Friday, November 15, 2013

Portugal 1-0 Sweden: Tactical notes

Halfway through the play-off, Portugal seem to have the upper hand to get to next year's World Cup in Brazil, which is a far cry from claiming that the place in the finals is as good as booked. Let's delve a bit more into the tactical side of the match.

  • 1. 4x3x3: An innovative formation?

Both teams played their expected XI and formations, but there were certain nuances to the tactical clash. On the Portuguese side, both Ronaldo and Nani seemed to have clear instructions to drift toward the centre, which meant that Portugal did not display the usual combination of one striker and two wingers, but rather one striker accompanied by two forwards. With both men inside and Sweden trying to remain as narrow as possible, the wings were paved in gold for both full-backs and/or midfielders João Moutinho and Raúl Meireles.

However, the players that managed to get close to the goal line were hardly in good crossing or passing positions, which often forced them to a backward pass only for the man behind to hoof it into the box, a threat with which the Swedish defence managed to cope with no major scares for the better of the first half. That was indeed one of the reasons why Portugal benefitted from 14 corners (8 of them in the first half). On the other hand, it was clear that Portugal coach Paulo Bento was trying to get Cristiano Ronaldo into scoring positions by having the team attack predominantly down the right, with the Real Madrid star effectively acting as a second striker. That alternative, while hinging on Ronaldo's impressive physical attributes hardly paid off, since no one else on the team thrives on that brand of football.

  • 2. Defending in numbers does not equal good defending

In a rigid 4x4x1x1, with Elmander slightly off Ibrahimovic, Sweden's intention was to keep the Portuguese midfielders from getting the ball while facing their goal and then sit back a few yards ahead of the penalty box. With two compact, narrow banks of four, both Elmander and Ibrahimovic were allowed to remain ahead of the ball, which meant that Portugal often had numbers-up situations. Nevertheless, Sweden looked incapable of countering the simple triangle-shaped passing combinations so typical of a 4x3x3, with dreadful spatial awareness and their players frequently looking more interested in following the man than adjusting their positioning according to the ball.

  • 3. Virtue lies in the centre

Even though Portugal did struggle to get into promising positions to shoot and provide killer passes, every time Moutinho (most frequently) or Meireles invaded enemy lines, Sweden's defensive approach immediately looked dodgy. Given the rigidity with which the Swedish team tend to play, a more aggressive approach in midfield might just do the trick in four days' time, but for that to materialise, Meireles (in a lower and lower cadence over the past couple of seasons) and Moutinho (a yard off his usual pace) must bring a greater sense of urgency to their attacking forays, even if it means a more conservative positioning from both full-backs, so as not to unbalance the team.

Furthermore, given their positioning high up the pitch, neither Ronaldo nor Nani put any effort in tracking back throughout the first half (the second period was a non-event as far as the Swedish attacking threat is concerned), thus exposing João Pereira - usually as good going forward as he is poor at the back - and Fábio Coentrão on the flanks. In short, greater investment down the middle may prove beneficial both at the front and at the back.

  • 4. The perfect pair to stop Ibrahimovic

As so often happens with the talented, yet mercurial striker, Ibrahimovic went largely anonymous over the 90 minutes. Usually a player that thrives on open spaces - such as those Portugal were leaving behind, especially during the first half, in Bruno Alves and Pepe the PSG star seems to have met his match. On one hand, he is forced to get into high-powered, intense aerial duels with Ronaldo; on the other hand, should he manage to get free from Alves, Pepe is probably the best partner to cover up for his team-mate, largely due to his speed and ability to sweep up behind. If Erik Hamren insists on such predictable attacking manoeuvres next Tuesday, Paulo Bento may well thank him for not putting Alves and Pepe to the test on the floor, where they struggle the most.

Even though a 1-0 result offers a great advantage in such a cagey contest, Portugal can ill afford to sit back and let the clock run. However, a greater offensive balance from Sweden might be ideal for Postiga, Ronaldo and Nani, with Moutinho or Veloso spreading passes for the break. For that Portugal will have to convey a more assured sense of defending than they did last night, in the few times Sweden managed to attack.

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