Spain flee to the flanks as the striker and striker-less experiment draw a blank, writes Richard Jolly
PORTUGAL 0-0 SPAIN
After 27 games of goals, this was Euro 2012’s second successive stalemate. If penalties are often deemed unfair to the loser, this was the only appropriate scoreline. It was a meeting of two definitions of defence and, as a statistic of two shots on target in 90 minutes shows, both succeeded. Spain defend with the ball, Portugal without it but they prospered by preventing their neighbours from being comfortable. Each of Spain’s previous opponents had changed their team to counter the World Cup winners. Portugal did not, but amended their approach.
Having sat deep against Germany, this was different. Initially Paulo Bento’s side tried to cramp Spain. The first 10 minutes amounted to a statement of intent, with pressing in the Spanish half. However, there were also a couple of occasions when Andres Iniesta and David Silva found space between the lines and Portugal tweaked their tactics. Miguel Veloso, in particular, retreated to reduce the distance between midfield and the back four. Spain rarely threatened there again.
Thereafter, Portugal pressed selectively but intelligently. They closed down quickly at dead-ball situations, so Spain weren’t allowed to play their way out of defence easily, and pressed higher up the pitch on their left flank, through Raul Meireles and Fabio Coentrao. Perhaps it was because they felt Alvaro Arbeloa is the least comfortable Spanish player in possession – and, if that was their theory, it was justified as the right-back had the lowest pass completion rate on his side, apart from goalkeeper Iker Casillas and centre-forward Alvaro Negredo.
While it wasn’t the case that Spain were always penned in, their rhythm was disrupted and, with a genuine target man in Negredo, they played more long balls than usual. Yet, in between pushing up, Portugal were not caught out at the back. While the threat of pressing disrupted Spain in one half, in the other, the trio of Meireles, Veloso and Joao Moutinho made a concerted effort to crowd them out. It was telling that Xavi was substituted before extra time, a sign he was not able to exert his normal influence.
It was also notable Spain’s first chance fell to one full-back, Alvaro Arbeloa, after a move involving the other, Jordi Alba. As Portugal’s wingers rarely track back, both could be the free men when their side advanced: equally, it ran the risk of leaving Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani in space to counter-attack if Spain lost the ball. Yet if that suggested a route to outflank Portugal, it was not. They rely on the full-backs to provide the width but the eventual introduction of two wingers indicated that their original policy had not succeeded.
Both teams were lopsided, attacking more on the left flank than the right. In Portugal’s case, that was partly because of Ronaldo but also because Meireles, the left of the three central midfielders, and Coentrao, the left-back, were more advanced than their right-sided counterparts, Joao Moutinho and Joao Pereira. Spain used their right-sided centre-back, Gerard Pique, to help Arbeloa double up on Ronaldo before, as in earlier games, the Portugal captain started to wander infield. But, as his side only had 36% of possession, his opportunities were limited in open play.
That Spain prioritised their left flank was unsurprising. As has been apparent earlier in the tournament, Alba is trusted more than Arbeloa as an attacking weapon by their team-mates while, though neither exactly hug the touchline, Iniesta spent more time near the flank than Silva. It was perhaps one of the reasons why the Manchester City player was replaced, before Pedro then came on as the left winger, as Spain tried to stretch the game horizontally.
They failed to do so vertically. Each manager made one change, and each introduced a striker – the selection of Hugo Almeida in place of the injured Helder Postiga was the first change to the Portuguese starting line-up all tournament – but neither centre forward played much of a part.
The experiment with Negredo was abandoned after 53 minutes with Vicente del Bosque reverting to his striker-less system by introducing Cesc Fabregas as a false nine. Yet, without a striker, the Portuguese defence could push up, thus enabling the midfield to compress the Spain midfield further up the pitch. With the Spanish changes making little impact and Portugal content to frustrate their neighbours, the second half was gridlock.
Spain were superior in extra time, partly because Portugal tired and partly because moving Iniesta into a deeper role, when Pedro came on, made him more involved. He started to play more incisive passes and, with Pedro making angled runs infield, Alba advancing, Pereira unable to deal with both at the same time and first Veloso and then Meireles replaced as Portugal’s pressing game took its toll, Spain finally fashioned chances. But, once again, they get a clean sheet in the knockout game of a major tournament.