Attack wins you games and defence wins you tournaments, is a popular saying in football world.
While it is important to score goals in games, it is equally important not to concede, at least not as much as you score.
And that was the key to the Portuguese success at Euro 2016. A decent attack coupled with a very good defence. Any wonders they are European champions?
I see that a lot of people are surprised that they got as far as they did and even went on to win the Euros and even though the final could easily have gone either way – and in most people’s minds France – especially after Cristiano Ronaldo was taken off injured and also seeing that he had better individual players.
But as it is in most cases and in most games in football, the tactically superior side wins more often than not, and that was exactly the case for Portugal not just in the final, but looking at their route to the final.
Going into the tournament, Fernando Santos knew the weaknesses and strengths of his team and he set them up to limit the damages that may arise from the weaknesses by utilizing their strengths to the optimal.
Scoring was always going to be a problem for them seeing as they didn’t have any dependable out-and-out striker on the team.
Ronaldo and Nani – both natural wingers – had to fill in the void and while you could argue that Ronaldo’s numbers for Real Madrid have been incredible which possibly makes him the best striker in the world today, but there’s always that palpable difference between club and international football at this level.
While he could afford to go one month for Real Madrid without scoring – after all it’s a 10 month season – and score for the other months, it is not the same with international competitions.
The entire competition lasts for one month and you get to the elimination stages after your first three games unlike the way it works at club football. So you find most teams tightening up at the back once they get to the knockout stages, hence reduce their attacking impetus to an extent.
So that was a genuine problem for them. The good thing however was that they could turn that weakness to strength by being difficult to beat, which was exactly how they were all through the Euros.
It is easy to say they never won any game in normal time until the 2-0 semifinal win over Wales, but they never lost either and only conceded five goals all tournament, with four of those coming during the group stages and three of the four in one match.
The simple fact is that they got better as the competition wore on: maybe not in an attacking sense, but defensively.
Playing with a deep-lying defence led by Pepe, and supported by first Ricardo Carvalho and then Jose Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro, Cedric Soares and the much improved Rui Patricio, Fernando Santos had built a team that while struggling for goals in attack, but solid in defence.
And no disrespect to the contributions of Ronaldo, Nani, Renato Sanches, Ricardo Quaresma and Eder who scored the goal that gifted them the trophy, Portugal’s biggest strength at the Euros was their defence.
Playing with William Carvalho as anchorman, their low-end defensive set-up was a problem for teams to get past. They seemingly lost that defensive solidity in their thrilling 3-3 final group game against Hungary because of a tweak in their system as they had to score to progress.
But in their other games, especially during the knockout round when they couldn’t afford to concede the odd goal, they simply closed shop and teams found them difficult to break down as a result.
It however remains to be seen what the outcome would have been if they had faced Italy, who had also employed a similar tactic.
But all that don’t matter now, because the Portuguese have gone, saw and conquered with a team built to maximize their strengths and limit the damages that could arise from their weaknesses.