T he best is yet to come... says Portuguese coach Fernando Santos. Combine his bullish words with the reality that this is likely to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s final World Cup and you have the perfect backdrop for what is expected for the Seleção going into Qatar.
Santos is a polarising character. On one hand he has overseen Portugal’s most successful period in their history. A Euro 2016 victory came as a surprise for many, as Portugal managed to grind their way through the tournament, drawing all 3 group games and only winning one knockout game in normal time on their way to European Supremacy. It was a very average side, despite having one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, who rode their luck at times but were incredibly difficult to break down.
After an underwhelming 2018 World Cup, the future was still looking bright for Portugal. A new generation of talent began to sift through the national pool and this was reflected in their 2019 victory of the inaugural Nations League on home soil.
Despite this, Santos has persisted in playing some of the elder statesmen of the side, creating a bottleneck of talent, waiting to break into the first team. This wasn’t more evident than Portugal’s exit to Belgium at the 2020 Euros, with players such as João Félix, Pedro Gonçalves and Nuno Mendes left to rot on the bench.
Post-Euros, Portugal have been in good form. Wins against Turkyie and Switzerland at home were standouts but they have also struggled against elite opposition, especially when going a goal down. Some positives to note are the introduction of Mendes and Leao, as Santos has shown more of an open mind to the younger generation, but there is still much work to be done in this department and I fully expect Santos to play it safe at the beginning of the tournament.
Portugal have exclusively used a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1, geared to playing in very fast transitions. Santos prefers to keep it safe with his midfield selection but has favoured very attacking fullback to balance this out. Portugal don’t have the tactical issues that we’ve outlined with other teams as their set up for the most part is sound. It’s more of a question whether Santos is prepared to switch it up if Plan A fails and personnel selected.
Intensity of Press/Shape
Portugal have shown variety in their approach out of possession. There are times they have committed to a high press with all the midfielders committed up the pitch, looking to blindside the opponent, while the wingers cut off the pass to the fullbacks. There are also other occasions where Portugal sit off and keep a compact defensive shape, inviting pressure into the final third to try to open up space for a counter-attack.
Overall, Portugal’s intentions to press are semi-committed and this has led to occasions where the opposition opens them up with a simple passing sequence. On top of this, is the compounding impact of Cristiano’s non-committance to the press. Never the man to do it when he was in his peak, Portugal will need to carry the ageing forward even more so now that his legs are beginning to give a little. This is why when they do try to engage the opposition higher up the pitch, it’s common to see even their single pivot in Neves be right on top of his opposite number. Whilst this can surprise teams, like it did to Switzerland at home in the Nations League, technical sides like Spain and the Netherlands will easily play through this, so expect to see Portugal predominantly sit off and hold rank.
A weakness of Portugal that teams can exploit is the space that the fullbacks leave ahead of them. A pattern across their World Cup qualifying and Nations League campaigns was the indecision from the fullbacks of whether to step up or not, especially when coming up against wingbacks part of the back 5. Often this would lead to too much space for a winger or roaming midfielder to pick the ball up between the lines or allow an easy run in behind if they did vacate their shape to press.
Portugal are pretty feeble when challenging for the ball in the air. Both their games against Serbia in the Qualifiers exposed the defence when coming up against a target man like Mitrovic, who nodded home in both fixtures and dominated the skies. Rúben Dias is quite a middling defender when competing in aerial duels, ranking in the 56th percentile for aerial duels won and the same could be said for his likely partner, Danilo Periera. Cristiano Ronaldo will be important when it comes to defending set pieces, but not having Jota will be a big miss in this department.
With the ball at their feet, I would say Portugal have an abundance of players who can play out of defence. Ruben Dias and Cancelo are both well versed in this regard, playing under Pep at City, whilst Danilo Pereira and Nuno Mendes also benefit from being ever present fixtures in a possession heavy side at PSG. The main worry for them would be the goalkeeper as, should Rui Patricio start, their build up structure would suffer. The Roma shot stopper is often flustered in possession and is likely to go long if put under pressure.
On Goalkeepers, Portugal do boast a healthy choice of guardians to play in between the sticks and it may be perfect timing that Diogo Costa has hit the best form of his career. The Porto man has made headlines this season for being almost unbeatable from penalty kicks. This ability shouldn’t be overlooked for tournament football, as teams navigate the knockout phase. Costa is also much more adept at playing with his feet than the other goalkeeping options and should aid their build up.
Expect to see... Cancelo take the right back spot. Nuno Mendes has wrangled the left back spot off Raphael Guerriero, which is a good sign that Santos is potentially ready to usher in the next generation. As for centre half, Portugal have historically been overly reliant on an ageing Pepe and Jose Fonte as their leaders at the back. Dias has emerged in the last few years as their #1 starter and Santos has somewhat remedied the issue of having an ancient backline by converting Danilo Pereira to a CB but the surprise inclusion of Antonio Silva is a brilliant call. Portugal need to start looking towards the future in defence, and the 19 year old Benfica defender has been impressive against the likes of Juventus and PSG. He may not feature at all but the tournament experience will be crucial for his development.
Directness Favoured Over Control
Like with most elite sides, Portugal will have the majority of possession when playing against lesser sides but generally they like to cede possession when coming up against teams of similar or equal stature and play fast vertical football.
Being blessed with midfielders like Ruben Neves and Bruno Fernandes, who will often prioritise high risk, high reward passes forward, Portugal will look to turn the opposition around as quickly as possible when they win the ball back. On top of this, should Portugal need to slow the tempo down, players like Joao Moutinho, William Carvalho, Matheus Nunes and Vitinha all offer the ability to dictate the play, with short intricate passes. However, this is not something Santos particularly likes to dabble in and Portugal lack a ‘Plan B’ despite having the players able to facilitate it.
For the most part Santos has favoured a midfield three of Bruno, Neves and Carvalho. Whilst not worldbeating, it is definitely an upgrade on the midfield he deployed at the Euros whereby Danilo Periera played instead of Neves. This was simply too negative and offered no ball progression, while creating a massive gap between the safety first midfielders and Bruno Fernandes.
Despite making his debut for the Selecao at 18, Neves has only established himself in Portugal’s midfield post-Euros. It sums up the career for a player who was highly touted as a teenager but finds himself stagnating in a mid table Premier League outfit. This World Cup could be a chance for Neves to get closer to his ceiling and make a name for himself. He has improved Portugal’s attacking sequences with his exceptional long passing and offers a set piece threat. He’s not the most mobile of players, but the heat in Qatar might favour his slower pace approach.
William Carvalho is another player who seems to move at half speed but is blessed with a wonderful touch and technique. He will be key for Portugal, as winning the ball back and recycling the possession to the gunslingers in Bruno and Neves is important to their counter-attacking approach. He will often push further to support Bruno but don’t expect much of a goal threat.
Speaking of goal threat, Bruno Fernandes will be expected to provide impetus from midfield and cover the space often vacated by Cristiano. Bruno won’t involve himself too much in the build up and most of his touches will involve moving the ball forward as quickly as possible. Not one for receiving the ball on the half turn, Bruno will float around and wait to flick the ball on when playing in transition to keep the momentum of the move. This can often be the wrong choice and lead to turnovers but is also part and parcel of having such a risky passer.
Other Midfield Options?
With respect to the other midfield options, Vitinha and Matheus Nunes are newcomers to the squad and will provide energy to a fairly immobile midfield. As said before, should Portugal need to control a game, they also offer that option along with the highly experienced Joao Mountinho. It’s just a matter of whether Santos adopts that approach. Joao Palhinha could be an defensive tactical option should Portugal look to close out a game as he excels at defensive positioning. It’s worth noting Joao Cancelo and Diogo Dalot at right back can offer a lot of midfield support as they like to invert frequently. Renato Sanches has featured sporadically for the Portuguese over the years but there is a real danger he will not be called up or at least will be on the periphery of the starting XI.
A wildcard option, should he be called up, is Florentino Luis of Benfica. The 23 year old had previously been frozen out of the Benfica side despite his immense talent but with new manager Roger Schmidt, he has found someone who can appreciate his qualities as a holding midfielder. He’s been in tremendous form so far this season, which has prompted links to clubs like Liverpool and goes to show how well thought of he is despite not being a household name.
Expect… Neves to sit deep as the DLP, with Carvalho performing the Gattuso role doing the dirty work and for Bruno to assist with the build up to mixed effect but also providing the pathway into the forward line.
Portugal boast some impressive talent out wide at fullback. Their wing options in comparison lack depth and tactical cohesiveness. Whilst playing in a 4-3-3 allows them to double up in the wide areas they don’t necessarily field players who exclusively want to play on the wing.
A problematic area for Portugal despite boasting incredible talent in these positions. As mentioned before, Cancelo will often invert to create numerical superiority in the middle of the park. This is effective as Cancelo can have an impactful involvement in the build up before drifting out wide, as well as provide some nice rotations with the midfielders who can pull out wide to create a different angle of attack.
However, with Bernardo Silva likely to start ahead of him, this leaves a lot of space on the right that is wasted. Silva prefers to be involved in the central areas of the pitch and whilst he is very effective there, this does clog up the middle of the pitch which is already dominated by the presence of Cristiano and Bruno. Santos has his heart set on deploying Silva as an out and out winger but despite being a player who carries out the manager’s instructions to a tee, his natural tendencies draw him centrally.
Otavio has proven to be an effective rotation option on the right hand side. Being right footed he can offer a crossing threat and the ability to go down the line, which Portugal don’t get with Silva. However, Otavio is not your typical winger and is more in the mould of a James Milner wide midfielder type, so don’t expect him to be a driving force.
Other options include Guedes and potentially Francisco Trincao, but both aren’t exclusively wide threats, with both looking to operate centrally albeit in different ways. Bruno can occasionally pull out wide to the right like he does for United but this is relatively ineffective due to Bruno’s poor crossing ability.
Despite the worries on the right flank, Portugal have found themselves a good balance on the left with Nunes and Jota. Issue is Jota is set to miss the tournament and despite having a precocious talent in Rafael Leao, his partnership with Nunes is untested.
There are many differences between Jota and Leao but the distinction here is that Jota is a wing forward, whereas Leao operates as a wide playmaker. This is important because with a marauding fullback in Nunes charging forward, space needs to be created for him to run into. With Jota, Nunes could overlap freely knowing Jota would be playing off Cristiano. Leao is likely to want to receive the ball wide, before taking on his man, occupying the space Nunes will be angling to run into.
This could be potentially similar to the issue Liverpool have faced with having both Luis Diaz and Robertson on the left. Robertson dovetailed brilliantly with the wing forward Mane but with Diaz, who prefers to receive the ball out wide, Robertson lost the space he loved to charge into. Should Portugal run into the same issues with Leao and Nunes, then it will be catastrophic to the side as they lean heavily on the left side as they have a minimum presence on the right.
Joao Felix is a potential option here, as he will be more inclined to move centrally to open up the space for Nunes but again this is a partnership that is relatively untested, so Portugal do face an uphill battle going into the tournament in this regard.
Expect…Cancelo and Bernardo to be paired down the right whilst Mendes and Leao bring an unpredictable vibe down the left flank.
It Is Always Polemic With Bruno
Portugal are oozing with creativity when you look across the squad as a whole. Leao, Silva, Bruno and Felix all offer different types of threats going forward, it’s a question of what blend works best. Their biggest pure central 10 type threats are Bruno and Felix (the latter of whom is unlikely to dislodge Ronaldo from the lineup). IMO Felix at his best is one of the most creative footballers in the game and it is a damn shame that he is in a situation where he is straitjacketed by club and country. His best position would probably be as a false 9 but it is difficult to see how Portugal could pull that off.
As for Bruno Fernandes, whilst there has been suspicion as to whether he's the real deal in a Portugal shirt, there are no viable alternatives and an in-form Bruno can pose a threat to any defence. One aspect of Bruno’s game that gets overlooked is his involvement in the final third. His timing of when to dummy a pass or play the final pass goes under the radar. At United, because he is so leaned on to participate in the midfield build up, he is often taken away from his best area of the pitch which is the final third.
The Wide Playmakers
As mentioned before, Leao is a playmaking threat off the left flank. He is a phenom in terms of his size, speed and ability to beat a man. The main issue that holds him back is his languid nature. For a player blessed across the board when it comes to talent, he’s way too laid back in his approach. We saw in the Champions League what can happen when coming up against a powerful and aggressive defender in Reece James, which left Leao wingless and extra change in James’ pocket for an easy night's work. With Jota out, the World Cup is a great platform for Leao to make a name for himself but he will have to take a more proactive approach in order to do this.
While injuries have limited his availability for Portugal, it’s pretty shocking to read that Joao Felix has only had 22 minutes of football for the selecao in 2022. The same issues the wonderkid is experiencing at Atletico with Simeone, are just as present for his country. We have always thought highly of him and believe he could be the creative linchpin for Portugal given the chance. Not only does he provide an option on the left but also as a #10 in a 4-2-3-1 or as a support striker playing off Cristiano.
Lastly, Silva is an excellent creative outlet for Portugal and should be a threat if deployed correctly. As discussed prior, off the right he isn’t as effective when being tasked to be an out-and-out winger. As a ‘free-8’ in the middle of the park, like at City, Silva would be an improvement on the current midfield balance but Santos begs to differ, as he will prioritise security over creativity. With Silva destined to play on the right, it would be a benefit to him to have runners ahead. This is something he and Bruno connect on and be a focal point to Portugal’s attacking movement.
Expect… Bruno Fernandes and Felix take turns in being utilised as the main central creative threats but from out wide, it is the likes of Bernardo who arguably possess the greatest and deceptive threat.
If you’ve noticed that, given each subcategory, Cristiano has been seldom mentioned, then this article has achieved one of its goals. Portugal boasts one the greatest to play the game. Someone who will be remembered for years to come. It sums up football well, that a player who is fairly non-existent for most of the game, in most areas of the pitch, would be the talisman. A figurehead. An icon. As football is a numbers game and its currency is goals.
Cristiano Ronaldo is entering what will probably be his final world cup. A lot has been made of his recent transgressions at United and what the future entails for a player is visibly not the same player as a couple of seasons ago. Some see him as the final suit in the house of cards that needs to topple for a new generation that is on the precipice to break through. Others see him as Portugal's only hope. Whatever you think about Cristiano, he is inevitable and will be leading the line for the Selecao.
Despite the defence burden that comes with playing Ronaldo, for Portugal at least, he will be the main source of goals and biggest threat going forward. Whilst his attacking movement and athleticism has fallen off noticeably this season at United, Portugal still remains a source of motivation for Cristiano so we are likely to see a much better version in Qatar. Ronaldo prefers to be on the end of moves and why we often see him lurking outside of the box as to arrive inside when the final pass is being delivered. This can be problematic as he on occasion gets in the way and breaks the momentum of the move. However, since Portugal prefers to play in transition, it’s very handy having a player who delays their run to try to time the final ball. Ronaldo’s penalty prowess shouldn’t be overlooked either, as the great man has proven on numerous occasions he can handle the pressure of a spotkick.
Elsewhere, 2022 has seen the emergence of Goncalo Ramos at Benfica and despite not being capped yet, it would be crazy to not see him on the plane to Qatar. The 21 year old is a modern striker in every sense of the definition. Pressing from the front, proactive in linking up with others and a willing runner, Ramos offers a fantastic option off the bench that Portugal wouldn’t otherwise have with players like Andre Silva. Historically Portugal have had a dearth of striker archetypes to offset Cristiano, either having other poachers like him or no one credible enough to play. Ramos could finally be the answer to that problem.
Andre Silva has a good chance of going to Qatar but frankly he shouldn’t. He’s hit the worst form of his career and even if that wasn’t the case, he doesn’t offer anything that Cristiano doesn’t. You have to remember, the chances of Ronaldo being subbed off is slim, so whichever attacker comes off the bench needs to be able to compliment him. Ronaldo and Silva will just get into each other's way, so I can’t see the latter being impactful as a sub.
Jota is a huge miss for Portugal. With him out of the tournament through injury, Portugal will be missing a hefty chunk of their attacking arsenal. The likes of Guedes and Horta have a good chance of being on the plane for Portugal now that Jota space has opened up but again, they are not players that will prove to be as impactful as the Liverpool man. Guedes, who was once thought of as being the heir to Cristiano’s throne, is already being upstaged by the likes of Leao and Horta is not going to pull up any trees.
Expect… Ronaldo to be better than what he has shown at United but ultimately not have enough to take Portugal all the way.
Another lover of pragmatism, Fernando Santos is not the type to allow the next generation off the leash and make brave calls on expelling legends to the bench. As a result Portugal are all in on the Ronaldo train and will set up in a way which is designed to give the legend his chance of ultimate glory. However a team that can't press with the best of them, has a rather mediocre midfield, nor lacks the cutting edge of the likes of Brazil or France... can it go all the way?
One thing they do have in their favour is a 'togetherness' that another national teams struggle to match. It means they usually squeeze out results when on paper they shouldn't stand a chance and can anyone really write off a Ronaldo for whom this arguably represents his last moment of relevance at the highest level of football? .