EURO 2020: Belgium’s midfield dominance against Portugal – tactical analysis
Belgium topped Group B to reach the EURO 2020 quarter-final, facing Portugal – the third place from Group F. With Thorgan Hazard’s goal, Roberto Martínez’s men are one step closer to the final while Portugal fans might be disappointing at Fernando Santos.
Portugal had more shots and possession in Seville, but they never get past Thibaut Courtois. They lost against an efficient Belgium team that dominated the midfield with and without the ball. This tactical analysis will show the strategies of Martínez that made the differences, as well as analyzing some issues of Portugal’s attack.
Belgium made some weird choices in the lineup compared to the group stage. Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard started their consecutive game for the national team. And seems Martínez also had his solution to the fragile central centre-back position, it was not Dedyrck Boyata or Jason Denayer. Instead, the 35-year-old former Barcelona and Arsenal player – Thomas Vermaelen.
Santos also tried other players after facing some struggles in the group stage. The Bruno Fernandes, William Carvalho, and Danilo Pereira trio was dismantled and replaced by João Palhinha, João Moutinho and Renato Sanches. Diogo Dalot also took Rúben Semedo’s right-back position.
Belgium’s midfield dominance
In Belgium’s offensive organizations, they fully maximized the 4v3 numerical advantage at the centre of the pitch. In their 3-4-2-1 system, the Red Devils had four midfielders, one more than Portugal’s 4-1-4-1 setup. With other positional concepts such as pinning, manipulation to stretch the block vertically and horizontally, Belgium could always find the free man in the second phase.
The first image shows the general shape of Belgium. They were more aggressive to play with a 3-1 in this game. Instead of staying tightly with Witsel, Youri Tielemans always went higher to pull the opponents away, creating spaces for teammates. The defensive midfielders could even interchange with the offensive midfielders to get E. Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne on the ball more often.
To stretch the block, Belgium uses a pair of wide wing-backs to occupy both touchlines. With the wing-backs, they kept the Portugal wing-backs wide and prevent them from joining the defence at the centre. Apart from making good use of the width, they also had Romelu Lukaku staying very high to keep the centre-backs in position, or exploit the 1v1 situations if Rúben Dias and Pepe stepped out of position.
In the screenshot, clearly the four-man Belgium midfield overloaded Portugal’s midfield three. Tielemans and E. Hazard were around Palhinha to form a 2v1. If Pepe stepped up to reach midfield numerical equality (4v4), then Dias would be alone against Lukaku – one of the fittest strikers in Europe.
With the 4v3 numerical advantage, Belgium created a lot of decisional dilemmas for the oppositions. In this image, we saw the same situation again, the Red Devils were dropping E. Hazard deep to receive. The Real Madrid star was free as Portugal could not spare a player to mark him in this scenario.
You could see Palhinha was communicating with Pepe by their verbal actions. Pepe thought the defensive midfielder should be leaving his position to get tight on E. Hazard, but Palhinha was pointing at De Bruyne, said the Manchester City man must be covered too. In this situation, there was no help from wingers as they were pinned away from centre by the wing-backs. Meanwhile, Sanches and Moutinho were attracted by Witsel and Tielemans, staying higher already.
Therefore, Portugal were very reactive, they will only start chasing after the likes of E. Hazard and De Bruyne received.
But Belgium’s attack was imperfect, they still need to improve when combating more intense opponents in the upcoming games. Also, when they reached the sidelines, the ability of wing-backs might be a concern, especially Thomas Meunier. The Borussia Dortmund defender was not creating enough dynamics for the team, when he has the ball, he could not dribble past defenders to attack flanks.
At that position, Belgium needed support to keep the ball moving. As shown in the above image, Tielemans was dashing forward, E. Hazard moved deeper, Toby Alderweireld came from the back to offer a passing option. Of course, the question is whether the players were in positions to help Meunier or T. Hazard when the attack was quicker than this game.
Portugal sloppy in possession
Similar to Portugal, Belgium could not press very high and intense because Martínez was reluctant to push a high line. Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld were 32 and 34 already, so it was unideal to expose too many spaces around them, especially since the Red Devils only had two midfielders to protect.
Nevertheless, the Belgians were in a disciplined shape to defend as a unit. They tried to use a 5-2-3 system to block the central areas, forcing the oppositions to attack from flanks. The above image shows the shape, all Portuguese midfielders were tightly controlled in the setup. Belgium had a 5v5 at the centre of the pitch, but the front three was patient and not pressing the centre-backs recklessly.
However, Belgium’s defence also exposed the wide spaces if the wing-backs were staying deep. In Portugal’s half, it was a 7v5 situation for Santos’ men with Dalot and Guerreiro staying wide and free throughout the game. But Portugal could not develop enough threats from these two players in the second phase was a disappointing aspect of the team.
With players numerically matching the oppositions at the inside, Belgium could also press flexibly because of controlling the central areas well. They will need the ball side wing-back in action to close the full-backs down, trapping Portugal at flanks and not giving them options to pass inside.
In the above image, Meunier stepped up to press Guerreiro, while Belgium could cut all passing options around the ball in a man-oriented manner. Despite having a good shape to press, there were some weak spots. For example, Meunier was bad at closing the angle to pass, and actually Portugal could have easily escaped by dropping a player at the light green spot.
Portugal were too conservative in the game. When the full-backs were deep, they did not impact the game or link the front players enough. But they were also without the courage to play between the lines centrally, so it was quite simple for Belgium to defend as the attack always went sideways in the first two phases.
In this image, Guerreiro was too deep but without attracting any opposition. Even he received from Dias, Portugal did not break any line. It would be better if the Dortmund left-back received at the green spot as there were larger spaces to play, also closer to the front players and the progression.
Part of the reason was Sanches dropping deep to receive too often. His movement killed the spaces of Guerreiro. For example, when he moved out wide in the above situation, Tielemans also followed him, he brought the opponent in front of Guerreiro. If Sanches went to the opposite direction, then he took Tielemans out of that area and Guerreiro had more time and spaces.
But even Portugal successfully pulled the Belgium defenders out of position, they lacked the aggressive runs to exploit spaces behind the defence. Cristiano Ronaldo was often coming deep to play instead of getting behind, but this did not help the team to create better dynamics of play.
In this image, Alderweireld and Meunier were drawn higher by Jota and Guerreiro already, the 35-year-old defender was alone with Ronaldo at the centre. If the Portuguese could find ways to release Ronaldo, hitting the pass behind the defence, the Belgians would suffer.
Sanches could not save the team
In the second half, Santos’ troops knew they need to give more to fight for a goal. Portugal became more aggressive in the attack, they were slightly better than the first 45.
As the above analysis have mentioned, Sanches killed spaces of Guerreiro when both of them stayed deep. Therefore, the Ligue 1 winner’s job was a bit different in the second half. He has more chances to involve more in the attack.
Sanches had more energy than any other midfielder in Portugal’s squad. He made more forward runs and diagonal runs to create superiorities for the team. In the above image, he ran to spaces behind the right side of the defence when Jota and Guerreiro pulled Meunier out of position. When he ran from Witsel’s blindside, no one tracked him so he could receive freely.
Alternatively, if Witsel tracked Sanches, then Belgium exposed the midfield as it was insufficient to cover with two players only. Portugal would then attack spaces at the centre through rotations.
This image shows Sanches drawing Witsel out of position, opening a passing lane and the half-spaces. Also, Portugal could exploit the green zone where Belgium might struggle to defend. Jota cleverly dropped to receive a vertical pass from Guerreiro, allowing Portugal to move the ball higher.
Nonetheless, even Sanches was not enough to save the day, there were too many issues in Portugal’s attack, and they could not solve in 45 minutes. For example, despite being the free players in the game, the full-backs were not making impacts enough to support the attack.
Even Portugal were a goal down, Dalot was conservative and offered nothing to the attack. The above instance also shows some more problems: Ronaldo was too deep, far away from goal-scoring positions. The Juventus attacker should be tasked to bury the opportunities instead of getting too deep.
Of course, the Belgians should be given credits for the tough defence as well, especially Vermaelen. Even he was ageing and became less aggressive when defending, the awareness of covering spaces was still in a high standard. Belgium were very good at defending spaces behind, Pepe and Dias’ long passes did not constitute any danger because of that.
For example, Jota tried to run from deep in the above situation, but this did not catch Belgium by surprise. Vermaelen did not ball-watching, and he also discovered the movement of Jota, so he could defend the run sooner.
It was a fun game with 29 shots in total (Belgium 6-23 Portugal). Martínez’s team shows they were a tough side defensively, also having a high-quality attack to kill the oppositions. The tactic to use four midfielders to overload Portugal’s three was also clever too! However, the former Everton head coach must also cope with the injuries of E. Hazard and De Bruyne too as both were missing against Italy.
On the other hand, with all the talents like Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, and João Félix, Portugal were undoubtedly stronger than before. It was a disappointment to see they struggle to fully reach their potential and go out at the last-16.