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Analysing Portugal’s Not So Lacklustre Euro Winning Campaign

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Portugal won Euro 2016 much to the chagrin of fans and pundits, who derided them for playing a bland, negative brand of football. There were comments and opinion pieces of an undeserved champion, who barely escaped out of an easy group, got a huge break by getting on the weak side, then either played weakened competition (Wales without Aaron Ramsey in their first major semifinal), or just lucked out in extra-time (against Croatia, Poland and France).

The predictable backlash of why Portugal did, in fact, deserve to win followed, and SBNation did a decent job at it, and this Yahoo piece was nuanced enough. Putting aside the ironic notion of primarily English-speaking pundits complaining about Portugal winning and thus “ruining” the Euros, in the following article, we delve deeper into just how Portugal ended up taking home the Euro trophy.

We will be using videos, game stats from Squawka, Whoscored and FourFourTwo, passing stats/maps by 11tegen 11, shots by Footyintheclouds, the expected goal model of Michael Caley and tactical analysis by Spielverlagerung. But first a few words on the final…

Recap of the Final

In what was a dramatic final, Portugal have shocked home favourites France, thanks to an extra-time winner by the unlikeliest of players in Eder. A Selecao, a team that has gotten an incredible amount of flak for barely qualifying to the knockout rounds, has finally triumphed after what many deemed an easy road to the finals. While Portugal have made four of the last five Euro semi-finals and thus should be included on the short list of European football superpowers, many of their previous teams were noted for their individual flair and brilliance, but not the ability to get results. That all changed after one Joao Moutinho pass found Eder, who shrugged off Laurent Koscielny with ease and fired a 25-yard shot into the bottom corner past a helpless Hugo Lloris.

The match was built up as an epic clash between Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real Madrid star suffered a tragic injury in the early moments of the game, and was reduced to a cheerleader/coach. To be fair, based on the outcome and the player comments on his fiery halftime speech, we would say he has a future in that position as well.

In praise of Fernando Santos

Ronaldo’s forays into coaching notwithstanding, Portugal were indeed one of the few well-managed sides in the competition, and Fernando Santos deserves all the credit for that. Santos, aside from getting more dedication from Ronaldo than any of his managers before (the tears in the final, or his famous tantrum after they conceded the third goal against Hungary), and pulling off successful move after successful move (we will tackle these below), also had perhaps the best managerial quip of the tournament when he stated:

“I want them to keep saying the same thing (that Portugal didn’t deserve to win), that’s what I’d like, it’d be great!”

Santos also did an incredible job of managing his team, despite injuries (Raphael Guerreiro and Pepe – arguably his two best defenders played just two group games and two knockout games together!) and suspensions (William Carvalho, about whom Jonathan Wilson wrote an extensive piece). In total, nineteen players played more than 90 minutes, and the twentieth on that list was a guy named Eder, who did fine for himself in those 41 minutes in the final.

The so-called conservative tactics of the manager, for which many pundits have dubbed the team “Portugreece”, were evident in the final: the 4-4-2 with Nani and Ronaldo up top was quickly changed after the Ronaldo injury to a 4-1-4-1 with Nani and substitute Ricardo Quaresma occupying the wing spots, and more importantly, Eder was brought on to win duels up top. And did he ever: the Lille player won five fouls after his 78th-minute introduction, as he proved too physical for Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti. Did I mention that Eder, who just this year washed out at Swansea City scored the 109th-minute game winner, just his fourth goal for his country in 29 appearances despite turning 29 in December? How the heck did we get here?

Analysis of Portugal’s Euro 2016 campaign

Before we get into the breakdown of Portugal’s performance in France, let’s start by taking a look at how they qualified for the tournament:

Working their way out of a hole after an opening round defeat at home to Albania, Portugal reeled off seven straight wins to qualify for France 2016, earning 21 points out of a possible 24 in Group I that also included Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. While that seemed like a comfortable group in retrospect, it was anything but. Paulo Bento quit after the shocking loss to Albania and the association appointed former Greece coach Santos, a veteran of Portuguese big teams, but also someone with a reputation of a dull pragmatist who bounced around between Greece and Portugal. Nevertheless, thanks to a couple of stoppage time winners and five goals from Ronaldo, Portugal were off to Euro 2016.

Having been drawn into a seemingly favourable group with minnows Iceland, the Hungarian team returning after a 44-year absence, and a talented Austria team, Portugal were still the prohibitive favourites to win group F, some mild Austria buzz notwithstanding (how is that working out?). Before the tournament, they were firmly entrenched in the puncher’s chance category with 20 to 1 odds to win it all, behind favourites Spain, France and Germany, as well as England, Belgium and Italy.

Group games

Iceland were their first opponents, and it was one of the more ridiculously one-sided draws we have ever seen. Three pics should suffice.

1) Look at all the passing

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2) The positioning shows Portugal pinning Iceland back, with the two fullbacks pushing high.

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3. All the shots for “A Selecao”!

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Finally, the video highlights show one early Gylfi Sigurdsson chance followed by a massively fortunate save by Hannes Halldorson (one of EIGHT on the night for the part-time director) to deny Nani, who would later give Portugal the lead after a great through ball by Vieirinha to Andre Gomes. Vieirinha, a converted right-winger, who played as a right back for about half of his 1900 minutes for Wolfsburg, committed one of the worst positional mistakes I had ever seen for the Icelandic equaliser.

That was followed by the Austria match, which was somehow even more ridiculous, as Portugal outshot Austria 23 to 4, forcing Robert Almer into making six saves, the Ronaldo penalty miss notwithstanding. The Madrid star, who managed to get one of his ten shots on target versus Iceland, somehow had an even more frustrating game – he tried another TEN shots, got three on target and had a penalty, yet failed to score.

Again, some more pics of Portugal’s stupendously unlucky match –

Portugal-Austria-attemps

Obviously, twenty shots by Ronaldo in two matches is an incredible number, but on the other hand, there were those who started to voice their concerns about the isolation in the buildup in Portugal’s attack. Tom Payne, the excellent tactical analyst at Spielverlagerung noted that “Although all three players moved actively within the midfield, situations in which they could act together were a rarity and Portugal were thus limited to individual attempts to break down Austria’s defence.” Payne went to support his sound argument by linking the passing map by 11tegen11, which highlighted a couple of issues.

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The linkup play was often disconnected, with notable problems in getting the ball from the centre of the midfield/defence to the forward players – with the exception of Quaresma. In particular, Nani and Ronaldo were unable to get on the same page with the two attacking mids in Moutinho and Gomes, evidenced by the pic on the left and by the OPTA stats on FFT.

We’ll talk more about this later, but the bigger issue concerned the positioning of one Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo was often seen dropping deep and this had two unfortunate consequences for Portugal –

1) His heavy volume shooting, while impressive, was often ineffective, due to getting blocked. SIX TIMES versus Iceland! And/or missing the target versus Austria.

Ronaldo-shots

2) Ostensibly, his passing was not helping to create meaningful chances for his team in either of their first two games. Iceland forced him into a back to the goal player who lays the ball off sideways. Austria had him dropping into a quasi CAM role, with his rare forward passes notably unsuccessful.

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I mean is this really where you want your big-time goalscorer to be against Austria?

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The Hungary game – the turning BREAKING point

Portugal were in trouble after these two consecutive draws, but it was not Austria, who everyone expected to give the Lusitanos a run for the top spot, but also Iceland, who had drawn twice (the second against Hungary, where they had the lead for 88 minutes) and more importantly, Hungary. The Hungarians, who pulled off a miraculous win against Norway to win their playoff qualifier, continued their improbable run with a 2-0 opening day win over Austria and were entering the game against Portugal on four points after a tie with Iceland. Due to the machinations of the insanely complicated group stages where 16 out of 24 teams would qualify to the knockout rounds, Hungary, fearing the yellow cards, and all but assured of progress, actually decided to rest three of its key players in Laszlo Kleinheisler, Adam Nagy, and Tamas Kadar, while right back Attila Fiola was injured.

Hungary-Portugal-11

Portugal were also missing key left back and new Dortmund signing Guerreiro, who was replaced by the veteran Eliseu. Vieirinha, despite his glaring error against Iceland somehow kept his spot, while the Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho duo rounded out the defence. In midfield, Santos opted for just the lone defensive midfielder in William Carvalho, perhaps (in hindsight) underestimating the limited Hungarian attack, and had Moutinho nominally next to him. Joao Mario and Gomes lined up on the right and left-wing respectively, while Nani and Ronaldo occupied the two forwards spots. With such an attacking minded lineup, I’m guessing the plan was to grab a quick goal or two against a weakened Hungarian side and just progress comfortably in first place.

Well, that didn’t go so super well, as the kids say!

The result one was a thrilling rollercoaster of a match for 70 minutes, that included six goals and numerous other chances. While Portugal yet again won the XG battle, few would have declared them the better team, having had to come back three times versus a Hungarian B team!

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There were a tonne of problems, but the incredible lack of discipline shown by the players must have angered Fernando Santos.

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Furthermore, Vieirinha and Eliseu bombed forward incessantly and needlessly, as they had Gomes, Mario and Moutinho all attacking as well. As a result, poor William Carvalho was left to defend the Hungarian counters by himself in front of the not exactly lightning quick Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe. The result was a lot of desperate tackles and fouls (Carvalho on Adam Szalai led to Hungary’s third) and failed clearances by both.

I am not a coach, but it’s not exactly an ideal situation to defend 60+ yards of space down the middle with just three players in 2016 football. The result was the Hungarians getting FIVE of their NINE shots on target, including three goals and Akos Elek’s shot hitting the post.

Moutinho had himself an interesting game in the CDM, CM role. On one hand, he amassed five key passes in the first 45 minutes but failed to record a tackle resulting in the greatest defensive dashboard from a central midfielder in Opta history.

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Moutinho was far from the only culprit:

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Nani should also shoulder some of the blame for failing to head the ball clear, then close down on Zoltan Gera for the first goal, while his half-hearted block on Balazs Dzsudzsak’s second goal led to a deflection and Hungary’s third.

Eliseu was a mess: the 32-year-old was constantly caught out of position and allowed Lovrencsics to get forward with ease, as 38-year-old Carvalho tried to desperately cover for him. He also did not pay enough attention to the scouting report on Dzsudzsak, who was playing as the inverted winger on the right side at times, and allowed the Hungarian to cut inwards onto his dominant left foot that resulted in the third goal.

Vieirinha was extremely high up the field, and while he offered a solid outlet and linked up well with the impressive newcomer Mario, his passes were often wasteful – his 75% pass accuracy was the lowest on his team. His defensive positioning was already described as awful, and his interceptions (one per match at the Euros) were also way behind his 2.5 for Wolfsburg.

Swipe through the page or click HERE to read part 2 of this article – How Portugal went on with their business in the knockout stages

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  • Chaitanya Bapat

    Well written ! Hats off! Extremely insightful