Portugal 1-0 Norway: Portugal attack, Norway sit back, and Postiga gets the breakthrough

June 5, 2011

The starting line-ups

Helder Postiga’s well-taken goal gave Portugal an important victory.

Paulo Bento was without Ricardo Carvalho through injury, so Pepe was partnered by Bruno Alves. Joao Pereira came in at right-back, and the midfield trio was the three Ms.

Egil Olsen played his usual 4-5-1 system, with the expected XI. John Carew was upfront, and Vadim Demidov came in at the back for his first start in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign.

The game was simultaneously extremely predictable and quite exciting. The two sides have vastly different styles of football – Portugal have skilled technical players, but a classic problem with potency upfront, and a secondary problem with creativity from midfield. On the other hand, Olsen always favours men behind the ball, before launching quick breaks with direct passes forward.

Shapes

Portugal used a 4-3-3 system, with two wingers coming inside, and attacking full-backs. Raul Meireles played deep in midfield and had time on the ball to distribute intelligently forward, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo played slightly narrower than Nani on the opposite side.

Olsen’s system is never quite a pure 4-5-1, because he likes to use one wide midfielder (Morten Gamst Pedersen) and one player who is a winger-cum-second striker (Erik Huseklepp). Huseklepp plays higher up the pitch and makes diagonal runs inside, so Bjorn Helge Riise had to move out to the right to cover that flank when Portugal broke quickly. This was a slight worry, with Ronaldo and Fabio Coentrao down Portugal’s left.

Battles

With Norway content to drop deep and favouring a zonal system of defence, the game was not so much about individual battles according to the formations. It was more about two factors – (a) whether Portugal had the creativity to break down Norway and (b) whether Norway’s transitions were good enough to cause a threat on the break.

With Norway defending quite deep and narrow, Portugal were keen to get the ball wide quickly. Ronaldo looked to come inside and shoot but was quickly surrounded by players, and Nani was more involved early on down the right. The 3 v 3 battle in the centre made things congested in that zone and Portugal rarely looked like creating chances from that part of the pitch, although the long-range ability of Meireles and Carlos Martins (plus the two wingers coming inside) meant Norway had to close down quickly. Carew played left-of-centre up against Pepe, so the Real Madrid player was unable to bring the ball out of the back, as he often does to create an extra man in midfield.

Norway breaks

Despite spending most of the game on the edge of their own box, Norway had a couple of great chances in the first half when they stormed forward quickly. Carew was barely involved in the game, and Pedersen didn’t play particularly well, but Huseklepp was a threat down the right – he had a good early chance on the counter, and also combined well with Bjorn Helge Riise, who played a very energetic game and made good ‘underlapping’ runs inside Huseklepp.

With Carew marshalled well by Pepe, diagonal ball were the key for Norway in getting up the pitch, and they were fortunate to have Henning Hauger free ahead of their back four – he was usually in space, and had time on the ball (plus a clear vision of what was ahead of him) to sweep passes wide.

Portugal variation

It was mainly Portugal with the ball, however. Whilst their general strategy means that the typical deep-and-narrow defensive approach should work well against them (as sides play against Arsenal and Barcelona, for example) Portugal are comfortable crossing from wide areas – and it was their willingness to centre the ball that paid dividends.

In Postiga, Portugal have a forward who can get himself on the end of crosses (and also one who is comfortable coming deep, but with the Norweigan defenders letting him go free and a lack of ‘llegada’ from the Portuguese midfielders, this wasn’t so useful). They also have Ronaldo, who can come inside as a second striker and has a superb leap, and this meant that they could knock the ball out to Nani, an excellent crosser, and have two good targets in the centre. Nani didn’t have a great game overall, but his low cross for Postiga just after half time put Portugal into the lead.

1-0

The situation at 1-0 was slightly odd, because Olsen was concerned about the head-to-head situation in the group (this is used as the decider for teams level on points, rather than goal difference, and Norway won the previous meeting between the sides 1-0) and so Norway didn’t really push forward much at 1-0.

In fact, the tactics for both sides remained the same until the final whistle. Substitutions were like-for-like, and Norway continued to sit back in their own half and wait for Portugal to come onto them – which they didn’t always do. Portugal’s midfielders sat deeper and Norway couldn’t counter, so their build-up play was a little less basic. The introduction of Mohammed Abdellaoue for Carew also meant hitting the ball long quickly wasn’t such an option.

The Norweigan full-backs got forward a couple of times, and the away side won their first corner in stoppage time, but the scoreline never looked likely to change after Postiga’s goal.

Conclusion

We knew what to expect here, and we got it. A game very similar to the first meeting between the sides produced another narrow home win.

Bento’s side played well, but the midfield zone still doesn’t feel right. With Meireles, Moutinho and Martins, there are three decent users of the ball – but not enough attacking threat, nor a true holding player to prevent opposition counter-attacks down the centre. It’s the same problem ZM identified before last summer’s World Cup – “on the Venn diagram of what they (the midfielders) bring to the side, there’s too much crossover.” As if to prove the point, Meireles was playing as Portugal’s most attack-minded midfielder when that article was written, and here played as the deepest of the three…

Norway were classic Norway, and we discovered little that we didn’t know before this game. They’ll have been disappointed to have conceded a goal from a cross, as they are generally very good at penalty box defending. Still, along with Portugal and Denmark they are on ten points and joint top of Group H, and arguably have the best run of remaining fixtures of those three sides, so remain in a very strong position.

Portugal 1-0 Norway: Portugal attack, Norway sit back, and Postiga gets the breakthrough

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