Thoughts on Portugal-Spain

In short: an excellent first hour, with plenty of tactical battles and a balanced game, followed by the effect of portuguese tiredness and a better spanish bench in pushing Portugal back. Penalties ended up deciding it on a fine edge and allowed the better team to go through to the final.

Starting situation
I had written that Spain would benefit from using a winger such as Navas, but del Bosque opted to go for Silva on the right and Iniesta on the left, reserving Navas for the supersub effect. As expected, this meant that either Arbeloa would not push forward at all or that Ronaldo would get time on the left. Spain, rather surprisingly for me, went for the second option and Arbeloa appeared frequently on the portuguese half to try the overlap after Silva cut in. The main problem was that with Silva being picked by the central midfielders (usually Meireles), Arbeloa had to face Coentrao alone which was an advantage for the portuguese. On the other hand, Ronaldo’s free rein ended up not being so free as expected due to the excellent match from Pique, who several times ran across to the right to put pressure on the portuguese and cover for Arbeloa. Still, after the first few counters by the portuguese, usually through the left side (for more organised attacks, the right side was usually chosen), Arbeloa started snuffing those out with soft fouls. At a certain moment a less lenient referee might have given him a yellow card for repeated fouling, but he escaped. With these tactics, and with the support of Iniesta to Alba, the portuguese got also stiffled and simply could not get the desired breakthrough and score. Most of the attacks were relying on long diagonal balls from Pepe and Bruno Alves and if the first ones were not bad, Bruno Alves tended to overhit his passes and concede possession too cheaply. Veloso would have been a better option, but he almost never had enough time on the ball for it.
On the spanish side, Xavi’s move more upfield had been restricting his influence for a while, but in this match, with Veloso closely guarding him, he became almost completely anonymous and disappeared from sight. When he was replaced by Pedro, at the beginning I had not realised he was gone because I had hardly seen him throughout the match. In that sense, placing him in that position against a portuguese side that featured an in-form deep lying anchorman was a bad tactical move from del Bosque. on the other hand, it also serves to show how much less of a team Spain become without this great orchestrator of moves. The introduction of Negredo from the start was a surprise but, as Michael Cox argues, he might have been seen as the man who could simultaneously play on the shoulder of the defender, hold up balls and finish plays. Still, in a system which had no width and with strong and fast defenders such as Pepe and Bruno Alves, his influence was limited. In this sense, Llorente would probably have been a better option. It was still a shame not to see him staying to play with Navas and Pedro. There were two or three balls on the box for Fabregas that an accomplished striker would have been able to put away or possibly test the keeper.
The result at half time mostly reflected the capacity of both teams to stiffle each other and a 0-0 scoreline was absolutely logical.

Change of tactics
When Fabregas came in, shortly after restart, the spanish team immediately looked better because Fabregas can operate at faster speeds than Xavi and that gave better decisions and faster actions in front of the defence. Furthermore, as soon as Navas was introduced, Spain immediately restricted Coentrao and were able to keep Arbeloa tighter on Ronaldo. In one stroke, Spain had better offensive and defensive shape. On the left side, when Pedro was introduced he not only did the same to restrict Joao Pereira, but the fact that Nani frequently played more as a wide midfielder than a winger meant that Alba could also push forward and create overlaps. Of course the tactics worked excellently, but the fact that Portugal started to tire played an important role. Much was made of the extra two days the portuguese had, but this usually does not play much of a role and the dynamics of the game can be much more determined. As in the semi-final against Germany two years ago, when the Germans got tired chasing the ball, the portuguese started getting exhausted around the one hour mark. Pressing intensely high up the field is tiring and Spain, even though they had less rest, did not overexert themselves against France and could always rest with the ball. This became more and more evident as the time went on and the tiring limbs of the portuguese even caused some commentators to ask where were the spanish finding their strengths.
The depth of the portuguese in comparison with the spanish one was also evidenced by the reluctance of Bento in substituting players. Even these changed little, with the change in personnel being more significant because of the characteristics of each player rather than from a tactical switch. Oliveira brought more running but less ball challenge (something which Almeida did quite well and probably kept him on the pitch until so late). Custodio more energy and new legs, but less passing ability in comparison with Veloso. Varela could probably have come earlier to challenge Alba and check his runs, but Nani was playing well and there were not so many players to change. With hindsight, maybe he could have been brought on for Almeida (since Ronaldo ended up playing almost as target man and Oliveira became anonymous on the left flank), but the switches were all tactical sound and logical. The main problem was the lack of tactical alternatives for Portugal (Bento used only 15 players in the whole tournament) and the tiredness after the strong pressing in the beginning. One word for Patricio: in the whole tournament he had little to do and was at fault only on the second goal of Bendtner (and only partially) but here he kept concentration and parried brilliantly a short range shot from Iniesta that managed to save Portugal at the time. As I read at a certain point on Facebook, Portugal found out on the semi-finals they had also brought a goalkeeper.

Much has been written about the fact that Ronaldo took the last penalty. This is however common for Ronaldo with Portugal. He may be the best penalty taker, but his record on a club level in penalty shoot-outs is not the best (failed against Chelsea in the Champions League final and against Bayern in the semi-finals). Besides, it is quite common to get your two best penatlty takers as the first and last in the list. One to get them off to a flyer and the other to close the count. The main difference ended up being only some five centimetres. Bruno Alves’ penalty was good but slightly too high. Fabregas’ was only slightly good enough. Had the five centimetres gone the other way, Ronaldo might have won it for Portugal with his last penalty.