Friday, 8 July 2016
Euro 2016 final, France vs. Portugal, set to be a tough, tactical battle
In a tactical sense, the final is rarely the most fascinating game of a major international tournament. It's usually a tight and tense, but not particularly tactical, contest between two sides playing cautiously, waiting for the opposition to make a mistake rather than prompting it through clever strategy.
In all probability, we've probably seen the most interesting tactical battles from Euro 2016: Italy's 2-0 second-round win over Spain, their subsequent 1-1 draw with Germany at the quarterfinal stage, and Germany's 2-0 defeat to France on Thursday.
Those three matches will be as good as this tournament gets. Nevertheless, Sunday's Euro 2016 final promises to be an intriguing clash between two sides, France and Portugal, who are individually interesting for very different reasons.
France coach Didier Deschamps hasn't entirely worked out his optimum system throughout this competition, chopping and changing between two very different setups, while Portugal manager Fernando Santos has stuck to roughly the same, highly unusual shape throughout. France are the favourites for this final, but tactically speaking, Deschamps is likely to be the more reactive manager.
Portugal essentially use a four-man defence in conjunction with a midfield diamond, an approach none of the other 23 teams in this competition used as their default system. More specifically, it's a 4-1-3-2 rather than a 4-3-1-2, with holding midfielder William Carvalho stationed solidly in front of the defence, leaving Joao Mario, Adrien Silva and Renato Sanches to push forward, drifting around into pockets of space.
Unfortunately, that trio has drifted into the same pockets of space too frequently throughout this competition. Their fluidity in the 1-1 quarterfinal victory over Poland was particularly baffling, with all three showing flashes of invention but rarely actually combining to play around opposition midfielders. At times, the freedom afforded to that trio means Portugal's structure in possession is awful, inviting teammates to play around the opposition's block rather than actually play through it, and there's an incredible lack of genuinely good passing moves, especially for a side that features so many talented passers.
There's also something peculiar about how Portugal are so passive without possession, dropping back into their own half rather than looking to press, despite the use of lots of young, energetic midfielders. And also, for that matter, it's strange that Portugal are trying to play on the counterattack but aren't actually very good at attacking transitions, and haven't remotely got the best from Cristiano Ronaldo on the break, despite the Real Madrid attacker being arguably the most devastating counterattacking player football has ever seen.
Nevertheless, Ronaldo and fellow winger-turned-striker Nani have been hugely effective in the penalty area at this tournament. Portugal's second goal against Wales was somehow typical of their tournament: Ronaldo's scuffed shot diverted home by Nani's outstretched leg. It owed little to design, but somehow it worked.
Portugal will particularly fancy their chances of getting players between the lines if Deschamps again eschews a defensive midfielder, as was the case for the 2-0 semifinal victory over Germany.
Wednesday's score line flattered France: they were outplayed for long periods and had no obvious plan for stopping Germany's two major playmakers, Toni Kroos and Mesut Ozil. Kroos went free because France's two forwards did little defensive work, seemingly because of fatigue, and when Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi moved forward to press, Ozil found space in behind. On paper, that should play perfectly into Portugal's hands with this diamond midfield.
It's not unthinkable that Deschamps might revert to the 4-3-3 with the reintroduction of N'Golo Kante, although this would mean Antoine Griezmann being forced to play from the right. That would waste the tournament's star man in a position where he's clearly less influential, although Deschamps might reason that with France likely to dominate possession for long periods, Griezmann can drift inside from the right into positions close to Olivier Giroud anyway.
Like their opponents, Portugal may also fancy their chances of getting players between the lines. William Carvalho, set to return in place of Danilo, protects the defence effectively but will probably be incapable of stopping two players in that zone. If Dimitri Payet drifts inside to join Griezmann, with the threat of Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi bombing forward too, Carvalho could be overloaded. Portugal's midfield diamond tends to squash back into a flat four when they spend long periods out of possession, but if France pass the ball quickly, they can expose this weakness.
Both sides' full-backs might also be crucial in an attacking sense. Neither side fields natural wide midfielders: Portugal use their diamond midfield, while France use two players who prefer playing centrally. Portuguese duo Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro have supported Portugal's passing well, retaining width in the final third, but haven't made decisive contributions in open play by getting to the byline often enough.
Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna have grown in importance throughout this tournament, initially seeming to be France's weak link but turning in impressive displays against Germany in the semifinal. Their attacking may force Portugal's midfield to become stretched, creating gaps for France to play through. Sagna, however, must be wary of attacking too much, for fear of leaving Ronaldo space on the outside of Laurent Koscielny.
For all the talk about systems and possession, however, there's a good chance that set pieces will be crucial here. Portugal's opener in the semifinal victory over Wales came from a corner, as did the crucial penalty won by France in their win over Germany. If either side scores from a dead ball situation, it has an excellent chance of lifting the trophy.