Portugal – Ghana: A Tale of Two Halves As Goal Blitz Downs Ghana (3-2)

After a slow first half from both sides, a more open second half led to a flurry of goals. Portugal capitalized on transition moments to go 3-1 up in a flash, though a late goal from Osman Bukhari made the nine minutes of stoppage time a cagey affair for Fernado Santos’ team.

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

Portugal have had mixed results in international tournaments during Fernando Santos’ tenure as manager, with serious underperformances in the 2018 World Cup and the Euro 2020 (both round of sixteen exits). The highlight of his stint was winning the Euro 2016, which consisted of Portugal getting some favorable opponents in the knockout rounds after going winless in the group stage. Though Portugal entered the 2022 World Cup as one of the favorites, there are many doubts about the squad, especially surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo and his recent contract termination with Manchester United. 

Santos’ first starting eleven of the World Cup were fielded in a 4-3-3 formation, with Ronaldo leading the line as well as captaining the side despite his off-field antics. Diogo Costa started the match in goal, with João Cancelo, Rúben Dias, Danilo Pereira, and Raphaël Guerreiro as the back four. Rúben Neves, Otávio, and Bernardo Silva operated as the midfield, with Bruno Fernades, Ronaldo, and João Félix forming the front three.

Though they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Ghana are back for the 2022 edition. They eased through the qualifying process, and beat an incredibly talented Nigeria side in the knockout round to book their ticket to Qatar. Recently appointed manager Otto Addo (formerly of Borussia Dortmund’s scouting department) might lack the coaching experience, but he has had overly positive results over his year-long tenure at the helm of the Ghanaian side. 

Addo elected to utilize a more conservative lineup and formation against Portugal, going with a 5-3-2 formation. Lawrence Ati-Zigi was the team’s goalkeeper, with Alidu Seidu, Alexander Djiku, Daniel Amartey, Mohammed Salisu, and Baba Rahman acting as the defense. Mohammed Kudus, Thomas Partey, and Salis Abdul Samedmade up the midfield three, with Iñaki Williams leading the line in his first World Cup alongside André Ayew.

A quiet first half as both sides find their footing

As was to be expected, neither Portugal or Ghana got off to a quick start in the match. Both sides needed some time to grow and imprint their styles onto the game. Portugal were slow and patient in the buildup phase, and it looked as if they were questioning their tactics early on. Bruno Fernandes, who started on the right wing, tended to drift into an interior role (something that he is much more comfortable with), and Portugal lacked a presence on the right early on with João Cancelo electing to play more conservative in the opening minutes. João Félix also drifted out of his place on the left wing, trying to drop deep and help move the ball from Portugal’s defense to their forwards. 

Ghana’s setup made it very difficult to get the ball into the final third from non-transition moments, as their compact midfield and their deep back five covered the whole width of the pitch. In possession, Ghana looked to counterattack quickly, taking advantage of Portugal’s high defensive line and how many players they threw forward in attack. However, their counter attacks were unsuccessful in the first half (they did not register a shot throughout the first forty-five minutes) as Iñaki Williams was left extremely isolated in attack. He had little support from his teammates since they were all packed in defending deep, with the Ghanaian players solely trying to launch balls over the top of the Portugal back line to Williams.

14th minute. Ghana’s narrow attacks, with their fullbacks staying back, make it easy for Portugal to build up using their width.

Portugal’s only chances during the first half came from Ghanaian players giving the ball away in deep areas, allowing Portugal to transition quickly and get the ball into the penalty area. It was relatively easy for Portugal to put Ghana under pressure, as Ghana’s lack of width made it simple for Portugal’s midfield to collapse and win the ball back.

66th minute. Portugal collapse on the out-of-position Ghana back line, forcing them to play an aimless long pass over the Portugal back line.

Portugal find a breakthrough

Santos’ eased up his conservative approach in the second half, and Portugal began to get more adventurous in attack. This started to yield positive results, but it also opened up Portugal to Ghana’s transition attacks. The game became a more end-to-end affair, with both teams creating more chances. 

Twenty minutes into the second half, Portugal found their opener. Portugal moved the ball quickly after winning it back, and Ronaldo was found just inside the penalty area. He received some contact from Salisu, and he went to ground in typical Ronaldo fashion. The penalty was reviewed and confirmed by V.A.R., and Ronaldo slammed it home to open his account in Qatar. 

Neither team changed their style after the first goal, and Ghana responded with one of their own just seven minutes later. The ball was moved from the wing into the penalty area, with Kudus taking the ball to the endline. He played a cutback across the face of goal, and André Ayew tapped the ball into the net after Danilo Pereira fumbled his clearance. 

Portugal went back in front nearly immediately, scoring two goals in the six minutes after Ghana scored the equalizer. Both goals came from transition periods, with Portugal returning to the fundamentals of Santos-ball. The first goal came after Portugal won the ball back near midfield, with Bruno Fernandes picking up the ball. He played a line-breaking pass to Félix who was cutting in off of the right wing, and the ball slipped through Salisu’s feet to put Félix in on goal. Félix slotted the ball past Ati-Zigi in what was a tidy finish, returning the lead to Portugal. The second goal came in a much similar manner, with Fernandes getting the ball near midfield after Portugal won the ball off of Ghana. Fernades carried the ball into the final third, and dished the ball out to Rafael Leão once he hit the penalty area. Leão picked out an inch-perfect shot, putting the ball into the far corner of the net.

Poor game management for Portugal

In what was a very unexpected move, Santos decided not to play more defensive once Portugal had established their two goal lead. Instead, they continued to throw numbers forward, trying to widen their lead with more goals. This left them even more vulnerable on the counterattack, something that Ghana took advantage of with one minute left in regulation. Baba Rahman received a ball over the top of the Portugal back line, and he beat Cancelo with his physicality to get himself on the ball in the Portugal penalty area. He played a one touch pass to the far side of the six-yard box, where substitute Osman Bukhari was waiting to head the ball home. 

Portugal continued to play in the same vein once their lead was reduced to one, and it nearly cost them just before the end of the match. Goalkeeper Diogo Costa had the ball in his hands, and thought he had the time and space to drop the ball and kick it long. However, Williams was behind him and jumped on the ball as soon as it hit ground, and he would have been in on goal had Costa and Portugal’s center-backs not put in some last-ditch efforts to stop Williams and secure the win.

Ghana’s late push for a comeback.


This game should be a great momentum-builder for Portugal. They did not play poorly at any point in the match, and they avoided slipping up and dropping points against solid opposition (as well as their first match of the World Cup, when many teams drop points due to lack of preparation). Though their defense could use a bit of shoring up, most of their issues came from individual mistakes as opposed to structural mistakes. Their attack (though it was opened by a controversial penalty) was fluid and they operated brilliantly in transitions. Though Félix and Ronaldo could have been better in their positioning and holdup play, they leave room for the team to grow and improve as they move forward in the tournament. 

Addo and his Ghana side should not be ashamed of how this game went. Though their approach was a bit conservative and their forwards lacked support, they showed serious fight late on to get back into the game. After the earlier match between Uruguay and South Korea, it is safe to assume that Ghana’s setup should be able to cope with the attacking output of both teams, and that they will be competitive going forward in the group.

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Charlie Tuley is a junior studying sport management at the University of Michigan. He currently works as a data analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes, and does freelance football analytics on Twitter under the name @analyticslaliga. [ View all posts ]


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