As expected, last week’s announcement of Portugal’s 23-man squad yielded no surprises.
Even the inclusion of Renato Sanches, which was very likely due to Bernardo Silva’s ill-fated thigh injury, was far from unexpected, given the youngster’s impressive season with Benfica, and his pricey move to Bayern Munich.
Anyone familiar with Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos’ career, knows that the chain-smoking pragmatist is not one for sweeping changes.
After taking over for Otto Rehhagel as Greece national team manager in 2010, Santos continued to call-up many of the players that became regulars under the German, even though there was a public outcry for a squad overhaul following disappointing performances at Euro 2008 and the World Cup in South Africa.
The climate was very much the same when Santos took over for Paulo Bento in September of 2014. Still suffering from the hangover of disastrous World Cup in Brazil where the Seleção was unable to survive its dreaded group of death, and seething from a shocking defeat to Albania in the first game of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, the Portuguese were desperate for Santos to make wholesale changes.
However, much to the nation’s disgruntlement, Santos didn’t give into the hysteria. He opted instead for a measured approach, just as he had done with Greece.
When he replaced Rehhagel, Santos was keenly aware that Greek expectations had been greatly inflated by an improbable Euro 2004 win. Thus, their discontentment with early exits in the following tournaments was understandably disproportionate. While not on the same level, Portuguese expectations of success in Brazil were also too high – a terrific semifinal run in Euro 2012 that only ended at the hands of Iker Casillas and eventual winners, Spain, and the misguided belief that the former colony would serve as a home away from home, being the main culprits.
Accordingly, Santos not only decided to keep the team’s backbone intact, he also resolved to bring back veteran players who Bento had marginalized, like Ricardo Carvalho and Tiago Mendes. Their inclusion was not received particularly well, but as Portugal began to rack-up group wins, it soon became apparent that their experience not only allowed Santos to blood younger talent without the burden of finding an immediate magic formula, but also enabled him to gradually tinker with the tactical and technical aspects of the game.
Following some experimentation, and despite a few outliers, by the end of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, Santos’ core group of players was already taking shape. And once Portugal’s friendlies against Bulgaria and Belgium rolled around in March, it became relatively obvious that the final crop of players selected for France would remain the same, barring any unforeseen circumstances like the injuries that ultimately sidelined Fabio Coentrão and Danny.
Still, while choosing his 23 was a relatively straightforward affair, deciding on a formation and a starting lineup for the Euro will not be quite as simple.
You could argue that Santos has only four definite starters: Rui Patricio, Pepe, Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo. That means there are seven spots up for grabs and a variety of options for the Portuguese coach to consider. Even João Moutinho, a national team stalwart since 2008, is well aware that he must convince Santos that he’s a worthy starter, telling reporters that “status means nothing,” during Friday’s press conference.
This may actually prove a blessing for Portugal.
Whether as a result of managerial stubbornness, player status, or an overall lack depth, the Portuguese national team has regularly gone into major tournaments with a fairly established starting lineup. This time around, the battle for places could foster the kind of healthy competition that can only help prime the team for the tournament. Thus, Santos will probably use the next two friendlies against Norway and England to experiment with different elevens before settling on the players that will kick-off the Euro by the time Portugal plays Estonia in the team’s final test.
The Key Battles
With Pepe the only definite back-line starter, Santos will first have to determine whom to partner defender with. At first glance, Bruno Alves and Ricardo Carvalho are the most likely candidates, since the two figured prominently during the qualifying campaign, and both have the most experience playing alongside the Real Madrid man. However, at 34 and 38 respectively, age is a big concern, as is their lack of mobility, and that could open the door to Jose Fonte. At 32, the Southampton captain is no spring chicken, and certainly not a speed-demon, but he offers more pace than Alves and Carvalho, has gradually asserted himself under Santos, and impressed against Belgium alongside Pepe.
Curiously, Portugal could feature two converted wingers in the full-back positions. Once a highly touted winger, Vieirinha was converted into a right-back while still at PAOK where he played under Santos, and has developed into one of the Bundesliga’s best full-backs. His familiarity with Santos could give him the slight advantage over Cedric Soares, but a very good season with Southampton and impressive displays in qualifiers, and the friendly against Belgium, suggest that this could be one of the tightest contests for a starting position. Like Vieirinha, Eliseu has also been adapted into a full-back, albeit not as seamlessly. While technically gifted, the Benfica player doesn’t always look comfortable in his new position, is prone to tactical mistakes and lapses in concentration. That means there is a real opportunity for Raphael Guerreiro to make the position left vacant by Fabio Contrão his own. Although he’s appeared less often than Eliseu, the Lorient player has impressed with his defensive maturity, his confidence on the ball, and his ability to quickly transition from defense into attack.
Portugal’s midfield lineup will depend on the formation Santos chooses to utilize. During his sixteen games in charge, Santos has alternated between a 442 and a 433, frequently relying on either Danilo Pereira or William Carvalho to buttress the back-line. Whom to play between those two players may actually be Santos’ biggest headache. Given how similar both are to each other, it is unlikely they will feature together, unless protecting a lead.
Though, William could benefit from Adrien’s growing influence on the team. If Moutinho does in fact lose his place in the eleven, the Sporting captain will be the likely beneficiary, in which case a partnership with his club teammate would make the most sense. That could in turn strengthen João Mario’s claim to a starting position. The twenty-three year old has slowly worked himself into Santos’ set-up, and was a difference maker against Belgium.
If Santos sticks with his preferred 442, André Gomes should earn himself a starting spot. Similarly to João Mario, Gomes can play anywhere in the midfield, and the Portuguese coach has made no secret about giving preference to players who can slot into multiple positions, which allows him to make tactical adjustments without burning substitutions.
Since taking the reins of the national team, one of Santos’ priorities has been to find a system that gets the most out of Cristiano Ronaldo without depending too much on his goals. Much of that has hinged on finding the captain attacking partners who not only alleviates his scoring burdens, but also compliments his movements.
Nani has fit the bill when Santos uses a 442 formation. Relieved of his defensive duties, the Fenerbahce winger has used his mobility, dribbling and pace to stretch defenses and open up more space for Ronaldo to exploit. Therefore, we should only expect to see someone else up-front if Santos opts for the 433.
During qualifying, Rafa Silva, Ricardo Quaresma, Eder, and Danny took turns filling the last slot in Portugal’s attacking trident. With the Zenit player ruled out through injury, Rafa and Quaresma should get enough opportunities over the coming friendlies to make a case for themselves. That should leave Eder as the odd man out. While the Lille forward has rediscovered his goal-scoring form in France, he has yet to deliver for Portugal.
Portuguese fans will be keenly observing the Seleção’s three pre-tournament friendlies for clues as they try to second-guess the starting XI Santos will send out against Iceland in Portugal’s Euro 2016 opener.
Follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
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