Portugal’s not so lackluster Euro winning campaign

Portugal win Euro 2016
Portugal won EURO 2016 much to the chagrin of fans and pundits, who derided them for playing a bland, negative brand of football. There were comments and opinion pieces of an undeserved champion, who barely escaped out of an easy group, got a huge break by getting on the weak side, then either played weak(ened) competition (Wales without Ramsey in its first major semifinal), or just lucked out in extra time (the matches Croatia, Poland and France). The predictable backlash of why Portugal did in fact deserve to win followed, and SBNation did a decent job at it, and this Yahoo piece was nuanced enough. Putting aside the ironic notion of primarily English-speaking pundits complaining about Portugal winning and thus “ruining” the Euros, in the following article, we are going delve deeper into just how Portugal ended up taking home the EURO trophy. We will be using videos,, game stats from Squawka, Whoscored and FourFourtwo, passing stats/maps by 11tegen 11, shots by Footyintheclouds, the expected goal model of Michael Caley and tactical analysis by Spielverlagerung. But first a few words in the final:
0. Recap of the Final

In what was a dramatic final, Portugal has shocked home favorites France, thanks to an extra time winner by the unlikeliest of players in Éder. A Selecao, a team that has gotten an incredible amount of flak for barely qualifying to the knockout rounds, has finally triumphed after what many deemed an easy road to the finals. While Portugal have made four of the last five EURO semifinals and thus should be included on the short list of European soccer superpowers, many of their previous teams were noted for their individual flair and brilliance, but not the ability to get results. That all changed after one Joao Moutinho pass found Éder, who shrugged off Koscielny with ease (cue to Arsenal fans nodding) and fired a 25 yard shot into the bottom corner past a helpless Hugo Lloris.

The match was built up as an epic clash between Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo, but the Real star suffered a tragic injury in the early moments of the game, and was reduced to a cheerleader/coach. To be fair, based on the outcome and the player comments on his fiery halftime speech, we would say he has a future in that position as well.

In praise of Fernando

Ronaldo’s forays into coaching notwithstanding, Portugal were indeed one of the few well-managed sides in the competition, and Fernando Santos deserves all the credit for that. Santos, aside from getting more dedication from Ronaldo than any of his managers before (see the tears in the final, or his famous tantrum after they conceded the third goal against Hungary for examples), and pulling off successful move after successful move (we will tackle these below), also had perhaps the best managerial quip of the tournament when he stated:
“I want them to keep saying the same thing (that Portugal didn’t deserve to win), that’s what I’d like, it’d be great!”

Santos also did an incredible job of managing his team, despite injuries (Raphael Guerreiro and Pepe – arguably his two best defenders played just two group games and two knockout games together!)  and suspensions (William Carvalho, about whom the great Jonathan Wilson wrote an extensive piece ).

In total, nineteen players played more than 90 minutes, and the twentieth on that list was a guy named Éder, who did fine for himself in those 41 minutes in the final…

The so-called conservative tactics of the manager, for which many pundits have dubbed the team “Portugreece”, were evident in the final: the 4-4-2 with Nani and CR7 up top was quickly changed after the Ronaldo injury to a 4-1-4-1 with Nani and substitute Ricardo Quaresma occupying the wing spots, and more importantly, Éder was brought on to win duels up top. And did he ever: the Lille player won 5 fouls after his 78th minute introduction, as he proved too physical for Koscielny and Umtiti! Did I mention that Éder, who just this year washed out at Swansea  scored the 109th minute game winner, just his fourth goal for his country in 29 appearances despite turning 29 in December? How the heck did we get here?

  1. Analysis of Portugal’s Euro 2016 campaign

Before we get in to the breakdown of Portugal’s performance in France, let’s start by taking a look at how they qualified for the tournament:


Fernando Santos’ managerial career

Working their way out of a hole after an opening round defeat at home to Albania, Portugal reeled off 7 straight wins to qualify for France 2016, earning 21 points out of a possible 24 in Group I that also included Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. While that seemed like a comfortable in retrospect, it was anything but: Paulo Bento quit after the shocking loss to Albania and the association appointed former Greece coach Fernando Santos, a veteran of Portuguese big teams, but also someone with a reputation of a dull pragmatist who bounced around between Greece and Portugal. Nevertheless, thanks to a couple of stoppage time winners and five goals from Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal were off to Euro 2016.

Having been drawn into a seemingly favorable group with minnows Iceland, the Hungarian team returning after a 44 year absence, and a talented Austria team, Portugal were still the prohibitive favorites to win group F, some mild Austria buzz notwithstanding (how is that working out?). Before the tournament, they were firmly entrenched in the puncher’s chance category with 20 to 1 odds to win it all, behind favorites Spain, France and Germany, as well as England, Belgium and Italy.

2. Group games

Iceland were their first opponents, and it was one of the more ridiculously one-sided draws we have ever seen. Three pics should suffice.

1 Look at all the passingIceland

2. The positioning shows Portugal pinning Iceland back, with the two fullbacks pushing high.

Portugal dominated Iceland

Portugal dominated Iceland

3. All the shots for “A Selecao”!pordomice


Finally, the video highlights show one early Sigurdsson chance followed by a massively fortunate save by Halldórson (one of EIGHT on the night for the part-time director) to deny Nani, who would later give Portugal the lead after a great throughball by Vieirinha to Andre Gomes. Vieirinha, a converted right-winger, who played as a right back for about half of his 1900 minutes for Wolfsburg, committed one of the worst positional mistakes I had ever seen for the Icelandic equalizer.

That was followed by the Austria match, which was somehow even more ridiculous, as Portugal outshot Austria 23 to 4, forcing Robert Almer into making six saves, the Cristiano Ronaldo penalty miss notwithstanding. The Real Madrid star, who managed to get one of his ten shots on target vs Iceland, somehow had an even more frustrating game: he tried another TEN shots, got three on target and had a penalty, yet failed to score….

Again, some more pics of Portugal’s stupendously unlucky match:


Obviously, twenty shots by Ronaldo in two matches is an incredible number, but on the other hand, there were those who started to voice their concerns about the isolation in buildup in Portugal’s attack. Tom Payne, the excellent tactical analyst at Spielverlagerung noted that “Although all three players moved actively within the midfield, situations in which they could act together were a rarity and Portugal were thus limited to individual attempts to break down Austria’s defence.” Payne went to support his sound argument by linking the passing map by 11tegen11, which highlighted a couple of issues:


The linkup play was often disconnected, with notable problems in getting the ball from the center of the midfield/defense to the forward players – with the exception of Quaresma. In particular, Nani and Ronaldo were unable to get on the same page with the two attacking mids in Moutinho and André Gomes, evidenced by the pic on the left and by the OPTA stats on FFT.

We’ll talk more about this later, but the bigger issue concered the positioning of one Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo was often seen dropping deep and this had two unfortunate consequences for Portugal: 1. his heavy volume shooting, while impressive, was often ineffective – due to getting blocked

SIX TIMES versus Iceland!cr7blockedvsice
















and/or missing the target versus Austria
















2. Ostensibly, his passing was not helping to create meaningful chances for his team in either of their first two games.

Iceland forced him into a back to the goal player who lays the ball off sideways.


Austria had him dropping into a quasi CAM role, with his rare forward passes notably unsuccessful


I mean is this really where you want your big time goalscorer to be against Austria?














3. The Hungary game – the turning BREAKING point

Portugal were in trouble after these two consecutive draws, but it was not Austria, who everyone expected to give the Lusitanos a run for the top spot, but also Iceland, who had drawn twice (the second against Hungary, where they had the lead for 88 minutes) and more importantly, Hungary.  The Hungarians, who pulled off a miraculous win against Norway to win their playoff qualifier, continued their improbable run with a 2-0 opening day win over Austria and were entering the game against Portugal on four points after a tie with Iceland. Due to the machinations of the insanely complicated group stages where 16 out of 24 team would qualify to the knockout rounds, Hungary, fearing the yellow cards, and all but assured of progress,  actually decided to rest three of its key players in László Kleinheisler, Ádám Nagy, and Tamás Kádár, while right back Attila Fiola was injured.


Portugal were also missing key left back and new Borussia Dortmund signing Raphael Guerreiro, who was replaced by the veteran Eliseu. Vieirinha, despite his glaring error against Iceland somehow kept his RB spot, while the Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho duo rounded out the defense. In midfield, Santos opted for just the lone defensive midfielder in William Carvalho, perhaps (in hindsight) underestimating the limited Hungarian attack, and had Joao Moutinho nominally next to him. Joao Mario and Andre Gomes lined up on the right and left-wing respectively, while Nani and Ronaldo occupied the two forwards spots. With such an attacking minded lineup,  I’m guessing the plan was to grab a quick goal or two against a weakened Hungarian side and just progress comfortably in first place.

Well, that didn’t go so super well, as the kids say!

The result one was a thrilling rollercoaster of a match for 70 minutes, that included six goals and numerous other huge chances. While Portugal yet again won the XG battle, few would have declared them the better team, having had to come back three times vs a Hungarian B team!

There were a ton of problems, but the incredible lack of discipline shown by the players must have angered Fernando Santos.

poorcarvalhoFurthermore, Vieirinha and Eliseu bombed forward incessantly and needlessly, as they had Gomes, Mario and Moutinho all attacking as well.  As a result, poor William Carvalho was left to defend the Hungarian counters by himself in front of the not exactly lightning quick Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe. The result was a lot of desperate tackles and fouls (Carvalho on Szalai led to Hungary’s third) and failed clearances by both.

I am not a coach, but it’s not exactly an ideal situation to defend 60+ yards of space down the middle with just three players in 2016 football. The result was the Hungarians getting FIVE of their NINE shots on target, including three goals and Elek’s shot hitting the post.

Joao Moutinho had himself an interesting game in the CDM, CM role. On one hand, he amassed five key passes in the first 45 minutes, but failed to record a tackle resulting in the greatest defensive dashboard from a central midfielder in Opta history.


Moutinho was far from the only culprit:

Why was Joao Moutinho the highest player up the pitch?

Nani should also shoulder some of the blame for failing to head the ball clear, then close down on Gera for the first goal, while his half-hearted block on Dzsudzsák’s second goal led to a deflection and Hungary’s third.

Eliseu was a mess: the 32-year-old was constantly caught out of position and allowed Lovrencsics to get forward with ease, as 38-year-old Ricardo Carvalho tried to desperately cover for him. He also did not pay enough attention to the scouting report on Dzsudzsák, who was playing as the inverted winger on the right side at times, and allowed the Hungarian to cut inwards onto his dominant left foot that resulted in the third goal.

Vieirinha was extremely high up the field, and while he offered a solid outlet and linked up well with the impressive newcomer Joao Mario, his passes were often wasteful – his 75% pass accuracy was the lowest on his team. His defensive positioning was already described as awful, and his interceptions (1 per match at the Euros) were also way behind his 2.5 for Wolfsburg.


4. The Elimination Rounds – changes before the Croatia match

Of course, the irony of all this was that Portugal, in spite of themselves, had landed a favorable opponent in Croatia, who surprised Spain with a 2-1 win. While, one could argue that the Croats were the best team out of the potential opponents (France, England and Spain had they beaten Croatia), pedigree and EURO history probably suggested otherwise. In hindsight, Portugal were probably very fortunate to get on the easier side of the bracket that looked like this:

There was an interesting double narrative that existed for Portugal:  1.they were incredibly unlucky, and the fourth best team according to the Expected Goals Models after two matches and the group stages. They had excellent shot volume, leading all teams with 70 shots for and 17 against, and were in the top 3 in all other shot metrics per Footballintheclouds. The site also pointed out their insane 23% conversation rate against, a number that was almost twice as bad as the second worst team – Russia at 14%.









2.  Naturally, there were also way too many CR7 is struggling at the Euros stories, by people and newspapers who failed to understand variance. Thus, the public perception was that this was basically a “bad team”, which couldn’t beat minnows like Iceland, Hungary and played a goalless draw against a very disappointing Austria side. The format of the tourney, which allowed 16 of 24 teams to progress, was often brought up as “the only thing keeping Portugal in the Euros” – a narrative that would persist even after the final!

Santos the Tinkerer – and the Croatia match

Fernando Santos, who preceded Claudio “Tinkerman” Ranieri at the helm of the Greek national team, doesn’t care much for stats. Or maybe he just likes to err on the side of caution, because he would go on to make some significant changes in the lineup and the formation that would dramatically change the way the team operated.

As a result, Portugal, a team that produced 70 shots in 3 matches and 270 minutes would manage SIX against Croatia in 120 minutes, 19 in 120 vs. Poland, 18 vs. Wales and 10 in 120 again in the final vs. France for a total of 53 in 450 minutes. The average shots taken per 90 minutes numbers show a staggering difference: 23.3 per 90 in the group stages vs 10.6 per 90. 

As far as the defense, Vieirinha, R. Carvalho and Eliseu (who filled in once for Guerreiro) were all cast out from the starting lineup and Santos installed the stalwart Southampton duo of RB Cedric Soares and CB Jose Fonte alongside Guerreiro.

In midfield, William Carvalho would be partnered with Sporting’s Adrien Silva, who while not a great defender was infinitely more active than Moutinho (who can’t really defend, as we saw), by attempting 22 tackles in four matches – a figure that ranked him EIGHTH among all players! His intensity would prove to be key against the great Luka Modric, who while amassing 139 touches on the ball failed to impact the match.


William Carvalho also managed to limit the effectiveness of Ivan Rakitic, leading to this dismal attacking map for the Barca star:


When that didn’t work, Portugal showed a willingness to commit fouls all over the pitch – they would lead the tourney with 79 committed. It was a concerted effort not just by their defensive players, as Portugal had four attacking players (Joao Mario with 16, Renato Sanches with 11, Nani with 9 and CR with 8) in the top 20 of the fouls committed category!

Positionally, the team would shift to a more traditionally defensive 4-4-2 formation, that would seek to limit the opposition as its primary goal. That also meant playing their wingers – Joao Mario, Nani, Quaresma ostensibly not on the wing to support the attacks, but more in the halfspaces to occupy passing lanes. In the back, Santos installed a defensive-minded Soares and instructed Guerreiro to play deeper versus Croatia.


It was certainly not the only tactical adjustment, as Tom Payne so eloquently described in his analysis of the match, describing it as “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.” The result was as evident as it was aesthetically displeasing: Croatia and Portugal famously failed to get a shot on target until Ricardo Quaresma scored the winner after 116 minutes! It was the only notable chance, as the XG map of Michael Caley also confirmed.


5. Poland

Going forward then it became increasingly evident that the main result of Santos’ adjustments’ was to reduce the number of events in a match. Given that the “heavy volume shooting, buoyed by the fullbacks pushing up and playing with just one CDM tactic” went so poorly (results-wise) in the group stages, Santos adjusted. In a way, the manager, much like a poker player that might have started to play a few speculative hands and/or has run into the rough side of variance with his big starting hands, opted to tighten up his strategy (i.e. sitting in deeper, bringing in more reliable defensive players, not pressing, etc) in an attempt to reduce variance. For poor Fernando Santos, that plan seemingly came undone in the 2nd minute, as Soares misjudged a long ball, which allowed the cross to reach Robert Lewandowski unmarked near the penalty spot – and just like that Portugal were behind.

The other notable adjustment was another brilliant move by Santos: starting 18-year-old new Bayern wunderkind Renato Sanches, who had played a total of 104 minutes in the previous four games as a right midfielder and switching Joao Mario over to the left. Retaining William Carvalho and Adrien Silva in the CDM roles left no room in the starting lineup for either Moutinho or Andre Gomes. Sanches of course would go on to score this brilliant goal, after a great Nani layoff in the 33rd minute,

but was seemingly everywhere on the pitch, ending with three shots and a team high 98 touches.

While Tom Payne bemoaned their lack of a structured attack in his extensive piece, because the team limited Krychowiak (much like Modric) from running the midfield and kept Arek Milik in check, the combined individual offensive brilliance of their old stars (Ronaldo and Nani) and the new one in Renato Sanches, was enough to see Portugal progress to the semis on penalties. The XG map  confirms the nature of a game that could have gone either way.


6. Wales 

The first half of the semi-final felt like two teams unwilling to risk much: Portugal had key CDM William Carvalho suspended and while Danilo who was not as involved in the passing network as WC, filled in admirably, the lack of risk-taking had more to do a lot with Wales’ futility.

Wales were missing Aaron Ramsey, a player that in my opinion was more important to their play than Real star Gareth Bale, because of the Arsenal man’s endless running, willingness to dictate play and/or make a tackle. Ramsey was also the key player for Wales’ ability to create a numerical advantage in midfield, and his replacement Andy King was never going to be able to do that. The burden to run the attack thus fell on Gareth Bale, who was forced to drop very deep to try to create something.


The Madrid star often had a Messi versus Chile type of helplessness going on about him and things were so grim, that the tactical analyst István Beregi had some fun with a series of pics titled “how not to use the halfspaces” on Twitter:

The other issues for Wales included Joe Allen trying to replicate Andrea Pirlo of 2006, but ending up replicating Andrea Pirlo in 2016, and as Tom Payne noted: James Chester not being able to pull of the elementary move of receiving with his far foot.

Portugal’s attack was bogged down and much to the chagrin of the ESPN commentators it relied on crosses to Cristiano Ronaldo – which in the first half were often denied by 1.88m West Ham defender James Collins. The dependancy on Ronaldo’s aerial prowess (foreshadowing!!) was very much a conscious strategy by Portugal, which would go on to lead the Euros with 29 headers – 19 of those courtesy of Nani (11) and Cr7 (8). In the second half, Collins was inexplicably not on Ronaldo for the early corner (though there is some evidence that Jose Fonte set a great pick on him) and it was poor James Chester who had the unenviable task of playing the Timofey Mozgov to Ronaldo’s Blake Griffin in a poster dunk of a header.

Game set match, and Portugal were back in the finals for the first time since 2004, as the XG map reiterated:

7. Final thoughts –

France, after dismantling Iceland and getting past World Cup winners Germany were the heavy favorites to keep the Euro title at home with +105, while Portugal were at +350 per SBNation. The article brought up a great stat: “This head-to-head battle hasn’t been close historically. France holds a convincing 18-5-1 advantage in 24 all-time matches against Portugal, including a current stretch of 10-0 that started in 1978.” Just about the only people who picked Portugal were the Double Pivot guys

The story is since then well-known, an 8th minute Dimitri Payet tackle looked to have shattered both Ronaldo’s ACL and Portugal’s hopes. However, with the returning Pepe, the excellent Raphael Guerreiro – who amassed SIX interceptions, the stunning Rui Patricio, and a little bit of luck on the Griezmann and Gignac chances, Portugal were able to weather the storm. As Michael Caley noted in his Washington Post preview, this should not have been a surprise, given the stinginess of Portugal’s back line.

On the contrary, their offensive buildup and play was not exactly aesthetically pleasing, as the Squawka graph shows them avoiding the box like a plague,












as they spent most of the game defending – and by the way, allowing Moussa Sissoko to be France’s main attacking threat and having Paul Pogba sit back like he is a poor man’s Joe Allen is part of that defense!

In the end, Santos’ tactical flexibility and the versatility of his players showed again: Ronaldo’s unfortunate injury leading to Quaresma’s introduction gave them a wing option and brought Nani inside, while Guerreiro was always available on the left. As Michael Cox pointed out in his piece for Zonal Marking: bringing in Moutinho for Sanches and Éder as the big combative center forward, were two moves that decided the match for Santos and Portugal.

The cumulative XG map showed that Portugal,ranked in the top 3 of every single statistical category was a worthy contender for the Euro title. There were several additional factors: the squad use, the versatility of his players and the change towards a ruthlessly pragmatic style after the group matches were all vital. It’s worth noting that every single move that Fernando Santos, “the coach who does not have a heart” , made  – from rejiggering his defense, to replacing the Gomes/Moutinho duo with Renato S. and Adrien Silva, to when to bring on Quaresma, to of course reintroducing Moutinho and thawing out Éder.

There was clearly an element of fortune in the triumph, as there was in every single major Cup win. The argument that Portugal “got lucky” cuts both ways – they were running massively under expectation in the group stages and some would say were bound to progress towards the mean. Or indulge me in the old poker tournament adage of a chip and a chair – Portugal were first almost out of the Euros following some bad beats, but rallied and won some all-ins to all of a sudden make the final table, where they were able to beat France in a coinflip.

As for the nostalgic among us, I would point out just how quickly people forget the struggles of Italy in WC 2006 (tied with Germany for 118 minutes, getting past Australia in stoppage time, winning the PK shootout, the whole Materazzi/Zizou nonsense), or Germany against Algeria, or the Götze heroics. It’s just a natural part of football, and there was a sense of poetic justice seeing the usually unlikable Cristiano Ronaldo first reduced to tears, then jumping for joy as his teammates picked up the slack and the trophy. It had to be the great Simon Kuper, who put it so gracefully: Portugal deserved to win PRECISELY because of its past failures!





1 year ago
No Comments
Written by vanbasten99
About Abel Meszaros Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid - 90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany. His first English love was the Liverpool teams of Macca and Robbie Fowler, but these days he just roots for the underdogs. He loves to talk/read/write/think about soccer! Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and at @BundesPL

Let us know what you think by dropping a line!

%d bloggers like this: