. The first few minutes let us see that the Spanish coach was going for someone a bit quicker when trying to lose his marker, in an attempt to force the Portuguese defence backwards. It was clear Spain meant business and were not willing to take Portugal lightly.

Furthermore, Del Bosque maintained Xavi higher up than usual - just like he had done against France. With that move, Spain were trying to keep Veloso from having too much time on the ball and, from an attacking point of view, give Xabi Alonso the space to spray long balls and turn Xavi into a no. 10 of sorts.

Xavi (yellow) played higher up for most of the match, both while attacking and defending.

While Portugal did not pressure up high, they did try (and succeeded for the most part) to keep their opponents from calmly playing out from the back and make Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso play with their back towards Rui Patrício's goal. With Spain's usual lack of width - since Silva and Iniesta both drifted inward - and speed, there was not much danger of the back four being bypassed by balls over the top. Indeed, Bento's men often left Arbeloa to be marked directly by Coentrão, given that the Real Madrid full-back does not excel at bombing forward. It seemed as though Bento was setting the trap for the full-back to push forward, only to be caught in possession and vacate the space for Ronaldo.

Portugal did not just sit and wait. On the contrary, they tried to trouble the Spanish build-up.

Besides, Moutinho, Meireles and Nani were doing a great job on making sure they denied Spain their preferred passing options through the middle. By leaving Arbeloa to Coentrão, Meireles and Moutinho were able to focus their attention on their opponent's favourite route and provide an out-ball for Ronaldo's escapades.

Portugal's defensive approach neared perfection,
as much as possible against a side such as Spain.

As expected, the Portuguese transitions often had Hugo Almeida as their main focal point, usually on Piqué's side, trying to drag the Barcelona centre-back out of position and open up space for Ronaldo, who had a clear goal of working the channel between Piqué and Arbeloa. Even though many of those long balls went astray, it clearly showed how Spain can be troubled by aerial duels - not because of the aerial duels themselves, but because it disrupts their well-drilled defensive positioning.

Portugal were also very good at killing the Spanish transitions into attack. Moutinho was phenomenal in that particular regard, by always showing up to disturb the first pass and therefore preventing (usually) Xabi Alonso from picking the perfect pass to his team-mates. Even though there isn't actually any chalkboard that shows that, it is an invisible job that brought safety to Portugal's back four. With it, Portugal actually gave Spain a good run for their money and the possession stats at halftime clearly showed it: Portugal had 45% of time on the ball.

Even though there were not that many clear-cut chances, Portugal and Spain each had a few opportunities to finish off the game. In fact, as the match went on, it became ever clearer that whichever team scored first would most likely win it. Navas came on for Silva 60 minutes in to try to stretch the play and there were actually a few plays that seemed to show that that was the way to go - now Coentrão could not play tucked in and had to meet the Spanish winger on the outside, which opened up space between the left-back and Bruno Alves. However, the World champions were not too eager to take advantage of that.

In spite of all the intensity, this was not a game awash with scoring chances.

Despite taking the game to their opponents, Portugal clearly need to improve their finishing.

Spain dominated all of the extra-time and could have even achieved victory, were it not for a huge save from Rui Patrício. The Selecção looked too tired to keep running after the ball and Spain just kept racking up minutes on the ball. With Nani exhausted and Oliveira instead of Almeida, Portugal found it very hard to get the first pass after getting the ball back just right, which in turn resulted in more Spanish possession.

All in all, this was a very interesting contest, tactically and otherwise. Even in defeat, Portugal can take solace in knowing they were worthy opponents to this superb Spanish team and that playing Spain (almost) in the eye is not something that we see every day. Despite the loss, the Selecção have showed that Del Bosque's team are not an insurmountable obstacle and that Portugal will soon become a force to be reckoned with in their own right.

Chalkboards created via the Stats Zone app, available for free in the App Store.

This article will also be available at

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

3 reasons why Portugal will defeat Spain

The first of the semi-finals of Euro 2012 pits Portugal against Spain, a definitive regional clash of styles and longstanding grudges. Portugal replies to Spain's tiki-taka and smothering control of the tempo and ball with dogged defending and quick breakaways. In fact, if you are able and willing to overlook the previous contests between these two teams (which makes Spain look like virtual victors, with just one defeat in 7 official matches), you will see that, even taking Germany into account, the Selecção are probably the team best-equipped to beat the Spaniards. Let's find out why.

1. The tactical aspect. As France showed to perfection, many teams, including very good ones, opt to change their approach, dynamics, position and habits when they play Spain. It is indeed the best tribute one can pay to this team: the Spanish superiority is a given, perhaps like never before, and one must surely adapt to their style, rather than using its strengths.

This is the first issue where Paulo Bento's approach seems to pay off. Portugal will not be tempted to change a single player, for instance. The Portuguese have favoured sitting back and playing on the break from the tournament's get-go, which makes them naturally prepared for their opponent's pass-and-move game. That said, they have also showed (against Denmark, for instance) that they can pressure up front, if necessary. Moreover, despite the futility of the hype surrounding the 4-0 scoreline last time these teams met (in a friendly, lest we forget), it is still worth remembering that Paulo Bento's option back then was to play Spain at their own game (at the time): pressure up high, force Xavi and Xabi Alonso to get the ball with their backs to goal and avoid the penetrating passes.

In this regard, Portugal seem to be in luck, once again. Moutinho and Meireles are tireless workhorses, able to motor up and down the field and help their defenders, but they are also more than willing to let others shine and make the key passes that Ronaldo or Nani thrive on. Bento's men will obviously need all hands on deck, but the Portuguese coach will be comfortable knowing that his defence is getting better with every passing match and that Pepe's speed and game reading skills may just be the necessary answer to Spain's style.

2. Hugo Almeida. No, really. Even though he would most likely start on the bench, were it not for Postiga's injury, the hefty striker may just come in handy. Assuming that Portugal will cede possession and let Spain seize control of the game, the Selecção will need a quick out-ball. With all eyes on Ronaldo, Almeida may provide a useful focal point to keep Piqué and Sérgio Ramos busy and flick the ball over to either Ronaldo or Nani, taking advantage of Arbeloa or Jordi Alba's ventures upfield.

3. Ronaldo. There is no escaping the Portuguese captain. If Portugal are to defeat the World and European champions, Ronaldo will have to step up to the plate. While it is true that the rest of team will have to be at their best ever, the Real Madrid forward will most likely be in charge of providing the extra flare and instilling fear in the Spanish defence. With Hugo Almeida up front, Ronaldo will probably enjoy more space between the centre-backs and Busquets, which may just give him the necessary opportunity to score.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The save of the tournament

Some things in football need no words to accompany them. Here is Gianluigi Buffon's huge save against England.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Portugal pick up steam

Starting line-ups

Portugal and the Czech Republic were the first teams battling it out for a place on the Euros' semi-finals. Surely enough, we were presented with a more timid approach from both teams, since this was a winner-take-all contest and none of them wanted to leave this soon after getting this far.

In these stages of the competition, it is rather obvious that everyone has done their homework and, more often than not, the two elevens try to cancel their opponent's strengths, rather than showing their own. Therefore, the sight of centre-backs hoofing the ball forward was rather unoriginal and not exactly unexpected, given the little space both midfields had to operate in.

With Dadira deputising for Rosicky (who was not fit enough to start), the Czech manager Michal Bilek tried to pack the centre of the field and make his team narrow, somewhat emulating what he had done against Russia. Paulo Bento responded by bringing both Nani and Ronaldo inside, hoping the full-backs would take the outside routes.

Portugal started out poorly and, much like in the match versus Germany, often misplaced (simple) passes, which undermined one the main strengths of the Selecção: the quick transitions into attack. In fact, the Czechs took control of the game for the first 25 minutes, exploiting preferentially the wings, as expected.

Meireles tries to close the middle while Selassie pushes forward, unattended by Ronaldo.
Because he is trying to cover for his position and Ronaldo's, he is already late.
This particular situation often left Coentrão exposed.

Both Raúl Meireles and João Moutinho were too wary of leaving their original positions and giving away the midfield battle, a fear that went on until the 25th minute, when Moutinho finally appeared a bit higher up and fed Ronaldo a perfect through ball. Even though the referee ended up blowing the whistle for Ronaldo's foul, it was the wake-up call that the team needed.

Moutinho (yellow) finally gets himself higher up and Ronaldo (red) drifts inward.

Ronaldo (red) thrives on exploiting the space behind defences,
namely when fed a perfect through-ball such as Moutinho's (yellow).

It was hard to tell whether Paulo Bento chose to kept Meireles on the left-side of the midfield because that is where he ended the match against Holland or because he was looking to exploit the Gebre-Selessie's possible forward movement. Either way, it meant that Portugal were (only marginally) more dangerous down the left wing, particularly after the 25th minute, where Coentrão started feeling more at ease and motoring up and down the field, with Ronaldo more and more central.

Portugal's performance changed dramatically 25 minutes into the game.

Bento's instructions and corrections at halftime were clearly spot on. The first play of the second half resembled a Portuguese shot across the bow for the Czechs. In less than 30 seconds, Meireles did what Portugal still hadn't done thus far - something a midfielder is supposed to do in a 4x3x3 (especially if the striker is not that mobile, as is Hugo Almeida's case). Besides getting the ball between the Czech lines, he then proceeded by taking up the space vacated by Ronaldo, who was already waiting for a possible cross. This play would be a symmetrical replica of Ronaldo's goal.

Meireles (yellow) gets the ball between the lines for the first time in this match.
Meireles (yellow) then pushes up on the left wing,
which in turns allows Ronaldo (red) to roam and look for the cross.

With the team fired up, every sector of the team was closer, allowing midfielders and defenders to play higher up and collect their opponent's clearances. Even though the Portuguese pressure was not stifling in all fairness, it did wear the Czechs down, to the point where there were actually very few breakaways from Bilak's men. 

Moutinho and Meireles were finally free from their tactical shackles and started not only shifting the ball from side to side, but also overloading the wings so that Ronaldo and Nani could prove their mettle further inside, where they could be more dangerous. Moutinho's passing chalkboards are a very good example: by the end of the first half, the Porto midfielder had played the fifth most passes. He finished the game atop the passing table, by some distance.

Moutinho was much more active and incisive during the second half.

Despite the numerous shots (mostly off target), Portugal weren't being able to finish their opponent off, which could prove costly down the road. With the Czechs worn down and apparently not appreciative of their odds, it seemed the Portuguese goal would be just a matter of time. And indeed, the goal came from the inevitable Ronaldo, eager to make up for his two shots that had previously hit the woodwork. Moutinho penetrated the channel, much like Meireles had done in the first play of the second half, and crossed for an unstoppable header from the Real Madrid forward. Game over.

Chalkboards created via the Stats Zone app, available for free in the App Store.

This article will also be available at

Monday, June 18, 2012

A logical victory

Starting line-ups

Some matches do feel like they are played on paper. Portugal's win over Holland was a logical victory. In an unbelievably open match, fraught with scoring chances, the Portuguese organisation trumped the desperate Dutch attempt to throw forwards at problems. The questions remain: how is it possible that such a decisive game was this open and chaotic? And have Portugal learnt the necessary lessons for when they play more disciplined sides?

There were a few issues for the Dutch national team. Would their coach stick to his game plan from the two first matches? Or would he play their all-out attacking formation, including Van der Vaart and Huntelaar? As it turned out, Bert van Marwijk chose to heed the people's voice and went with the latter, despite earlier predictions. In fact, van Marwijk revolutisioned the whole team, dismantling Van Bommel and De Jong's partnership in midfield, replacing the former Barcelona and Milan midfielder with Van der Vaart, shifting Sneijder to the left and playing Van Persie off Huntelaar. Looking at the line-ups and the Dutch team's positioning during the first minutes, it was hard to imagine how the dam would not break sooner than later, but that is part of football's magic.

Portugal actually seemed a bit stunned by Holland's boldness, as if Paulo Bento could not believe his counterpart would actually be so daring. Therefore, the Selecção was somewhat confused about who should be marking whom up until Holland's goal. Instead of their sterile game of individual antics, Van der Vaart's presence provided Holland with the out-ball they needed for their transitions, leaving De Jong exclusively for defensive duties. Besides, with Van Persie roaming around Miguel Veloso's areas, there was uncertainty about who should track Van der Vaart and who should shift sideways to create 2v1 situations against Robben.

Coentrão (yellow) and Veloso (orange) tried to keep Robben from coming inside,
which would open up space for Van der Vaart for the first 15 minutes.
The Dutch goal came from one such situation, but, by then, Portugal were already showing signs of improvement. Indeed, the Selecção should be credited for not losing their collective heads after conceding an unwelcome goal. Even though a large part of their game plan consisted on allowing the Dutch centre-backs time on the ball and just keeping the ball from getting into the final third (much like the match against Germany), Portugal managed to remain calm and collected and stick to their strategy - let their opponent break in two and exploit the wings, knowing that the defensive contribution from Sneijder, Van der Vaart or Robben would be close to none. Truth be told, this match sometimes resembled two 5-a-side matches played in two distinct halves.


Ronaldo (yellow) goes for the aerial duel, dragging the full-back.
Notice how much space Coentrão has to run into.
All Postiga (blue) has to do is to make a distracting move.


Ronaldo flicks it to Coentrão and the full-back gets into a simple 1v1 situation.
Notice how unprotected Holland's back line is.
Despite not getting the Dutch starting line-up spot on, our tactical predictions were not entirely wrong. Holland were hardly defensively solid with Van Bommel, which meant that, without him, Holland's defensive situation could only get worse. In fact, the Dutch back four were still very shaky, to say the least, and they were even more vulnerable to Ronaldo's diagonal runs in behind them, particularly due to their slow movement and the lack of pressure on the player with the ball from midfield - a good description of Portugal's first goal.

With Holland nearly arranged in an odd-looking 5-0-5, there remain doubts about whether the four phases of the game were extensively drilled during training camp, given how uncoordinated most of the players looked from this tournament's get-go. While Portugal did let the match devolve into a wide open contest, dangerously close to some Premier League games, there was a sense that the Portuguese national team were on top of things and that Portugal were actually more likely to score (particularly on a breakaway) than conceding

Portugal made nearly twice as many interceptions as Holland.
Holland's interception chalkboard is eerily similar to the match against Germany.
The second half brought yet another revolution. Despite maintaining the same eleven, Van Marwijk made a few more changes, namely with Van Persie going right, Robben going left and Sneijder as No. 10. While it is true that the Inter maestro provided more stability and tried to move the ball around, their defensive problems remained the same, which makes it that much harder to understand exactly what the Dutch manager was hoping to accomplish.

The Portuguese midfield was heroic in tracking the Dutch penetration attempts, but Pepe was at his imperial best, sweeping up behind his full-backs whenever they were beaten. Veloso, in turn, was critical for the team's ability to shift the ball from side to side and initiate the counter-attacks. 15 minutes into the second half, the game opened up once again and, like the Denmark match, Portugal should have wrapped things up way earlier than they did. Fortunately for Portugal, Holland were already in shambles and relied exclusively on some piece of trickery from one of their forwards.

With Robben on the left, Willems was even more exposed and Portugal were even freer to exploit that wing through Moutinho, Nani and João Pereira. Logically enough, those were the top passing combinations of the match. As if things weren't hectic enough, the Dutch coach went for a gung-ho approach and 
a 3-man defence, with Robben and Affelay as wing-backs. Portugal just kept waiting for Holland and ramming down the wings, sure that one of their many chances would end up going in.

João Pereira and Moutinho's was Portugal's second most frequent passing combination.

Moutinho and Nani's was Portugal's most frequent combination,
often with Moutinho playing Nani through for yet another scoring chance.
There are some important conclusions to take from this match. First off, this was a definitive piece of evidence that talent alone is not enough to win games. Sure, Holland oozes talent in some positions, but such a glaring lack of solidarity and collective ideas is certain to undermine any team. Secondly, it is hard to understand how a nation of World's vice-champions, known for their football avant-garde thinking, seems so out of touch with modern football, either at club- or national level.

As far as Portugal are concerned, there are also a few notes. The most important one has to do with Ronaldo: this match was just what the doctor ordered. Two goals, a shot against the woodwork, numerous scoring chances and lots of space to run into are most likely more than enough for the Portuguese captain to make amends for errors past. The second issue has to do with Bento's quicker decision to introduce Custódio, when compared to the Denmark match.

However, there are some lingering question marks. How will this team fare against more solid teams? Portugal still lack the ability to control the match when they're in front and become too exposed to a random incident, for instance. Finally, the Portuguese coach needs to address the zonal-marking approach to set pieces, which is clearly not working. Despite their latest victory, it would be foolish to think that Portugal do not have areas in which they urgently need to improve.
Portugal have been very poor at defending set pieces, especially at the far post.

Chalkboards created via the Stats Zone app, available for free in the App Store.

This article will also be available at

Friday, June 15, 2012

What should Portugal do?

In Group B, the so-called Group of Death, everything is still up for grabs, even for Germany, on six points. No team has clinched qualification yet and all of them stand to be eliminated, with the right set of results. Next Sunday, Portugal and the Netherlands will meet for a decisive match, a match which the Dutch need to win by a two-goal margin and hope that Germany won't rest on their laurels against Denmark.

  • Attack

Bert van Marwijk's team is far from a solid, cohesive unit. More often than not it ends up breaking in two separate sectors: the 4 defenders plus Van Bommel and De Jong, and the 4 players up front. With both centre-backs clearly uncomfortable on the ball and with little creativity from both holding midfielders, the Netherlands rely too often on Robben's skills, Sneijder's vision or Van Persie's runs in behind the defence. All of this would make up for an interesting attacking plan, but it seems that the players do not have a collective idea of when to do the right thing - Robben's insistent dribbles inside and shots all over the place being a perfect example.

Nevertheless, one mustn't forget that this is a team made of some world-class players and that, as Van Persie showed against Germany, a few extra yards of space for either one of those players could mean a whole different game. For instance, Robben tends to play on Portugal's left, the wing that Cristiano Ronaldo does not protect well enough (most likely according to Paulo Bento's instructions). With Van der Wiel looking to go forward whenever possible, this could create difficult times for Fábio Coentrão, yet again. However, both Dutch wingers tend to drift inside with their dribbles, which may play into Portugal's hands, since that is an area in which they have been stronger than on the wings.

Also, due to the absence of a collective idea and the lack of movement, the Netherlands try to pass it over the top toward Van Persie. For this particular match, Paulo Bento would be wise to allow Pepe (since he is quicker and more intense) to sweep up and let Bruno Alves take the first line of central defending, as this would keep the Dutch wingers from coming inside and playing Van Persie through on goal with short diagonal balls.

Aware that the Netherlands have to win the match by two goals and will probably want to take control, Portugal may well decide to play the waiting game they played against Denmark (after scoring) and Germany, allowing both centre-backs and both holding midfielders time on the ball and then pouncing on the mistakes they tend to make - even though better finishing is absolutely critical.

Van Persie is often keen on receiving through balls in behind the defence.

  • Defence

Despite having two particularly defensive-minded holding midfielders in Van Bommel and De Jong, this Dutch team does not seem as airtight as it did two years ago in South Africa, even though many of their starters remain the same. Oddly enough for two players with their experience, both Van Bommel and De Jong have been dragged out of position too easily, although it is fair to say that, given the lack of defensive support from the four forwards, they do have a lot of ground to cover. In their previous match, for instance, most of Germany's scoring opportunities came from overloading the Netherlands' left wing, forcing the holding midfielders out wide, and then attacking the space where they were supposed to be. Despite Willem's valiant efforts, the team still remain afraid of letting him on his own against aggressive wingers.

Both Van Bommel and De Jong tend to help out defensively on the left.

Germany's two assists came from similar areas and from similar plays,
after forcing the two Dutch holding midfielders out.

The Netherlands clearly pay more attention to their left wing,
virtually neglecting the middle of the park.

Furthermore, Mathijsen and Heitinga are slow centre-backs who do not particularly enjoy quick forwards or changes in positioning. This may very well be a good time to tell Postiga to work the channels, dragging one of the centre-backs, and instruct either Ronaldo or Nani to make direct runs in the central areas of the Dutch defence.

There is one final, important issue. The Netherlands favour a high(ish) defensive line, but do not exert the necessary pressure on the man on the ball, often allowing him to make through passes into the box, where Ronaldo and Nani's finishing skills may prove decisive.

  • Conclusion.

If football was played on paper, this would look like a no-brainer. Portugal are better organised, defensively stronger in central areas and like to play on the counter. Besides, their wingers' speed and trickery are exactly what the Dutch defence doesn't need. With Van Marwijk's front four less than willing to help out defensively, Portugal may end up winning just by being smarter. Also, given the Dutch team's profile, Hugo Viana could be a clever move by Paulo Bento, since the Braga midfielder is an expert on picking defences apart by finding quick forwards 30 or 40 yards away with his long passes (even though this option is highly unlikely).

Chalkboards created via the Stats Zone app, available for free in the App Store.

This article will also be available at

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Portugal get the win, but face tactical dillema

Starting line-ups

Portugal and Denmark met last Wednesday in what could potentially be the end of the road for the Selecção if they didn't get the win they so desperately needed. Up against their nemesis - who were on the back of a somewhat fortunate victory against the Netherlands -, Portugal only had one way to go: forward.

Both coaches chose to keep their starting elevens, as if stating that any adjustments that theirs side might need were minor. Paulo Bento had expressed his confidence in Postiga and explained how the role of a striker extends further than just goal stats, which eliminated any lingering doubts and hopes about the possibility of Nélson Oliveira starting the match. Morten Olsen, in turn, had no apparent reason to tweak a team that had frustrated the World vice-champions.

Even though both the Portuguese coach and players had said that they were happy about their display against Germany and the criticism was ill-founded, the fact is that Portugal heeded the call for a more proactive game. In fact, although the Portuguese defensive positioning wasn't criticised for being laid back, they stepped it up a notch and pressured the Danes near their box - it was clear that Bento had watched their previous match and wanted to keep Denmark from playing the ball out the back.

Portugal wasn't willing to allow Denmark to slow the game down.
Postiga forces the goalkeeper to make the pass, Nani pressures his man,
and Moutinho (yellow) and Meireles try to win the ball back.

Moutinho (yellow) chases one of Denmark's midfielderes
and Meireles (orange) offers coverage.

While it's true that Portugal was trying to win the ball back as soon as possible, Bento was also interested in keeping Denmark from slowing the game too much and dictating the tempo. That away, the Portuguese would always be proactive and on alert. However, Denmark managed to avert this pressure a few times, namely through their go-to play - the ball goes from one of the centre-backs to the wing, one of the midfielders gets it back in the centre and quickly plays it toward the weak side.

The ball comes from the wing to the central midfielders.
With a simple first-touch move, Denmark free themselves from the Portuguese shackles.

Unmarked, the midfielder passes it over the top.
Bendtner's (yellow) movement is critical, dragging Bruno Alves.
The winger (out of the picture) has lots of space to run into.

After the first 15 of intense attack down the right from the Danes, Portugal finally managed to stop the bleeding and started winning the ball back more and more. Not only were the interceptions further up, but Ronaldo was also better at linking up attack and defence, something Portugal lacked against Germany. In fact, Ronaldo was so dedicated to it that he virtually left his wing unattended (more on that later).

Looking at the dashboards, it's easy to see that Nani was more willing to track back.

The first Portuguese goal was not exactly surprising - even if the way it was scored was. The Selecção seemed to have finally found their rhythm and every player was clearly more confident on and off the ball. Nani and the three midfielders were tireless workers when Portugal did not have possession of the ball and were particularly good in picking up loose balls. Indeed, the second goal was a perfect example of it and it meant a boost in morale for Hélder Postiga, the scorer. The match seemed all but over, but a Danish cross from the right a few minutes before half-time led to Bendtner's goal and a sea of uncertainty.

Even though they weren't too successful, Denmark kept crossing from the right.

With Veloso keeping the playmaker Eriksen rather quiet, Portugal were able to control the game, even if they were not dominating. Attracting their opponent into the trap, Bento's men kept allowing Agger time on the ball and pounce as soon as he misdirected a pass or tried to take one player too many, which led to numerous counter-attacks, two of which were wasted by Ronaldo and would effectively have killed the game.

With no killer instinct and their usual profligacy, Portugal seemed to start to feel the pressure for a win and became nervous. Meireles and Moutinho both reverted to the quick-draw passing mode and the Danes were offered a way back into the game. It was by then that Ronaldo's instructions not to track back started making less and less sense, because while Olsen's men had tried to do it during the first minutes of the match, they had now no doubts about where to hit Portugal. Even though there's no need for a team to be symmetrical, it still needs to be balanced - which it clearly wasn't. Any (current and future) adversary of the Portuguese team will have chalked the hole on the left wing down in their playbook.

Even though the huge gape and Coentrão's suffering was plain for everyone to see, Bento surprisingly replaced Postiga with Nélson Oliveira. While it meant that Portugal was now able to hold the ball up a bit longer, it failed to address the problem on the left wing and the Danish goal seemed in the cards. When Bendtner scored his second goal, it was hardly surprising at all.

Varela somehow managed to score the goal that allowed Portugal to breathe a bit better for now, but this was a game that they should have won in a breeze, given Denmark's evident frailties in the organised attacking phase. In a tournament this competitive, not scoring when you have the chance means you probably won't be around for much longer.

Notice how much more defensively active the right wing is when compared to the left one.

If Portugal are to avoid crashing out immediately after progressing from the Group of Death, they must improve at dictating the tempo, score the opportunities that their good defending yields and, most importantly, address the huge gap that Ronaldo leaves on the left wing. If not, the Netherlands may just be the team to hurt them badly.

Chalkboards created via the Stats Zone app, available for free in the App Store.

This article will also be available at

Monday, June 11, 2012

The solution for tiki-taka?

Starting elevens

Spain and Italy could not provide a better match for a football Sunday afternoon. Filled with great players, tactical nuances and good goals, this one was a treat for the eye. We were even presented with a seldom seen tactical battle - Spain with a false nine up against Italy with a three-man defense - that had many guessing if we were witnessing the birth of the answer to tiki-taka.

Italy's defensive positioning: three at the back (yellow), three in midfield (orange),
plus two wing-backs.
Spain opt for a striker-less system.

1. The Italian defense. With De Rossi sweeping up behind Chiellini and Bonucci, there was some curiosity about what the three centre-backs would do without the ball, since they would probably have no one to mark directly. Indeed, with Fàbregas often vacating the striker space for Silva and Iniesta's penetrations, it would seem three men at the back would be foolish. However, the Italian defense made a great case for themselves by doing three things:

  • When the ball came from the wings into the middle and a through ball appeared possible, De Rossi would push up to try and avoid the key pass - his back covered by Chiellini and Bonucci (plus one of the wing-backs).
  • By having a three-man defense, Italy weren't overly concerned with either passes over their heads or through balls (Spain's specialty and raison d'être).

Even with Navas (yellow) trying to stretch the play, the wing-back could protect the outside
and that side's centre-back could provide coverage without unbalancing the defense.
Giaccherini (the wing-back) follows the Spanish winger (yellow arrow).
Chiellini covers inside and  cuts the passing line (green arrow).

  • When possession was lost in midfield, Italy could afford to have one of their centre-backs move high up the field to stop Spain's quick transitions.
2. The Spanish defense. Spain didn't seem their usual selves - either by strategy or due to fatigue. With a team split in half between Barcelona and Real Madrid players, the defensive side of their game seemed a bit confusing. Spain used to be good at winning the ball back quickly, resting in possession of the ball afterwards. The back four seemed a bit afraid of moving up and minimising the space between the lines and it was clear that Busquets, Xavi and Xabi Alonso didn't have the necessary energy to do it. Besides, Italy's 3x5x2 meant that their wing-backs were picked up by Spanish full-backs, rather than their wingers - suddenly, the three Spanish midfielders had to divide their attention.

Without quick forwards or wingers, Spain's transitions were always likely to be slowed down, especially because neither Xavi or Xabi Alonso have it in them to motor up and down the field. With no pressure high up, Spain became predictable after winning the ball back.

3. The Italian attack. There were numerous interesting aspects in the Italian attacking phase. For instance, Cesare Prandelli's system could make for a broken team, with the two forwards detached from the rest of the team. On the contrary, Maggio and Giaccherini (deputising as left wing-back) provided clear routes to come out from the back and had the freedom to run almost at will. More importantly, Balotelli and Cassano (especially the latter) were critical in linking up both phases of Italy's game by dropping back or running into the space behind Spain's full-backs (busy with Italy's wing-backs).

The other relevant issue was how Italy bypassed Spain. The apparently obvious answer would be Pirlo, in his deep-lying midfielder position. Instead, it was De Rossi (out of his sweeper position) who orchestrated most attacks, shifted the ball around and dictated the tempo of the game. He was the second Italian player with the most touches (68 to Pirlo's 49), the best and most frequent passer of the ball and provided the most long balls (13 to Pirlo's 9) - all of it with an 85% passing accuracy (all statistics from

4. The Spanish attack. Spain kicked off these Euros much like the World Cup in 2010. By trying to make everyone as happy as possible and accommodate many of the midfielders (Silva, Iniesta, Fàbregas, Xavi Alonso and Xavi), Vicente Del Bosque made the same mistake as the first match in South Africa, against Switzerland. Once again Silva and Iniesta tended to drift inward and Fàbregas wasn't particularly effective on his false nine role, especially because there was no Messi or Aléxis Sánchez penetrating the space he had freed up.

Spain were missing an attacking reference.
Here there is only Iniesta trying to make the Italian defense uncomfortable.

Without Pedro Rodríguez, David Villa or Jesus Navas on the wings and without a striker to make short diagonals behind the defense, the midfield area was packed with Italian players and Buffon went almost untroubled, if it weren't for Spain's goal. 

Spain insisted on playing through the middle,
this time with no one making diagonal runs to meet Xavi or Alonso's key passes.

To make matters worse, Puyol's absence means that Sérgio Ramos plays as centre-back, not providing his usual surges upfield. Arbeloa is not that kind of player and Jordi Alba was quieter than expected, further worsening the Spanish woes. Fàbregas' goal was possibly the one time where Italy's defense were not quick enough to make the necessary adjustments - highlighting the importance of blind-side runs.

Iniesta (yellow) passes the ball to Silva and moves out wide, dragging his marker.
On the weak side, Fàbregas (blue) makes a run toward the box.
Giaccherini's positioning (orange) is poor, not tucking in to provide coverage. 
With De Rossi forced to meet Silva, Giaccherini's defensive coverage is already too late.

Torres ended up taking Fàbregas' place up front and, just like the World Cup, David Silva was once again sacrificed for width. Will Del Bosque make him go through the same and leave him out for next game? Will Torres (or Llorente) get the nod ahead of Xabi Alonso, for instance (Fàbregas' role is often understated, but his vertical movement from behind wreaks havoc for being unexpected)?

In conclusion, it was a wonderful match and one that left us yearning for the next installments of this tournament. Will the Euros set the stage for a tactical (mini-)revolution and will De Rossi revolutionise the sweeper position - following the footsteps of Beckenbauer or Matthäus? Is this the end of the road for tiki-taka?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A drop in the ocean

The Euros have only just seen their second day come to an end and already there are lessons to be learnt. Denmark's victory over the Netherlands was an almost perfect display of good positioning, clear ideas on how to shift the ball from side to side and looking for the open space.

Furthermore, both Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer were almost faultless at the back. The situation below shows how good defensive coverage is critical, particularly against such strong players in 1v1 situations such as the Dutch.

1. Afellay takes on the Danish right-back Jacobsen. Notice Kjaer's positioning (yellow). From where he is, he can both keep an eye on the striker lurking behind him and cover for Jacbosen, in case Afellay gets by him.

2. Afellay gets by Jacobsen. The Dutch winger manages to dribble the Danish right-back. The moment he realises that, Kjaer immediately goes to his team-mate's help, creating a 2v1 situation and frustrating Afellay. Notice where the positioning of the closest Dutch players.

3. Kjaer tackes Afellay. The Danish centre-back wins the ball back from Afellay. Notice how poor attacking coverage means that Kjaer has lots of time to think whom he is passing the ball to. 

Even though these seem isolated situations, good defensive drilling and positioning may represent the difference between a 1-0 win, a draw or a defeat. When accompanied by a clear notion of where the ball should travel to in the few seconds afterwards, the whole team's task suddenly becomes much easier.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

History repeating itself

Starting elevens

Portugal and German offered us the first chess match of the Euros. The three games up to this point had drifted a bit from what was widely expected - cagey contests with few goals. The Portuguese line-up had no surprises, with Hélder Postiga and João Pereira getting the nod ahead of Hugo Almeida and Miguel Lopes, but Germany manager Joachim Löw went with Mats Hummels instead of Per Mertesacker, most likely to in order to offer quicker defensive coverage for Ronaldo's charges.

Portugal were happy to acknowledge Germany's superiority and played cautiously. Resisting the temptation to drop their lines too much, Paulo Bento's men had a clear game plan: to keep the ball from getting to their opponent's final third. For that, they tried to stifle Germany's first build-up stage, with Moutinho and Meireles picking up Schweinsteiger and Khedira, respectively. However, the presence of Hummels meant that Germany were able to bypass that obstacle rather easily, especially because Hélder Postiga did not seem to know whom to mark.

Hummels offered the Mannschaft better circulation of the ball.

20 minutes into the game, the Selecção kept finding it harder and harder to discover routes for their breakaways. Incapable of playing through the right, the main alternative lay with Fábio Coentrão's long passes towards Cristiano Ronaldo or Postiga, which seldom worked out. Furthermore, despite being vocal with their concerns about Ronaldo, Löw had clearly done his homework, as Miguel Veloso was always closely marked by either Özil or Gómez. This, in turn, meant that Portugal's routes were rather predictable and unsuccessful.
Portugal kept trying to stifle Germany's midfield.

With both teams seeming more afraid to lose than willing to win, the second half was not that different. Neither eleven was being able to do what they do best. Whilst Germany were more proactive, they still could not find space through the middle and started to look more for Gómez's aerial threat. On the other hand, Portugal's transitions were not reaching their destination due to numerous wayward (simple) passes and out of sync movement.

Löw tried to change that by asking Schweinsteiger to play higher up so that Özil could exploit the free space in front of the Portuguese defense. The strategy partially worked, with the German maestro easily overloading the wings (Ronaldo and Nani had clear instructions not to track back and provide the out-ball), but it did not deliver the end product. As for Portugal, without someone in the Rui Costa or Deco mould, it was hard to shake things up from midfield, with both wingers too static.

A deadlock seemed to be in the cards up until the 72nd minute, when Mário Gómez proved that, while he lacks Klose's link-up play, he possesses a rare ability to transform a loose ball into a goal in a glimpse. From that moment on, Portugal had to chase the result and Bento threw Varela on the pitch for Meireles (Nélson Oliveira had already taken Postiga's position on the 69th minute) for one final push. After conceding the goal, the Selecção showed just how much more they have to offer when they are not just waiting for their opponent and, on the contrary, are willing to make use of all their strengths going forward.

Even though the Portuguese players, coach and fans will most likely complain about bad luck and mention the two shots that hit the woodwork, the truth of it all is that Portugal can only blame themselves. While a team's organisation is paramount, that alone must not be their only game plan, if they want to achieve success. Bento will rally his troops by stating that Portugal had the better chances, but he would be better off  asking his players not to shy away from what they do best.

This article will also be available at