Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal were once again frustrated in their quest for Euro 2020 qualification as their star man was taken off through injury just 31 minutes into their 1-1 draw with Serbia on Monday evening.
Serbia opened the scoring early on through a Dusan Tadic penalty and led when Ronaldo was taken off. Portugal equalised just three minutes before the break via Danilo Perreira’s excellent 25-yard strike. There was drama in the second half as well, as Portugal had a penalty decision overturned by the referee after talking to his assistant. In the end, however, Portugal ended their international break frustrated as despite having 70% of possession and taking 28 shots they left with just a point.
The following tactical analysis will discuss how Serbia’s defensive resilience held Portugal to a fourth consecutive draw.
Home side Portugal made three changes from their last European qualifier, a 0-0 draw to Ukraine. Rui Patrício of Wolves started in goal. João Cancelo, veteran centre-back Pepe, Rúben Dias and Raphaël Guerreiro made up the back four. Bernardo Silva, Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho and Benfica’s Rafa Silva played in a narrow midfield four. Cristiano Ronaldo and Dyego Sousa of Braga started as a front two, with the former swapped for Pizzi 31 minutes in due to injury. João Moutinho, Rúben Neves, Diogo Jota, André Silva and Nélson Semedo were all named amongst the substitutes.
Visitors Serbia, meanwhile, made three changes from their impressive 1-1 draw with Germany last time out. Dmitrović started in goal behind a backline of 35-year-old Antonio Rukavina, Uroš Spajić, young prospect Nikola Milenković and Filip Mladenović – who came in for Bogosavac at left-back. Darko Lazović came in on the right-hand side of the midfield whilst Nemanja Maksimović and Adem Ljajić started centrally – with Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić surprisingly left out. Aleksandar Mitrović and Dušan Tadić formed a well balanced front two. Though against Germany they played with a midfield five, they matched Portugal’s 4-4-2 formation in this game.
Portugal are a fairly fascinating team at the moment. Their performance at the World Cup was indicative of a team in a state of flux between the old guard that won them Euro 2016 and a new breed of exciting attacking players hailing from Porto, Benfica and Sporting’s academies. Additionally, in most relatively small European countries, winning the Euros would gain you lifetime respect but manager Fernando Santos gets continual scepticism and criticism from the Portuguese press and fans. Their play fluctuates between sturdy conservatism and meaningless possession. They topped their Nations League group beating out Italy and Poland however they just scraped through with a series of narrow wins and draws. Without an in-form Ronaldo, they have at times lacked identity and flair.
After unsuccessful experimentation with a 4-3-3 (radical for Santos) against Ukraine, the coach reverted to his favoured 4-4-2 here. The closest comparison for their play is the Uruguay team or Simeone’s Atlético Madrid. They play with progressive full-backs and central midfielders in the wide spaces of the midfield four. This approach is inherently quite cautious as there are never too many men forward at any given time. However, it has born fruit for Portugal before which begs the question: what’s been failing about their game-plan recently?
The first, rather obvious, observation is that they don’t like getting a taste of their own medicine. Some of their best performances at recent international tournaments have come against attack-oriented teams such as Croatia, Wales, France and Morocco whilst their worst have come against teams with a similar, conservative approach to them. Iran stifled their attack last summer in Russia and they were well beaten by Uruguay in the round of 16. Serbia and Ukraine both sensed this weakness and have exploited it. Santos, whilst not a bad manager by any means, appears to have nothing up his sleeves.
Some sympathy, however, must be given to the Portugal coach on this occasion due to the early injury of Ronaldo. The Juventus man was easily the best player on the pitch in the 31 minutes he was on the field. He drifted across the forward three and forced a pair of brilliant saves from the Serbian keeper. His early substitution following a hamstring injury completely changed the game. The image below is a major demonstration of this.
As you can see, despite a good run and fairly dangerous ball, this Portugal attack comes to nothing due to a lack of bodies in the box. What makes having a superstar like Ronaldo on your team so beneficial is that, aside from genius on the ball, off the ball they naturally attract defenders. This was a key touchstone of Santos’ team before. Ronaldo occupied markers which freed up space for his strike partner or maybe one midfielder. This approach allows the team to cautiously go forward. Without their talisman it just didn’t work. Even in the latter stages, they seemed adamant not to send too many men forward which can’t have pleased the home fans.
This was just one example of many ways in which Portugal’s attack was ineffective without Ronaldo.
Having said that, there were certain moments of tactical clarity punctuated throughout the ninety minutes. The way they moved the ball around late in the first half, for one, was very nice. Bernardo Silva was very good as always. The defence dealt with Mitrović well. As the below image shows, they did bring more men forward as the game progressed and split Serbia’s defensive lines late on. All this shows that with a different formation and manager Portugal can be a very good side.
Overall, Portugal had a mixed evening at the Estádio da Luz. They showed potential but yet again failed to break down a solid defensive outfit. Tadić caused the defence a lot of problems on the counterattack and Pepe once again showed why his impending retirement from the international game is long overdue with a poor game highlighted by a horrible challenge on Dušan Tadić that somehow just warranted a yellow card. Santos, like his opposite number, will take both positives and negatives from the game as he has time off to reflect on where he wants to take this team.
One undoubted highlight of the evening was the performance of Bernardo Silva. In fantastic form for Manchester City this season, the 24-year-old was spectacular on home soil. The partnership between him and Cancelo was particularly exciting. They were interchangeable in the game as Silva would either drop back to spread play with a trademark long ball whilst Cancelo overlapped or vice versa. Silva was more direct in the game than he usually is, as well. The image below shows him providing a direct overlap, using his movement to help Cancelo get the ball in the box. It was these kinds of interactions that were Portugal’s most deadly going forward.
This duo’s playing styles are shown in their respective heat maps.
As you can see, Cancelo played more directly on the right whilst Silva tended to cut inside and made less occasional forays onto the right-hand side. This shows Silva’s versatility in the midfield and Cancelo’s threat going forward. The two players’ attributes complemented each other on the night. Should Santos remain Portugal manager beyond the Nations League finals in the summer, he ought to use this partnership to their advantage.
Ever since a poor World Cup 2018, Serbia have been in terrific form. They are now unbeaten in seven games away from home and have stifled Portugal and Germany in this latest international break. With Tadić and Malinković-Savić they have midfield creativity and in rising star Nikola Milenković, an excellent defender as well.
Persistently linked with Manchester United, the Fiorentina centre-back was imperious against Portugal. The image below is perhaps the perfect demonstration of his best qualities. He uses his strength to fend off Cristiano Ronaldo, of all players, before savvily moving him away from the keeper without giving away a penalty once the ball came into the box.
On the whole, Serbia were defensively very good. They got back in numbers, Mitrović and Tadić effectively pressed the ageing Pepe and the narrow midfield worked for them more than Portugal. They come away with a deserved point from the game as despite shipping 28 shots, most of them were speculative and out of desperation considering the defensive resilience the visitors showed.
By and large, this was a great game of international football between two evenly matched teams. Both managers now have ample time to reflect on the game before the next international break in June. Then, Serbia will play Ukraine and Lithuania whilst Portugal host the inaugural Nations League finals as they face Switzerland in the semi-final and then potentially a final against England.