Portugal 7-0 North Korea: Korean defence pushes up, Portugal exploit the space

June 21, 2010

The starting line-ups

A crushing victory in a game that was extremely tight for the first half hour.

Portugal made four changes from the first game. Hugo Almeida was in as the lone striker, Simao Sabrosa was on the right wing with Miguel behind him, and Tiago replaced Deco.

North Korea were unchanged from their 2-1 defeat to Brazil in the first game.

The most notable thing about the game was that North Korea pushed forward far more than in their first game. The wing-backs were just that (rather than full-backs in a five-man defence); they got forward and formed triangles on the flanks with the outside central midfielders and one of the forwards, getting the ball into good positions in the final third. They also went close with a couple of long-range shots.

A consequence of them playing more attacking as a whole was that their defensive line was much higher than against Brazil, where they denied Robinho and Luis Fabiano space in behind. Here, they played 10-15 yards higher up the pitch, which Portugal initially failed to exploit, with the wet pitch making through balls in behind the defence very difficult.

Portugal also struggled to create goalscoring chances because Tiago and Meireles were playing quite reserved, disciplined roles in front of Pedro Mendes. They were effectively leaving Portugal’s three forwards against six defensive North Korean players, with the two Korean central midfielders tracking their opposite numbers. Just like in the first game against the Ivory Coast, there were no driving runs from midfield, no-one looking to break forward and link up the the lone striker, who struggled to get into the game.

At first, Miguel and Fabio Coentrao were unable to move forward too much because they were concerned about the runs of the Korean strikers, who played closer together than in the first time and looked to move into wide areas when they didn’t have the ball. When Portugal realised that they needed to show more attacking threat, Pedro Mendes moved into an even deeper position, almost as a centre-half – creating 3 v 2 at the back, and allowing the full-backs to push on forward.

Attacking full-backs and midfield runners

That was the first part of getting Portugal ahead in the game. Just as Maicon held the key to unlocking the North Korean defence in the first game, ZM favourite Fabio Coentrao was the best player on the pitch, speeding up and down the left flank and drawing the defence out of position. Miguel did the same on the right – and the presence of attacking full-backs is exactly why the 5-3-2 system often proves unsuccessful.

The second part of breaking the deadlock was those runs from midfield. Meireles suddenly decided that he should be playing higher up the pitch, and on his first forward run, he met a superb through-ball from his midfield colleague Tiago and finished beautifully. This site suggested before the tournament that Deco’s time is up because he no longer plays between the lines or looks to move into the penalty area, and this game supports that thesis – Meireles was effectively moved forward into something more like the ‘Deco role’ – that is, the most attacking of the three midfielders, and whilst he isn’t as naturally talented as Deco, he was far more effective and provided more of a threat.

A run into the penalty area from Meireles also created Portugal’s second goal – he knocked a simple pass out towards Simao, who nutmegged the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.

Portugal narrow the wingers

Portugal changed their approach well to expose North Korea’s weaknesses. Usually, they play the ball to the wide players on the touchline and hope for an individual bit of brilliance, but this didn’t work because Korea were able to double up easily with a wing-back and a centre-back. Instead, Ronaldo and Simao moved inside and played a more central role, which both drew the central defenders towards them, and narrowed the wing-backs – creating space for Portugal’s full-backs.

Portugal’s all-round game was far better than in their first game. Ricardo Carvalho brought the ball out of defence with more purpose, whilst Almeida’s movement upfront was better than Liedson’s in the first game (although, in fairness, he got more support than Liedson did).

Korea seemed demoralised, although they did attempt to get back in the game. Sadly for them (and for the tournament as a whole, if you’re of the belief that teams are playing too defensively), the more they pushed forward, the more gaps they left at the back, and the more goals they conceded. Almost every Portugal player aside from the centre-backs broke through the Korea defensive line at some point to meet a through-ball, and whilst 7-0 was harsh on Korea, it was a fairly accurate reflection of how easy it was for Portugal when Korea played a higher line.

In Korea’s two games, they have shown both the merits of playing very defensively (against Brazil in the first half) and the danger of pushing up and leaving space in behind (against Portugal in the second half). Most worryingly, they were no more dangerous in attacking terms when they played a higher defensive line – perhaps because that also gives them less space to exploit.


Portugal were superb. When they hit their stride, they play a tremendous brand of football – organised in defence, resourceful with the ball in midfield, and devastatingly effective upfront. The lack of an out-and-out striker is, as always, a major problem – but if they can get goals from across the team, and especially from midfield runners, that won’t be a problem. Having six players score in one game is absolutely perfect for Queiroz considering Portugal’s problem with goalscoring, and on this form there is no reason why they can’t be a real force for the rest of the tournament.

Sadly, North Korea are already out of the competition. They have brought an interesting, unusual style of football to the tournament, and have been fascinating from a tactical point of view. Ultimately, their formation was always going to struggle with attacking full-backs, which is why successful teams playing three-man defences also seek to play three-man attacks as well – in order to pin back the full-backs. Otherwise, they become exposed on the flanks.

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