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.

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