This article first appeared on Soccerly.com
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
Once you get past the dubious penalty call, and Pepe’s deserved red card, Portugal’s dismantling at the hands of Germany comes down to tactical ineptitude.
Portugal’s friendlies against Greece, Mexico, and Ireland gave Paulo Bento the opportunity to experiment with different formations and tinker with his lineup. The changes, which included a brief flirtation with the 4-4-2, as well as various personnel changes in the back four and midfield triangle, suggested potential surprises in Portugal’s lineup against Germany.
However, Portugal kicked off the World Cup with the exact same eleven Bento used in the semi-finals of Euro 2012 against Spain.
The decision to go with a tried and tested eleven should have provided certain tactical guarantees. After all, Bento’s coaching philosophy has hinged on maintaining a core group of players that has internalized his tactical credo. The adjustments during training camp, it would seem, were his attempts to introduce a Plan B if one were called for.
UNFORTUNATELY, NEITHER PLAN A, NOR PLAN B, DID ANY GOOD
Unfortunately for Bento, neither Plan A, nor Plan B – if there was ever one – did any good against a well-drilled German team that capitalized on every one of Portugal’s weaknesses.
In fact, if anyone had a plan, it was Jogi Löw. The German manager lined up his team in a 4-3-3 without a fixed striker. In his system, Thomas Muller, Mario Gotze, and Mesut Ozil, constantly interchanged positions. That caused considerable problems to Portugal’s center-backs, Pepe and Bruno Alves, since neither is particularly mobile.
It was Alves, though, who struggled the most. The Fenerbahce player was either being pulled into the midfield by Gotze, or to the wings by Muller. Whenever Alves followed one of those players, the other would run the channel left open by the center-back’s absence.
Making matters worse was the fact that Alves was often forced to help Fabio Coentrao, who was regularly left by Cristiano Ronaldo to fend for himself. It was precisely that situation that led to Germany’s first goal. Isolated against Jerome Boateng and Muller, Coentrão was forced into a tackle, forcing Alves to slot in behind him on the left. That in turn opened up space in the middle, which Gotze readily took advantage of before being brought down by João Pereira.
Still, Alves’ positioning might not have been so costly had Miguel Veloso been more aware of his responsibilities. As Portugal’s defensive midfielder, Veloso should have recognized Alves’ predicament and quickly taken up his position in the box. But then again, defensive positioning has never been Veloso’s forte, as evidenced throughout the game.
Of course, Veloso was not the only player whose positioning was suspect. Fellow midfielders, João Moutinho and Raul Meireles were just as guilty, especially when the Germans were building out of the back. Moutinho was regularly caught pressing the Germans on his own, leaving a huge hole in the middle of Portugal’s inverted triangle, which afforded Toni Kroos and Sami Khedira plenty of space and time to pull the strings. Meireles never roamed as far forward as Moutinho did, but he spent most of his time chasing players rather than closing down space.
That lack of midfield cohesion also hindered Portugal’s movement going forward. Such was the space in between the three midfielders, that passing lanes were almost impossible to come by. Thus, the Portuguese were forced to hold on to the ball for too long, causing them to give up possession far too easily, ultimately setting up Germany’s counter-attacks perfectly.
Correcting Portugal’s tactical flaws will not require an overwhelming effort by Bento. A brief video session, some positioning drills, and perhaps the introduction of William Carvalho, should do the trick. The problem, however, is that the Portuguese have dug themselves a massive hole in a group that will not forgive many mishaps.
PLAYER RATINGS (1-10)
Rui Patricio (5): The Sporting captain had some culpability in the last two goals, and could have conceded a goal on a very poor clearance. Other than that, Patricio responded adequately to most situations, making an excellent save in the fifty-first minute when Ozil was through on goal.
João Pereira (5): Pereira’s performance will be marked by his tug on Gotze’s shirt, which resulted in a penalty, but no one can accuse the right-back of not trying to change the course of the game. Unfortunately, the Valencia man was often isolated in attack and his crosses never found their desired targets.
Fabio Coentrão (6): Portugal’s best performer, Coentrão attempted to fuel Portugal’s attack from the left side on numerous occasions, but the fact that he was left alone to deal with most of Germany’s attacks down the right wing, prevented him from contributing more often. The Real Madrid man wasted Portugal’s best chance, scuffing a shot just wide of Neuer’s goal. His groin injury should sideline him for the rest of the tourney.
Pepe (3): The center-back’s temper let him down once again. Pepe can make the case that his head butt was fairly innocuous, but ultimately it’s the intention that counts. Before he got sent off, Pepe saw Hummels beat him to a ball on a goal-scoring corner, and got dragged out of position time and again by Muller.
Alves (3): If there were questions about Alves’ mobility, they have been answered. As dangerous as the center-back is on set-pieces, Alves is a liability when marking smaller and faster forwards. The Fenerbhce man was constantly out of position.
Miguel Veloso (3): Portugal’s most defensive midfielder hardly did any defending. Regularly out of position, slow in the tackle, and without any real influence on the game, Veloso could find himself on the bench when Portugal face the US in Manaus.
Raul Meireles (4): Like Veloso, Meireles was lost in the midfield. Neither effectively closing down Khedira, nor successful in Portugal’s offensive movement, Meireles only became a factor when he was forced back into the defense in order to fill on for Pepe.
João Moutinho (5): Forgot his defensive duties for most of the game, and was often isolated as the most attacking of the three midfielders. It is rare to see the Monaco player hold on to the ball as much as he did, but without clear passing lanes, more could hardly be expected.
Luis Nani (4): The winger never looked comfortable, and was often short on ideas. Fired a shot in the twenty-fourth minute that looked more menacing than it actually was, and watched Pereira do most of the defending for him.
Cristiano Ronaldo (5): The Ballon d’Or winner was expected to be Portugal’s savior in Salvador. Instead, Ronaldo proved a defensively liability, and his desire to win the game by himself may have prevented Portugal from creating a few dangerous opportunities. Saw Neuer make a good save on his best scoring opportunity.
Hugo Almeida (2): The striker wasted a breakaway chance before going off with a groin strain. Almeida’s touch failed him during the time that he was on the pitch.
Eder (5): Worked hard for the entire game, spending most of it on the right after Pepe was sent off. Made a good connection with a header that went just over, and had a good claim for a penalty. Eder managed to hold the ball up, but his isolation prevented him from creating any real chances.
Ricardo Costa (4): The Valencia captain did what he could to mitigate Portugal’s numeric disadvantage, slotting in next to Bruno Alves. A few headers and a couple of tackles prevented what could have been a far worse score line.
André Almeida (4): Replaced the injured Coentrão in the sixty-fourth, spending most of his time defending, while contributing a few wayward crosses into the box. In the seventy-seventh minute, Almeida made a goal-saving tackle, only to allow Andre Schurrle past him thirty seconds later to set up Germany’s final goal.