Portugal and Spain played out an absolute classic on Friday evening in the group stage of the World Cup, with the thrilling game ending 3-3. The Iberian rivals share the status of being heavyweights of international football, however, this game demonstrated that there are many differences between the two sides.
Whilst Portugal have a number of excellent players, Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly their main man, with the national side often being built around him in the past. The team are set up to absorb pressure and then to break and counter decisively with pace and power. Meanwhile, Spain have an abundance of world class talent, but no individuals who particularly stand out as being on another level from the rest of the team, and they set out to control the game, dominate possession, and weave through the opposition with intricate passes.
These contrasting mentalities were clearly on display in their 3-3 draw, with the benefits and limitations of both systems also being illustrated. Spain opted to fill the midfield with four very similar creative playmakers in Koke, Andres Iniesta, David Silva and Isco in front of Sergio Busquets. Spain have so many of these exciting tacticians that Thiago Alacantara was left on the bench, whilst the likes of Juan Mata and Cesc Fabregas failed to make the squad at all. The Spanish were incredibly effective in midfield, with the playmakers combining excellently and using fluidity to compensate for the lack of width and natural wingers in the side, and chances were consistently made throughout the game with constant pressure put on the Portuguese defence. Spain demonstrated that pace is not essential, with Jordi Alba’s speed on the overlap rarely being exploited whilst, at right back, Hierro opted to start Nacho, usually a center-back, over the quicker alternatives of Cesar Azpilicueta and Dani Carvajal.
On the other hand, Portugal set up more conservatively, allowing Spain to control the game and dominate possession and deploying William Carvalho and Joao Moutinho to protect the defence. Pace was also key to their game plan, with the rapid Goncalo Guedes partnering Ronaldo in attack, with creative midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva behind them to play the key through balls, and fullbacks Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric Soares overlapping to offer support. Despite the great danger that Spain posed while in possession, Portugal’s system was also effective, as the Portuguese looked incredibly dangerous themselves on the counter.
Neither system eventually prevailed, as the game finished level, and whilst the benefits of the styles were excellently exhibited, the flaws were also apparent. Despite Spain’s commitment to “tiki-taka” and a patient approach, their first goal, which was a crucial equaliser, came from a long ball from Busquets to Diego Costa, who did superbly to score with no support from Spain’s midfielders. This goal highlighted the benefits of a more direct approach, especially considering Spain have, in Diego Costa, one of the deadliest target men in world football, who is accomplished at latching onto long passes before taking on and beating the defence all on his own. The flaw of the controlling tiki-taka approach is the lack of variety that it offers, and Costa proved that a more direct approach would allow him to thrive, which suggests that Spain would benefit from adding more diversity to their game.
Moreover, Portugal demonstrated the importance of being clinical when playing counter attacking football. They often broke well, but never actually scored from a counter, which almost cost them the game. In the end, Portugal relied on good fortune to get a point as Ronaldo’s second goal was due to David De Gea’s mistake, whilst his third came from a last minute free kick, which is not something that results from a counter attacking system. Therefore, the danger of a counter attacking style is that if you are not clinical, then allowing the other team to dominate puts you at great risk of losing.