Portugal – Serbia: Shameful Seleção Consigned To The Long Route (1-2)

In a grim year for a gifted outfit, qualification for the World Cup would have been consolation for the Portuguese. But Serbia had other ideas. Stellar names made the hosts the favorites, but they fell foul to a familiar problem, enduring dramatic heartbreak to leave the nation in stasis.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.


“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The famous saying of Albert Einstein rings true to this day, but the true meaning of its principle comes with a catch. What happens if that same thing you did turned out to be a red herring? Before the last qualifying matchday, this question would pertain to Portugal manager Fernando Santos more abundantly than ever before.

Few would have dismissed Portuguese prospects of glory at the turn of the year. From the supreme talent João Félix to the elder statesman Cristiano Ronaldo, this assortment of names befitted a defense of the EURO title. However, caught between the pragmatism of 2016 and the exuberant class of 2021, Santos has looked short on ideas, watching his men bow out meekly in the summer to Belgium. The next World Cup may be his last stand, but lose here, and his immortal legacy could end up in tatters.

Santos selected his usual 4-3-3 formation. After a goalless stalemate with Ireland, he made a raft of changes to his starting eleven. Ronaldo was the only outfield player to hold onto a spot in the side, moving centrally to leave room for Diogo Jota, who looked to mimic his feat of scoring twice in the reverse fixture. Meanwhile, suspension for Pepe forced José Fonte to deputize next to Rúben Dias.

Serbian manager Dragan Stojković went for a 3-5-2 system. He also heavily rotated his outfit, keeping three men in the team off the back of a 4-0 win over Qatar. As one would expect for this fixture, the star men came back into the fold. To this end, Dušan Tadić and Dušan Vlahović made up the front two, Nikola Milenković anchored the back three, and Nemanja Gudelj sat at the base of the midfield.


The perfect opening?

Though ahead of Serbia before kickoff, the high stakes might have prompted the hosts not to force the initiative. Fortunately for them, merely a minute and a half into the proceedings, it arrived on a plate.

Gudelj dallied with the ball on the edge of his box, inviting pressure in his blindside from Bernardo Silva. The winger forced a turnover, leaving Renato Sanches to pick up the pieces. The midfielder drove into the box before drilling an effort into the back of the net. An inflammatory response from Stojković only earned the manager a yellow card, leaving the guests with an uphill task to achieve.


Serbia snuff out the buildup

But Portugal did not take the hint, allowing the visitors to grow into the contest. Back three systems had already proven to be their kryptonite at the EUROs, and so it proved once more. In that case, the initial element of the task of defeating the Portuguese was preventing them from settling their way into the match on the ball in the first place. So, the Serbians soon unleashed a high pressing scheme.

Though they worked from a 3-5-1-1 shape, a similar 1-2 staggering at the head of their structure off the ball often arose. Tadić stayed deeper than Vlahović to shadow Danilo Pereira. His teammate then ended up covering Dias while Sergej Milinković-Savić moved out from the midfield to close down Fonte. The wing-backs on either side of the pitch followed up behind them, quickly shifting forward in pressing sequences to shut down their opposite men on the flanks in the form of the fullbacks.

Portugal’s individual quality counted for little, squandering control of the ball in numerous passages of play. Since the wing-backs hardly retreated even if the ball were on the other flank, the chain of three at the back matched up numerically with the front three. This interpretation of the back five then gave Santos’ men chances to break into the final third by picking up vertical passes and second balls.


7th minute: Serbian pressing sequence. Milinkovic-Savić and Vlahović guide the play wide to the left flank, where Živković closes down Nuno Mendes, leading to Milenković’s interception. Note how high Filip Kostić is on the ball far side, denying circulation through the backline or deep switches of play.


From here, the profiles in the Portuguese attack brought their strengths. Bernardo Silva’s elite levels of resistance to pressure saw him wriggle out of tight spots while Diogo Jota’s sharp running exuded danger in the transition. But more often than not, this haphazard approach only generated unrest.


Poisonous passivity

Portugal then did the rest to help Stojković’s men fulfill their objective. Phases of high pressing took place in a 4-3-3 shape, where the front three matched up with the back three. But the hosts soon fell back into a man-oriented 4-1-4-1 medium block. Isolated from the off against a back three, Ronaldo’s lax contribution to the side’s work without the ball set the tone for this setup. The central midfielders in front of Danilo then moved out from the midfield to try to disrupt the ball-retention of the Serbs.


Serbia’s 3-2-4-1 offensive structure


Here, they played in a 3-2-4-1 structure. The three central defenders fanned out across the pitch. Strahinja Pavlović usually moved all the way onto the left flank, leaving room deep in the halfspace to his inside for Gudelj to distribute passes. Saša Lukić supported the defensive midfielder, whereas Milinković-Savić operated between the lines, frequently making his way into the box to provide a physical threat in the box. To the right, though Tadić stayed in the right halfspace in the final third, he often dropped back very deep to help the buildup phase, taking on a more spacious role.

Again the Serbian challenge differed slightly from the Germans, but the Portuguese defense displayed familiar flaws. The wingers did not always take up ideal positions to support their fullbacks, while some rash decisions in the midfield forced Danilo to cover swathes of space in front of the back four.

Prone to getting stuck in a deeper block, their backline fell apart in the 33rd minute. Lukić stole a march on João Moutinho, whom Tadić swiveled away from on the edge of the box. The talismanic figure cannoned a left footed strike at goal, drawing a deflection from Danilo. Diving to his right to parry the shot, Rui Patrício spilled the ball, letting it squirm over the line to draw the teams level.


Eagles soar at the death

Portugal could not swing the tide of possession, seeing just 43% of the ball at the final whistle. So Serbia could be content with their work but still needed to take all three points to take the top spot in the group and qualify automatically. Thus, Stojković made a change before the second half, bringing off Gudelj for Aleksandar Mitrović, while Milinković-Savić moved to the left of the double pivot.

Over the rest of the game, Santos went to lengths to hold onto a point. At the start of the second half, he switched to a 4-2-3-1 formation, making several adjustments to the layout on the field. Sanches moved out to the right of the midfield while Bernardo shifted into the middle of the pitch. Not long after the hour mark, they turned to a 5-2-3 block, where Danilo operated at the heart of the back five.

But for all Portugal’s reserved attitude, the Balkans prevailed. A short corner routine in the dying embers of the allotted ninety minutes saw Tadić elude Rúben Neves. He then whipped a delivery to the far post, where Mitrovic guided a header past Patrício, handing the visitors the lead. Serb euphoria contrasted with Portuguese anguish, casting the Estádio da Luz into eerie silence. What a climax.


 


Takeaways

Congratulations to Serbia! In both clashes between the sides, systems with three men at the back cleverly allowed them to take points away from the favorites. More coherent collectives will surely await them at the World Cup, but the Balkans could only take on the challenge Portugal posed them, and they did so with aplomb.

On the other hand, the scrutiny has grown even greater around Santos. His men’s display captured the current state of play in the Portuguese setup. This outfit is one of the most explosive on the circuit, but that strength cannot mask their broader issues. Too wild in pressing and too open in a deep block, this squad can only signal their potential without the correct setup to play in a more dominant style. The World Cup playoffs are the main priority, but this state of affairs can only keep on going for so long.



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