Portuguese National Team: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Fernando Santos - Denmark vs PortugalPortugal (FPF) had a lot of questions to answer during this International break for Euro qualification & Friendlies, with the exile of Paulo Bento the stubborn hard-headed Manager at the helm of Portugal’s recent Selecao headaches, and the entrance of the suspended Fernando Santos as new Portugal senior team Manager.

Things were not made easy for Santos as his first assignments were both away against two teams that have historically given Portugal all kinds of trouble. First up was a friendly versus 9th ranked France in Paris who were buoyed by their recent World Cup performance, and then the Selecao traveled to Copenhagen to face the deadly Danes on Tuesday who are ranked 27th in the world but are known as giant killers.

This was an arduous task considering Portugal had dropped its first qualifying match to Albania 0-1 at home, putting them behind the rest of the pack in their Euro 2016 qualifying Group I. This made the Denmark match almost a must win situation if they are to top their group. Santos only had a few days to prepare and acclimatize himself with the squad selections, formations, and the tactics to be employed come game time. A heady task for even the most seasoned of Manager’s, and I am on record as saying that I was not a fan of the FPF hiring a Selecao Manager that could potentially be suspended from the sideline for all competitive matches until nearly the end of Euro qualification, especially with the likes of Roberto Mancini a Manager with a greater pedigree for success expressing a lot interest in the role.

Looking at recent FPF hiring’s showcases the incompetence at the Federation and the main reason a couple of generations of star studded players have no trophies to show for their brilliant play, the common thread with these hiring’s is lengthy FIFA suspensions. Bento for example was given a long ban for his part in a notorious melee during Portugal’s World Cup elimination in 2002 in South Korea, Fernando Santos was suspended for 8 games at this summer’s World Cup for his transgressions with a Referee during the tournament, and the worst hire must be that of Joao Pinto as a Director for the FPF he who punched a Referee in the stomach in the same game Bento garnered his suspension.

The LA Times when the suspension was handed down by FIFA to Santos said, “Santos, 59, will not manage a national team again.” Clearly the LA Times is not familiar with the FPF and its atrocities on Portuguese fans. Having said all that, I am not one to cry over spilt milk, after the initial shock and horror has worn off. I came into this week as a fan with a blank slate and a sense of enthusiasm that change was underfoot at the Selecao.

Fernando Santos did not disappoint either, one of the reasons I did like him as a candidate was his passion for the job, and a progressive thought process that made winning games paramount no matter the squad. He was going to try to format the right system to capitalize on the assets at hand and would select the right formations to highlight the team’s strengths. This is in stark comparison to Paulo Bento who would play a 4-3-3 formation versus the elite, a 4-3-3 against the minnows, and even a 4-3-3 at the team breakfast buffet.

One of the main questions coming into the break was whether Santos would be managing off the bench versus Denmark, and we found out soon enough from Court of Arbitration for Sport that until their ruling came down that Fernando was free to coach in competitive matches.
I won’t go into detail with match reports in this article as PortugalFutbol has done a great job covering the games with In-depth Reports, I will list them here for your convenience:

Preview: France vs Portugal

Lapses in Concentration Help to Spoil Fernando Santos Debut

Preview: Denmark vs Portugal

Last-Minute Ronaldo Header Snatches Portugal a Win in Copenhagen

My Portuguese Football Week in Review – Highs and Lows article from earlier this week also touched upon my uncensored views on the France vs Portugal match.

Let’s take an in-depth look at both of the recent Selecao matches in terms of play and stats.

Defence: Eliseu, Bruno Alves/Carvalho, Pepe, Cedric


The French came out like gang-busters in the friendly in Paris and early on the Selecao was shell shocked as the rampant French attacked Portugal’s glaring weaknesses. These were the Fullbacks and France took full advantage of that especially Cedric who they attacked down the left side 51% of the game.

Cedric is a young promising player, who has played extraordinarily well for Sporting in the last couple of seasons and his inclusion in the squad was applauded unanimously by fans that were happy to see the back of Bento favourite Joao Pereira who was atrocious in defensive zone coverage and added very little going forward. Unfortunately Cedric’s inexperience at the elite level was exposed especially on the global stage where you are taking on the world’s best not just a run of the mill Liga winger.

The French attacked the young lad and ravaged him for both goals. Cedric got blown out on both occasions which allowed the CB’s to be dissected by the French attack in cross crease passes that were lethal. Also to blame on the score sheet was Alves who was not only caught out of position but his slow feet missed an opportunity to negate the first French goal.

The difference between the two is that Cedric going forward provided some great crosses and shows a lot of potential, Portugal attacked down his side 40% of the time. I feel bad for the kid because it wasn’t an easy match to start your Selecao career with. He also did perform better versus Denmark but still had many novice mistakes in that game also.

Fortunately for Portugal, France only attacked the Right side 29% of the encounter great news considering Eliseu’s defensive ability is horrid.
Eliseu was covering for the oft injured Coentrao who was out with a knee injury, made for a scary set of matches and lots of heart ache for fans. The Benfica starting LB has yet to be exposed badly in Liga games and his early 2 goal bombs for SLB are what led to his selection but surely anyone watching both matches could see that Portugal was extremely lucky not to get some penalty calls against, as well as cards from Eliseu’s play in the 2 games.

The only players that deserved plaudits for their play in defence over the two games were Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho who did exceptional jobs in both games. Many folks wondered aloud why Antunes a steady LB was not used in either match.

The Denmark match led to more attacks down the right side of the defence as they attacked 43% of the time with good effect causing the Selecao defence troubles especially the aforementioned Eliseu.

Overall the defence is still a work in progress and more players should be auditioned for those roles, especially with Coentrao out with an injury regularly.

Midfield: Tiago/Joao Mario, Moutinho, Gomes/William


Another area of focus for Santos’ new revolution was the midfield, gone were the much maligned Meireles and Veloso for good reason. Their defensive liabilities clearly outweighed their offensive contributions.

It was an up and down week for the midfield as should be expected with a revolving cast especially since Santos had Tiago & Gomes playing deeper than their comfort zone, both were on the bad side of goals in both matches. William’s inclusion in the second half of the France match and start against Denmark was the wiser move to shore up the defence especially since he is a natural Defensive Mid.

Overall the midfield played decent through both games with only 20% of the opponent attacks coming down the middle, and ball possession was 50% in the French match as well as 42% in the Denmark contest, a decent result for a new midfield in games versus some good competition.

Like the rest of the squad the midfield is an area that is still under construction, and questions have to be asked of Moutinho who has disappeared in a lot of Selecao matches since leaving Porto. The majority of time the hard-working Mid has been ineffectual in a role of prime importance that has resulted in a lack of goal production from the Forwards as the set-up and support of play has been lack-lustre. Call’s for Danny playing the 10 role or Adrien Silva are warranted as they both provide more offensive upside to the team in that role.

Santos also has to avoid getting stuck in the Bento rut of running out the same players for every game, like golf each opponent requires a different club. Prime example of that is William, Bento ran him out to win a non-existent midfield battle with Albania, whereas William should only be utilized against high level teams like France & Denmark to solidify and insulate the defence. Against the minnows of the world is where the Selecao needs to employ a more mobile offensive midfield that supports the Forwards with timely balls and offensive support with less concern over defensive positioning.

Tiago & Gomes the La Liga All-stars fit right into this offensive box to box role both are exceptional ball winners and have an ability to break opposing team’s pressure and outlet great passes, whilst strengthening the top of the box in attack.

Both matches contained an average of 48.5% of the action in the midfield so it shows how important these roles are for the Selecao’s success. Portugal has a wealth of Midfielders especially in the box to box role as that is also Moutinho’s strength add to that Porto’s Neves and a whole host more, including the whole of Sporting’s midfield group.

I am happy with many combinations of midfield players as long as they are selected based on the ability of their opposition. True #10’s really only fall to two in the squad selected namely Danny & Adrien although Joao Mario too can handle that role, conversely you could also slot Nani in behind the Striker effectively. I would pick one and use them for all matches as the Attacking Mid no matter the opponent, where the juggling comes into play is dependent on the quality of the opposition the back 2 or 3 can be rotated in a more offensive approach for minnows where they could employ any of Moutinho, Tiago, Gomes, Neves, etc. Against the elite they should play only one offensive box to box (two depending on the formation) of those listed above and slot William into his defensive monster role.

The change in tactics here is the difference between having a good team and one that could win some trophies or at least contend consistently in the Finals of major tournaments.

It will be interesting to see in what direction Santos goes in, as it will be the difference in whether he becomes a success or spirals the Portuguese National Team into an era of rebuilding until the current crop of talented Portuguese youth start excelling at the highest level.

In the end Portugal’s Pass success rate was 83% in the game with France and dropped to 72% against the feisty Danes, a key factor in evaluating the midfield’s effectiveness.

Forwards: Ronaldo, Danny, Nani/Quaresma, Eder, Joao Mario


Portugal is renowned for its Wingers and they have an overabundance of great Wingers too many to call up, and so many more in the pipe line on the way that would probably be starting for many other national squads today. This comes at the detriment of developing star Strikers a position they have so few of, some people question if they ever had one since Eusebio’s glory days.

In fairness to the much maligned Strikers very few nations create lone wolf scoring machines, all of the Selecao Strikers over the past few decades are more comfortable in a dual Striker role, and it has been a few decades since a 4-4-2 was employed in a competitive match. These tactics have handcuffed the Center Forward’s over the last few decades and has devalued many talented players along the way who scored crucial goals for Portugal.

The current whipping boy is Eder whose main strength is as a Sub-Striker, he holds the ball up well and outlets to his Wingers with strength. He also has the ability once in the box to lay off tap-ins with ease, as well as pot a few ricochets in the 6 yard box. Unfortunately he has been deployed in a lone wolf role which has made life difficult for him with 4 men covering him at all times, the Goalkeeper corrals anything in the air, the two CB’s smother him, and when he goes to the top of the box he picks up a DM for his troubles. So he has been afforded very little space to be able to pot a goal.

Fernando Santos’ answer is to play False Nine’s but really the answer is to develop two Strikers because it will mean less man marking for our great Wingers. This Striker issue affects the Wingers too as Ronaldo gets criticized for being triple marked and Nani has been chided for being double marked at all times, something they rarely see at club level. Bento & his predecessors are to blame for this, as they never selected a true #10 to freeze the Defensive Mid’s dating back to Scolari who had Deco in that role. Also no Manager dating back to Humberto Coelho two decades ago has deployed a 4-4-2 in a competitive match when they have had ample Strikers & Wingers that were perfect for that formation. The most grievous error in the Selecao’s history was to never play Pauleta with Nuno Gomes in a tandem attack, and both were robbed of even greater success at the National Team.

The current situation affords us very few options for Center Forwards unless you are willing to bring back Postiga or Almeida to play with Eder up front. I realize this is heresy to most fans and pundits but I assure you the goal issues would disappear against minnows if we operated with two Strikers at the front. That really is only an answer for the lower echelon of competition against elite competition the prime importance is focused on employing a true #10 to play behind the Striker or False Nine.

So this is the dilemma Fernando Santos was faced with going into these matches and it is the same mine field that Manager’s before him have had to walk through. Whether Fernando realizes the full repercussions on the squad of these decisions or not he does realize the area is a problem, and the False Nine was his solution for these matches, rotating Ronaldo, Nani, Danny, & Joao Mario into the False Nine with a modicum of success. They managed to score two goals in two games, in retrospect the opposition was good but the result was still a fail.

The goal struggles will continue until they sort the #10 situation and possibly employ two False Nines or two Strikers to open the goal doors. The shocking part really besides Adrien never even getting a minute is that Danny who is a better 10 than a Winger continually is deployed out wide or as a False Nine. What is it with Portuguese Manager’s that they don’t see that his true strength is in support through the middle as any fan who tunes in to Zenit games knows? As a Winger Danny is way down the Portuguese depth chart and shouldn’t even be called up let alone start.
Over the two games Portugal created many good opportunities and were deserving of many more goals in both games. Against France they had 12 shots of which 2 were on target against Denmark they had 11 shots with 5 on target. Their shot directions were even across the 3 zones with 33% from each lateral area in the France game, against Denmark 9% came from the left wing where Danny was running on to, as Ronaldo tended to attack from the middle where they had 55% of their shots, and then Nani who was roving had 36% on the right wing. All 3 were rotating so had a hand in each zone but I listed the main player in each zone.

Until Santos can resolve the issues at the front we will have difficulty winning games clearly and decisively against all levels of competition. It unfortunately is still a sore spot in the Portuguese attack.

Joao Mario and Quaresma were also both key in the matches, coming on and turning both games. Joao Mario in the France match disrupted the French defence and after a few good runs was brought down and a penalty was awarded, which Quaresma dispatched home to bring Portugal back into the match. Mario also missed high with a crushing strike that came close to leveling the game.

Quaresma also (who I am not a big fan of because of his selfish nature) came on late in the Denmark game to add some speed to the right wing and within minutes had beat his marker on the right and laid off the best cross I have ever seen him make, pin point to Ronaldo who flicked a header off of his markers head and beyond the helpless Danish Keeper Schmeichel in the dying seconds of injury time. Schmeichel had thwarted Portugal all night between the pipes with saves that were reminiscent of his legendary father.

This great moment in time was clinical by all the Portuguese attackers and is what Portuguese fans expect and has been lacking since Ronaldo’s amazing performance against Sweden in the World Cup qualifying playoffs last year versus Sweden.

Overall Team


The major tale of the tape statistics which really showcase who the dominant teams were in each game are the shot zone percentage totals.

In the France game Portugal had 0% of their shots from within the 6 Yard Box, 50% of their shots were from within the 18 Yard box, and 50% were from long range. In contrast the French had 8% of their shots from within the 6 Yard Box, 67% of their shots were from within the 18 Yard box, and 25% were from long range. Overall France was the better team even though possession was split at 50% they were the superior side and were deserving of the victory as they clearly were breaking down the Selecao Defence. Fortunately the France game was a friendly and in fairness it was a testing ground for future Portuguese squad selections/tactics and Portugal fared well enough over the first full game in Santos’ tenure playing competitively for the majority of the match. Also if the Selecao had hit the target with more of their 12 attempts it could’ve been a different result.

It was a complete role reversal in the game that mattered versus Denmark. Portugal had 9% of their shots from within the 6 Yard Box, 55% of their shots were from within the 18 Yard box, and only 36% were speculative shots from long range. In contrast the Danes had 0% of their shots from within the 6 Yard Box, 25% of their shots were from within the 18 Yard box, and 75% were from long range. Clearly demonstrating the dual Carvalho’s effectiveness in securing the backline, as well as demonstrating the Portuguese have a lot of attacking options going forward as they create most of their shooting attempts from open play and not set pieces. The domination was clear in the Denmark match except where it mattered most on the scoreboard which made the whole game agonizingly close and almost once again resulted in a missed opportunity to gain an advantage on the score sheet.

Fortunately for Santos and all the Portuguese fans Ronaldo had another surgical moment in him, one that only players of his elite calibre can attain. This was combined with an equally elite cross from Quaresma that we have rarely glimpsed in recent Portuguese senior team history, the last one being Ronaldo’s cross to Varela in the dying moments of the World Cup game versus the USA. In the end Portugal was able to score along with grab the much needed 3 points on offer with the victory.

Selecao Outlook


Many positives to take from this week of International Football from a Portuguese perspective as Santos has proved to be more progressive in his approach and not as inflexible as Bento to adapting to the game. He also was very forthright in his post-game pressers much more so than the combative Bento ever was. Santos even talked of possibly deploying a 3-5-2 for the Denmark game and even floated into a diamond 4-4-2 at times against Denmark with two false nines, which clearly was a catalyst as the Selecao created more inbox pressure throughout the game against the Danes.

As for the Fullback issue, Eliseu needs to be replaced, if Coentrao isn’t available Santos has to find a consistent defender to play at the Left back position. On the right I would give Cedric a couple of more opportunities to allow him to grow into the position, but I would also bring in Andre Almeida not for his offensive abilities but for his defensive qualities as those will be needed against higher calibre opponents. Almeida has been successfully utilized against top opposition in the Champions League with Benfica to spell Maxi Pereira in a more defensive approach. He could equally do the same at the National Team where the competition is on par.

The confusing part is that most Portuguese fans see Fullbacks as strictly attacking options, their position name has been obscured over all these years, most tend to play as Neverbacks and that is exactly why the Selecao has suffered for many years.

Football is a game of balance if you have one Fullback that jumps forward in attack you need the other and possibly the DM to stay back in a defensive posture, you can always add another offensive mid to balance a defence first Fullback in the line-up. Against certain elite opponents they will need the 4 in the backline to defend only and a DM to strengthen the defence.

Ricardo Carvalho being welcomed back into the squad was a good thing as he brings stability to the backline. Alves makes a good sub, but they need to find younger replacements for the future as well as fill out the rest of the backline with talent.

I am confident the midfield will work itself out as there is a lot of quality there to choose from as long as they sort out the #10 role.

The Forwards going ahead as usual will be the make or break for the Selecao’s success especially in qualifying as they need to create more inbox pressure against the minnows to allow for better shooting, passing and crossing from the Wingers and Attacking Mids that will result in more goals scored.

At the moment we hold out hope that this dilemma can be resolved and there is a wealth of talent to call upon, but as usual more Strikers and goal scorers have to be acquired for consistent success to be found.


 

Time for the Good, Bad, and Ugly:

Good

  • Ronaldo’s surgical finish
  • Quaresma’s lethal cross
  • New squad selections
  • Carvalho, Tiago, and Danny being welcomed in from the Doghouse
  • Meireles, Veloso and Joao Pereira being excluded from the roster
  • Santos’ passionate fresh approach
  • Carvalho & Pepe’s play at CB
  • A Manager who is willing to look at different formations and tactics
  • Young players being given the opportunity to succeed

Bad

  • First match in Santos’ tenure being against an inform French side
  • The slow start that resulted in the loss to the French
  • Alves is showing his age and was beyond his depth
  • Selecao’s difficulty scoring on good opportunities, team as a whole needs to get more shots on target
  • Tiago and Gomes use as Defensive Midfielders created weak backside pressure
  • Adrien Silva not getting into a game again
  • Moutinho not being questioned over his lack-lustre performances or being replaced
  • Patricio looked shaky through both matches and needs to be replaced (how about Lopes from Lyon)

The Ugly

  • The FPF hiring a suspended management team
  • The Fullbacks defending in both games was weak at best
  • Eliseu needs his own line of ugly for his defensive incompetence as at least Cedric has the excuse that he is a rookie
  • Selecao’s future success in the hands of the European Court of Arbitration for Sport
  • The treatment of Portuguese Strikers who have essentially been played outside their comfort zone for decades

In conclusion, there is much to look forward to in the upcoming games for the Selecao and the win versus Denmark played a huge part in elevating the National Team back up in the qualifying group standings.

I know that a lot of fans have their own opinions on who should be in the squad and what formations/tactics should be employed, feel free to comment on the line-ups you would choose and what tactics you would employ if you were Fernando Santos.

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