Portugal v Spain preview
Will Portugal be able to break up Spain’s dominant passing game? More to the point, will they attempt to?
There will be few surprises in selection. Paulo Bento, having kept the same starting XI for his previous six competitive games, has been forced to bring in Hugo Almeida upfront in place of the injured Helder Postiga. Nelson Oliveira is another option, and some would argue that his greater mobility brings more to Portugal’s game. But he’s seen as a supersub by Bento, and will probably replace Almedia after around an hour, to give Portugal’s attack more pace.
Vicente Del Bosque’s only area of concern is in the same position. Having used Cesc Fabregas as a false nine in two games, and Fernando Torres as a proper nine in the other two, it’s a difficult decision to predict. Spain acted as if they didn’t know how to play with a false nine against Italy in their opening game (which is understandable, as Cesc Fabregas said they hadn’t trained in that system before) but were much improved against France.
Fabregas seems to be the logical option. Bruno Alves and Pepe are two very physical centre-backs, more vulnerable to quick movement and intricate passing than a static player, which is increasingly what Torres is, rather than a pacey forward. Besides, if del Bosque wants a permanent number nine, he’ll remember Fernando Llorente’s excellent impact from the bench against Portugal two years ago – but Fabregas probably deserves a start based upon his performance in the game against France.
Spain will dominate possession, and Portugal will play a more reactive game. But how reactive? Against Germany, Portugal sat very deep in a 4-5-1 system and countered down the flanks. They were criticised for it, but the plan wasn’t too far away from working – it took a deflected cross to a powerful number nine to break the deadlock.
Bento has promised not to park the bus. “We must show ambition to get possession of the ball, courage to attack them and patience when we don’t have it, without becoming unstable. We know in what areas we want to press the opponents, and who we will use to do that job. We don’t want to spend the whole time defending…at times we are going to have to suffer, and wait for the best time to apply pressure again. This is all down to managing each moment of the game.” (quotes from Portugoal)
Portugal can probably afford to be more proactive than against Germany, who take advantage of space between the lines brilliantly, and offer more cohesive, integrated movement than Spain. Tonight, Portugal’s midfield three will probably work as a unit, pressing Spain’s midfielders up until around 40 yards from goal, closing down after a forward pass, and forcing Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso to play backwards.
Portugal’s defensive line depends upon who Spain play upfront. If Fabregas is the focal point, they can defend deep and try to prevent Spain crafting the type of goal they scored against Italy, which involved finding space behind the defence. If Torres or (in particular) Llorente plays, Portugal won’t want that player in the box, so will push up higher.
Spain will play broadly the same way they always play, though they must be aware of what they did differently against France. There was more separation of the midfield responsibilities with Xavi higher up, more overlappping runs from full-back, more width from David Silva and more forward runs from the centre of midfield.
The key Spanish player is probably Andres Iniesta. He’ll have the most freedom of movement of any Spanish player – while Alvaro Arbeloa will probably be defensive-minded, meaning Silva has to stay wide, Jordi Alba’s overlapping will allow Iniesta to go where he pleases. He could help out in the midfield zone, to create a 4 v 3, or he could lead the Spanish attacks with dribbling, as he did against Italy.
There appear to be two main zones of interest. The first is Cristiano Ronaldo against club teammate Alvaro Arbeloa. There are a range of possibilities here. Will Arbeloa stay deep and prevent Ronaldo getting space in that zone? Will he try to man-mark, like Theo Gebre-Selassie did? Or will he push higher up, inspired by his brave performance against Franck Ribery last time out? That’s the main battle.
Then, there’s the midfield. The positioning of the two midfield trios is of paramount importance. For Spain, it will be interesting to see how high up Xavi plays – whether he’s a third central midfield in the same zone as Xabi Alonso and Busquets, or whether he links the play and looks to find space in between the Portuguese lines. In turn, that depends on how wide Silva stays, and what Iniesta is up to.
As for Portugal’s midfield, Miguel Veloso will sit in the holding role, but the positions of Raul Meireles and Joao Moutinho have changed since Portugal’s opening game of the tournament. Bento could ask them to play either way around, though it might be wise to have Meireles pressuring Alonso, the man who was Spain’s best player against France. Moutinho would sit deeper to the left and find space to work in – he’s probably the player likely to prompt Portugal’s counter-attacks with quick balls out to Ronaldo and Nani.
It will be interesting to see how much both sides press, and also how much Spain look to rotate their triangle. These countries traditionally produce intelligent central midfielders, and while the game might be won and lost elsewhere, the midfield strategies will be the most interesting tactical feature of the match.
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