Portugal’s strange game of two halves — they were better before they started winning


We’ve seen some classic games of two halves at this World Cup. Argentina led Saudi Arabia 1-0, then somehow lost 2-1. Germany suffered the same fate against Japan.

This was a different type of two halves at Stadium 974: no goals in the first half, then five in the second. Portugal drew the first half, then won the second half. Their manager Fernando Santos, though, will be happier with the former than the latter.

That analysis is, perhaps, a criticism of Santos, a manager who won Euro 2016 — slightly fortunately — with largely defensive tactics and has stuck with that approach since, despite Portugal’s development of several more exciting attacking players than he could count on six years ago.

But it’s also a fair reflection of the game. Portugal, who have spent the past 18 months looking disjointed in an attacking sense, actually started this game very brightly. The tempo of their passing was good. Midfielders took it in turns to drop into defence and help play around Ghana’s two-man attack. The narrowness of the opposition allowed Raphael Guerreiro and Joao Cancelo to push forward into attack, with the midfield switching the ball out wide, and there were some rotations in wide positions too.

Perhaps most surprisingly, though, was that Portugal pressed — something that has often seemed impossible for a side boasting Cristiano Ronaldo up front. But Ronaldo played his part, with the initial movements if not the active ball-winning, and the midfielders backed him up quickly to force a series of turnovers. The obvious examples came for a good Ronaldo chance after nine minutes, when he was foiled by an advancing Lawrence Ati-Zigi, and his disallowed goal also came when Ruben Neves moved forward to press. But overall, there were seven fine examples of Portugal forcing turnovers high up the pitch in the first half, and only a couple in the second.


The goals, of course, came in the second period. But if Portugal were unfortunate with the first-half incident, they were maybe fortunate with the penalty decision — the decisions evening themselves out over the course of half an hour, in this case. They hadn’t offered any more incision or penetration in the second half, up to that point.

The second and third goals were much slicker. They came in a curious three-minute period immediately after Ghana had equalised, underlining that old cliche about being most vulnerable after you’ve scored. Joao Felix scored after another good example of pressing and then — more significantly — Rafael Leao ran in behind to score.

There is significant clamour for Santos to hand a start to Leao, coming off the back of an excellent period for AC Milan, but the manager will probably see his impact as justification to hold him back in reserve, waiting for the second half when there’s more space to exploit. It doesn’t feel very classic Portugal; they used to always have dangerous wingers and little else in attack. Now, their most talented winger can’t find a place in the starting line-up at all.

Santos knows how tournaments are won — with a strong defence. He’ll be concerned about the second-half concessions, which surprisingly originated from the right of the pitch, where the Manchester City pairing of Cancelo and Ruben Dias at right-back and right centre-back should have a good understanding (and you can extend this to Bernardo Silva just in front of them too). Goalkeeper Diogo Costa’s footwork was also a concern, particularly with a late incident at the end when he nearly gifted Ghana an unlikely equaliser.

It’s too much of a stretch to suggest that Santos would have preferred a 0-0 over a 3-2 in literal terms — ultimately, three points are in the bag. But performance-wise, there was more to admire about Portugal than the 0-0 first half would suggest, and more to worry about than the 3-2 second half would suggest.

And, from a more neutral perspective — this tournament definitely didn’t need another 0-0.

(Photo: Youssef Loulidi/Fantasista/Getty Images)


Related posts

Leave a Comment