Cristiano Ronaldo gives Portugal the advantage against Sweden

November 17, 2013 in Features by Ballsy Banter

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Portugal hosted Sweden in the first leg of the play-off round of the European World Cup qualification. The majority of the build-up was about the world-class attackers of the two teams; Cristiano Ronaldo and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Even though Cristiano Ronaldo decided the game with a header from close range, neither of them had a particularly good game.

Zlatan and CR7

The formations

Portugal started in a 4-3-3 formation. Ronaldo started as the left attacking midfielder, while Nani started on the right wing.

Portugal’s lineup:

Sweden started in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Ibrahimović played as the main forward, with Johan Elmander playing behind him.

Sweden’s lineup:

This match can be divided into three parts based on the tactics the sides applied.

The first part was the first 20 minutes, when Sweden tried to get behind Portugal on the wings. The second part was between minutes 21 and 60, when Portugal played static, long-ball football. The last part was the last 30 minutes, when Sweden dropped very deep, allowing Portugal to play through balls and shoot outside of the box.

The early stages (Minutes 0-20)

Both sides were dangerous on the wings in the first 20 minutes. Sweden attacked with Alexander Kačaniklić  on the left wing, while Ronaldo didn’t track back on the right wing, which allowed Mikael Lustig to overlap and put in a cross in the sixth minute, which Elmander almost scored from.

Portugal’s most dangerous player was Fabio Coentrão, who consistently outpaced Sebastian Larsson. In defence of Larsson, he had to cover a lot of ground. Sweden were playing narrowly. Whenever Coentrão  received the ball in a deep position, Larsson had to get to him quickly from a relatively central position.

Coentrão enjoyed a lot of time on the ball, but his partnership with Ronaldo wasn’t flawless. Sweden’s defensive line was high in the opening minutes. Ronaldo tried to make runs behind them, and positioned himself around the last defender instead of getting closer to Coentrão, and play quick one-twos.

Sweden’s defence dropped deeper to deny the chance of conceding from a long ball. This neutralised Portugal completely for the next 40 minutes.

The middle stages (Minutes 21-60)

Both teams were ineffective in their attacks in this stage of the game. Portugal’s passing was too predictable to trouble the Swedes, who were too far from the Portuguese goal to put together cohesive attacks.

As Ronaldo was not getting the ball, he moved to the right, into deep positions, even though he received the ball more than before, but in inferior positions. He was often with his back to goal, with both the Swedish midfield and defence in between him and the goal. Ronaldo’s pace and dribbling can’t be used to full effect when he not only has to turn, but beat multiple players in congested space.

However, it should be noted that Ronaldo’s movement had some positive effects on Portugal’s attacking play. His movement towards deep positions drew Lustig out of position a few times, which left space behind the Swedish left-back. Raul Meireles made a run into that free space from midfield in the 23rd minute, but his cross was poor.

Portugal tried a surprisingly high number of passses to Coentrão pushing up on the left, and Nani on the right. Neither Lustig nor Jonas Olsson had problems with clearing these balls, even though they had to cover a lot of space from their relatively central positions. The reason for this was that the majority of these long balls were played after a defender carried it forward, or took time on the ball in a standing position, and then picked out the pass. This left time for the Swedish full-backs to anticipate these balls, and adjust their positioning accordingly.

Ibrahimović was just as ineffective as Ronaldo. Zlatan’s lack of influence was down to two key factors. Sweden had only 35% of possession, while they were sitting too deep to get the ball forward. Even when they won the ball, they lacked the pace necessary to hit Portugal on the break.

It is strange, but both Ibrahimović and Ronaldo would have had more success if they switched teams. Ibrahimović’s skills would have been a lot more useful in positional play, while Ronaldo’s skills are most effective when he has space to take on players.

The closing stages (Minutes 61-90)

Sweden became even more defensive in the last 30 minutes. They dropped deeper as they got tired and more conservative. A goalless draw would have been a good result for them away, so it is natural that they decided to give up attacking completely.

Sweden’s extremely deep lines allowed Portugal to keep the ball a lot closer to the goal than before. They were close enough to shoot from distance, and play through balls into the box. Most of the  through balls were attempted when Nani had the ball on the wing, which drew both Olsson and Kačaniklić wide, opening a channel between Olsson and Per Nilsson.

In the 82nd minute, Ronaldo scored the winning goal after Miguel Veloso put in a cross from the left. Larsson was slow to get to the wing at a throw-in. Even though it might seem that this was a momentary lapse in concentration, Portugal had multiple chances to cross from the left, as Larsson was knackered from tracking Coentrão’s runs.


Neither Portugal nor Sweden looked particularly convincing in this match. Sweden’s primary goal was to stop Portugal from scoring. Even though they failed to do so, Portugal were below standards in this game and probably wouldn’t have scored if Sweden didn’t run out of breath towards the end of the game.

All in all, the tie remains open and both teams will have a lot to do on Tuesday.