The 2018 FIFA World Cup has been one of the most unpredictable and thrilling international tournaments in a long time; Spain 3-3 Portugal, South Korea 2-0 Germany, etc. One might’ve expected - or hoped - that this would continue into the Round of Sixteen, but the predictable has reigned supreme instead. Nothing sums this up better than Portugal’s loss to Uruguay, where the game acquiesced to the defensive excellence of La Celeste as they continually repelled the Selecção’s forseeable attacks. And just when you thought that the game might flip on its head with Pepe’s goal, Uruguay stung Portugal on the break and effectively ended the contest.
Fernando Santos stuck with his usual 4-4-2, with Guedes back as a striker after André Silva got a brief run in the team vs. Iran. Bernardo Silva also made his return, replacing Ricardo Quaresma on the right. The only surprise selection was Ricardo Pereira, who came in for teacher’s pet Cédric.
Uruguay approached their opponents in a 4-4-2 diamond; the deadly duo of Cavani and Suárez spearheaded and industrious and well-disciplined midfield that protected a defense led by the two Atlético Madrid boys Godin and Giménez.
To no one’s surprise, Uruguay immediately entered the game determined to sit deep. Portugal decided to accept the conditions set by their opponents and looked to slowly work their way into attacking positions through short passes in wide areas. Thanks to the presence of Ricardo Pereira - who is the superior offensive player when compared to Cédric - Bernardo Silva could drift away from the touchline and into the half space, creating an avenue through which Portugal could penetrate.
Silva received nearly 100 touches due to this strategy, but it did not produce the results Portugal were hoping for thanks to Uruguay’s masterful defensive plan.
Óscar Tabárez’s men reacted to Portugal’s right-sided focus in possession by using their superiority in central midfield to clog the passing lanes down their left. As can be seen in the first image above, Suárez and Cavani also positioned themselves in concert with their midfield line so as to prevent the first pass from the center backs.
The obvious solution for Portugal was to switch the ball swiftly from side to side in order to destabilize Uruguay’s defensive structure, but that was difficult in practice for two reasons.
Firstly, Tabárez adjusted for this by asking Cavani to scurry over to the right flank every time Portugal tried to shift the point of attack. The forward’s work-rate and defensive positioning was flawless, as he always moved over in time to apply pressure on Portugal’s left-sided players and cover shadow passes to the center.
Secondly, Portugal’s attacking structure was not sufficiently organized to deal with the problem. João Mario kept drifting from his position on the left to mitigate Uruguay’s defensive overload, but he simply congested things further. This issue was worsened by Adrien Silva - who tried to occupy Bernardo Silva’s vertical - therefore creating a sea of players that became impossible to play through. Even worse, it destroyed the spacing necessary to smoothly shift the ball from side to side and left Guerreiro in 1v1 or 1v2 situations on the left. On a better day, the Dortmund left back might’ve still been able to make something of his circumstances, but he was poor the entire game and was completely outclassed by Martin Cáceres.
As a result, Portugal were left with the option of lumping balls into the box from deep areas; they managed 40 crosses into Godin and Giménez`’s territory, only one of which resulted in anything (the goal from the set-piece).
Once Portugal’s attacking strategy failed and Santos’ men lost possession, Uruguay went route one to Suárez and Cavani, who often times positioned themselves as target men on opposite sides of the field. This allowed the duo to stretch Fonté and Pepe while simultaneously taking advantage of the space left behind by the opposition’s fullbacks.
Things changed for the better for Portugal briefly in the second half, when Santos compensated for João Mario’s roaming movements by moving Gonçalo Guedes out to the left. This immediately improved Portugal’s ball circulation as it created a sort of five-man midfield with Adrien Silva moving into the left half space to become the necessary link to rotate play to the left. Additionally, Guedes’ runs behind Caceres allowed for more dynamic attacking play and allowed Portugal to stretch Uruguay in ways they couldn’t and hadn’t in the prior minutes.
But it was too good to be true, and Santos ruined it by brining on André Silva for Guedes in the 74th minute. This brought Portugal’s shape back to a 4-4-2 and again relegated them to the unimaginative play of the first half. Even super sub Ricardo Quaresma couldn’t paper over this poor structure and Portugal inevitably bowed out of the tournament as time trickled into the 96th minute and the ref finally blew his whistle.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Performance
As usual, Cristiano Ronaldo tried to make up for his side’s structural inadequacies by dropping deeper to facilitate the flow of possession and spark attacking moves. But he never really managed to connect with his teammates thanks to the congested situation around him and Uruguay’s steadfast defensive lines. Instead, Ronaldo was limited to creating things for himself, which he chose to do from the left. Cutting inside in the way we were so used to 3-4 years ago, Ronaldo dropped defenders (5/8 completed dribbles) and released shots from range without ever truly managing to get a great look at goal. He was always surrounded by a swarm of Uruguay players and his shooting locations were always low percentage; he ended the game with 6 shots - none of which came inside the box.
At the end of the day, Ronaldo simply couldn’t do enough to push his team over the line. While he did admirably to play a well-rounded game and force something out of nothing, this situation was more suitable for peak CR7. The current Ronaldo would’ve been better utilized in a game plan that would’ve allowed him to feed off of good deliveries in the box - but he never got that chance.