This article first appeared on Portugoal.
In keeping with historical precedent, Portugal was incapable of defeating England on English soil, losing 1-0 to the Three Lions.
With eight changes to the eleven that easily dispatched a largely experimental Norwegian side on Sunday, Portugal’s trip to Wembley was more about fine-tuning tactics and nailing down a starting lineup for its first European Championship game than beating a heavyweight opponent and legitimate tourney contender.
And, despite a praiseworthy defensive performance, which was all the more impressive given that the Portuguese played a man down for just under an hour, Fernando Santos will go into his last preparation match against Estonia knowing that there is still much to work on if Portugal is to make a deep run in France.
Almost certainly, much of Santos’ attention will be focused on his team’s attacking processes. Even before Bruno Alves’ dismissal, Portugal was never able to sustain enough possession to pose any threat to Joe Hart’s goal, let alone inconvenience the center-back tandem of Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling.
With England pressing high up the field, Portugal’s midfield diamond quartet was deprived of space and the necessary passing lanes to successfully build from the back. That forced the Portuguese to either play in their own half – as evidenced by the regular back and sideways passing – or aim innocuous long balls at the hapless Nani and Rafa forward combo.
Both options played straight into English feet. Attempts to build through England’s press were frequently picked off and turned into dangerous counterattacking opportunities, and since neither Nani nor Rafa present the physical attributes to compete with taller and stronger defenders for lofted balls, Cahill and Smalling were well within their comfort zones every time Portugal opted to boot the ball down the field.
Factoring out the red card, Santos will be quick to point out that Portugal’s shortcomings were more the result of a lack of individual dynamism than tactical frailties. Yet, there is a sense that even in his system, the team is too dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo’s contributions, and that without him, Portugal lacks an attacking focal point.
Take the aforementioned attacking issue against England. Similarly to Ronaldo, Nani and Rafa like to attack by cutting in from the wings. However, unlike the Real Madrid player, neither of them feels comfortable mixing it up with defenders in or around the box. Accordingly, when Portugal had opportunities to cross the ball in the game, there was no one to challenge for it, stripping the team of an attacking option.
Of course, this will all be a moot point when Ronaldo is back in the fold. But that means Ronaldo-dependency is still very much part-and-parcel of Portugal’s DNA.
Hits, Misses, and Maybes
Ricardo Carvalho – If there were any doubts whether Carvalho could still perform at the highest level for his country, the last two games have allowed the Monaco defender to put them to bed. At 38, his speed may be long-gone, but his positional awareness and excellent reading of the game make up for what he now lacks in legs. There was never a time during his 89 minutes on the field where he looked outmatched by the considerably younger English forwards, Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy. Santos probably has yet to decide whom to partner Pepe with, but Carvalho does appear the most likely candidate.
Danilo – As I’ve written before, the most evenly contested battle for a starting spot will be between Danilo and William Carvalho. Yesterday’s game may have just given the FC Porto player the slight advantage. Apart from physically outmatching his opponents for much of the game, Danilo was positionally sound and poised under pressure, almost always choosing to build from the back instead of bombing the ball forward. His ability to slot in a center-back also gives Santos more tactical options.
João Moutinho – It would be unfair to suggest that Moutinho had a bad game, but it is evident that the diminutive midfielder is far from the player who can command the midfield with inexhaustible guile. While space was hard to carve out against England, Moutinho never showed the endeavor and drive to take on his markers and push the team forward. Instead, the Monaco man spent most of the game passing the ball backwards and sideways.
João Mario – Relegated to the periphery of the game, the Sporting midfielder was practically a non-factor. That’s quite a statement considering how good João Mario has been since breaking into the national team. In order to get him more involved, Santos switched him from the right to the left side of the midfield diamond, but having been deprived of the ball for large chunks of the game, Portugal’s number ten was never able to get into rhythm.
Eliseu – When you consider the fact that England’s best player on the day, Kyle Walker, was constantly marauding down his wing, Eliseu may have silenced some of his detractors. Nevertheless, there are still question marks about his positional miscues, which were exposed on a few occasions. All things considered, though, the well-traveled left-footer may still make the left-back position his own.
What would your starting XI look like?
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
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