Portugal: Perennial dark horses go again

This article features in a four-part series that looks at the some of the teams to watch out for in the World Cup in 2018. The final edition takes a look at the 2016 Euro Champions, Portugal.

 

Portugal have enjoyed a decade of ups and downs following their fourth-placed finish at the World Cup in Germany in 2006 with a team that featured the likes of Deco, a young Cristiano Ronaldo and the legendary Luís Figo amongst others. Labelled their “golden generation”, they were an entertaining team, but ever since, they’ve been inconsistent with their final placings in major tournaments – either being the most engrossing tale or having a dire showing and eventually going home without making a significant impact.

The new generation which went on to win Euro 2016 was a mixture of both. With players being developed both locally and internationally along with the support of some of their most prominent players of the last decade in the forms of Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and captain Cristiano Ronaldo who has taken over the footballing world, they briskly walked to success in France. And under the guidance of Fernando Santos, they showed a different fighting spirit, making the most of their situation and going on to shock the world. Not since 2006 have they displayed their best at the World Cup, but 2018 gives them plenty of reasons for optimism.

The Backdrop

The European Championships of 2004 was a turning point for Portuguese football in this century. Despite heart-wrenchingly losing in the final to an uninspiring Greece side, they were able to show off how good they could truly be and carried that momentum into the World Cup two years later, where Luiz Felipe Scolari brought the best out of them. The country goes way back in the sport, and each generation has its poster boy. The greats, Eusébio and Luís Figo were iconic, but the current man, Cristiano Ronaldo has taken them to another level.

He was much younger and had a lot to learn back in the mid-2000s, but even the Portuguese may not have expected him to become the monster of a footballer he is today. He’s been a driving force for their success in recent years, and now with a young team around him, he will be the man they look up to. Managers Carlos Quieroz and Paulo Bento came and went in that period, but none of them were able to maximise the team’s potential like the current manager, Fernando Santos did.

Even after the success in France, he helped the side maintain a consistent level of performance. After losing the first World Cup qualifier to Switzerland, Portugal would win the remaining nine in an assertive fashion, finishing top of their qualifying group with an impressive 32 goals scored – the fourth most in European qualifying. A key source behind that was the partnership the captain and André Silva formed. The two scored a combined 24 goals and they were supported by a defence that conceded just four and that will be a huge reason for encouragement for the World Cup. With the team highly motivated and clicking in several departments, 2018 will carry huge expectations.

The Coach

A calm and composed figure on the touchline, Fernando Santos is one that gets the job done in the subtlest way possible. Since taking charge of the national team, he’s drastically improved the side and even led them to their first major honour when they won the European Championships in France two years ago, but ahead of the World Cup, he is still humble about his team’s chances in Russia: “Brazil, Argentina, Spain, Germany and France are the favourites to win the World Cup. Then we have other candidates, who want to get as far as possible, and win the tournament if possible, and Portugal are in this second group.”

It could be said that Santos focuses more on the human side of things rather than fully going for a tactical approach. A simple manager, he relies on his communication abilities and man-management, but while those skills do take the centre-stage, his tactical nous must not be forgotten, for they have been successful to him throughout his managerial career which goes back an amazing 30 years.

For the Portuguese national team, Santos has made the most out of the nation’s strength in depth – especially in the midfield areas, opting to go for the basic 4-4-2. This has been seen for a long time and has helped ease players such as midfielders Adrien Silva and William Carvalho as well as forward André Silva into the team. The formation also makes use of their dashing full-back options, which adds to the attacking tenacity that makes this team so good from an offensive perspective.

He’s also quite a flexible coach and an example of that was best seen in the final of Euro 2016 against hosts France, where he lost his captain and only world class player, Cristiano Ronaldo. Having started off with a 4-4-2, he switched to a 4-5-1, making use of Nani’s tenacity and had him supported by Ricardo Quaresma and João Mário in their captain’s absence. The team made themselves rock solid at the back and nullified the French attack, rarely giving them chances at goal and clearing away when they felt they were anywhere close to trouble.

The team’s dynamic continuously changed as substitutions took place and time went on. When match-winner Eder came on, he switched to a 4-3-3, with João Moutinho switching to a more defensive role to support William Carvalho, while the front three consisted of Nani, Eder and Quaresma with Mário moving into midfield. This isolated the French midfield duo, closing down supply lines and providing further dominance in the midfield battle. The moves worked to perfection as they won the match late in extra-time even without their best player and showed how good coaching and command from the team can go a long way.

Santos is likely to stick with his tried-and-tested 4-4-2 for the World Cup, albeit with new, improved personnel. The style supports his captain as he doesn’t have the responsibility of having to defend on one flank, while also solely focusing on the best aspect of his game: attacking in front of goal. It also provides more control in midfield, and with the personnel available for selection to Santos that includes William Carvalho, Danilo Pereira and João Moutinho, he will be comfortable with using this system for the foreseeable future.

His alternative tactical approach includes a 4-1-3-2/4-4-2 – a diamond-shaped midfield that gives the full-backs more freedom to go forward. This approach once again highlights the strength of the midfield, however, with an ageing back-line, it looks unlikely that Santos will resort to this risk during the World Cup.

The Players

The current Portuguese team is quite diverse with their talent and are well-stacked in each area of the pitch, which is why they can look to the World Cup with such optimism. There have been players coming through and performing well at a high level at a high rate and coach Fernando Santos has lots of great options to select from both domestically and across Europe.

Starting with the men at the back there is Rui Patrício, who at 30, has been a stalwart for Fernando Santos’ side having made his debut in 2010 and been the man in between the sticks in every major tournament since. Goalkeeping is an area that Portugal are well-equipped in, and while they don’t have world-beaters they do have a reliable group of men to defend the nets. Patrício will undoubtedly be Santos’ first choice once again, and he will have plenty of options to act as his deputy.

FC Porto, who are enjoying a stellar season and are looking to reclaim the title have had several local players stepping up for them this season, and goalkeeper José Sá is one of them. Although not a fully-confident man in the net, Sá has made his mark in the first team, displacing the legendary Iker Casillas and constantly being named in the first team. He was also part of the side that went to the Confederations Cup last summer, and despite not playing a minute in the tournament, it seems likely that Santos will take him to Russia once again this summer.

The final goalkeeping spot will be fought for by two experienced figures in the form of Beto and Anthony Lopes who have been in and out of Santos’ teams in recent years, while Benfica’s 23-year-old goalkeeper Bruno Varela is also making some noise. Although this isn’t a position where Portugal’s strengths lie, it will certainly raise plenty of questions to Santos for the talent pool is vast.

Full-backs will dominate the World Cup, and Portugal are blessed in that area on both sides of the pitch. The modern-day full-back has a far greater role to the side on both halves of the pitch and Portugal has some of the most sought-after players in the world playing in that position. Starting from the right, they’ve got competition from Inter Milan’s João Cancelo, Barcelona’s Nélson Semedo and another improving Porto player, Ricardo Pereira.

The three have had contrasting seasons and that is what makes this choice so difficult. Cancelo started the season with an injury and hasn’t been able to fully impose himself in an Inter side that has seen their form dwindle, yet his chances look good. Semedo arrived in Spain with high expectations, hasn’t fully shown his true qualities with Sergi Roberto often being preferred over him. Ricardo Pereira has been the standout for Porto – his form has been incredible since his return from loan from Nice and as of now, it looks likely that he will be the man to be on most starting team-sheets in Russia. The three also face competition from another Santos-favourite: Southampton’s Cédric Soares.

Over at left-back, there is another selection headache for Fernando Santos. A few months ago, the race seemed fairly clear for Raphaël Guerreiro, who was Santos’ go-to player for the Euros and Confederations Cup. He is now joined by the revitalised Fábio Coentrão and Napoli’s Mário Rui, who has made the most of his chances following Faouzi Ghoulam’s injury problems. It’s a three-way battle for the starting spot, and the three have had variating stories this season that creates this selection dilemma.

It is at centre-half that Portugal seem most inept with the likes of Pepe, Bruno Alves and José Fonte still going strong on the international scene. The three are likely to be on the plane, but they don’t form the most convincing of back-lines as their combined age of 104 can easily be exposed against a quick outfit. Santos can look to Fenerbahçe’s Luís Neto, Eibar’s Paulo Oliveira or struggling Lille’s Edgar Ié, but overall, it must be said that this is the area where Portugal will most struggle and will be most targeted.

If this Portugal side is renowned for its flair, then that ravels from the midfield, for its depth in the area is amongst the best on the international scene. Blessed with players that are able to perform all tasks in the middle of the park, whether it is defending, attacking, controlling or simply organising, this team’s strengths lie in the midfield and that will spur them to success in Russia.

To protect the backline, there are the likes of Sporting CP’s William Carvalho and FC Porto’s Danilo Pereira, both quite young, both equally capable in their tasks and both keen favourites of coach Fernando Santos who has put his faith in them multiple times over the years. To organise and command in midfield, they have the experienced legs of João Moutinho to call upon or even a duo plying their trade in England: Leicester’s Adrien Silva or Wolverhampton’s Rúben Neves, who has revived his playing career and become one of the Championship’s best players.

And finally, led by their captain and record goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo comes their attacking line, and for the first time in a long time for a major tournament, he is supported well. First in the form of Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes who’s scintillating form this season is likely to cement his spot in the left side of Fernando Santos’ team. He could be joined by Bernardo Silva on the right to form a solid pairing out wide.

They are likely to support the forward pairing of Ronaldo himself along with André Silva. The latter hasn’t had the best season with AC Milan, constantly being benched by both his managers this season. However, coach Santos will be encouraged by his partnership with his captain from the qualifiers and he will be keen on maintaining that on the grandest stage. In addition to these four, there is also support from a few experienced figures who were part of the team that were successful at Euro 2016: Nani and Ricardo Quaresma while the likes of Gelson Martins and Andre Gomes are also in with a shout.

This is a vibrant group of players, all still young and determined to succeed on the biggest platform in football. A cohesive unit will be key here and they have the right man at the helm to keep this team together as well as the right man leading them on the pitch to drive them on.

The Prospects

Portugal will be quite pleased with their draw. Fears were raised after they were paired with 2010 winners Spain, but the draw lightened, and they also went alongside Morocco and Iran in Group B. The North African nation is making only its fifth appearance at the World Cup finals and its first since 1998. Their best showing was at the 1986 edition in Mexico, where they lost out in the Round of 16. Iran, meanwhile, are also making their fifth appearance and their second one in succession after they were knocked out in the group stages in Brazil four years ago. They’ve never made it past the group stages, finishing bottom in all but one of their participations in 1998.

Making it to the second round of the competition is an immense possibility, and their opening match against Spain will be crucial to their hopes of determining whether they are winners of their group or runners-up. They will come up against the sides that make up Group A which can be either one of Uruguay, another bright, young football nation, Egypt, led by the imperial Mohamed Salah and Héctor Cúper, Saudi Arabia, who could become the third team they face from the MENA region in the tournament or hosts Russia.

They have a brilliant team of up and coming stars, honed both locally and internationally. And with the reigning Ballon d’Or holder on their side who has all the motivation to perform at what may be his last World Cup as a permanent fixture in the starting side as well as the historic events from two years ago in Paris to drive the players and coaches forward, this may be an incredible Portuguese run in the World Cup.

Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.
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Karan Tejwani

Football writer mainly covering the Premier League. Previously featured on the Guardian Sport, VICE Sports and The Football Pink. Senior writer at These Football Times.