Normally there is a lot of hype and expectation surrounding the current European Champions at the World Cup. This is not so much the case now.
It is almost like still nobody believes Portugal won the Euros. Or they can go far in the tournament again. Even though the attacking talent of the team got a lot better in the last two years. The question marks are over the backline. When a 36 years old central defender from Rangers has a realistic shot of a starting place in your team…you are in trouble. No disrespect to Rangers, or Bruno Alves.
Their basic formation is a 4231 with narrow attacking midfielders. Ronaldo moves across the width of the opponent’s backline, and even steps back in the half space. This makes it rather a 4222-esque formation.
The Moutinho and Carvalho are their most active players in the first phase of ball circulation. One of them moves to the deep half space, the other pushes a little bit higher in the central space. The two of them always move in reverse directions vertically. If one pushes up, closer to the opponent’s midfield, the other moves back. For Algeria this caused a defensive problem they were unable to solve. If the central striker moved back with Moutinho, then Carvalho could pass straight to Bruno Alves if playing through the lines was not possible on the ball side. If the striker pushed up to the central defenders and a midfielder moved up to Moutinho, suddenly more space appeared in the midfield for a striker to step back.
Against Tunesia Adrien Silva was the midfield pair of Carvalho. Adrien Silva played the role differently than Moutinho. They were constantly changing positions with Bernardo Silva.
In that game Joao Mario demonstrated excellent ability to escape pressure in the midfield by dribbling and pass to a free attacker between the lines. Him and Adrien Silva worked in opposite roles. If one moved in front of the opponent’s midfield the other played between the lines. Mario is an excellent dribbler, but without the ball he is a more stationary player who doesn’t attack the spaces, holes in between the defenders.
The positioning of the fullbacks is very conservative. Normally when a midfielder moves between the fullback and the central defender the fullback pushes up between the lines, becoming a winger. Not the case with Portugal.
Soares and Guerreiro start from in front of the opponent’s midifeld line, or on the same line. They make the run forward only when a forward pass breaks the line. This ways Portugal has five players in front of the opponent’s team shape, covering its whole width. This approach makes for a controlled possession game. Long sideways passes that can serve as pressing triggers for the opponent are never to be seen.
They are very patient in possession, waiting for the moment when the chance opens up for a risk-free pass through the lines.
When Carvalho receives the ball in the deep left half space, Bernardo always attacks the channel, pulling the fullback with him. If the pass is not on, they play to Soares through Pepe. Due to the Soares starting from close to the central defenders, Pepe can pass in front of Soares, who receives the ball on the run past the midfield. If the opponent doesn’t shift quickly enough to the ball side while remaining compact, their fullback is in a difficult situation. He might step out too early, which gives the chance for Bernardo to turn behind him, and for Soares to find him with the ball.
At these side changes Bernardo might move just outside the opponent’s wide midifelder – Uruguay operate with similar movements. With Soares they are 2 v 2 against the fullback and the wide midfielder. Ronaldo and Guedes keep the channel open. This way after the pass to Soares Bernardo can become the third man by running through the channel. If the six of the opponent got attracted by the run of Bernardo, the centre opened up for Guedes.
Leaving out the centre in possession
Portugal have a very halfspace focused possession game. The central zone is almost entirely left free, only one of the holding midfielder stays there, standing int he six space. However nobody occupies the central space between the lines permanently.
Guedes starts from the back of the opponent’s six, making forward runs if the central defenders gets too far form each other. If the ball is in the deep half space, the farside central defender moves into the half space on the other side. This way the moment he receives the ball, he can pass the ball between the lines immediately.
A triangle waits for the pass through the midfield. Guedes moves back and receives the ball behind the midfield at a diagonal angle. Guerreiro immediately overlaps, and Ronaldo makes the run while giving maximum pass angle to Guedes. If the starting positions and the communication between the opponent’s fullback and winger are not working, these runs are impossibly to defend.
If the pass to Fernandes is not on, the ball can go to Guerreiro. If the fullback steps out to press him, the space appears in the backline to make the run into. The central defender of the opponent on the far side always has to make a decision. Either come more to the ball side, or the space in the middle opens up for Guedes to make the run into. Portugal scored their second goal from exactly this attacking process.
Short distances between the attackers
The narrow 4231 formation allows for a lot of different reverse movements, positional changes between the attackers.
Soares was always available as a free passing option, if the fullback pushed up to Bernardo. In that case Ronaldo immediately made the run behind the fullback, and Guedes ran forward into the space opened by Ronaldo. Soares had to receive far enough from the opponent’s wide midfielder to have time to play a ball into space for Ronaldo.
The triangle of Ronaldo, Guerreiro and Carvalho keeps the ball, meanwhile the six of the opponent shifts to close the ballside halfspace. Now the central defender has to take over the run of Guedes, and Bernardo Silva can run into the space opened between the central defender and the fullback.
Against two strikers William Carvalho moves between the two central defenders. Joao Mario and Adrien Silva push behind the two central midfielders of the opponent, pulling them apart. Bernardo Silva moves back in the space between these two central midfielders for the diagonal pass.
When Pepe receives the ball they don’t give any short pass options on the side of the ball. The fullback is already overlapping, Joao Mario moves under the FB between the lines to collect the second ball. As soon as the ball is played forward Bernardo Silva also anticipates the second ball.
Narrow defensive shape
The midfield four defender very narrow. Andre Silva and Joao Mario started from the six space, Bernardo Silva and Quaresma started higher than Carvalho and Adrien Silva in the centre. Especially Quaresma, who played closer to the Tunisian fullback on his side, preventing passes to him from the middle.
Their centre focus and narrow defensive shape can be demonstrated with this instance. Andre Silva marked the six, Joao Mario pressed the sideways pass between the two central defenders. He tried to press from the outside, to prevent a pass wide to the fullback. Meanwhile Ricardo Pereira moved higher to have better access to the fullback. Bernardo watched the first touch of the player receiving the ball. If he takes the ball inside, he has to cover the passing lane on the inside of Joao Mario. If he takes the ball outside, he might have to cover the diagonal passing lane from the fullback in case Joao Mario can’t prevent the pass to the fullback.
At diagonals the midfield shifts slowly. The central defenders remain 2 v 1 against the striker in the centre. The space behind Guerreiro pressing the winger is not defended well. Especially with Quaresma on that side, who is not known for his defensive discipline. Quaresma has a too high starting position, he prevents the ball on the ground to the fullback, instead of defending from the inside. That way he would cover the space behind the fullback better and he would have a better chance of stopping him from overlapping.
The Portuguese team improved in attacking talent compared to the one that won the Euros two years ago. Their safe approach in possession is the right one for tournament football.
A second place finish behind Spain is most likely in the group. Then a close encounter with a strong, organised Uruguay team. As Ronaldo said before the team travelled to Russia, in football anything can happen and they just have to give themselves a chance. The team is certainly strong enough to do that.
And on a personal note, I have sweetspot for Raphael Guerreiro. I would love to see as much of him on the pitch as possible, since he didn’t feature much for Dortmund this year. For that very selfish reason, I hope Portugal go very-very far in the tournament.