Spain 0-0 Portugal: Portugal upset Spain’s rhythm but fail to record a shot on target

June 28, 2012

The starting line-ups

Spain defeated Portugal on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

Vicente del Bosque surprisingly named Alvaro Negredo as his lone striker, meaning Cesc Fabregas dropped to the bench. The rest of the side was as expected.

Paulo Bento was forced to change his striker, with Helder Postiga injured. As already announced, Hugo Almeida replaced him.

A difficult game to summarise – Portugal pressed well in midfield, broke up Spain’s passing and restricted the number of opportunities del Bosque’s side had. However, they lacked a goal threat of their own, and then Spain were the better side in extra time.

Pressing

The most interesting feature of the game was Portugal’s bravery in midfield. Unlike many other sides, and unlike themselves against Germany, Portugal competed in the midfield zone, three versus three. Generally, Miguel Veloso picked up Xavi Hernandez, who had one of his quieter games. Further up, Raul Meireles was on Sergio Busquets, and Joao Moutinho on Xabi Alonso. These three were happy to switch around, however.

At some points Spain threatened to play the ball past the pressure, but on the whole they looked unsettled, nervous and uncomfortable  being forced into hurried passes. That was a surprise – these are amongst the most technically capable midfielders around – but they were simply unaccustomed to this pressure, more used to first halves spent knocking the ball from side to side, picking their moment to increase the tempo.

Spain didn’t press particularly heavily – they stood off and kept a more solid shape than usual, sometimes looking like 4-4-1-1 with the wide players deeper than Xavi. Del Bosque was possibly concerned that Spain had two days less to prepare for the game, and wanted to conserve his side’s level of fitness.

High line

Of course, in combination with midfield pressing, Portugal had to play a reasonably high defensive line to make sure there wasn’t a huge gap between midfield and attack, which David Silva and Andres Iniesta would have enjoyed working in. They did this well – again, they were simply brave with their positioning, with Pepe generally getting himself in a covering position, as the centre-back with more pace.

A couple of times Spain tried long balls over the top for Negredo. This can be looked at in two ways – on one hand, it was a demonstration that Portugal’s pressing in midfield was forcing Spain to play a type of football they’re not used to. On the other, one could say Spain were adapting to the situation and looking to exploit the space they were presented with – which was in behind the defence, not in front of it. Either interpretation makes sense, but as Spain struggled to create chances with this approach, the former seems more appropriate.

Negredo

Part of Spain’s problem was Negredo, who was barely involved in the game. Much of that was not his fault – the players behind weren’t getting time on the ball to provide him with good service.

However, his role in the side was unclear, and it wasn’t certain what del Bosque wanted him to do. Negredo’s an interesting player, an all-rounder. Whereas Fernando Llorente is obviously Spain’s most physical striker, Fernando Torres is/was their quickest, and Fabregas is the man geared to clever link-up play, Negredo is a jack of all trades.

As David Cartlidge writes here, “Negredo is comfortable playing in many different ways; he can drift into the channels and hold off opponents until support arrives, play on the shoulder with a ball in-behind and importantly operate adeptly with his back to goal.” Which is a tremendous range of attributes, but which was he supposed to showcase here? Why was he picked ahead of Torres, Llorente and Fabregas? To play on the shoulder, presumably, but Spain didn’t provide him with clever service to exploit that ability, and Portugal defended well at the back.

Portugal left / Spain right

The other interesting part of the pitch was, as expected, the Cristiano Ronaldo v Alvaro Arbeloa battle. Arbeloa spent the first half pushing high up past his club teammate, providing an out-ball for long diagonals, and sometimes forcing Meireles to come across and intercept passes intended for him.

Ronaldo played more like a second striker at times. Spain needed bodies in a midfield zone they didn’t have control of,  so Busquets couldn’t move over and cover. A couple of times Ronaldo got into good positions, but the pass rarely came, and when it did, Gerard Pique moved towards him.

Going the other way, twice Arbeloa and David Silva created 2 v 1 situations against Fabio Coentrao, who spent the first half playing deeper than usual. Spain could have been  more intelligent in these situations, but they were demonstrating width and forward drive, often lacking in previous games.

But the really interesting part of Ronaldo v Arbeloa was how this movement affected the positioning of other players. Silva, for example, came inside quickly to create space on the overlap and seemed narrower than against France, but didn’t get any time on the ball between the lines. At the other end, Almeida moved over towards that side, trying to take advantage of the space that came when Arbeloa was high up, or when he was sticking tight to Ronaldo.

Second half

The pattern of the game changed after half-time. First, Arbeloa stopped moving in advance of Ronaldo so readily, and the opportunities down that flank (and the resulting movement from elsewhere) dried up. Around the same point, Ronaldo and Nani switched wings for a brief period – it was probably coincidental, but Spain seemed to settle down into a much better spell of passing.

The game became a little dull here, with Spain dominating possession without creating real chances. Portugal’s pressing dropped, and the sides played in front of each other.

Substitutes

Both coaches looked to the bench, and here Spain had the upper hand in terms of squad size. Bento has used his bench more productively than most coaches in this tournament, as both Nelson Oliveira and Silvestre Varela have had good cameo roles. However, Del Bosque had a much greater range of options and completely reformatted his attack.

Spain went from having Silva and Iniesta on the flanks, and Negredo upfront, to Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez wide, and Fabregas dropping deep from a centre-forward position. This was probably the closest we’ve seen to a Barcelona-style ‘false nine’ system, with Fabregas moving into midfield and two quick players coming inside from wider positions.

In fact, this nearly worked brilliantly. In extra-time Fabregas won a high ball, dragged the defenders towards him, and slipped the ball to Pedro, darting centrally from the left. He was briefly clear of the Portuguese backline, but turned inside rather than taking the ball on, and was tackled in a not dissimilar fashion to the way he wasted a fine chance at this stage of the World Cup two years ago.

Spain had other chances, too – most notably one from Iniesta that produced a fine save from Patricio. Again, this came following width – and Spain were able to turn up the tempo and fly down the wings as Portugal tired.

The final stages were about fitness and discipline. Both sides tired, and there were nine yellow cards shown, all to defenders or holding midfielders. Both sides focused upon keeping their shape rather than pressing.

Maybe Bento’s side were exhausted having pressed heavily early on. Their opportunities came from two sources – either Ronaldo free-kicks, or counter-attacks. Their chance in the final minute of normal time, when Meireles’ poor pass to Ronaldo meant the captain couldn’t take the ball into his stride, was a huge opportunity. They were on the verge of the perfect performance against Spain, and Bento’s tactics throughout the game can barely be faulted, despite Iker Casillas not having to make a save.

But even Bento would accept Spain were more dangerous in extra time. Pedro, Navas and Jordi Alba were the main men as Spain flooded forward down the flanks. If either side was going to win it, it was Spain – but 0-0 was a fair scoreline after 120 minutes.

Conclusion

Spain progressed, but Bento was the more tactically astute manager here. Portugal were highly impressive, pressing energetically and remaining compact. Their transitions could have been better, and they didn’t counter-attack as prolifically as Bento would have hoped – but it only needed one moment. That Meireles – Ronaldo incident was it.

Overall, Portugal’s performance in this tournament has been very good, and Bento deserves a great deal of credit. Portugal, after all, were only third favourites to progress from their group – so getting within penalties of the final is a good, if frustrating, achievement. Aside from not sorting out his left flank against Denmark, the majority Bento’s decisions were justified.

The same can’t be said for del Bosque – the Negredo move was fruitless. His substitutes had a good impact, but he still isn’t sure of his best attacking combination, and it’s now twice in five games (after the match against Italy) where his side looked genuinely clueless in the final third for the first hour of the game.

For as long as Spain continue their astonishing record of clean sheets in the knockout rounds (that’s now nine in a row) they won’t be embarrassed. They’re in the final, of course, and their incredible array of attacking players, their cohesive overall footballing philosophy and del Bosque’s consistency of selection (throughout the majority of the side) deserves much admiration.

But in individual games they can be nullified by an intelligent coach, as Cesare Prandelli, Slaven Bilic and now Bento have shown. The question is, can they be beaten?


Spain 0-0 Portugal: Portugal upset Spain’s rhythm but fail to record a shot on target

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