Portugal – Uruguay: Fantastic Fernandes Finesses Portugal Past Uruguay (2-0)

Bruno Fernandes stole the show against Uruguay, as he scored both of the goals that allowed Portugal qualification for the knockout stages of the World Cup. It was a far too conservative approach from Uruguay throughout the first seventy minutes of the match, but Diego Alonso’s substitutions rejuvenated his side enough to make the match interesting for the final minutes.

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

After their narrow win against Ghana during the first matchday, Portugal could qualify for the knockout stages with a win over Uruguay. Though the match against Ghana was not one of the best performances the team has had under Fernando Santos, they showed that ruthlessness in front of goal that has always been one of their biggest strengths. 

Santos only made three changes to the starting eleven that he fielded against Ghana, and he elected to go with the same formation that just edged out a win against the African side. He also chose to once again allow Cristiano Ronaldo to lead the offensive line despite the former Manchester United striker’s poor performance on matchday one. Diogo Costa once again started in goal, with Pepe and Nuno Mendes joining João Cancelo Rúben Dias in the back line. William Carvalho was picked over Otávio to start alongside Bernardo Silva and Rúben Neves in midfield. The forward line of Bruno Fernandes, Cristiano Ronaldo, and João Felix remained unchanged from the match against Ghana.

Diego Alonso’s Uruguay were one of the biggest disappointments of matchday one, with their scoreless draw against South Korea being seen as a massive underperformance from one of the best sides in South America. Uruguay only registered one shot on target throughout the match, and Alonso decided to switch up his formation and his front line to try and generate more chances against Portugal.

Like Santos, Alonso made three changes to his starting eleven that played against South Korea, but he also switched his team’s shape from that of a 4-3-3 to a 3-5-2 to face Portugal. Sebastián Coates joined José María Giménez and Diego Godín in the back three, with Guillermo Varela slotting into the right-midfield role alongside Federico Valverde, Matías Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Mathías Olivera in midfield. Edinson Cavani replaced Luis Suárez as Darwin Nuñez’ partner in attack for a side desperately in need of a shake-up up front.

Again, Alonso gets it wrong

Throughout the first half, Uruguay were comfortable letting Portugal have all of the possession that they pleased, trusting that their defense would be able to contain all that Portugal had to throw at them. Though both Cavani and Nuñez pressured the Portuguese back line with admirable intensity when Portugal tried to play out from the back, there was little other effort given by the Uruguayans whilst trying to defend high up the pitch. 

Uruguay were incredibly direct in possession, with all of their players looking to put long balls in towards the two strikers whenever they got the chance. Alonso was banking on Nuñez and Cavani both being physical enough to win long balls out of the air, either to hold the ball up in their feet or cushion it back to one of their forward-running midfielders. Though both strikers did quite well in holding up the ball for their teammates, the Portuguese defenders were usually able to stifle any attacks before Uruguay could get enough players forward to create anything substantial. 

27th minute. Guillermo Varela launches a ball towards Edinson Cavani, who brings it down well with his back to goal. He is then able to lay it off to one of his deeper midfielders who can then dribble at the Portuguese back line.

Uruguay’s best chance came in the thirty-second minute of the match, after Cavani performed a nice bit of holdup play, with Rodrigo Bentancur picking up the ball at midfield. Bentancur carried the ball all the way into the Portugal penalty area, beating three Portuguese defenders with a bit of both skill and luck, before he squandered his one versus one chance with Diogo Costa by putting the ball right at the goalkeeper. 

Portugal dominate possession, but the lack of a focal point hinders them

Portugal controlled much of the ball early on, and they had little issue getting the ball into the final third. As they have done quite a bit under Santos, most of Portugal’s field players went forward in attack, and they held the ball for extensive periods in Uruguay’s territory. Though João Félix and Bruno Fernandes were (on paper) playing on the wings, they both took up inverted roles in the final third. Portugal’s width was largely provided by the fullbacks, with both Cancelo and Mendes being given acres of space by Uruguay’s tight back five that were often packed into their penalty area.

9th minute. Portugal have the ball in Uruguay’s territory, with much of their width coming from their fullbacks. Bruno Fernandes is forced to stay in a striker role as Cristiano Ronaldo comes deep to try and combine with his teammates.

During the entirety of his time on the pitch, Cristiano Ronaldo was a nuisance for Portugal in possession. On their chances to counterattack, he would drop deep to try and play quick one-two combinations with his teammates, with no Portuguese players stretching the Uruguay back line vertically or making runs in behind. With Portugal already playing with three central midfielders and two wingers who are traditionally centrally-based players, there was no need for the striker to drop into this role. It then fell on the fullbacks to create space for Portugal on the wings, as well as Bruno Fernandes to be Portugal’s sole player who could receive in between the lines.

Portugal scores, and the game goes to chaos

Nine minutes after the break, Portugal found the opener. Portugal had the ball for an extended period in Uruguay’s territory, and Fernandes found the space to put a cross into the penalty area. He targeted Ronaldo, who made a great run towards goal. The cross was just ahead of Ronaldo, and though the striker just missed the ball, it still went past Sergio Rochet. Ronaldo celebrated the goal as his own, and though it would have been a simple grab for Rochet had Ronaldo not made the “decoy” run, the goal ended up going to Fernandes.

Alonso made a number of changes to his side in the moments after the goal. He switched his team’s shape to that of a 4-4-2 and brought on Facundo Pellistri, Giorgian de Arrascaeta, Luis Suárez, and Maxi Gómez to try and jumpstart his limping side. The introductions of Pellistri and de Arrascaeta on the wings were immediately positive, as both players were eager to dribble at and take on Portugal’s fullbacks one versus one. Uruguay began to press as a unit, and Portugal fell victim to their pressure, and they lost their control of the match. 

The match turned to an end-to-end affair for the final twenty minutes (plus stoppage time), with Portugal trying (and failing) to slow the game down. Some of Portugal’s players tried to move the ball around the back, but others thought it better to try and go quickly at Uruguay’s vulnerable back line since Uruguay had begun to throw more and more players forward in search of the equalizer. The lack of organization on Portugal’s part nearly cost them, with Gómez hitting the post once alongside a number of Uruguay chances. Even the referee fueled the chaos, letting the players put in harder and harder challenges on each other as they tried to break up counterattacks.

Portugal earned a penalty in the ninetieth minute courtesy of Fernandes, with the Manchester United man putting the ball through a sliding José María Giménez’ legs, bumping the defender’s hand on the way through. After a look at the monitor, the referee awarded Portugal a penalty, which Fernandes slotted home to secure a place in the knockout stages for Portugal.



Like the match against Ghana, this was not the best performance that Fernando Santos could ask for from his side, but the team is seeing improvement. This was a vast difference defensively from the Ghana match, and there were fewer individual and structural mistakes at the back. One thing Portugal desperately needs to improve upon immediately is their ability to finish matches, something they have struggled with heavily during the first two matches of the World Cup. They need to be able to slow matches down and put the game to bed, and not get caught up in the chaos of end-to-end matches. Though it is positive that the Portuguese players are eager to score goals, defensive solidity must be the priority in these high-stakes matches.

The final twenty minutes from Uruguay looked like a totally different team than what Diego Alonso had fielded before. The addition of the dribble-first wingers, as well as allowing Valverde and Bentancur full freedom to roam the midfield as they pleased were changes that only improved the side. Though it cost them defensively, it has been the only period during the World Cup where they have consistently created chances and one would assume that Alonso will choose to field a very similar lineup to the one that finished the match in their must-win fixture against Ghana. Though Ghana will relish the chance to go at the Uruguayan back line on the counterattack, Alonso’s side has to score goals if they do not want to face an early exit from Qatar.

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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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