So I went to England vs. Portugal at Wembley yesterday. Before the game I was thinking about trying to find the time to do a proper analysis of it, seeing as, y’know, it was two pretty decent teams playing each other in their final match before Euro 2016. Afterwards, watching the game back isn’t really something that springs to mind as a hugely fun idea. And I’m sure anyone else who watched it will agree with me on that.
Aside from the game as a spectacle though (Mexican waves starting in around the 55th minute says all there is to know about that), there were some interesting things about it from a preparation point of view which I thought I'd take a look at. One of those is how England shaped themselves, with Roy Hodgson opting for something of a hybrid between a 4-3-3 and a midfield diamond. Wayne Rooney was the determining factor in that switching, sometimes dropping deeper into the midfield but most other times pushing up, the two forwards either side of him moving wide as a result.
Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy drifting into the channels from the centre isn’t a problem in itself. Having it constantly forced upon them is very restricting however, and Rooney’s positioning alongside them made their movement pattern very predictable and thus restrictive. They were too wide in the end, unable to influence the game with their best qualities, while the least threatening of the trio was in the centre, slowing things down. Hardly an ideal set-up, stemming from Hodgson’s irritating desire to accommodate Rooney no matter what.
His near-guaranteed inclusion is almost certain not to change any time before or during the Euros, which is a shame as Raheem Sterling is (and proved to be when he came off the bench) a great option to take over that role at the tip of the diamond. The system itself isn’t wrong for England’s personnel, far from it, but executing it to better suit whichever strikers are used is something that looks a necessity. Finding a more appropriate way to fit Rooney in, then, with less clear shoehorning involved, is the manager’s biggest task if he wants to play this way.
Breeding familiarity with the approach is perhaps why Hodgson didn’t really change anything when Portugal had Bruno Alves sent off in the 35th minute. In a competitive game there probably would’ve been more significant adjustments, but preparation in a game like this is ultimately the priority over the result; even if England did eventually labour themselves to a 1-0 win. Maybe the signs weren’t overly promising, particularly this close to the tournament, but it was arguably a useful match nonetheless.
From a Portuguese perspective, their usual problem of not converting possession into genuine control was very evident. It’s not much surprise that they only scored 11 goals in eight qualifying matches. They kept the ball well and moved it nicely at times, even when they had one less player, but making progress any higher than the midfield zones was something they found challenging – a lack of movement between the lines and average positional play really held them back.
It’s not as if they haven’t got midfielders who can be progressive with the ball. João Moutinho is one of them, and they’ve also got two excellent young players in André Gomes and Renato Sanches (both of whom ended up being brought off the bench) who can provide such qualities in the centre of the pitch. They didn’t start their strongest team against England, saying that, and of course the red card was far from beneficial again, although using the next week or so as a chance to encourage better movement and more verticality in the build-up phase seems like a wise thing for Fernando Santos to do.
The biggest positive for them on an individual basis was probably the excellent performance of Danilo Pereira in midfield, followed by the bright influence of Gomes and Sanches as substitutes. Hopefully they, especially the latter two, will have significant roles at the upcoming tournament. Cristiano Ronaldo coming into the side after a rest following the Champions League final will also be a welcome influence for them. Much like with England, though, this game was more useful as an indication of what to work on rather than what they did well.
On a personal level, meanwhile, even if it wasn’t the best match I did still enjoy the chance to watch Gomes and Sanches in the flesh. Ricardo Quaresma’s been one of my favourite players ever since I got into football too, and him playing 30 minutes was great. The three people I most wanted to see play for Portugal (excluding Ronaldo) all starting on the bench kind of summed up the game nicely, though. Hopefully both sides can be more entertaining, and find a way to solve the faults that they demonstrated here, at the Euros.