Ivory Coast 0-0 Portugal: defensive organisation defeats attacking talent

June 15, 2010

The two 4-3-3s cancel each other out. The midfield positions were fluid, with the Portuguese midfielders taking it in turns to come deep and receive the ball

A hard-fought draw in a game that was a must-not-lose rather than a must-win for both sides. There was a disappointing lack of goalmouth action, but both defences were excellently organised.

The one minor surprise in the Portugal line-up was the welcome sight of Danny Alves in the first XI, although he was deployed in a wide role as Nani’s replacement, rather than the central position he favours. Fabio Coentrao was ahead of Duda at left-back, whilst Pedro Mendes was preferred to Pepe, still returning to full fitness after seven months out, in the centre of midfield.

The Ivory Coast were without Didier Drogba, so Gervinho took a central role with Aruna Dindane on the right. Sol Bamba was left out, and so Didier Zokora dropped into the centre of defence with Emmanuel Eboue taking his midfield position, and Guy Demel coming into the side at right-back.

Huge improvement under Eriksson

We must praise Sven-Goran Eriksson for the job he has done in such a short space of time with the Ivory Coast. He has a reputation for preferring a fairly conservative, rigid style of football, but this philosophy has unquestionably helped the Ivory Coast become more disciplined and well-organised in defence.

African sides can often be patronised in tactical terms, especially when a studious coach like Eriksson takes over, and it seems a cliche to say that he has given them more tactical awareness. But that is exactly what he has done, and anyone who saw their performance in the Africa Cup of Nations will understand the transformation they have undergone in a few short months.

At that tournament, they were dreadful. The forward three had no defensively responsibilities whatsoever, ambling back towards the halfway line when they lost possession, allowing the opposition full-backs forward and often leaving their midfield having to come too high up the pitch to win the ball. Yaya Toure was deployed in an attacking midfield role meaning the best defensive player was easily bypassed, whilst the centre-backs were drawn to the ball too easily and left large gaps in the defence.

Superb organisation

When not in possession, the Ivorian forwards (yellow) dropped back and joined the midfielders (blue) to create a six-man shield ahead of the defence

Today, none of that was in evidence, as the Ivorians played a solid, well-organised game that made it very difficult for Portugal’s flair players to get any time on the ball. In recent days we’ve seen a lot of interesting tactics when teams don’t have the ball, and Eriksson’s plan today was to play a high-ish defensive line, but a deep midfield and attack – keeping it extremely tight between the lines.

Every player looked to get behind the ball, but the Ivorians only put pressure on the player in possession within about 40 yards of their own goal. The defenders and Mendes were allowed time on the ball, but as soon as it was played towards one of the forward five players, they were immediately harassed by an orange shirt, forcing them to play the ball back to where it came from.

The wide players kept a small distance between them and the Portugal full-backs – so they were close enough to prevent them looking wide open for the pass, but also far enough away that a sudden burst from Coentrao or Ferreira would not take them into space immediately.

The use of Yaya Toure in his best position in the holding role also gave the Ivorians more steel. With Portugal playing two wide players who increasingly looked to come inside, Yaya Toure was able to deal with them without the need for Kolo Toure or Zokora to come out to confront the player receiving the ball, and they were able to focus on tracking Liedson’s movement – which is usually very good but against two centre-backs, even when one followed Liedson, the other was the free man and able to cover.

Lack of excitement from Portugal

The Ivory Coast maintained a highish defensive line, so there was rarely more than 20-25 yards between the defence and attack when not in possession

Liedson had a disappointing game but rarely got the chance to impress on the ball, nor any goalscoring opportunities to get a shot away. Danny also played on the periphery of the game – but then that’s where he was used, in an unfamiliar wide role. He did little, maybe partly because the challenge today was completely different from what he is used to. He picked up the ball and generally had seven or eight Ivory Coast players sitting deep between him and the goal – at Zenit St Petersburg, arguably the most counter-attacking side in Europe, he picks the ball up in advanced positions with seventy yards of space to exploit.

The real problem was Deco, a one-great player who increasingly looked unimaginative when he has the ball and lethargic when he doesn’t. Much like Claudio Marchisio yesterday (although the two were playing slightly different roles) he looked to play simple, sideways balls that slowed the play down and allowed the Ivory Coast to get back in position. When he was at his peak, Deco looked to play key passes but now he appears content to keep the play moving and depend on others for creativity, which wasn’t forthcoming.

Ivory Coast were less ambitious going forward, but Portugal's gap between midfield and defence was greater than the Ivory Coast's, meaning Gervinho was able to find space between the lines

Portugal didn’t look to catch out the Ivory Coast’s high defensive line with balls over the top, with Liedson looking to receive short passes to feet. Nor did they really stretch the play laterally – Ronaldo wanted to be involved in everything and came into the centre of the pitch, as did Danny. With the full-backs unable to get past their markers, Portugal’s play was narrow and lacked any real purpose.

Ivory Coast quiet going forward

The Ivory Coast’s attacking threat was no more potent – in fact, they showed less ambition throughout the game. But at least they had a clear plan – get men behind the ball, try and tempt Portugal’s full-backs forward, and then counter-attack at speed. It wasn’t particularly successful – although Ricardo Carvalho was bypassed a couple of times, and Gervinho looked dangerous – but there was a clear tactical plan, and creating a tight, scrappy game and waiting for the introduction of Drogba was hardly a bad idea.

No variation from Queiroz

When a Portuguese attacking player received the ball in midfield, he was quickly surrounded by two or three Ivorian players

Carlos Queiroz continues to be an extremely frustrating manager because he rarely seems to identify a problem and look to change formation or tactics accordingly. Today his substitutions were infuriating - natural width was required, so the introduction of Simao Sabrosa was understandable, but he took off Danny in a straight swap, rather than removing Deco and letting Danny have a go in his best position in the centre.

Queiroz clearly agreed that Deco wasn’t playing well, as he was the next to go, but his replacement was Tiago – a good player, but not what Portugal needed, as he’s another one content to knock the ball sideways. The final substitution was to bring on Ruben Amorim for Raul Meireles – pretty much a straight swap, but another one that said a lot about Queiroz’s mentality – Amorim was the man to replace Nani when the Manchester United player became injured – that is replacing a tricky, pacey winger with a steady, functional midfield player. How Amorim has jumped ahead of Miguel Veloso in the midfield queue despite not being considered part of the initial 23 is another question.


Not an exciting game, but a very interesting one – both defences were solid and well-organised and deserved clean sheets. Which attack performed better depends on your outlook – Portugal were the more ambitious, but the Ivorians had more of a cohesive plan. For one of the sides to display a combination of the two would have been nice.

Portugal need a change of system, because North Korea will do exactly what the Ivory Coast did and defend in numbers against them, whilst Brazil will also deny the attacking players space. A more direct central midfielder is possibly the key (although Meireles had a decent game) because the midfield trio today just doesn’t work well together.

Many will be disappointed with the Ivory Coast, but at their last World Cup they turned up, played an attacking, explosive game, and got well beaten by Argentina and Holland. Eriksson’s pragmatism may not win him many friends, but today his tactical plan was spot on, and in the final minutes his side looked the more likely to score.

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