After a less than compelling 2014 World Cup and a humbling 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Albania to start Euro 2016 qualifying one thing was certain: Paulo Bento needed to be relieved of his duties as manager of the Portuguese National Team. While Bento’s success rate with the national team wasn’t dramatically poor, his over reliance on star Cristiano Ronaldo to carry the team along with his lack of imagination when it came to tactics and squad selection was clear as day to most supporters and a new era needed to begin.
Enter former Greek national team coach Fernando Santos who wasn’t the clear cut choice for the position based on underlying feelings that his tactics were too defensive something Ronaldo and his compatriots struggled with under Carlos Queiroz. An eight match touchline ban and other qualified candidates like Vitor Pereira being available also came into the equation, but alas Santos was given the position and his early influence thus far has been magnificent.
First and foremost, his first squad selection was like a breath of fresh air as individuals that had been passed over time after time by Paulo Bento were finally given an opportunity. Southampton captain Jose Fonte had been a stalwart for the club at centre-back for the past few years but never received a single call up under the old regime ditto for Cedric Soares and Adrien Silva from Sporting Lisbon. Perhaps the most impact came from several players who were clear cut starters in years past not even making the 23 man selection list, the likes of Miguel Veloso, Raul Meireles, Joao Pereira and Helder Postiga who all at one time or another have felt the wrath of the Portuguese media and fans for “not being good enough”. In their stead, young along with older experienced players were brought back. A top class defender for over a decade, Ricardo Carvalho’s fallout with the national team was well documented but his man of the match performance against Denmark showed that even at 36 years of age his defensive positioning and awareness is still top class. The inclusions of Tiago who came out of international retirement, Danny and Ricardo Quaresma, who both had fallen out of favour under Bento proved to be successful call-ups by Santos.
While finding a competent striker has been a major problem for the national team for many a year, Santos decision to start the last two matches with no out and out striker showed some imagination and it’s a move that long term could prove to be successful. While Helder Postiga had his goal scoring moments he often lacked the ability to break through defences with any sort of speed, creativity or hold up play with the ball. The front three of Nani-Danny-Ronaldo have that in spades but need to maximize their opportunities in the final third something that all three were lacking at times in the games against France and Denmark.
All in all the future looks bright for the national team under Fernando Santos who seemingly would rather pick players based on talent than his comfort level with them something that was surely lacking under his predecessor.