2 talented sides played a tactical, cagey game of few chances, but Portugal made the most of their counter-attack deep into extra time.
Portugal started in a 4-4-2, with Joao Moutinho dropped to the bench after the side conceded 3 goals against Hungary, with defensive midfielder Adrien Silva starting in his place. Jose Fonte also started in place of veteran Ricardo Carvalho.
Croatia started in a 4-2-3-1, although this became a 4-1-4-1 of sorts on the ball, with Luka Modric acting as a deep-lying playmaker.
The lineups seemed to signal both managers’ intentions. Portugal set out looking to soak up pressure and play on the counter, while Croatia looked to dominate the ball, with Luka Modric controlling the tempo of the game, feeding an extremely talented midfield in front of him.
The opening period consisted of Croatia dominating possession, but primarily through exchanges between Modric and the defense near the halfway line. Portugal gradually pressed higher as the half wore on, but if there was hope in the pre-match buildup for this to become the ‘game of the tournament,’ it was quickly distinguished during the first half.
While this could have set up a fairly open contest, it failed to buck the trend set at this European Championship. Croatia’s possession ended up being too stale, and was a defensive tactic, rather than an offensive one, much in the mould of Spain. Portugal barely got a chance to counter. Both sides ended up neutralizing the opposing offenses with a variety of tactics, leading to an extremely cagey game.
- Positioning of Luka Modric
Modric’s positioning as a deep-lying playmaker didn’t mean he dictated play and launched attacks, but it meant that Croatia retained possession with little difficulty. At Real Madrid, Modric often plays higher up the field, especially when Carlos Casemiro plays behind him. Over here, however, he only made forays forward a handful of times, and they were mostly attempts to cross the ball. More often than not, Modric would drop deep, between the center backs even, to assist in build-up play. But he would have few options to pass to, as there was little Croatian movement off the ball.
Therefore it’s of no surprise that Croatian defenders, and Modric, dominated the pass combinations chart. And over a third of Croatia’s passes were backwards, which illustrates their offensive intent. Indeed, much like Spain have in the past, Croatia employed possession as a defensive tactic.
Modric’s positioning was not only an attempt to control the ball, but it was likely an attempt to stop Cristiano Ronaldo when he stayed in central areas. There were multiple occasions when the Real Madrid man cut off a passing lane to the Portuguese. His conservative positioning, however, ensured that he couldn’t open up the game
2. Lack of Croatian Intent
The Croatians were far more worried about stopping Portuguese counters, rather than attacking themselves. Their defensive tactics consisted of retaining the ball, crowding Cristiano Ronaldo in central areas, while double-teaming him, as well as Nani, when they drifted out wide. They were careful in possession, never committing too many men forward.
There were a few driving runs from wide areas, with right back Srna and winger Perisic presenting the best, yet ineffective, threats in this game. In fact, there’s an argument to be made, that Croatia’s defensive tactics were considerably more sophisticated than their offensive plans. Mario Mandzukic, a target man, was seen making runs in behind, and even crossing from the right wing. When he was actually a presence in the box, he was the only presence in the box.
With little cohesion and combination play on the ball, Croatia simply couldn’t create chances.
3. Portuguese Tactical Fouling
While the Croatians were rather conservative in their approach, Portugal contributed to the broken nature of the game as well with consistent tactical fouls. William Carvalho, Adrien Silva, and Andre Gomes consistently brought players down all over the pitch, limiting the influence of Luka Modric, and in particular, Ivan Rakitic.
Rakitic had little influence on the game despite constantly bombing forward, and he was the recipient of some harsh fouls. The fouls played a large role in the stop-start nature of this contest, and this can, at least partly, be attributed to the referee. He waited until the 79th minute to hand out the first yellow card, despite incessant Portuguese fouling.
4. Santos’ Defensive Midfield
Testament to Croatia’s ability to shut Portugal out was the notable lack of counter-attacks from Ronaldo and co. But this was also a consequence of Fernando Santos’ selection of three defensive minded midfielders. Adrien Silva man-marked Luka Modric, while Andre Gomes was responsible for many tactical fouls. William Carvalho sat deep as a destroyer.
The nature of Santos’ selection was understandable in the circumstances, as Portugal had just conceded 3 goals to Hungary. But 2 of those goals were deflections, and Hungary were also the top-scoring side in the group stages of the competition. In other words, they were an anomaly.
Portugal’s best chance came through a set piece, before they created 3 chances- all during the first counter-attack of the game. Another manager might have been tempted to send on Joao Moutinho, the Monaco man who has so effectively supplied Cristiano Ronaldo in the past. Nevertheless, his patience ensured his side didn’t counter for over 100 minutes, but when they did, they scored.
While they didn’t play Joao Moutinho, its worth noting that offensively, Portugal were the better side. Coach Santos had clearly spent time tweaking his side after the Hungary game.
Cristiano Ronaldo entered the box for free kicks instead of taking them, and spent the better part of the first half roaming the wings and central areas. Despite lacking a playmaker in the mould of Moutinho, Portugal looked far more incisive in possession, with some good combination play.
At half time, however, Santos changed his side’s shape into a 4-5-1, with Ronaldo playing as a lone forward. In a defensive contest, this was likely to enable midfielders to drive forward with the ball, rather than pass to Ronaldo or Nani who would receive the ball with their back to goal.
Renato Sanches, the first substitute to be sent on in the first half, was the most lively midfielder on the pitch. He forced two errors from Croatia as soon as he was sent on, and played as a box to box midfielder.
Sanches induced an immediate improvement in Portugal’s play on the ball, much like he did against Hungary.
In comparison, substitutions such as Kalinic for Mandzukic, Danilo for Silva, and even Quaresma for Joao Mario were either ineffective or like-for-like.
When Croatia finally pushed up, created chances, and hit the post, Portugal broke and scored, utilizing the devastating pace of Ronaldo, Nani and Quaresma. Even then, Croatia had many men near the ball, but allowing Portugal to counter proved fatal.
It is ironic that Croatia, who had beaten favorites Spain, lost playing the way Spain did in their past European Championship victories. During the World Cup as well, Spain often played a stale possession game, retaining the ball to prevent the opposition from creating chances. But Croatia scarcely played that way during this tournament; they were fluid at times against the Czech Republic, played on the counter against Spain, and were not at their best against disjointed Turkey.
Portugal displayed a certain defensive solidity in this match, ceding little time and space to Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic. Whether they will be able to repeat this against another side, with a different referee, is another question. But it is unlikely that such a defensive, attritional game will repeat itself before the final. At least not one in which Pepe will shoulder a huge offensive burden.