One of the brightest matches of the 1/8 finals of Euro 2020 in terms of signage threatened with a one-sided game and not the most spectacular content. Portugal in the group showed that it is ready to play purely constrictive football. The main issue was the method of containment, not the style per se. Therefore, hopes were mainly in Belgium.
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Roberto Martinez in the playoffs for the first time in the championship used an old-school three in defense Vertongen/Vermaelen/Alderweireld, until now they all did not come out together. On the left flank appeared again Thorgan Hazard, De Bruyne was in the top three in the attack, and the center of midfield was Witzel and Thielemans… The scheme is the same as always – 3-4-3.
Fernando Santos made two substitutions compared to the match with France. Dalot replaced on the right flank of the defending Euro Semed, and in the support zone instead of Pereira appeared Pagligna, the opening of the Portuguese championship and the likely summer transfer to a big club. The scheme has not changed: 4-3-3 s Zhoty and Silvoy Near Ronaldo…
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From the first minutes it seemed that Martinez decided to play it safe and sacrifice the usual dominance for the sake of reliability. Both fullbacks opened low and made a minimum of jerks behind the back along the edge. Hazard and De Bruyne mostly received the ball in the central third of the field and rarely in front of someone else’s penalty area.
Portugal covered all three defenders – not aggressively, but not allowing them to advance and pass through the center. Tielemans was out of the game, not to mention Lukaku, who had only six touches in half an hour.
Martinez’s caution influenced his style of play. Portugal got the ball (almost 50%) – which is hardly something they were striving for, because the starting lineup without Bruno certainly did not imply positional attacks. And Belgium deprived itself of its sharpness, since it remained in a clear numerical minority in the foreign half of the field. And the pressure of the Portuguese worked.
It needs to be mentioned separately. Portugal did not have good pressure in the group stage matches, the more unexpected was the high-quality middle block in the match against Belgium. The four defenders remained behind, so that between the fullbacks, the extreme central midfielders and wingers had to switch, depending on the situation. At the same time, the wingers also played on defenders, while Sanchez and Moutinho had their rivals in midfield, so the task required constant assessment of the situation. Portugal coped and were not exactly the best, but not the worst team in the first half.
For two, both teams scored one hit from the field from outside the penalty area for the entire first half. Well, one corner kick in a half is also an obvious sign of a closed match. Everything went to a goalless draw, but Belgium succeeded in two good quick attacks in a row – one ended with Lukaku losing the ball (although he had been fouled for a long time and persistently before that), and the second with a goal. Torgan Azar succeeded in a magnificent long-range strike, but again the role should be noted Lukaku: First, he dragged the ball, and in the final phase of the attack he pulled Dalot over himself, so that he could not jump out of the line in time and meet Azar.
Photo: Jose Manuel Vidal / Getty Images
An illogical goal, it was not a consequence of Belgium’s advantage, but it is significant that literally the second episode with a quick exit from defense in three minutes has already ended with a goal.
But an illogical goal demanded an answer from Santos. Portugal already played quite boldly (by the standards of itself), not closing on the bus and meeting rivals in the middle block. In the second half, this was not enough.
Another important event at the end of the first half was De Bruyne’s injury. He got it in the very attack, when Belgium scored, after a tackle from behind from Pagligna, did not leave the field, came out after the break, but a minute later asked for a replacement. Instead, Mertens came out, and this is a loss, the significance of which can hardly be overestimated.
10 minutes after the break, Santos made a double substitution and released Felix and Fernandes instead of Silva and Moutinho. The scheme was preserved, but with much higher positions among the midfielders (one of which was Fernandes). The Portuguese began to put pressure with a high block and took the ball, but there were some doubts about the thoughtfulness of the plan: in the group stage matches, the coach did not manage to integrate Bruno into the team, and Felix generally entered the field for the first time at Euro.
Portugal owned the ball, the territory, but did not create chances. There was an episode when Felix struck with his head after a pass from Sanchez from a good position, but the blow was not too strong. And in general, the situation when Sanchez hangs on Felix in the penalty area is a bit strange.
As time went on, Santos continued to make substitutions, Portugal continued to possess the ball in the opponent’s half of the field. And at the same time, almost until the very end, she could not even arrange a bulk. Possession absolutely lacked the rhythm, the ball moved slowly, and the play itself was constantly interrupted. Both teams played hard, Pepe got yellow for a rough foul, which he committed after the whistle.
Sergio Oliveira, who came on as a substitute, being alone in the opponent’s half of the field (the Belgians pressed against the penalty area and did not press), made a revolution with the ball around its axis. It was easier for him than turning his head. This is a good description of the team’s positional play.
Portugal deserves criticism for the lack of sharpness from the possession – but Belgium deserves even more criticism for the lack of at least some counterplay in the second half. Just two hits in a half (and only one from the field), not a single clear moment and not a single refined counterattack, although Portugal opened up and left behind two defenders against two opponents. A very risky setup that could have been punished better.
After the 80th minute, having completely opened up, the Portuguese still created a couple of chances. One – after a corner, when Dias struck hard from several meters, the other – Guerreiro’s kick to the post from the penalty line. It was already a heap, it carried danger at least simply because of the pressure and proximity to the gate. Plus the constant won rebounds: the Belgians did not have the opportunity to take a break.
Photo: Jose Manuel Vidal / Getty Images
It’s amazing that Martinez didn’t change anything. He released Carrasco only in the very ending, and then because Azar was injured. But after the break, Azar had not a single hit and not a single pass under attack in 40 minutes. Even counterattacks did not work. A great three-on-one counterattack could have happened in stoppage time, but Lukaku managed to pass the ball inaccurately. A minute later, Belgium scattered again, this time two by two – and again the attack was spoiled by a pass. Nightmare.
As a result, Portugal struck 23 hits in the second half. It sounds impressive, if you do not go into details, that of all these shots, only six were from the penalty area and only two can be attributed to clear scoring chances. On the other hand, Belgium didn’t even have that.
Looking at the composition of both teams in attack, it seems that both are capable of more. And they should at least rely more on attack as their strength. Santos did not release Felix on the field at all until the situation became critical for his team, and when he did, he could not provide him with a comfortable role. A team with such attacking potential, which creates so little in attack, of course, deserves relegation. But the same goes for Belgium. Especially in the second half.
PS. Only after finishing the text, I noticed that I never mentioned Cristiano Ronaldo… I am getting better. He struck three long-range shots, one from the free kick, but never received a meter of free space when serving on horseback. This turned out to be enough.
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