Along with England v Germany, Portugal v Spain represented another titanic battle of rival nations.
The so-called Iberian derby was billed by many as a potential classic. Free-flowing, end-to-end attacking football was hoped for, but as they did against the Brazilians, Portugal set out to frustrate and stifle the opposition, resting hopes of a goal on the counter-attack.
For the first 45 minutes, Carlos Queiroz’s game plan worked to perfection. While Spain’s narrow and lob-sided formation (with David Villa patrolling the left and no out-and-out player on the right) certainly played in to the hands of the Portuguese, Queiroz’s side did brilliantly to deny the three Spanish playmakers no time on the ball.
Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernadez and Andres Iniesta – despite plenty of movement in between the lines – were constantly pressed and forced into negative passes. When the ball did go wide to David Villa, Pepe came across to aid his full-back and make it difficult for the La Roja to create any chances. The industry of Pepe’s midfield partner, Tiago, was also impressive throughout the first half. Not only did he close down opponents and make important tackles, but he looked like he had the creative spark to open up a chance at the other end.
At half-time Vicente Del Bosque reacted and made a tweak that gave the Spanish the extra emphasis they needed. Sergio Ramos was pushed much further up the pitch, almost acting as a right winger, and gave balance to the team, along with some much needed width. Portugal’s three-man midfield became stretched.
The variation in the Spanish play started to hurt the Portuguese and the goal was a great example of how narrow they were at times. Playing so compact worked for 45 minutes or so because the Spanish players love to link up in the centre of the pitch, it therefore easier for the Portuguese players to get tight on their opponents and deny them space.
However, when Del Bosque’s team added width on both sides of the pitch, with David Villa on the left and Sergio Ramos on the right (his cross for Llorente should have brought the second), it became difficult for Portugal to deal with.
Below is a screen of the goal scored by Villa. As you can see, the four Portuguese defenders and three midfielders are all caught in the middle of the pitch, leaving the left and right hand sides open to exploitation.
While you could argue that Portugal played the perfect game for 45 minutes, they failed to react once they had conceded, which consequently, cost them the game. Queiroz shuffled his team around (Ronaldo had stints on the left, right and in the centre following the Spanish goal), but couldn’t find a way to get hold of possession and provide any type of attacking threat. Perhaps, when you have been defending for the majority of the game it is ultimately difficult to then switch to an attacking mentality, it certainly seemed the case.
In addition, Spain are probably the worst side in world football to go one down against. Possession is their strength and seeing out a game with spells of “keep-ball” suits the Spanish just fine.
Many will see tonight’s result as a victory for “football”, but don’t expect Paraguay to play any differently against the Spanish as Portugal did last night. Both Switzerland and Portugal have shown in this competition that the European Champions can be frustrated. However, if Paraguay are to cause an upset, they must react to any tweaks made by Del Bosque throughout the game and show a great deal more potency upfront than they have done so far.