Portugal scrape through with flexible man-orientations
Croatia met Portugal in the third round of 16 Euro clash on Saturday evening. As one of the most impressive and unbeaten sides in the group stages Croatia came into the game as favourites. Portugal however posed an interesting threat and despite some average performances in the group stage were another of the unbeaten sides.
Portugal’s stifling man-orientations
Fernando Santos’ side, as expected, used a heavily man-oriented coverage scheme in their defensive phases. From a base 4-4-2 shape against the ball they moved into countless situational structures as they sought constant access to their opponents and at times the ball.
From the front Nani and Ronaldo were positioned in their respective half spaces but moved to cover the ball-near half space and centre, presumably attempting to reduce Croatia’s capacity to build through these zones. While they would begin most defensive phases in passive fashion they picked their moments to initiate pressing actions and force the Croatian defenders into hasty actions.
This gave the midfield behind them time to gain adequate coverage of their opponents before attempting to force turnovers. As the opposing defenders were not under constant pressure sudden changes in the tempo of defensive actions against them added a general surprise factor and could thus allow Portugal to take advantage of any lapses in concentration.
The midfield four behind them were heavily man-oriented following their direct opponents and looking to force Cacic’s men into using other, less able players to progress. These man-orientations served purposes on different levels. On one level the tight man-marking against the Croatian midfielders would reduce their ability to rely on the talents of Modric, Badelj and Rakitic. Not only could this theoretically reduce the influence of the key players but also reduce this influence in the phases they arguably contribute to most.
On another level the man-orientations could have positive effects in terms of the location of their opponents’ build-up. With the tight man-orientations in midfield Santos clearly aimed to close off Croatia’s central routes of progressions. If successful this would force them into unstable wide areas as their primary build-up locations with players less capable of constructing attacks. Furthermore the coverage of the opposing midfielders in particular could isolate the ball carriers in wider areas by removing the potential to access the centre again from these spaces.
It is when one considers the roles of the midfielders and the general coverage scheme that the roles of Nani and Ronaldo in defence can be seen in more detail. With Nani and Ronaldo being the only two players from midfield and attack not generally assigned to man-mark they were the players responsible for creating access to the ball. Free from the pre-occupation of an opponent it was much easier for them to move towards the ball.
Furthermore their positioning removed an interesting potential solution for the Croatian defenders. If the forwards were also required to mark opponents Corluka and Vida would be free to carry the ball forwards unopposed which could create imbalances due to the need to pressure the ball and maintain coverage of opponents. However their roles somewhat removed this option as they could easily shut down the ball before such situations threatened Portugal’s defensive balance.
In reaction Cacic’s side attempted to use some interesting methods, which although somewhat appropriate were not always effective. Of course when facing an aggressively man-oriented opponent it can be somewhat difficult to create a free man to help progress the build-up. It is therefore necessary to engage in a process appropriately named “dismarking” in order to create a free man.
The most common form of dismarking used by the Croatians was positional rotations. Theoretically positional rotations could give them the basis to create free men simply by causing their opponents to react quickly and make almost instant decisions. With players moving frequently swapping positions they required Portugal to co-ordinate their defensive actions carefully. Simple mistakes such as two players following one opponent through poor team-tactical communication could be potentially disastrous. Furthermore, as is the case with man-marking, it only takes a mistake from one defender to compromise the whole scheme.
Therefore it was somewhat appropriate that Croatia used positional rotations against a heavily man-oriented defence. However they generally lacked the desired effect for a number of reasons. One such reason was a lack of intensity in these rotations, speed in such actions is necessary to reduce the time the opponents have to react thus making small mistakes more likely. However Croatia lacked speed in these rotations thus allowing Portugal greater time to regain their orientation.
At times the rotations also lacked synergy, with numerous players moving into similar spaces. Such moments had the opposite effect in making Portugal’s lives easier as it meant less players could cover more opponents. In these situations Croatia also lacked suitable structures to progress their possession leading to a stale build-up.
Another reason was the nature of these rotations in relation to their opponents. One rotation scheme they used was deliberately dropping midfielders in combination with inward moving wide players. The aim was clearly to draw out the opposing midfielders to give the wide players more space to operate in front of the Portuguese defence.
This is where Portugal deserve some credit. Whilst they were heavily man-oriented which has its notorious disadvantages and weaknesses they were flexible with their usage. Instead of simply assigning players to mark another regardless of their position, the players were given the licence to situationally mark more nearby opponents. This allowed them to have more situationally-optimal coverage than a more rigid man-marking scheme would allow. When Croatia’s midfielders dropped too deep they left the responsibility of marking them to the forwards which allowed them to maintain a decent shape whilst maintaining the desired access to certain opponents.
A potential solution for Croatia would be to use the midfielders in fairly deep positions thus requiring Nani and Ronaldo to cover them which would mean Portugal temporarily lost access. Vida or Corluka could then drive forwards with the ball into advanced areas drawing midfielders out of position and potentially opening threatening passing options.
One method Croatia used to constantly create a free man in midfield was the ball-far wide player drifting into midfield which allowed them to create small 4v3 overloads. However they were unable to take full advantage of this due to the work of Nani and Ronaldo in closing down the ball carrier.
It was only when Modric or Badelj dropped into the defensive line that these movements became dangerous. By dropping into the defensive line they moved out of areas the likes of Adrien or Mario were willing to follow them into and created situational 3 chains against Portugal’s two forwards. From these situations simple circulation across the back line allowed them to create a free man who could push forward and find any free men in midfield. This combined with an increasing use of Mandzukic for wall passes led to more promising attacking moves.
Perhaps due to the immediate knock on effects of taking the kick off after the interval Portugal were made to take on a similar role to Croatia in the first half. With Portugal building from their own half, which was rare in the opening exchanges, Croatia could exercise their own pressing scheme. They did so in somewhat similar fashion to their opponents with the front two Mandzukic and Rakitic free to press the ball and the midfielders behind them marking the opposing midfielders tightly.
Whilst Croatia had been practicing methods of beating Portugal’s press for most of the game, Portugal had only recently been put in this position and seemed to lack ideas to bypass it. These phases also gave Croatia a chance to focus on their usually strong transition play and begin attacks higher up the pitch through possession turnovers. However these opportunities were largely squandered through erratic decision making and execution.
Later in the half, Santos seemed to adapt Portugal’s defensive scheme. They shifted from their base 4-4-2 shape to a 4-1-4-1 as Nani moved out to a deeper and wider position on the right flank and Ronaldo moved into his lone forward position. Ronaldo was often joined in the front line by either the substitute Renato Sanches or Adrien depending on the ball’s position as they shifted for access in pressing.
This adaptation did not neutralise the “salida lavolpiana” move Croatia began using in the first half. In fact they began to increasingly apply this strategy with the centre backs stepping forwards more aggressively to play into Mandzukic.
It was only until two central midfielders began stepping into the front line simultaneously shifting into a 4-3-3 in the process that this scheme was more frequently neutralised. The situational 3 man forward line gave Portugal the basis to defend both half spaces and the centre thus forcing the Croatian centre backs wider from where the passes they sought were far more difficult to connect. These 4-3-3 situational pressing structures were only sporadically done. They were perhaps the result of poor positioning from the Croatian midfielders which allowed Sanches and Adrien to cover Rakitic and Badelj whilst blocking the half spaces for Vida and Corluka to advance with the ball.
In extra time Croatia began pushing Srna even further forward as he occupied a right wing position. Brozovic the nominal right winger more frequently took up positions like a number 10 increasing their central presence. However the focus was very much on finding Srna in advanced positions and creating space for him to supply crosses. This was somewhat surprising with Kalinic having replaced Mandzukic but hinted at their desperation at this late stage. Srna’s advanced positioning was at times balanced by Modric occupying deep positions on the right which, aside from helping to balance the structure helped him escape the man-marking in midfield.
In their somewhat rare offensive phases Portugal also displayed a heavy wing-orientation as they looked towards the likes of Ronaldo and Nani to exercise their individual qualities to create openings. However this was maladaptive as Croatia were employing man-orientations in wide areas which at times left the half spaces open. With use of 3rd man runs from the likes of Sanches and Adrien they could potentially have created more threatening situations.
Portugal lacked the ability to sustain offensive phases due to a lack of press resistance. In the face of even medium pressure Portugal were easily forced into possession turnovers meaning they found themselves constantly playing against the ball. This lack of press resistance was arrived at mainly through poor structures putting certain players in sub-optimal positions.
The winning goal was a situation where Portugal demonstrated their counter attacking potential. With help from Croatia’s non-existent cover in midfield and desperation to score, they moved forwards at speed through the ball carrying ability of Sanches and experienced a bit of fortune with how the ball fell to Ronaldo and Quaresma.
In truth this was a thoroughly poor affair with neither side defending particularly well and the stalemate being the result of the lack of a cohesive offensive plan from either side. Croatia as one of the group stage’s most impressive teams were disappointing but can feel hard done by to lose in the manner they did. As Portugal advance they will need to improve in several aspects if their interest in Euro 2016 is to extend past the quarter finals. In particular their reliance on the likes of Ronaldo, Nani and Quaresma to produce moments limits their potential with less variability in attack making them more predictable.