Spain 1-0 Portugal: Villa eventually finds a way through, Portugal fail to respond

June 29, 2010

The starting line-ups

An intriguing game – Spain were comfortable by full-time, but struggled to find the breakthrough. Substitutions were crucial in the outcome.

Vicente del Bosque fielded a side unchanged from the win over Chile – a 4-2-3-1ish shape, with David Villa high on the left, and Andres Iniesta drifting in from the right. Xabi Alonso was fit to start, and Fernando Torres continued upfront.

Carlos Queiroz named an out-and-out striker in Hugo Almeida with two natural wingers either side. Pepe got the nod over Pedro Mendes, whilst Ricardo Costa was a slightly surprise starter ahead of Miguel and Paolo Ferreira at right-back.

The game took the expected pattern – Spain dominated possession in the centre of the pitch, Portugal looked to get men behind the ball, and played on the counter-attack. There were early shots on goal from Villa and Fernando Torres, but once the game settled down, Portugal kept Spain at arm’s length.

Spain were seeing more of the ball thanks to Iniesta’s drifts in from the right-hand side. This effectively formed a four-man midfield, which was able to pass around Portugal’s three fairly easily. They were rarely able to find a killer pass, though, because Portugal were well-prepared for this situation. Pepe, Raul Meiereles and Tiago focussed on closing down Xavi (first and foremost), Iniesta (as a secondary concern), and then Xabi Alonso. They were happy enough to let the deepest midfielder, Sergio Busquets, have the ball – the lack of pressure on him being reflected in the fact he completed an astounding 98 out of 106 attempted passes.

Spain struggle to find breakthrough

Of course, Buquets is not really the man to play a key pass, and so Spain were struggling to create clear-cut opportunities. He generally played the ball short to the three other central midfielders, who were quickly closed down. A better out-ball was often to Sergio Ramos on the right-hand side, and he got forward well, but his final ball was often disappointing.

Portugal did not defend as deep as many defensive-minded sides have throughout this competition, however (take Switzerland against Spain). They didn’t retreat to their own penalty area whenever Spain got the ball – instead, the midfielders stayed relatively high up the pitch, in a position to press Spain’s midfield immediately. Pepe was the man who patrolled the area Spain love to work in, just in front of the defensive line, and his positional sense here justified Queiroz’s preference for him (usually a centre-back) in the holding role.

Lack of width?

Iniesta and Villa’s natural tendencies meant Spain continued to suffer from a lack of width high up the pitch. This is not just an issue in terms of getting crosses into the box, but because the angle of through balls often becomes very difficult to play. Time after time, straight balls through the defence from Xavi and Iniesta trickled harmlessly through to Eduardo in the Portugal goal – the wet pitch wasn’t helping this situation. Of course, Spain’s triangles in the centre of midfield create different angles, but they were rarely able to construct fluid attacks in this area because of the discipline of Portugal’s central midfield trio.

Portugal were arguably the better goal threat, playing almost exclusively on the counter-attack. Spain’s preferred shape in the defensive phase is a 4-4-1-1; an obvious conservative tilt to the 4-2-3-1. But with Villa and Iniesta ending up in unconventional 4-2-3-1 positions when Spain’s attacks broke down, they were left exposed on the flanks. The defensive duties of Tiago and Meireles meant they found it difficult to support the attack – although the former’s well-timed run was the closest Portugal came to breaking the deadlock in the first half, when Casillas half-saved his rising shot, and Almeida couldn’t turn the rebound home.

Substitutions the turning point

The second half started in similar fashion to the first, with Spain getting the ball forward, but Portugal threatening more, particularly when Almeida’s cross hit Puyol and looped inches past the far post.

The defining moment of the game came in the 58th minute, when both sides made a single substitution, both involving the forward position. Spain removed Torres and put on Fernando Llorente in a straight swap, whilst Portugal withdrew Almeida and introduced Danny, pushing Cristiano Ronaldo upfront. Almeida had done quite well in the lone striking role, but his substitution probably owed more to fitness levels than tactical concerns – he looked exhausted in the game against North Korea after an hour and had to be taken off, and Queiroz was probably looking to remove him before his tiredness became an issue.

Immediately, the two sides looked different. Spain’s introduction of Llorente was the most obvious and crucial outcome, but equally Portugal weren’t able to retain the ball upfront and, of course, Ronaldo saw little of the ball.

But it was Llorente who changed things for Spain. He should have scored with a header from point-blank range from a superb Ramos cross – OK, he missed the chance, but he was already more of a threat than Torres. He was also more comfortable than the Liverpool striker with his back to goal – and his hold-up play led directly to Villa breaking the deadlock – also courtesy of a rebound, a marginal offside decision that went Spain’s way, and Simao’s lack of defensive awareness. The goal was slightly fortunate, but Portugal were asking for trouble by leaving Spain’s biggest threat free on in his favoured inside-left position.

Llorente’s introduction raises an interesting question about Spain’s best XI, even if you take a 4-2-3-1 with Villa and Iniesta on the flanks as mandatory. Sid Lowe has offered an interesting theory about Torres’ role in this Spanish system, describing him as Spain’s version of Emile Heskey. But if the Heskey role is what Spain need from their centre-forward, del Bosque will be considering the question of who is more of a Heskey – Torres or Llorente? In terms of raw quality, the debate has one clear winner, but if we’re discussing who can ‘do a job’ better, Llorente might just have the edge.

Spain see out the game easily

After the goal, almost nothing happened. Queiroz fiddled slightly with the team – bringing Mendes on for Pepe, and Liedson on for Simao. But little changed – not even Ronaldo’s position as a central striker, for he spent most of the final period of the game stranded upfront with little support. Queiroz was hampered by Portugal’s notorious lack of central strikers, and the fact that he had already removed Almeida (Portugal’s Heskey?). But his squad seemed to be missing one attacking option – no surprise, after he named a box-to-box midfielder, Ruben Amorim, as the replacement when Nani got injured before the tournament started.

Portugal fans must have found the exit incredibly frustrating, because there was no drive or spark from the players, and no real gamble from the manager. When Portugal were trailing England 1-0 at the quarter-final stage of Euro 2004, Felipe Scolari really went for it. He put on Simao for Costinha (a winger for a holding midfielder), Helder Postiga for Luis Figo (a striker for a winger), and finally, Manuel Rui Costa for Miguel (a playmaker for a right-back). Portugal got the equaliser and took it to extra-time. OK, it meant them playing Deco at right-back for half an hour, and playing in a crazy 4-1-1-4 system – but at least they’d got the goal, at least they’d got to extra-time. And even if they hadn’t have done, they wouldn’t have gone out with a whimper. Portugal’s exit from this tournament was pitiful for a side with so many good ball-players.

Talking of good ball-players, Spain’s tiki-taka killed the game when 1-0 up. It is the best defensive tactic imaginable, because they pretty much kept the final for the final half hour, and denied Portugal any way of getting back into the game. The 4 v 3 in midfield became all the more obvious when Spain didn’t actually need to get the ball forward, and proved how good Spain are at closing down matches. When was the last time they were ahead in a game, and went onto lose?

Conclusion

Does the end justify the means? The final 30 minutes saw Spain in cruise control, but the first 60 minutes were much more of a struggle – we shouldn’t forget that. Spain still don’t look completely comfortable with their starting XI, and the introduction of Llorente turned the game. The final section of the game gives the impression that Spain were always in control when they were dominating possession in the first half, but a side better at attacking than Portugal may have punished them on the counter-attack. Indeed, even goal-shy Portugal nearly did.

Regardless, we have to admire Spain’s persistence and their commitment to their way of playing football. Villa is deadly from the inside-left position, and for as long as he continues to be prolific, the identity of his strike partner might be irrelevant.

Portugal exit the competition having scored in just one of their four games. There was little cohesion from the attacking players, and the pre-tournament suggestion that the midfield was too functional and not creative enough turned out to be their downfall – despite Tiago and Meireles having good tournaments, they still needed a Rui Costa, or the Deco of five years ago.

They defended excellently throughout the tournament, however. Eduardo, Bruno Alves, Ricardo Carvalho and Fabio Coentrao are all contenders for the team of the tournament – Meireles may be another.

Still, they depended too much upon Cristiano Ronaldo, and with his patchy record for the national team in recent years, they might have to find a more varied approach if they are to improve on this underwhelming effort.

Spain 1-0 Portugal: Villa eventually finds a way through, Portugal fail to respond

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