Spain’s U21 Team Show Exceptional Balance in 3-1 Win over Portugal

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The UEFA Under-21 European Championship is always full of young talent, and at no time was this more apparent than when Spain and Portugal met in the group stage recently. On Spain’s side of the ball, there were the likes of Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin, Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio and Atletico Madrid’s Saul Niguez. Portugal, meanwhile, were led by players such as Valencia’s Joao Cancelo, Bayern Munich’s Renato Sanches and PSG’s Goncalo Guedes.
It would be a match decided not only by that kind of quality, but also by balance and tactical acumen. In all of those areas, the Spaniards gradually took command. They started a little slowly, perhaps because they were becoming accustomed to Portugal’s 4-4-2 diamond formation, but once they started to impose themselves upon the contest, they always looked more likely to come out on top.

In large part, this had to do with balance. On the left-hand side, they demonstrated a kind of subtle excellence. Asensio pulled the strings from the wing, while, a little deeper in midfield, Dani Ceballos operated as the left-sided central midfielder in Spain’s 4-3-3. This combination, in simple terms, played with clarity and quality throughout.
Up against Portugal’s narrow defensive structure, Ceballos was smart enough to drift wide, out towards the touchline, in order to escape the Portuguese four-man central midfield unit. That might have ordinarily created a problem with too few numbers operating through the centre, but Asensio would counter Ceballos’ movement by then floating infield. This not only retained the balance but also ensured that Portugal had a hard time tracking his runs, as he would quickly dart into these spaces after initially starting out wide. Throw in Jonny’s overlapping runs, and against a Portuguese formation with little in the way of natural width, Spain were often able to create overloads along the left.

Take, for instance, a first-half chance for Sandro Ramirez. The move kicked off with a lovely chain of passing on the left, with Asensio soon taking possession in a left-of-centre location. He then kicked it back to Ceballos, who, upon noticing two Portuguese players in front of him, directed his first touch towards the touchline. Asensio spotted this and followed up by darting back out wide to receive yet another pass. Ceballos obliged, at which point Asensio hit a square ball across the edge of the area. Sandro latched onto it effortlessly, taking a touch initially before hammering a hard, low drive on goal. The effort fizzed just wide of the post, but the chance was nonetheless generated as a result of some typically Spanish passing play.

The right-hand side, meanwhile, was a different story. The subtlety on the left made way for a more direct approach, as Bellerin and captain Gerard Deulofeu played with speed and directness. Deulofeu, a fleet-footed winger who likes to dribble, often stayed high and wide on the right. This allowed Bellerin to hit quick balls up the line in order to find him, which wasn’t an uncommon sight. Saul, playing as Spain’s right-sided central midfielder, also contributed to this process of finding Deulofeu quickly, and once that happened, Bellerin took it as his cue to move forward.

Normally, fullbacks are associated with overlapping runs, but because Deulofeu was so wide, Bellerin tended to underlap instead. This enabled him to constantly receive the ball in dangerous spots inside the box, and in the first half, he very nearly scored after making one such run. The trend continued into the second period as well, with the young Spaniard, at one point, very nearly teeing up Asensio.

Here, the move started with Spain playing out from the back, trying to beat the Portuguese press. The ball soon arrived at the feet of Bellerin, and following a neat infield pass to Saul, the right-back took off. As this was happening, Saul played a pass to the touchline-hugging Deulofeu. The former Barcelona man then lofted the ball back to Bellerin, who charged forward before returning the favour. Deulofeu again gave it back to Bellerin, this time with a neat square ball, at which point the Spanish fullback was inside the area and in a position to shoot. He instead opted to slide the ball to the back-post, and although it eventually filtered through to Asensio, the left-winger only managed to his shot cleared off the line.

Still, this was an indication of the power attached to Spain’s right side, and unsurprisingly, two of the nation’s goals resulted from moves down this side of the field. The first of these, Spain’s opener, again came after Bellerin made that underlapping run with the ball at his feet. He then played a one-two with Deulofeu, the right-sided pairing again combining nicely, before hitting a short pass to Saul. The Atleti man did the rest from there, weaving around a couple of challenges before punching in a shot, albeit a deflected one, from the edge of the area.

Throw in the fact that Spain also balanced their fullback pairing nicely, with Bellerin offering drive as Jonny offered defensive solidity against the onrushing Cancelo on Portugal’s right, and this was a thoroughly thoughtful and well executed performance from Albert Celades’ men. They even got the late substitutions right, with speedster Inaki Williams darting in behind Portugal’s increasingly high backline to score a late sealer to make it 3-1.

The win means that Spain are now through the group stages of the U21 EURO Championship, and with such a balanced on-pitch configuration, they look very capable of pushing on. Who knows, if they can continue to play with the same mix of quality and variation in attack, they might add even more silverware to Spain’s already impressive international tournament trophy cabinet.