Portugal – Netherlands: Trademark Portugal win stamps their name on the inaugural Nations League campaign (1-0)
Both sides took a lot away from Portugal’s win over Switzerland. The Netherlands attempted to mirror certain aspects of their setup, whilst Fernando Santos adapted his side’s defensive setup to the exposure in midfield. Many other factors played into Portugal’s growing control, including their coach’s inventive defensive shape, which allowed for constantly successful attacking transitions.
Tactical analysis and match report by Peter M.
Just four days after their 3-1 victory over the Swiss in the semi-finals of the UEFA Nations League, Portugal were back once again at the Estádio do Dragão for the final. Santos made three alterations to his side from Wednesday’s win. Pepe’s injury was the reason for his absence, whereas the exclusions from the side for Rúben Neves and João Félix were most likely due to tactical reasoning. Santos lined up slightly differently, here, fielding more of a 4-1-4-1 formation.
Despite the Netherlands’ 3-1 victory over England coming a day closer to the final, and requiring extra time, Ronald Koeman was not shy of selecting the same eleven, which he so did.
Portugal’s malleable midfield
Surprisingly, Santos set out quite a relaxed approach in midfield, even if it was still based on marking man-to-man.
In the center of the pitch, you had three central-midfielders who positioned themselves loosely based on their opposite numbers, but they were not allowing themselves to be too heavily manipulated by them. Away from the center was Cristiano Ronaldo, who was positioned high and towards the left. Deeper down that side, Gonçalo Guedes tucked in as a narrow wide midfielder, which was in contrast to Bernardo Silva’s higher and wider position on the opposite side.
With Frenkie de Jong dropping into a back-three, William Carvalho would often push closer towards him, creating a far more tilted 4-1-4-1 setup. The Dutch midfielder’s move to the back formed a 3-5-2 shape, with Georginio Wijnaldum joining the other attacking outlets closely.
Dutch buildup issues
Throughout the first half, Koeman’s side struggled to build through Portugal’s shape. Although the midfield structure was exploitable, they were not opening the space between the lines well enough. More often than not, Memphis Depay would come searching for the ball in the vacant space left by William’s high defensive positioning. However, once the attacker received it, he was either closed down by Guedes or sharply followed by an opposing defender, as there were no simultaneous attacking runs which would have stretched open this space.
The synchronization and spacing of the four attackers were very disconnected. Not only were they not on the same wavelength but they were all so detached from the rest of the team. And, with all the attackers bunched up like this and already close to the defense, it was easy for any Portugal defender to tightly press up against any of the Dutch players’ movements towards the ball. This is why the Portuguese midfielders could afford to sit off ever so slightly, whilst still keeping within a distance.
What made Santos’ setup even smarter was its staggered structure. The coach was clearly aware of the fact that the Netherlands had no attacking outlet down the left, which is why the majority of the away side’s possession play came down the right in the opening part of the match. Their inability to stretch Portugal horizontally was another key factor in them being unable to manipulate Santos’ side the way Switzerland did.
With this in mind, he ensured the link to the underload far side, Bruno Fernandes, was always free. As Wijnaldum and de Roon were always positioned away from him, it was just about Bernardo being there to pin back Daley Blind. That not only stopped him from providing an outlet in possession but also stopped Fernandes from being pressed. This setup saw a host of attacking transitions moving quickly from left-to-right.
Bernardo’s positioning helping to free up Fernandes for transition-based attacks.
And, by virtue of the setup, you then had a pair of attackers wide on either side, attacking the spaces away from the two center-backs. However, Virgil van Dijk was inescapable once Portugal entered the box, where he managed to block many of the chances created from this form of counterattack. Seven of Portugal’s first half shots from open play came down that side, with four of those coming from Fernandes.
Portugal show the Netherlands how it is done
Netherlands’ misery was not close to ending, either. As the game moved on, they were becoming increasingly frustrated. When starting buildup from a more central position, they left themselves in an even worse situation. Against a Portugal defensive shape, which more strongly resembled a 4-4-2 diamond – as William stepped up against the holding midfielder – the vertical disconnects made it impossible to access any of the attackers.
Netherlands’ flat attacking structure, halting their ball progression.
This juxtaposed Portugal’s successes on the ball. Time after time, they were getting their attackers on the ball between the lines. Against Koeman’s 4-4-2 press, Santos used William and Danilo Pereira as tools to draw open the spaces behind the away side’s midfield. The difference here was that the attackers, like Fernandes, Ronaldo and Bernardo, were all moving across into the blind-side to receive, which just meant the Dutch defenders could not keep up with their movement, and thus left huge holes between them and their midfield line. Additionally, there was the fact that Portugal still rarely played through the center, so the pivotal defenders were surplus to requirement in any case.
That being said, the allotted home side were still falling short of creating anything clear cut this way, even if they were more deserving of a lead by the halfway point.
Koeman’s intelligent changes do not come quickly enough
Bringing Quincy Promes on at the start of the second half for Ryan Babel appeared to be the right thing to do. The Netherlands could now attack down the opposite side, without the same hopelessness against counterattacks, whilst also having a more direct threat to that side with the ball. It did not instantly solve their problems though, even if they did play with a bit more purpose. The connections and spacing of the attack, overall, were still too flat and incoherent, meaning there was no route for progression to take place.
Note the complete lack of forward passing links from Frenkie de Jong.
The visitors were not suddenly playing expansive, side-to-side football, either, they were instead narrowing themselves to the left side alone and were on the end of the same problems as Rui Patrício could just as comfortably launch it far across to Ronaldo.
Koeman brought on Donny van de Beek in place of Steven Bergwijn – another sensible decision, given the type of profile that had been lacking. But, before he could get going, the game had tipped on its head. In yet another example of the two defensive midfielders coming deep to draw open the space between the lines, we saw Portugal exploit that space multiple times in this move to gain the lead.
First, they exploited the wide overload, using Raphaël Guerreiro. Secondly, Guedes received in the inside pocket, where he then knocked it through the legs of the always-late-arriving Matthijs de Ligt. Thirdly, Bernardo, who had come across was also there to exploit the gap, as he drove into the box before, finally, returning it back towards Guedes in that aforementioned space. The wide attacker then did what he does best – fire in from range, as he rifled it across into the bottom right corner from eighteen yards out.
Donny van de Beek’s impact was largely positive, it should be said. He was a far more energetic presence off the ball, popping up in key positions, most specifically in-between Nélson Semedo and José Fonte to help advance the ball. These only led to sub-optimal crossing positions, however, which were of no use to a relatively small team, size-wise, that were only producing aerial crosses instead of cutbacks.
The breaking down of their opponents was made even more difficult by Portugal’s retreat to a 5-4-1 low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box.
The final change, to bring on Luuk de Jong, appeared to be another good decision, which almost had an instant impact. The first ball sent up to the target man almost dropped in the box for van de Beek, but it was just about shepherded past only for Patrício to stretch and knock it past the post. Away from that, though, nothing could be said for his impact since he was brought on so late in the day.
The Netherlands did not have a response and so Portugal were crowned winners of the Nations League.
Watching Portugal can be a struggle but it was a little more bearable to see them win a match that they deserved to win, rather than one they escaped from. Ronaldo did not need to produce the goods tonight because the rest of his team did.
For Koeman, this defeat truly epitomizes the hole left by a missing center-forward. Until one comes up through the ranks, it is by no means a certainty that their positive, possessive play will be enough to win them tight matches in such cutthroat competitions. Whereas Portugal have all the tools – both in terms of quality and experience in dealing with high-pressure game states – to go far in next summer’s European Championships once again.
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