The second-last game of Group 3 saw the defeat of Portugal, playing at home in an empty Da Luz, against France, who are now leading the group with thirteen points and with only the game against Sweden left to play.
Portugal arrived to this game with five clean sheets in a row and with two out of three results in their favour. Now instead, the defending champions would need to beat Croatia away from home and put their hopes in the Swedish team.
France lost 2-0 against Finland in a friendly match a few days ago. A defeat that according to Didier Deschamps was more than healthy and his observation was probably correct after analysing France’s performance.
In this tactical analysis, we will examine how Fernando Santos prepared for the game and the tactics instead prepared by Deschamps. In the analysis, we will also explain how Portugal changed their tactical approach trying to find the draw.
Santos started with a 4-3-3 on paper. Rui Patrício was the goalkeeper. A line of four in defence, with João Cancelo, José Fonte, Rúben Dias, and Raphaël Guerreiro. Danilo Pereira as a defensive midfielder, with Willian Carvalho and Bruno Fernandes as advanced midfielders. Cristiano Ronaldo was the only forward supported by Bernardo Silva and João Felix.
The Blues instead opted for a 4-4-2. Hugo Lloris was between sticks. Benjamin Pavard as right-back and Lucas Hernández as left-back. Raphael Varane and Presenel Kimpembe were the centre backs. Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, and Adrien Rabiot on the midfield line. With Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial in the attack.
Teams’ defending shapes
The first half, even though ended without goals, was very entertaining and gave quite a few important indications about how both teams have prepared the game.
Both teams have tried in taking control and put themselves ahead in the game, however, both goalkeepers performed up to their standards, especially Rui Patrício who kept the clean sheet even his defence suffered France’s offensive organization during the first half.
Portugal when not in possession had its midfielders dropping back creating almost a line of five. Both Bernardo Silva and João Felix had the task to help in defence, dropping back and covering a right and left midfielder respectively. In the above footage, we can see how Bruno Fernandes, who was cut out after his pressing, was ready to recover, choosing as well whom to run after, Griezmann or Coman.
While the line of four back in defence was kept for the entire game, the midfield was the unit that had some changes later on the game and as well the one that offered more shapes.
Cristiano Ronaldo instead, was left alone in attack, however, he was most of the time well-marked by Kimpembe or his ex-teammate at Real Madrid, Varane.
Portugal tried to gain control of the midfield, with organized pressing. The aim was to bring many bodies in the center of the pitch, trying to steal the ball and run in transition. The above footage also shows how Pavard tried in finding space inside, but the density brought by the Portuguese players was high, forcing them to play the ball back.
The midfield shape, therefore, was often a line of five but depending on how France was moving the ball, and how fast they were able to drop behind the ball, could also have been a line of four. The continuous rotation of the Portuguese players according to their pressing strategy, however, did not guarantee the correct coverage of the pitch leaving too much space between them and the defence’s line.
France, on the other hand, kept a classic and more organized 4-4-2 while defending for the entire match.
While Rabiot had the task as a left midfielder, on the other side, Bayern Munich‘s player Coman was dropping back. Pogba and Kanté guaranteed quality and quantity in the midfield, while Griezmann and Martial were left in attack.
With this shape, the Blues had the domain of the midfield for two-thirds of the game being able to outnumber, most of the time, Portugal’s players. The focus and the ability to keep the right distance between them made a huge impact on the game.
Griezmann as a false 9: the strategy
The key-aspect of France’s offensive strategy rotated around Griezmann. Barcelona’s player was a true nightmare and his position created several problems for the Portuguese defence.
If while defending, Griezmann and Martial stayed on the same line, while attacking the two players had two significant and different behaviors. While Martial could run attacking the inside channels of the Portuguese’s defence, Griezmann was always dropping deep into midfield, finding time and space to dribble and distribute the ball around.
The below footage shows how, after easily avoiding the inaccurate first block from Portugal, Kanté had three different passing options.
With Coman engaging in a one-to-one run with Guerreiro, and Martial attacking the channel, Kanté opted for a more comfortable pass to Griezmann. The new Manchester City player, Rúben Dias, instead showed poor body orientation and decision making, leaving Griezmann completely free.
We can see how the action developed. Griezmann had space and time to make a diagonal pass finding Hernández who delivered a cross inside the box. Martial shot from close range, however, Rui Patrício made an outstanding save.
The midfielders were too late recovering and from the footage below it is also possible to analyse why Rúben Dias made a poor choice reading Griezmann’s movement, not having any other danger around him.
The unexpected scorer: Kanté
Chelsea‘s midfielder has many qualities and plays a vital role for his club as for his national team, however, he does not end up on the scoresheet too often.
But as previously mentioned, Portugal tried to win the midfield battle, but without consistent pressing and uncertainty around the marking responsibilities of Griezmann, it is not a surprise that the winning goal came from a midfielder.
In the second half, with the same starting eleven for both teams, Deschamps’ strategy remained the same. With the below footage, we can analyse the development of the goal.
Rabiot in possession of the ball played a one-two combination with Griezmann, which once again finds himself some space right outside the penalty box.
Even though he was surrounded by four players, Griezmann showed great class being able to pass back the ball to Rabiot. From this angle is also possible to appreciate where Kanté started his run, showing awareness and the passivity of William Carvalho.
Once he received the ball back, Rabiot fired finding the gloves of Rui Patrício, but Kanté was there for the tap-in.
It is interesting however to analyse the presence inside the penalty box of five French players, with Griezmann cutting in quickly. Portugal’s defence was left quite outnumbered and we can see how William Carvalho stayed almost in the same spot even though the attack was dangerous.
Unsurprising was the recall on the bench three minutes later for the entrance of Liverpool‘s player Diogo Jota.
Portugal’s new shape: 4-4-2
Down by one goal and with a higher obligation to put the game back on track, with the changes, Santos shaped his team to an offensive 4-4-2, however was only with Francisco Trincão and João Moutinho that the team got balanced and was efficient offensively.
Cristiano Ronaldo until that time was isolated in attack, and with the 4-4-2, had finally the opportunity to play the ball deep creating some space for Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota and at the same time, the different tactic brought him some more company in the penalty area.
João Felix could be more present in the penalty box, and we can analyse how the increasing number of bodies inside the penalty area forced the French midfielders in coming back, a situation that happened mostly on set pieces only during the entire game.
Cancelo as well benefited from the new shape, as until that moment, his offensive support was limited as always engaged on the wide channel with Hernández. The below footage exactly shows Cancelo in possession and about to cross and played a one-two with Trincão while underlapping.
With the new shape, Portugal finally got control of the midfield and they seemed to be more confident and comfortable in gaining back the ball.
The new tactic also made the defence’s line to push up beyond the half-way line reducing the gap with the midfield facilitating as well her anticipation timing.
Even with the extra effort during the last phase of the game, Portugal was not able to reach at least the draw that could have change this qualification stage.
France once again confirmed to be a true taboo for Portugal. The Blues approached the game with the right mind and an offensive organisation that most probably will lead Didier Deschamps’s team to the final stage of this competition making France one of the teams racing for the title. On the other hand, Fernando Santos, who seemed to be quite unhappy with his team during the game, now has to hope in a series of events in order to pass the group.