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France needs to frustrate Portugal’s attack to win European title

France’s Antoine Griezmannwill face off with Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo for the Euro 2016 title. (AFP PHOTO / Franck FIFE and Francisco LEONGFRANCK FIFE,FRANCISCO LEONG/AFP/Getty Images)

Both semifinals at the European championships were decisive. Underdog Wales failed to penetrate Portugal’s solid defense, and a perfectly placed set piece header by Cristiano Ronaldo sent it home after a fantastic tournament. The other semifinal, matching up tournament co-favorites France and Germany, saw Germany dominate possession but fail to find a way through the French back line — while France struck quickly and clinically on the counterattack. France and Portugal have earned their places in the final.

While Portugal only barely squeaked through the group stage, this was because of a combination of a team finishing slump and some very lucky opposition goals rather than poor play. The success of Fernando Santos’s side in the knockouts was predictable based on its underlying numbers.

Over the course of Euro 2016, Portugal, France and Germany were probably the three most impressive sides. None of the three had lost before France beat Germany, and during the tournament, they were the only three teams with an expected goals difference better than plus-five. France’s midfield and attacking talent is probably the best as this tournament, and the side’s performance has matched its quality.

While both teams have been excellent and created good scoring chances, the final likely won’t be an up-and-down attacking classic. Since the group stage, Portugal has played a consistently defensive style. Santos’s side lines up in a narrow 4-1-3-2. It has been called a “diamond” because the runners, usually Joao Mario and Renato Sanches, line up in the half-spaces rather than on the wings, but there is not really a playmaker behind the two strikers. Instead Adrien Silva has worked as a destroyer in that role, breaking up opposition possession rather than looking to create for Ronaldo or Nani.

This tactic has enabled Portugal to control matches and limit quality chances. Even though Portugal’s opponents have attempted 40 shots in these matches, not a single one has been a clear scoring chance. With so many defensively capable midfielders in a narrow formation, and with few of them given freedom to leak out and attack, there is very little space for Portugal’s opponents to work besides well outside the box.

Portugal is willing to concede possession in midfield at times, but its shape prevents attacking penetration. No team has a lower percentage of completed passes allowed from or into the central attacking zone, a region extending out from the center of the 18-yard box by a few yards.

This is almost certain to be the plan for the final. Portugal will allow France possession, slow the game down and look to prevent chances by defending in numbers. Unless France can strike quickly and force Portugal out of its preferred strategy, the game is likely to be relatively slow and tactical.

But however exciting it might be, this plan makes sense for Santos’s side. As good as France is, its attack has yet to be really tested by a top defense. In the knockout stages France had little trouble with Ireland or Iceland, but those were two of the weakest sides in the knockout round — neither got through the group stage with a positive expected-goals difference. Germany chose a strategy of all-out attack, which enabled France to hit on the counter rather than seek to break down a set defense.

So this is likely to be the matchup. Portugal defending deep, narrow and in numbers, with France looking for the pass or run that can pick the lock. The hosts are rightly favored, but Portugal has been effective in this tournament at slowing down strong attacking sides. To win the trophy, France will need to prove itself against a quality side built to frustrate the best opposition.