By Eric Krakauer
Before Euro 2016 kicked-off, the general consensus was that Portugal had more than enough arguments to reach the latter stages of the tournament. That sentiment faded almost entirely, and quickly gave way to pessimism, after the Seleção failed to beat Iceland.
This has been somewhat of a pattern in major tournaments. Expectations are high before the first kick, and then reality sets in when Portugal doesn’t win the first game.
On occasion, the early stumble foreshadows an unceremonious exit from a tournament, as were the cases in the 2002 and 2014 World Cups, when the Portuguese were quite simply embarrassed by the United States and Germany, respectively.
However, a sobering first result also has a way of refocusing players and inspiring a sense of urgency in the group, catalyzing deep tourney runs, as we witnessed in the 2004 and the 2012 European Championships.
If you believe in such things, those last two examples could serve as good omens, and Portugal’s relative Euro success does inspire some confidence. Nevertheless, neither superstition nor recent history, ensure future success. Thus, a more systematic examination is required in order to get a better idea as to whether the game against Iceland was merely a bump in the road, or a manifestation of a greater problem that will inevitably lead to group heartache.
The initial approach
Despite the Cinderella narrative that has accompanied Iceland’s Euro campaign, only those unfamiliar with the islanders would have anticipated an effortless Portuguese win. Finishing second in a group that included the Czech Republic, Turkey, and the (utterly disappointing) Netherlands, Iceland accomplished its remarkable feat with excellent defensive organization, and very effective counterattacking.
Fernando Santos attempted to counter this strategy by emphasizing quick, short passing in between Iceland’s tight lines. That required the sort of movement that we saw against the significantly weaker, though, similarly coached, Estonian national team. With Danilo buttressing the Portuguese back-four, João Moutinho, João Mario and André Gomes were responsible for the quick positional changes that would throw-off their Icelandic markers. Danilo’s defensive presence also meant that Vieirinha and Rapahel Guerreiro had the freedom to push up the wings in the hopes of stretching the field.
This worked for most of the first half. After a nervous five minutes that required Rui Patricio to parry a powerful shot from Gylfi Sigurdsson, Portugal was able to sustain enough possession to find the free-roaming, Gomes and Mario, between Iceland’s midfield and defensive lines. The two midfielders quickly spread the ball wide where Vieirnha, Guerreiro, and Ronaldo on occasion, found space to cross it into the box. It was this consistent movement that ultimately led to Nani’s first scoring opportunity, when his header forced an excellent save from Hannes Halldorsson, and resulted in Portugal’s only goal of the game.
The only problem with the approach was that Portugal never had enough players in and around the box, rendering most of the crosses a complete waste. Of the 30 flung into the danger area, only 7 found their intended targets. There were two main reasons for this. The first is that Ronaldo and Nani rarely appeared in the penalty box at the same time. The second is that none of Portugal’s three more offensive-minded midfielders made deep follow-up runs to support the two forwards. This was especially the case with Moutinho, who spent most of his time on the field playing further back than he was supposed to. Essentially, what was supposed to be a 442 diamond formation, became more of a 4231.
Iceland scores and destabilizes Portugal
From the beginning, Iceland attempted to build its attacks by relying on its two forwards, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, to hold up the ball. While most of those attempts failed to materialize into goal-scoring opportunities, the Portuguese struggled with their size and physicality, and their ability to transition efficiently from defense into attack was clearly hindered.
Iceland’s goal did eventually result from one of those situations. After Danilo and Guerreiro were unable to win a punt up the field, Bodvarsson collected the ball on the right, and passed it to Johann Gudmundsson, who subsequently found an unmarked Birkir Bjarnason.
Vieirinha ended up shouldering much of the blame, since it was the right-back that initially lost track of Bjarnason when Sigthorsson made a diagonal run towards the first post. Nevertheless, the move evidenced a couple of problems that occurred on more than one occasion during the game. Without the help of André Gomes, who was late tracking back, Gurreiro was left to fend for himself against Bodvarsson and Gudmundsson, which prompted Ricardo Carvalho and Danilo to try and close the space behind the left-back. In those situations, it is up to the remaining midfielders to drop into the box in order to not only protect the weak side, but also prevent the remaining defenders from being isolated against their marks. Neither Moutinho, nor João Mario did so. Both were left committing the sin of ball watching.
Stunned by the goal, Portugal began rushing its attacks and deviating from the original plan to methodically build from the back and find space in between Iceland’s two back lines. This is not unusual for Portugal. The Portuguese are notorious for crumbling under pressure, and their go-to plan invariably becomes, “give the ball to Ronaldo.”
Of course, with the score and another record to chase, the captain obliged. Ronaldo forced himself into every attacking situation in the offensive third, actively looking for the ball, instead of putting himself in the best positions to score.
Portugal’s tactical collapse was everything Iceland could have hoped for. The Ronaldo-dependency made the Portuguese more predictable and their attacks easier to defend against, all but guaranteeing the minnows a point in Saint Etienne.
So what does this all mean for the upcoming game against Austria?
The only notable and perhaps unforeseen development in the group is not that Portugal tied Iceland, but that Austria lost to Hungary. As much as Iceland was regarded as a potential menace to Portugal’s progress, Austria was always the biggest threat.
Given that the Austrians now have their backs to the wall, that threat has grown. Yet, that doesn’t mean that Portugal will face a radically different opponent than initially anticipated – only a more desperate one. Thus, while the expectation was that Austria would probably sit back, absorb Portuguese pressure, and look to exploit space on the counter, the Austrians will now likely look to maintain more possession.
That may, in fact, prove a blessing for Portugal. Against Iceland, Ronaldo and Nani functioned more as target men because there was very little space behind the Icelandic defense, which didn’t suit either of the players, even though the Fenerbahce winger fulfilled that role admirably. A more offensive Austria will allow the forward tandem more room to navigate, and more time to make decisions.
Fernando Santos will, however, have to make some adjustments. Austria’s coach, Marcel Koller, will have been encouraged by the fact that Portugal struggled to match physically against Iceland. Hence, it isn’t outlandish to think that the Austrians will take a more direct approach to the game. This could lead the Portuguese to make some changes in the midfield.
Santos might decide to replace Danilo with William Carvalho, or even consider partnering the two, significantly bolstering the sector. Renato Sanches could also be an option. Although the Bayern Munich player failed to add anything substantial to the game against Iceland, his presence was certainly felt, and with João Moutinho clearly out of form, the youngster could provide the creative spark that is lacking.
Other than that, it is doubtful that Santos will make many changes. Overall, Portugal’s performance evidenced many more positive than negatives. Only wastefulness and a couple of mistakes prevented the Seleção from facing Austria with three points already in the bag.
Therefore, if you’re expecting wholesale changes, you may be bitterly disappointed.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny