Portugal 0-0 Brazil: two solid defences, and little creativity

June 25, 2010

The starting line-ups

A quiet game with both sides content to take a point – Brazil are the winners of the group, Portugal are the runners-up – but which, if either, will face Spain?

Brazil’s side saw three changes, all in the attacking band of three behind Luis Fabiano. Elano (injured), Kaka (suspended) and Robinho (rested) were out, with Dani Alves, Julio Baptista and Nilmar in.

Portugal played a defensive 4-1-4-1 shape, with Cristiano Ronaldo has the lone striker. Duda and Danny tended to swap sides, with Fabio Coentrao staying at full-back, Pepe replacing Pedro Mendes in the holding role, and Ricardo Costa in at right-back.

Carlos Queiroz knew that the best way to stop Brazil attacking was to play deep, rarely push men forward, and prevent Brazil from counter-attacking at speed. The two wide players played very defensive roles, looking to track the Brazilian full-backs, and were rarely able to get up to support Ronaldo.

The most interesting battle was down Portugal’s left, Brazil’s right, where we effectively had four full-backs spread down the flank, as Duda spent most of his time on the left. Dani Alves played very centrally – probably more so than Elano or Ramires when they’re in the side, as both drift from inside to outside. Alves was a lot more direct and had numerous long-range efforts, with his central position allowing Maicon forward on the overlap.

Full-backs vital

It was Maicon that provided Brazil’s brighter moments, often with fairly unBrazilian crosses into the box. The best example of this was when Fabiano nodded Maicon’s centre just wide of the far post before half-time, but Maicon was stretching the play well throughout.

It’s a good example of why attacking full-backs are so important that Portugal’s full-backs on that side, Coentrao, was the biggest threat going the other way. His driving runs took him into great positions in the final third, although more often than not he only had Ronaldo to aim for in the centre.

Portugal defended very deep, and very narrow. Here, their four defenders are within 15 metres of each other in the centre of the pitch, with the five midfielders sat ahead

On the opposite side, Nilmar had a very disappointing game and tended to end up far too central – Robinho, to whom Nilmar is the understudy to, takes up much wider positions, up against the right-back – whereas Nilmar was often in confrontation with Ricardo Carvalho. Ricardo Costa was under instructions not to get forward, whilst Danny doesn’t look suited to a wide role.

Ronaldo runs the channels

Cristiano Ronaldo will probably be described as an isolated striker who moped around the pitch and shot from ridiculous angles (Cristiano Ronaldo in ‘Being Cristiano Ronaldo shocker’) – but actually, he did quite well. Of course he was often on his own, because Portugal’s gameplan was defensive – hence their midfielders sat solidly in front of the back four. But if you could leave any player in the world in an ‘isolated’ position with four players to get past, you might choose Ronaldo – he barely ran when Brazil had the ball, but he conserved his energy for some lightning quick bursts into the channels and caused Juan and Lucio real problems.

Twice he came close to breaking the deadlock. In the first half, his movement and run in behind Juan completely caught out the Roma defender, who was forced to handball above head height to prevent Ronaldo being one-on-one with Julio Cesar. He was extremely fortunate not to be sent off.

In the second half, Ronaldo’s direct running on the ball, his pace and his persistence got him past four Brazil defenders, and the ball ended up at the feet of Raul Meireles, making a late break into the box, who should have scored. His free-kicks were utterly useless all game, but Ronaldo actually played his lone striker role rather well.

Portugal more dangerous on counter

Indeed, with both sides looking to play on the counter-attack, but Brazil having the advantage in terms of territory, Portugal were the bigger threat throughout. They probably needed one more creative player on the pitch to really make Brazil suffer – and Queiroz tried throwing Simao Sabrosa on for Duda, but he didnt influence the game at all, and his most notable impact was to let Maicon go free a couple of times – rather justifying Queiroz’s decision to field the more defensive-minded Duda in the first place.

Portugal's defence was excellent. The defence shifted well across the pitch when the ball was wide, always having two lines of cover.

Brazil created little. Portugal pressured Gilberto and Melo when they received forward passes, but let them have the ball when it was passed backwards towards them. Neither ever looked to get into the final third, and so Portugal generally had 7 v 4 when Brazil’s attacks started to develop, and 9 v 6 when the Brazilian full-backs  joined in. This is the kind of situation where you can understand the Brazilian public’s frustration with two holding midfielders, but then Brazil didn’t need to win the game, so they never really had any incentive to push forward.

Brazil disjointed upfront, Portugal resilient at back

In truth, Brazil lacked their coherence in the final third because their three creative players were all back-ups rather than first choices. Brazil play well when the Kaka-Robinho-Fabiano triangle links up, because those three have such a good understanding together, having been played in the same roles for so long and so consistently under Dunga. They can manage without one of Kaka and Robinho, but probably not without both. Alves provides great running in the right-midfield position, but the direct play that looks so attractive from right-back looks rather rushed and naive further forward, hence why Dunga has been reluctant to field both Alves and Maicon in the same team.

Portugal defended brilliantly. Three clean sheets in the tournament, and 22 in their last 26 games. Their positional awareness was fantastic, always with a man covering, always with bodies behind the ball, always with three men around a player in dangerous positions. The ‘double cover’ tactics (above) when Brazil played the ball wide (and they always did, as Baptista was invisible) were particularly impressive.  The nearest-full-back comes towards the ball, the two defenders on the far side hold the defensive line, the centre-back between those two and the advanced full-back takes up a position halfway between. Hence, if the first full-back is beaten, the first centre-back covers. If he is beaten, the second centre-back covers. Basic on paper, tricky in practice against a side with such great movement. Carvalho and Bruno Alves have been two of the best players in the tournament so far.


Not one for the neutral wanting a goalfest, but two finely crafted, intelligent teams getting the result they wanted.

Brazil will play better when Kaka and Robinho return – this game was not taken lightly (not under Dunga) but was not played at 100%, with the second round match only four days away. There were two causes for concern, however – Melo typically got himself booked and was then removed by Dunga before the referee did it for him. Juan was poor both positionally, and on the ball – almost giving away a last minute goal to Danny by trying to control a cross into the box. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be replaced, but it adds weight to the theory that attacking the left side of Brazil’s defence is the best way of scoring against them.

Portugal can be pleased with their performance so far. Queiroz is often frustrating tactically, but he’s played the last two matches very well – Portugal are certainly better without Deco. The problem for Queiroz is that he’s used so many different players, he’s probably slightly unsure of how to proceed. In the three games so far we’ve seen three right-backs (Paulo Ferreira, Miguel, Ricardo Costa), three left-wingers (Danny, Ronaldo, Duda) and  three strikers (Liedson, Hugo Almeida, Ronaldo) starting. Only four outfield players have started all three games in the same position, and 19 of the 20 outfield players have been used. His real challenge beguns now.

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