It is rare to see such a big encounter with no history behind it. Portugal have never faced Belgium in an International tournament - only in qualifiers and friendlies. Nevertheless they are unbeaten in their last 5 encounters against the 'Red Devils' and are marginal favourites to go through against a side which has still not quite shaken off its tag as perennial chokers despite their impressive run in the 2018 World Cup.
In terms of their performances so far in the competition, it is difficult to recall a real performance of note from either side. Both have for the most part, struggled to find top gear - with Belgium making heavy work of beating Finland and Denmark and Portugal getting smashed by Germany and then grinding out a draw against France. Both sides did beat Hungary and Russia 3-0 respectively, but it would be pushing it to call either of these displays vintage.
In this preview we will address the tactics each side will utilise against each other in and out of possession. We will focus on the build up phase, in their attacking thirds and transitional play. We will also assess their respective set piece threats (always a must in tight games of this magnitude) and any key battles which are worth taking a closer look at. Fasten your seatbelt and lets dive in!
Belgium tend to play out from the back and spread their back three across the pitch (RCB in right half space, LCB in left half space) and wing backs pushing up. This gives them a solid base to play out from but whilst they average close to 58% possession, upon closer inspection - their control of possession against stronger sides takes a 10-15% dip.
This could be a deliberate ploy by Martinez in order to unleash his side as a counter-attacking threat or it could just be that the midfield of Witsel and Tielemans struggles to grab hold of games against superior opponents with their own hearts set on controlling the game and with more effective pressing strategies. I believe it is more likely to be the latter although with a striker like Lukaku and with players like De Bruyne on the counter - it is not necessarily a bad thing.
Portugal tend not to press sides in their attacking third. When you have 36yr old Cristiano Ronaldo up front, this seems to be a sensible strategy. Instead they wait for opponents to beat their first line of attack and bypass Ronaldo, before they begin to engage in the press (just in front of the halfway line). This press is aggressive and as soon as the ball is won, Ronaldo is already making moves towards goal anticipating a fast paced series of passes which play him in against a disorientated and exposed backline.
Belgium are prone to losing possession in their own defensive third (regularly breaching the 20 mark) compared to a Spain who take great care in passing out from the back and are rarely caught out. Thus Portugal would be advised to engage a slightly higher press than usual to catch them out. Their backline has some decent technical talent but as mentioned above, I am not sure the likes of Witsel match up to the likes of Busquets in the build up and they are prone to breaking down.
Belgium's customary 3-4-2-1 formation becomes a 3-1-5-1 when they are camped in the opposition's half. Lukaku will at times occupy half spaces but is their key presence in the penalty area whilst the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne swarm around the half spaces and try to combine with the respective wing backs and create overlaps/underlaps. More often than not, the underlap is preferred and crosses are made from the half spaces towards the far post.
A big weakness of Belgium's attack is the lack of natural left footed players down the left flank. This makes that flank more predictable and puts extra emphasis on Hazard to create magic without being able to play in an overlapping wing back to put in a first time cross. Seeing as Portugal's biggest weakness is down the right flank in Semedo - this is a bitter blow for Belgium.
Generally speaking De Bruyne apart, Belgium do not have players who are well suited to breaking down a well organised low block. Portugal are a side who are usually very capable of defending in a low block although in this years championship they have struggled to do this but in fairness they have faced two of the best sides in the tournament. I do not think Belgium's attack poses the same level of threat, so if Portugal do defend deep... I cannot see Belgium scoring more than once against them.
Lukaku may have the pace to unsettle Pepe and Dias, but they have the shithousery to keep him honest. De Bruyne has been in excellent form and will face Danilo Pereira who despite looking effective at times has been part of a defence which has conceded 6 goals in 2 games. What was particularly concerning was the performance against Germany, where Muller and Havertz ran amok despite him having Carvalho for extra support. Hazard v Semedo looks like a mismatch but does he have the fitness to take advantage?
When Belgium win the ball, Lukaku tends to drift into the right half space and his first option is to try and get on the shoulder of the last man and get in behind. An alternative pattern of play is to feed the ball to his feet whilst on the run, use his powerful ability to run with the ball to eat up yards before he cuts in and plays in runners who are now in advance of him (wingbacks and Hazard).
Portugal tend to defend counter attacks well as they do not play with a high line. Upon losing the ball, they look to drop back into a 4-5-1. Most of the goals they have conceded this tournament have been whilst defending deep and not in a transitional situation. Perhaps the only weakness for Portugal could be the space between their full backs and the CB's if they are in caught in full flow on the attack but these situations will be few and far between, especially in the first half.
Portugal tend not to take risks in the build up phase. They circulate safe passes into the CDMs/Full backs before a riskier forward pass into the opponents half. Against tough opponents who press well - they go from back to front as quickly as possible (but along the floor). This explains why their possession % is not as high as the other top European nations. One of the key reasons behind this is the belief that Ronaldo benefits from spearheading a side which does not force the opposition into an eternal low block.
Belgium's pressing statistics are very similar to Portugal. They also average 14 PPDA and have recorded 91 final third pressures to Portugal's 104. There is however a greater disparity in their middle third pressures... 158 to Portugal's 188. This suggests that Belgium only really get aggressive once the opposition get into their half, so I expect to see Portugal build up from the back with relative ease and the likes of Guerreiro and Semedo to be influential in progressing the play for Portugal.
One of the weaknesses of Portugal's build up is that they lack 'progression' in their central midfield area. The fading of Moutinho has been a big loss - they have not really replaced him with a modern version and that is why Portugal tend to just invite pressure on to them without really finding a way to exert control on the game. They may not be error prone but none of their centre backs are also very 'progressive' with the ball at their feet too... which is why there is a reliance on Bernardo Silva out wide to inject some life into their possession.
Whereas Belgium have De Bruyne, Tielemans and Witsel ranking high for progressive passes (relative to their minutes played), it is the likes of Semedo, Guerreiro, Silva and Dias who rank highest for Portugal. Their midfielders are struggling to pick up the slack and find their advanced team mates. A solution is to perhaps ensure the inclusion of Renato Sanches - whilst he is not the most accurate passer, he can progress the game through his lung-busting drives with the ball at his feet.
Portugal have utilised both a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. Judging by their collapse against Germany, it is highly likely that they will once again go with the 4-3-3. Should they do so expect to see a lop sided, 2-3-3-1-1 in attack, with one wing back pushed really up the pitch in the final third, whilst the other is deeper alongside the CM's but ahead of the CB's. Ronaldo will tend to be waiting inside the box and joined by Jota making late runs. The others will feed for scraps just outside the box.
Personally I do not see why Portugal have not tried to incorporate Joao Felix into their attack as he could really give them an extra bit of oomph against the low block. Bruno Fernandes has struggled this tournament and whilst he is a wonderful goal threat and key passer, in the bigger games he tends to struggle to make that influence count.
So in a game against a tough opponent like Belgium where there may be the odd period of sustained possession, he is not at this moment in time looking like a player who could provide the cutting edge in that phase of the game.
Despite the ageing legs of the Belgian backline, in a low block they should be pretty hard to break down. With their backs against the wall, Belgium will drop into a 5-4-1 but they tend to be aggressive in their defensive third. Aerially their centre backs are solid. They have the second best aerial success rate in Euro 2020 and considering they have had to face very physical sides in Denmark, Finland and Russia - that is saying something. Pumping in crosses to Ronaldo or Jota at the far post may not prove to be an effective strategy.
This is where Portugal come into their own and can hurt anyone in the competition. They slightly struggled to create chances against France's deep set defence - their high XG was skewed because of the penalty - but against Germany they looked threatening in open play. What makes them lethal is Ronaldo's movement and ability to pose a threat from across the final third - so it is difficult to predict where he will target.
He is ably supported by Diogo Jota who has the pace and all-round threat to assist/score whilst on the run or get on the end of moves. Ally this with Bernando Silva's ability to thread passes through the eye of the needle and Renato's ability to eat up yards on the counter, the pacey full backs and you can see why Portugal can turn defence into attack in the matter of seconds.
Belgium are vulnerable here. Their backline lacks pace. They have wing backs who are make shift wingers in nature. They can try to drop into the 5-4-1 as quickly as possible but that is not always realistic in the hustle and bustle of the game. Belgium are therefore advised to try and counter-press upon loss of ball possession and stop the counter attack at source whilst at the same time asking their backline to drop off and avoid getting caught out in behind.
Lukaku v Dias
With Lukaku's preference to drift into the right half space - it seems inevitable he will be caught in a direct duel with Dias. Dias has not been at his best in this tournament, perhaps feeling the fatigue of a long campaign whereas Lukaku has looked razor sharp. On paper you would expect Dias to edge this battle as he has the recovery pace, the physicality and the positional nous to dullen the edge of the big Belgian but one has momentum and the other does not. A fierce battle is in prospect.
Hazard v Semedo
Based on Semedo's recent displays and taking into account Hazard's reputation - this would be a mismatch of the highest order but this is not the same Hazard we were accustomed to seeing in the Premier League. He's slower, less agile and more conservative in possession.
At times it looks like he is going through the motions, waiting for someone to slap him up and remind him that he is one of the world's most glorious footballers to watch when in full flow. Semedo for all his faults is lively, tenacious and will look to bomb forward on the counter... Hazard will not track back.
Danilo v De Bruyne
De Bruyne has been in fine fettle these championships. We thought he would be suffering a hangover from the champions league going into this tournament but as it was a facial injury rather than to do with his limbs, he has come back in and hit the ground running.
Portugal should be wary as De Bruyne does have it in him to produce a big match performance - see Brazil in 2018 - and based on Danilo's display against Germany - he perhaps is not as clued up tactically as many like to think. De Bruyne has more of a free role for Belgium than he does for City which makes him harder to pick up.
Belgium: Cortois, Alderweirald, Denayer, Vertonghen, Meunier, T. Hazard, Witsel, Tielemans, De Bruyne, E. Hazard, R. Lukaku
Portugal: Patricio, Semedo, Pepe, Dias, Guerreiro, Danilo, Moutinho, Renato, Bernardo, Jota, Ronaldo
Portugal may have struggled to get out of their group but they are battle-hardened and fully aware of their own weaknesses and strengths. Provided they are not physically exhausted from their efforts in the Group of Death, I would expect to see them overcome a Belgian side with a rather soft underbelly and one which has struggled to put away far inferior opposition than the Portuguese.
Tactically, Belgium do have the weapons to hurt Portugal - so goals are not out of the question, but their backline is vulnerable to the surprise Portuguese press and their wing backs are not defensively sophisticated enough to handle the transition against players like Jota and Bernardo Silva. I expect it to be a fairly tight game, with both sides taking turns to dominate and at times go into a deeper block. It is a very interesting encounter and whilst I cannot rule out a Belgian victory, I believe Portugal's superior big match prowess to edge it for them.
Set pieces wise, De Bruyne is a better free kick and corner kick taker than anyone in Portugal's ranks but Portugal have the bigger aerial threat. If there is a penalty - I would back Ronaldo to hold his nerve over a big Belgian player. It promises to be a fascinating encounter.
Prediction - A tight game, with Portugal to edge it with a deadly counter attack.