Ronaldo and Nani had the responsibility of leading the counter-attacks, but with such a diligent and on-form German defense, they found no joy. Realising that his initial gameplan was going up in smoke, Bento plumped for his “plan B.” In came winger Silvestre Varela and young striker Nelson Oliveira.
How Nelson Oliveira Can Play a Clinical Role in Portugal’s Euro 2012 Campaign
The Portugal national football team’s starting lineup isn’t a bad one at all; it boasts the likes of Fabio Coentrao and Pepe — a talented full-back and center back, respectively — as well as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, who are highly-rated wingers capable of greatness.
The vast amount of rearguard action in Portugal’s defensive third versus Germany in their unfortunate 1-0 defeat saw the abilities of Coentrao and Pepe put on display. However, the attacking impetus that Ronaldo and Nani are known to usually provide for their respective clubs was nowhere to be seen on the day for their country. In fairness, this wasn’t all their fault.
Paulo Bento had his team play on the counter-attack, acknowledging that his side would’ve been in for a bumpy ride versus the tournament favorites. His midfield 3 of Raul Meireles, João Moutinho, and Miguel Veloso played very deep and saw little of the ball as Germany dominated possession (57%).
These tactical changes brought about near immediate results. In fact, Nelson Oliveira and Varela were involved in Portugal’s best chance at goal. The former darted into the box and held the ball up very well before squeezing a pass that trickled through to the far post, which the latter subsequently hit — poorly — straight into an onrushing Manuel Neuer.
That chance aside, Portugal, who were toothless in attack for much of the game, suddenly posed a serious threat in the final third. It certainly made one wonder what would’ve been had Bento sent his team out with a more attack-minded gameplan from the get-go. As decent as his tactical adjustments were made to look, there was still one problem, however.
Although Portugal were solid defensively and later on established that they can pose a genuine attacking threat, there was a problem linking midfield to attack, evidenced by the fact that the attacking trident of Ronaldo, Nani, and Helder Postiga in particular was left isolated.
This is why the absences of Danny and Carlos Martins are such a bitter blow. The Zenit St. Petersburg attacking midfielder and the on-loan Granada attacking midfielder would’ve been ideal at linking their team’s play as well as posing their own attacking threat, but a serious knee injury crushed Danny’s Euro 2012 dreams back in February and Carlos Martins was ruled out of the tournament through injury in May.
The next game against Denmark, although tough in its own right, is the best chance Portugal have at getting a victory in such a strong, competitive group and the crucial 3 points. That said, they have to go out with a positive gameplan. “Plan A” proved futile versus Germany, but “plan B” definitely showed potential with Nelson Oliveira a primary reason for that.
Those who have watched this Portugal team over the years have long bemoaned the dearth of quality up top. Since impressing at the Under-20 World Cup last year, scoring 4 goals as he led his nation to the final (where they lost to Brazil after extra time), the 20 year old Benfica striker now has all hopes pinned on him to become the best striker for the country since the likes of Eusébio and Pauleta.
His inclusion in the Euro 2012 squad was primarily to acclimatise him to the senior national team setup, to introduce him to the kind of future that awaits. Plus, there was hope that he could provide a positive impact off the bench, which he did at the first time of asking.
As was mentioned, he was the one who set up Portugal’s only clear-cut opportunity versus Germany. In fact, so impressive was his cameo that the Portuguese press are calling for his inclusion in the starting lineup in place of Helder Postiga who, although worked hard, was unable to provide an attacking threat on the day.
But given Portugal’s problem of linking play, simply replacing Helder Postiga with Nelson Oliveira up top may not accomplish much. Should he be put in the lineup only to be left isolated and prove ineffective as was the case with Helder Postiga versus Germany, there’s no telling how the confidence that’s currently coursing through his veins might be affected, as given the significant occasion, the vastness of the watching audience as well as the fact that he’s new, a poor performance may draw views that the youngster is perhaps overhyped.
Thus, it’s important that Paulo Bento address Portugal’s problem if he is to get the best out of his budding, young striker. But with Danny and Carlos Martins both out of the equation, who would link the midfield to the attack? Quite interestingly, Nelson Oliveira may well be the answer. How so?
Nelson Oliveira has been compared to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he is a lot more mobile than the big Swede. In fact, he began his career as a winger, hence the reason why he tends to drift out to the flanks to pick up the ball and loves to take on his man, possessing both the skill and the pace to do so. He isn’t a bad crosser either.
“I would describe myself as a fast player, with a decent shot and good movement,” he said.
He has also demonstrated an ability to link up with team-mates. His exquisite back-heel flick into the path of strike partner Oscar Cardozo, who went on to score as Benfica marched to a 3-1 home win over Beira-Mar, is a memorable example of this. But, as is expected given his age, Nelson Oliveira is still a raw talent with certain aspects of his game in need of improvement. He humbly admits this himself. After describing his good qualities, he went on to say:
“To be a more complete player, I need to improve my positioning inside the box and how I get there, which needs a bit of work.”
There, he basically admitted that he lacks the qualities of a poacher — the ability to pop up in the right place at the right time. This is a fair enough assessment of his talent to date and an appropriate one for Portugal, given what’s missing from the side.
Portugal have long persisted with 4-3-3. Helder Postiga works hard, but will always find life difficult up top on his own, while Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani shouldn’t have to bear the burden of trying to make things happen on their own, especially given the fact that teams are getting lots of players behind the ball.
Miguel Veloso and João Moutinho are known to be solid defensively as well as capable, expansive passers of the ball. These qualities were on show versus Germany. That said, Raul Meireles can be sacrificed, allowing Nelson Oliveira to come into the side in an advanced role.
The key here is to utilise his good movement. He is familiar with the wide areas of the pitch given his past experience as a winger. Thus, once receiving the ball, he can pass it to either Ronaldo or Nani and drift towards their position on the flank to either offer himself as an outlet for link-up play or go on their outside should they decide to cut inside to avoid getting in each other’s way.
As for his forward movement, Helder Postiga likes to drop deep and with Nelson Oliveira in close proximity, he’d finally have someone to link up with effectively. With the ball at his feet, Nelson Oliveira can dart into the box ahead of him to receive a key pass. If one of Nani and Ronaldo has the ball out wide, both strikers would give the wingers decent options to pick out with a cross. Needless to say, the intricate movement of the attackers would unsettle the opposition’s defenders.
In addition, João Moutinho has the option of making the occasional run up the pitch where possible to provide additional support, perhaps at the edge of the box. The same goes for Miguel Veloso. Both are decent strikers of the ball from long range.
Even if Ronaldo or Nani picks up the ball out wide, Nelson Oliveira would be in a good position to link up with them and interchange, thus taking the pressure off of them to provide a spark for the team all on their own, which is what they were tasked with versus Germany.
Noteworthy is the fact that although a midfielder is dropped in favor of a striker, there is still adequate defensive cover with Miguel Veloso and João Moutinho well positioned behind Nelson Oliveira. Also, there is little creative burden on the young striker as both deep midfielders are quite capable of dictating play and picking a pass.
Portugal have scored just 1 goal in their last 4 matches, but this has nothing to do with a lack of creativity. They just need to be a lot more dangerous in the final third. With a second striker in support here, that problem could well be fixed.
Though, given Nelson Oliveira is new here and is only just breaking into the Benfica team (he started just 2 games and made 12 substitute appearances last season), it’s very unlikely that he’d start for Portugal, let alone be given what would admittedly be seen as an experimental role, even though he has the qualities necessary to fulfil it. Paulo Bento knows there is much at stake and would see this as a risk not worth taking at this point. Evidencing this is the fact that he has already confirmed that Helder Postiga will retain his place versus Denmark.
Paulo Bento’s players are set to face a Denmark side that may be content with a draw given their opening day shock victory over the Netherlands. That said, they will need to go out and attack rather than be as conservative and safe as they were versus Germany. News of Helder Postiga starting up top alone isn’t exactly reassuring for Selecção fans, though. Whatever Nelson Oliveira’s involvement, hopefully Portugal can get the desired result and avoid becoming the first victim of Euro 2012’s “group of death.”