A win against high-flying Hungary will guarantee Portugal’s presence in the knockout stages of Euro 2016. And that is certainly not too much to ask from Fernando Santos and his men. Nevertheless, despite an improved display against Austria, Santos may have to do some further tinkering to his lineup, lest Portugal is to be prematurely ousted from the tournament.
For the game against Austria, the stone-faced manager made two changes. He replaced Danilo with William Carvalho and brought in Ricardo Quaresma for João Mario. Both changes aimed to correct a number of issues that limited the Portuguese against Iceland.
While impressive in the run-up to the tournament, Danilo failed to control the midfield in the manner he was expected to. The one advantage that Iceland had over the Portuguese was the ability to win balls that were thumped from the back-line. Having won his place in the eleven due to his physical assertiveness and ball recovery skills, the FC Porto player was often out-battled in the aerial game. To make matters worse, Danilo was seldom able to distribute the ball effectively in Portugal’s build-up when he had time, let alone when under pressure. This is what essentially forced João Moutinho to retrieve the ball deeper in his own half, which subsequently encumbered Portugal’s attacking processes.
William’s immediate impact
William’s introduction corrected these issues. Not only was the Sporting player a much more reliable defensive presence, but his build-up play also enabled Moutinho to look for space further up the field, which in turn – and crucially to Portugal’s strategy – allowed Raphael Guerreiro and Vieirinho to maraud up the wings without worrying about getting completely caught out defensively.
The decision to replace João Mario with Quaresma was a little more forced, since the winger’s display against Estonia arguably earned him a starting spot, but the intention was clearly to add some individual and unpredictable flair to the game (more on this in a bit). If there is one Portuguese player who has truly disappointed, it is João Mario. Touted as one of the potential tournament stars, the Sporting player has fallen flat, having been incapable of offering the deft trickery desperately needed to create imbalances in one-on-one situations – what is referred to in Portuguese as, desiquilibrios.
That is exactly the biggest problem hampering the Portuguese. While Portugal is dominating possession – third most in the tournament, with 62% – very little of it is translating into scoring chances because there’s a lack of chicanery. As I’ve written before, Santos’ system relies primarily on the ability to find space in between the midfield and defensive lines. That has happened. Yet, what follows is largely predictable. Portugal’s midfielders find space, but then tend to spray the ball to the wings, where the next move invariably ends in a cross, which misses its intended target far too often – just under 70%, to be (kind of) exact.
Quaresma’s inclusion was supposed to help correct this. The Besiktas player is nothing if not unpredictable with the ball at his feet (without it, he does show a consistent, and infuriating, lack of defensive accountability), and he is wily in the one-on-one. Unfortunately for Santos, though, the switch did not pay off. Instead of adding the sought after ingredient, Queresma resorted to the same aimless crosses the Portuguese wanted to avoid, and on the few occasions when he did take on his defenders, he ended up making poor decisions with the ball.
If Portugal is to beat Hungary on Wednesday, Santos is going to have to find a way to avoid the anticipated. Needing only a point, Hungary will – and this is hardly news – happily park the bus. This is no different from the way the Hungarians approached the games against Austria and Iceland. Still, Hungary will have the added advantage of having studied Portugal’s tendencies.
This being the case, Santos must make further changes, and that includes benching one of his most trusted players, João Moutinho. As noted earlier, William’s success against Austria means that the Monaco player may be superfluous to plans, since he’s not required to build from the back. What is needed is a player in the center that is able to beat his defender with pace and on the dribble – obviously not Moutinho.
That player is Renato Sanches. No one else on the 23-man squad has Sanches’ industry and explosiveness, and his ability to get past his marker is likely to pull another defender out of position. That can only benefit Cristiano Ronaldo, who, so far, has rarely found room to operate. In the two games against Iceland and Austria, defenders have blocked 10 of Ronaldo’s 22 shots, and only five of them have come from inside the penalty area. It is this difficulty to find space that forces the captain to seek the ball in deeper positions, and then prompts him to shoot from distances that do little to trouble opposing goalkeepers, and do much to inflate their stats.
One could also make the case that Rafa finally deserves a chance to prove himself. The Arsenalista lacks Sanches’ bursts of acceleration, but he has the dexterity to navigate tight spaces and provoke contact. Rafa did make an appearance at the end of the Austria game, but by that point a leggy midfield relegated the winger to more defensive duties, and deprived him of any real opportunity to shine in the attacking third. João Mario and Quaresma have gotten their shots, why not Sporting Braga’s talisman?
With the tournament on the line, and the game against Hungary being regarded as a final, as Santos claimed on Saturday, it’s time to throw some caution to the wind.
The question is whether or not Santos will have the courage to do so.