UEFA Nations League: Netherlands’ patent possession-based football succumbs to directness of Portuguese attack in final

Portugal won the inaugural UEFA Nations League 1-0 vs The Netherlands through a 60th-minute goal from Manuel Goncalo Guedes.

There were 5 subsets of football followers tuning in to see the final: 1. Cristiano Ronaldo fans 2. Portugal fans 3. Fans of The Netherlands 4. Liverpool fans 5. Rivals of Liverpool who desperately wanted to see Liverpool man Virgil Van Dijk being dribbled past by Cristaino.

 UEFA Nations League: Netherlands’ patent possession-based football succumbs to directness of Portuguese attack in final

Netherlands' Virgil van Dijk looks dejected with teammates after losing the UEFA Nations League Final. Reuters

Didn’t happen. Virgil Van Dijk was imperious as ever, despite the loss. He seemed to have glided on the grass on some occasions, facing the break-neck speed of the Portuguese attack with a shift of the gear of his own, a tackle here, a block there, with sheer nonchalance, oftentimes with his back to goal. Partnering him was the next best thing since sliced bread, the 19-year-old centre back, Matthijs De Ligt. The youngster hardly put a foot wrong himself. But the goal came despite their best efforts.

The goal was a result of an unselfish dragged-back no-look square ball by Bernado Silva. It found 22-year old  Benavente-born winger Manuel Goncalo Guedes who plies his trade as an attacking midfielder and a right-winger for Spanish club Valencia. He pummeled the ball into the far right corner of the goal, past a reaching goalkeeper Cillessen. Guedes, who was a stand-out performer on the night, and would have surely perked some ears with his nitro-boost speed and directness, wasn’t supposed to get a look-in for the final. He came off the bench in the semi-final versus Xherdan Shaqiri’s Switzerland. But over the course of the week, having applied himself in training, found himself on the good books of Portugal manager Fernando Santos.

The Portuguese manager primed his side to attack with the whiplash mentality of a rat-trap. The pace of Cristiano, Guedes, Bernardo Silva, stretched the Dutch midfield thin. Bruno Fernandes, Portugal’s deep-lying midfielder often found himself in positions to shoot at the edge of the Dutch D. Ronald Koeman and Netherlands’ possession-based football tactics were curtly deconceptualised by the directness of the Portuguese attack. Unlike Netherland’s semi-final opponents, England, Portugal barely dallied on the ball, and got rid of it like a hot potato. The one-touch football aided by the width afforded by wingbacks Nelson Semedo and Raphael Gurreriro meant that Van Dijk and Matt De Ligt had their starting position on the counter attacks to be much wider than they would have liked, in order to cover for their widemen Ryan Babel and Danny Blind. Twenty-one-year-old Dutch winger for PSV, Steven Bergwijn did admirably going the other way. But there was very little going forward for the Dutch.

Despite the bountiful talent in this technically proficient Dutch team, they are found wanting in their attacking department. Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel, and Bergwijn had their supply line cut off. The Dutch forwards who are used to running through the channels, playing off the shoulders of the last defender, could do little with the ball having to come deep to retrieve possession. Frenkie de Jong and Marten de Roon had little or no time to settle on the ball nevermind dictate the tempo. The former Barcelona legend, Koeman, a brand ambassador of possession-based football could only watch on and see his midfield maestros being picked off by Portugal’s front-foot, heel-snapping play, enforced by central defensive midfielder Willaim Carvalho.  

Oftentimes, statistics do not give an accurate reading of the game, but on the night, they read like a charge-sheet of Netherlands’ failings as a team. Portugal had more forward plays in the final third of the pitch, more shots  (12 to Netherlands’ paltry sum of 3), more shots on target (7 to Netherlands’ 1); manufactured 16 free-kicks (which suggests that the Netherlands were always a stride or two behind and slower to get to the tackles, and ill-adjusted to the fleet-footed Portuguese turnovers on counter attacks) and produced 10 corners to Netherlands’ 6. It’s indicative that the only time the Netherlands looked like a tangible threat was when they had corners in the Portugal box, with the aerial presence of Van Dijk and De Ligt. Whereas Fernando Santos’ Portugal played with the aura of Europan Champions, a team that knew how to get the job done.

Despite the one-sided attacking encounter, the UEFA Nations League final was a display of the dying art of the well-timed tackle, lead in no small part by the 22-year-old Benfica man Ruben Dias. Whatever van Dijk and De Ligt dished out on the other side of the pitch, Ruben Dias matched.

The most telling indication of this Portugal team’s trajectory is that Ronaldo wasn’t even in contention for the man of the match on the night. Silva is playing with the aura of a prime Rui Costa, and the relative unknowns like Guedes and defender Ruben Dias are stepping out of the shadows.

Portugal are well and truly on the cusp of another golden generation, but the difference this time would be, that their claim and pedigree will be built not on column inches and hot air, bit pure silver.

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Updated Date: Jun 10, 2019 13:04:46 IST