The last time France and Portugal encountered each other was in a 120 minute, hard-fought battle in the finals of the Euros. Four years later, this was a game marked to be one of the more exciting match-ups in this week’s UEFA Nations League fixtures. Although several analysts would have liked to see some of the younger talents get the nod, both teams were quite wary of one another. This was reflected not only in their lineups but also in their cautious approach to the game.
Considering their respective positions in Group C, both teams were content with a draw before the ball was kicked. Their positional setups were quite solid and narrow. This was echoed in their ambitions in the final third. Moreover, both teams were mirror images of each other in terms of xG and shots on target. However, a game of 95 minutes always sheds light on a deeper analysis of the players involved as well as the teams’ tactics.
In this match report, we provide a tactical analysis of an instructively vigilant 0-0 draw. In addition to their playing styles, we especially focus on both teams’ respective midfielders and full-backs, and their impact on the forward players.
The biggest change was Didier Deschamps’ decision to pick his more senior players in a formation with four at the back. This implies that France’s full-backs may have been watchful of getting forward in the wide areas of the final third. The 4-3-1-2 is a tried and tested formation used by teams against oppositions with flair and attacking potential. France famously used this in their win against Brazil in the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2006. However, in their previous two games against Sweden and Croatia, France employed a 3-4-1-2 permitting a more advanced role for their full-backs (who both operated as wing-backs). This brought them a lot of joy moving forward. The Blues’ structural symmetry was central to their ball progression, as well as their defending.
Portugal, on the other hand, slightly deviated from their commonly used 4-3-3 in what was more of a 4-2-3-1. Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho operated as a double pivot, with Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva as the attacking midfielders. Joao Felix and Cristiano Ronaldo often switched positions in the final third of the pitch.
Both teams laid a lot of importance towards solidity in the middle of the park. Notice the density of the players in the middle third of the pitch in the following image.
In addition to all of France’s players, except Chelsea‘s Olivier Giroud, being present in this frame, it is noteworthy that their positions are static. This image personifies the relatively conservative match tempo throughout the 90 minutes.
France’s shape was a defining factor in both teams’ chances in the final third. Les Bleus aimed to steadily progress the ball without risk and let their paramount quality upfront outclass their opposition. Thus, as a reactive measure, Pereira and Carvalho’s primary purpose was to nullify this heavy central presence and avoid overloads.
In the next section, we shall elaborate on the tactics of how both teams moved the ball.
Contrasting styles of ball progression
It was apparent that Portugal’s foundation to progress the ball was their central unit of defensive midfielders as well as the full-backs. Their more attack-minded outlets routinely switched positions in order to pose marking-related questions to their opposition. Thus, this central unit was responsible for not only eliminating space for a counter, but also to participate in rotations higher up the pitch. Consider the following position.
Due to Raphael Guerreiro’s initiative higher up the pitch, Fernandes drops to cover the space behind him. With Felix’s decoy run on the left, there is an ounce of space for Bernardo Silva, who rotated with Ronaldo (on the right wing). Finally, Carvalho’s presence is dual purposed; to provide structural support for a second ball, and to reduce space for Paul Pogba. The box-to-box midfielder’s role was to man-mark the Manchester United star, even in France’s half. They engaged in seven duels throughout the match (second-highest in the match). Because of Guerreiro’s high position, Nelson Semedo (not in the frame) drops deep to maintain the central defensive block.
In addition to eliminating free spaces in the centre, Portugal were also not afraid to press higher up the pitch. In the following image, France pass the ball out from the back.
With one player to block each passing lane, and in conjunction with an outside man to trigger the counter-press, Pavard is forced to pass the ball to Pogba in an uncomfortable position. Due to strong pressure from the Portuguese left-back, Pogba is unable to continue the possession chain as the ball is put out of play.
However, France adapted to Portugal’s glimpses of intensity in the first 20 minutes of the match. They chose to take longer goal kicks into the central areas of the pitch where their shape was most effective. Out of the 19 goal kicks taken by Tottenham Hotspur captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, 14 were beyond France’s own third. This decision permitted France to set the overarching tempo of the match.
When on the ball, every French player had their bodies facing the centre line. Pogba, N’golo Kante and Adrien Rabiot routinely rotated amongst each other and carefully made short, lateral passes. This gradually led to the well-disciplined side move 5-10 yards forward at a time. They were quite patient in this approach. France were fishing for free spaces conceded by the opposition in order to suddenly play a long-ball into one of their attackers. This can be seen in the following image.
In the first half of this possession chain, France made passes not to break lines, but to steadily gain territory up the pitch without much risk. The possession chain was then concluded, with Pogba’s long ball finding Antoine Griezmann, who managed to register a shot on target.
On the one hand, France’s possession chains could result in their opposition suffering from ball-watching, as the likes of Giroud, Kylian Mbappe and Griezmann operate on their markers’ shoulder and convert half-spaces into free spaces. On the other hand, this approach may be argued to merit a compromised xG, as it relies on the individual quality of players.
Defensively, however, France’s well-organised, narrow shape sapped space from the Portuguese attackers. The structural symmetry of France is noteworthy in the following image.
Off the ball, the Blues pressed as a 4-3-3. The high and narrow first and second lines of defence not only make the pitch smaller for their opposition, but are also harmonious.
All in all, Portugal’s rotating attackers and France’s focus on structure were integral to the way they progressed the ball. It is noteworthy, then, that the very same tactics are what prevented either team from finding the back of the net.
Diagnosing the stalemate
As opposed to France’s low-intensity, no-risk approach, Portugal were willing to take the initiative. Their game plan would have thrived if the match was more open, with quicker transitions. France were successful in containing the same. The Blues’ solidity forced Portugal’s advanced players to drop quite deep.
Consider the following image that maps Ronaldo’s heatmap as well as the average positions of each Portuguese player.
It is evident that Ronaldo was allowed to roam away from his set position and trigger rotations with his players in order to break lines. However, there was no player to serve as an outlet at the end of the possession chains. Felix (number 23), who was, on paper, supposed to operate as a second striker, constantly switching positions with Ronaldo, was relegated to his average position on the halfway line.
On the other hand, while France’s rigid formation was effective in keeping their opposition at bay, it was too narrow to create clear-cut chances offensively. This is underlined by the average positions of their midfielders. Kante’s role was as a box-to-box midfielder. Rabiot’s was a metronome passer and Pogba’s was to add creativity and break lines. However, Kante lacked the line-breaking creativity, Rabiot was relatively quiet and Pogba was more occupied with his man-marked duels with Carvalho.
The above image maps Pogba’s heatmap throughout the game. His close proximity to the average positions of his midfield compatriots may be the source of Les Bleus’ bluntness in the final third. France lacked the width to find spaces to get behind Portugal’s defence.
In what was a safety-first oriented matchup, both teams’ output in the final third was identical. France’s xG on the day was 0.52, as compared to Portugal’s 0.53. They each recorded nine shots, with three on target. Moreover, the relatively low tempo of the game can be noticed in France’s PPDA of 14.4, as compared to Portugal’s 11.5. In terms of quantifying their respective approaches, Portugal recorded 80 attempted progressive passes, as opposed to France’s 68. While this underlines Portugal’s ambition for the initiative, France’s 109 duels won were notably higher than Portugal’s 88. This implies that France were successful in controlling the tempo better than their opponents.
Conversely, France’s best attacking outlet was Anthony Martial, who played the final 20 minutes of the second half and recorded an individual xG of 0.16. This highlights how they were underwhelming in front of goal. Other standout players include Guerreiro, who was Portugal’s best player, and arguably the man of the match. He recorded a pass accuracy of 96%, had the most crosses (3/3) as well as the most dribbles (6/3) for his team. In terms of creativity, he had the most forward passes (39/39), progressive passes (22/21), and passes into the final third (11/11). He provided an urgency that was lacking in the game, and was the heart of the majority of Portugal’s possession chains.
Pogba was the leader for his team’s creativity, with 14 progressive passes, three deep completions, one key pass, and one shot assist. However, his team’s narrow positioning yearned for him to assume a slightly wider and more advanced role. In his 22 offensive duels, he only won 10, hinting at Portugal’s pre-match prophylaxis to contain his presence in the game.
In this match report, we highlighted the opposing approaches of both teams in what was a struggle at the centre of the pitch. Our analysis indicates that, while their approaches were effective in nullifying each other, they also contributed to their own lacklustre performances in front of goal.
This was a 0-0 game that won’t make many headlines. However, while some fans may be underwhelmed by the general lack of urgency from both teams, the match was tactically rich, with strong performances by the midfielders and full-backs.
Therefore, considering the situation in Group C, both managers would be satisfied by the result, in what was another hard-fought battle between the teams. Additionally, they would be aware of certain areas of the game that need improvement. We may likely see tactical tweaks, as well as more game-time for younger talents for both teams moving forward.