P ortugal come into Euro 2020 as reigning champions and one of the favourites, with a squad that contains much more depth than it did in Euro 2016. Previous teams were Ronaldo-centric and whilst the team is still very much picked with getting the best out of their talisman in mind, the difference this time is that the plan is to have Ronaldo merely put the finishing touches, rather than be given the platform to be the driving force of the team.
This is in stark contrast to his role at Juventus where Ronaldo has been prolific but accused of holding the team back. The key differential has been that Juventus are a team in transition, with players who are simply not at the standard of the sides produced by Antonio Conte or Massimiliano Allegri. This has placed an additional burden on Ronaldo in terms of expectation - The Old Lady was expecting a 'Superhero' who would take her on his broad shoulders to the Champions League and beyond, when in reality all they got was the second coming of Inzaghi.
Results for Portugal since the last tournament have been fairly stable. At the 2018 World Cup, any lingering questions over Ronaldo's ability against big international sides on the grandest stages were addressed, when he scored an iconic hat trick against arch rivals Spain. He would score another goal against Iran, but would eventually be stifled by a superbly organised Uruguay team, who had their own set of superstars up front in Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. This result would mark a new dawn for Portugal... the era of Ronaldo-dependencia was over.
Within the space of a year, Portugal began to revamp its midfield and attack... bringing in the likes of Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes. The defence had also taken shape with the ever improving Cancelo brought into the fold to feature alongside Guerreiro at full back. Similarly, Ruben Dias was integrated within the side and almost immediately became the cornerstone, partnered by either Pepe or Fonte in the centre. Since these changes, Portugal have only lost 2 out of their last 21 with 3 draws (against France and Spain x2).
In terms of formation, Portugal's go to shape since the World Cup have been the 4-3-3 (used 44% of the time during 2021) and the 4-2-3-1 (used 25% of the time during 2021). Quite frankly there is very little to separate the two, as the personnel used in both formations is very similar. We have also seen Portugal experiment with a plan B of 4-4-2 - pairing Ronaldo with Andre Silva, but expect to see that only if all hope is lost.
Historically speaking Portugal have tended not to press with the same vigour associated with their Iberian rivals and tend to adopt a deeper line, seeking to frustrate the opposition. This was partly in due to the fact that Ronaldo would refuse to partake in such a set up and furthermore Portugal did not posses a backline who would be comfortable playing proactively and with such a high line.
Since Ronaldo has made the transition to lone striker, and with the introduction of Dias in the backline - Portugal have slightly tweaked their pressing strategy. They still wait for the opposition to play out from the back but as soon as the pass enters the midfield areas, they press vigorously and initiate fast paced counter attacks once the ball has been retrieved. The defence moves from low block to a high line almost instantly - and with players like Cancelo, Dias, Guerreiro being accustomed to playing in high line set ups, this is not surprising.
Aerially, this Portugal side is one of the strongest in Europe with an average 31 aerial duels won per game. Thus if they do drop into a low block, they will be well equipped to deal with any periods of bombardment into the box. Similarly, set pieces will also be defended well especially if the likes of Pepe start (how brilliant was he for Porto in the Champions League !?) and Ronaldo comes back to help defend these.
In the full back areas, Portugal have excellent progressive players who can penetrate space, take on players 1 v 1 (useful vs a low block) and link up with the midfield. They also have decent depth, Semedo and Mendes are solid back up options who complement the overall philosophy of the side. But the glaring weakness here is the lack of any top 1 v 1 defenders and considering that their opponents Germany and France possess a wealth of options in the winger positions this could come back to bite them in the latter stages of games when both sides go for broke.
Expect to see... Cancelo and Guerreiro at full back with Dias starting at centre back. The last spot is a fierce battle between Fonte and Pepe...
Unlike most of their rivals in this tournament, Portugal are blessed with a wealth of options in the deeper midfield areas and will protect their defence better than anyone. Danilo Pereira is fast becoming an integral player for club and country, with a 96% short pass completion and a ravenous appetite for defensive work - capable of filling in at right back, centre back and anything in between. If he was to pick up an injury, you have the experienced William Carvalho who held the fort during Euro 2016 and is a monster in the air.
Should Portugal seem progression from the deeper lying areas, they have the likes of Ruben Neves and Moutinho who can assist in the build up and allow Portugal to dictate possession. If they require a more dynamic option and someone who can drive from deep, they have the option of Renato Sanches who has resurrected his career at Lille. He still has a tendency to overrun the ball and make godawful passing decisions, but he is beginning to understand the strengths and limitations of his game and that generally leads to a more effective player.
Expect to see... Danilo Pereira start ahead of WIlliam Carvalho at CDM but it is hard to predict who will partner him as Portugal chop and change.
We spoke about how England possess the likes of Grealish, Foden and Sancho but Portugal have Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix. No team in the world boasts such depth when it comes to silky playmakers who can assist and score, yet control final third proceedings. Can they all play together? not really but at the same time, all three bring different things to the table.
Bernardo operates in the half spaces and can even function closer to the touchline, a playmaking winger or wide midfielder. Bruno is a blast from the past, a player who resembles the likes of Zico and Platini in terms of how potent he is from the attacking midfield positions. His entire game seems to revolve around making decisive actions on the pitch, with scant regard for possession statistics. Then you have Felix, who can do it all and be the false 9 if need be... and yet, is due to his age and the fact he has not quite reached his potential yet, play more of a bit part role.
If Bruno replicates his United form on the international stage, it is hard to imagine him staying at Manchester United beyond next season if they fail to win major silverware. He will have cemented his status as the preeminent attacking midfielder in world football. Thus there is a lot at stake for him in terms of status. Many have criticised him as a penalty merchant and a flat track bully, but in a side this strong and with a manager who trusts him - the stage is set for him to rule the roost.
Expect to see... Bernardo Silva start in a wider position, with Bruno and Felix fighting it out to play behind Ronaldo. I suspect Bruno will be given the nod first but if he gets contained in the bigger games, expect Felix to supersede him and become the breakout star of Portugal's campaign.
Ronaldo is the icing on the cake
There were unforgettable scenes 4 years ago as the injured Cristiano Ronaldo acted as cheerleader to drag his compatriots over the line against favourites France. Whilst some may have mocked his 'management' role in the final, it must not be forgotten that he overcame an unbelievably poor start against the likes of Iceland and Austria (even contriving to miss a penalty!) to play an integral role 'on the pitch' in Portugal's victorious campaign.
In the final group group, with Portugal's hopes hanging by a thread - Ronaldo scored two goals against Hungary to twice bring Portugal back on level terms. In the last 16, seconds after Perisic had headed against the post in extra-time, Ronaldo fired a low effort on target which goalkeeper Danijel Subasic could only parry into the path of Ricardo Quaresma who proceeded to head Portugal into the quarter-finals. Against Poland, Ronaldo would struggle in open play but he would nevertheless convert Portugal's first penalty in the victorious shoot-out to send Portugal into the semis... where he would break Welsh hearts with a towering header and an assist for the second goal.
We all know what happened in the final and 4 years later, Ronaldo is back, once again leading the line and hoping to win it on the pitch this time. We have alluded to it earlier on in the piece, but this time round expect Ronaldo's play outside of the penalty area to be even more limited than 2016. For Juventus, Ronaldo's ball progression statistics and carrying numbers have been higher than in his last two seasons but this has proven to be problematic. The more Ronaldo is involved in the build up, the worse it has been for Juventus.
Portugal have superior build up play to Juventus. They have more creative talent, better full backs and can hurt teams outside of just relying on Ronaldo. This does not mean he is insignificant, but his play will be focused entirely on movement in and around the box and being super efficient in possession. Whist Ronaldo has been doing that to a degree ever since he moved to Real Madrid, for Portugal he has always been the dynamo... the heartbeat. A player who needs to be fed the ball as much as possible for him to wreak havoc on the opposition. This is no longer the case.
Jota makes up for Nani
Nani was an incredibly underrated player in Portugal's success at Euro 2016. Truth be told, he was probably a more influential player in the big games than Ronaldo. When Ronaldo was doubled-marked or triple-marked, it was Nani who would be the secondary source of magic or drive. In a squad desperately thin in terms of wingers (Neto was ruled out through injury), Jota is a godsend and will act as the spark for the side in the wider areas as well as provide an additional form of penetration if Ronaldo is kept quiet.
The Target Man
Every top international side needs to have a Plan B and Portugal have one in the form of Andre Silva. He's not your traditional target man however, he's more of a mobile modern day number 9 who does a bit of everything. He can hit key passes, score headers, finish well and drift into the channels. If Portugal need to throw the kitchen sink, he's a useful player to have around. Weaknesses include his ability in aerial duels from long balls- he's not going to win flick on's and neither is he a wizard in 1 v 1 situations out wide. Nevertheless, expect him to catch the eye this tournament.
Expect to see... Ronaldo start up top alone, with Jota down the left and Bernardo Silva down the right. Silva will be used as a Plan B alongside Ronaldo or if he gets injured.
In conclusion, Portugal's first XI is very balanced and very hard to beat. This is a side who can and will give anyone trouble. The only thing that can go against them is a tough draw. The minimum expectation is quarter-final and quite frankly they can go all the way, it just that I envisage them facing many favourites along the way and mental and physical exhaustion may play a role... Group of Death followed by a deadly route to the final, may prove to be too much to handle.