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Despite the very divided reaction in Portugal, Paulo Bento’s contract extension with the Portuguese Football Federation (FPF) does not only make sense, but is also deserved.
Since taking over from Carlos Queiroz’ turbulent two-year tenure in 2010, Bento has brought consistency to the Portuguese set-up, and more importantly, has built a team identity that all but disappeared after Luiz Felipe Scolari’s departure in 2008.
Admittedly, much of the team’s identity rests on Bento’s decision early on to build a squad around Cristiano Ronaldo. While that decision may now appear obvious to some – after all, why not build a team around arguably the world’s best player? – Bento’s plan could have easily alienated other prominent players on the squad, engendering jealousy and divisiveness.
However, Bento’s first coup as manager was that he effectively sold his plan to his players, by convincing them that Ronaldo was the key to the team’s success. Additionally, Bento was always candid about his intentions, especially with the Portuguese media, with whom the manager has always had an uneasy relationship. Of course, Ronaldo’s record-breaking exploits with Real Madrid also did much to convince everyone that it was the right move, even though he was often criticized for not translating his club form to the national team. That criticism reached a boiling point when Portugal was knocked-out of the Word Cup in 2010 by eventual winners, Spain.
In order to get the most out of Ronaldo, Bento resorted to a formation, and to tactics that most suited the forward. Instead of employing Ronaldo as a striker as Queiroz often did, Bento placed his talisman on the left side of an attacking triad in a 433 formation. That change – which was Bento’s greatest feat – ensured that Ronaldo would see more of the ball, and allowed him to use his pace to run at defenders. The move also enabled Portugal to counterattack much more efficiently against teams that maintained the lion’s share of possession. That ability to develop deadly counterattacks was in full display when Portugal beat Holland in the Euro 2012 group stage. The Dutch had more of the ball than the Portuguese, but two mistakes in possession allowed the Portugal to spring quickly, and in both cases Ronaldo finished the play after making quick runs from the left.
Under Bento’s guidance, Ronaldo’s growing influence has been evident, particularly in the goal-scoring department. Since Bento took over, Ronaldo has netted 26 times in 33 games, and has become Portugal’s all-time leading scorer.
Still, Ronaldo’s success with the national team has also been the source of much of the criticism leveled at Bento. Simply put, Bento’s detractors believe that Portugal is far too reliant on its star. And it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Both in Euro 2008 and the 2014 Word Cup qualifying campaign it became obvious that when Ronaldo did not perform well, Portugal didn’t either.
However, that says more about Portugal than it does about Bento. The current Portuguese squad is far from the one dubbed the Golden Generation that boasted the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa, and Fernando Couto. That generation clearly did not achieve all that it promised, but it did at least offer former managers (among them, Humberto Coelho, Antonio Oliveira, and Scolari) a number of options for different positions, if not tactics.
Portugal’s current crop, which includes Joao Moutinho, Pepe, and Miguel Veloso, is nothing to scoff at, but Bento has far less to choose from. No game emphasized this point more than when Portugal faced Spain in the semifinals of Euro 2012. Both teams were evenly matched for most of the game, but as exhaustion took over, Spain gained the upper hand as a result of having a far deeper bench. Vincente del Bosque was able to introduce Cesc Fabregas, Juan Navas, and Pedro Rodriguez. Bento, on the other hand, had to do with Nelson Oliveira and Silvestre Varela – neither of them consistent starters for their respective clubs. It bears mentioning that Bento’s tactics against Spain were dead-on, while del Bosque’s were not.
Interestingly, Bento has never vocalized the dearth of options at his disposal. Instead, Bento has responded to questions about his squad selections by stating that sweeping personnel changes would threaten the team’s identity, and the strong sense of unity that has developed during his tenure. That message has not been well received by the Portuguese, who are desperate to see new blood. Even after Portugal drew Holland with a depleted squad, last August, and Bento was lambasted for not testing new players, the Portuguese manager stuck to the identity and unity script.
Bento’s message may be frustrating to the Portuguese, but it has produced a confident group of players that feels supported by its manager, and truly believes that it can go deep into the tournament, especially if Ronaldo can reproduce his performances against Sweden in the qualifying playoffs.
Bento knows that he has many doubters, but he also knows that he was one penalty shootout away from the final of Euro 2012. You can bet he will be reminding his players of that as he prepares them for Brazil.