Portugal nullified Wales’ fearsome counter-attack in the first half, before scoring two early second half goals and dominating on the break.
In scenes reminiscent of Wales’ pedestrian second round encounter with Northern Ireland, Fernando Santos’ side demonstrated exactly how inert Chris Coleman’s 5-2-2-1 system looks when asked to break down circumspect opposition.
Contrary to their status as the bookmakers’ pre-match favourites, Portugal instead played like underdogs, holding a deep defensive line and pressing only in their own half. Rather than ask his strikers, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, to press the Welsh defence, Santos tasked them with cutting off their passing angles to Joes Allen and Ledley.
This strategy was very effective in preventing Coleman’s charges from working the ball forward, with Wales’ centre backs finishing the half as the games’ three most proficient passers. Williams, Chester and Collins’ passing oriented sideways as the half wore on, after an opening ten minutes in which Joe Allen twice lost the ball after assuming possession under pressure in midfield.
Portugal’s clever shapeshifting at defensive transitions was also key to rendering the opposition attack inert. Although lined out in a diamond formation, Santos again asked his four midfielders to flatten out into a second bank of four when Wales entered the Portuguese half.
This meant that the players on the sides of the diamond, Joao Mario and Renato Sanches, were able to confront the Welsh wing backs when they received the ball in dangerous areas. Note that Wales’ only half chance of the first 45, when Hal Robson-Kanu crossed to Andy King, stemmed from Joao Mario failing to track Chris Gunter on the Portuguese left flank.
Despite being encouraged to dominate possession, the equally cautious Welsh weren’t about to fall into Portugal’s trap. This produced a non-event of an opening period, with one shot on target, in which neither side was being permitted to play the counter-attacking football with which they are most comfortable. Portugal’s strategy with the ball appeared to consist solely of long diagonals from centre back Jose Fonte to Ronaldo, which the immobile but aerially dominant James Collins wasn’t exactly too disappointed with.
Already struggling to play front-foot football, particularly in the absence of the suspended Aaron Ramsey, Wales were dealt a double hammer blow early in the second period, with Ronaldo and Nani’s goals further entrenching Portugal into their first half habits.
Now Wales were forced to throw attacking caution to the wind, which allowed Santos’ side to pose a consistent threat on the break. Shortly after Coleman moved to a 5-3-2, by removing Ledley in favour of target man Sam Vokes, Portugal should have wrapped the game up on the counter, when Joao Mario shot wide from point-blank range.
Further offensive abandon saw the Welsh manager switch to a diamond system of his own, with Collins sacrificed to introduce the skillful Jonathan Williams into the fray. This change made it easier for Wales to press Danilo and Portugal’s centre backs, forcing Rui Patricio to kick it long, but it did not improve their creative fortunes.
Coleman deserves huge praise for selecting a system that masked the limitations and magnified the strengths of his players, and for persisting with it from the beginning of qualification all the way to a major championship semi-final. Alas, the 5-2-2-1, designed to best exploit the talents of dual number tens Ramsey and Bale, is ill-suited to games in which Wales are faced with a massed defence. Ramsey’s absence, paired with the successful stymieing of the Real Madrid man’s counter-attacking threat, left them toothless and homeward bound.