How Portugal's 2018 World Cup hopes are tied to the fate of its key players at their respective clubs

Imagine you are Fernando Santos for a second. In less than nine months you must finalize the Seleção squad that, captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, will represent a nation bursting at the seams with a diverse array of marketable wunderkinds.

This is both a blessing and a curse, and you realize that poor squad selection may not only prevent Portugal from adding football’s Holy Grail to its trophy cabinet, it may yet damage your reputation despite your team’s victory in France at Euro 2016. Not to mention that top European clubs may or may not always be willing to afford your choice players the requisite playing time in key matches that is essential to their preparation for the World Cup.

These are not insignificant concerns.

Ever read the Biblical parable about seeds being sown along a road? Some fell on rocky soil, and some fell amongst thorns, and some fell along the path and were consumed while some fell on good soil and prospered. Similarly, some of Portugal’s young talent jumped at the opportunity to sign for bigger clubs, initially encountered problems, but still somehow flourished. Gonçalo Guedes made what now appears to be a very ill-advised move to PSG (where he will likely never play again), but seems to be thriving on loan with Valencia.

Others have simply fallen upon unfavorable ground.

Guedes’ recent call-up to the Seleção came at the expense of another player, Bruma, who yet again finds himself on the outside looking in because he cannot secure enough playing time with his domestic club. Recall that when he ditched Sporting in 2013 he initially found life at Galatasaray quite difficult as well. Injuries struck and he was loaned to first Gaziantepspor then Real Sociedad without much success. That critical moment he jumped ship at Sporting took him two and a half seasons to recover from, and now he is right back where he started.

As I watch the European football season unfurl, I have been thinking about the impact that club managers have on an individual player’s hopes of playing in a World Cup, and consequently that nation’s hopes of winning.

A multitude of factors must be in alignment for a manager to have a realistic chance of assembling a World Cup winning squad.

It begins with a tactical blueprint, but national team managers can only hope their preferred XI to execute that gameplan will be fit and in-form. An interview I had with Hungary’s Adam Nagy after the thrilling 3-3 group stage draw against Portugal at Euro 2016 provides the right context. He likened the individual players on his team to “small gears” that each performed their role seamlessly within the tactical context set forth by the manager.

Looking at past World Cup winning squads, several player variable trends emerge, but diversity in midfield is one of the most crucial. A good example is Italy’s World Cup winning squad in 2006. They utilized a deep-lying maestro in Andrea Pirlo paired alongside the unpolished force of nature that was Gennaro Gattuso. Pirlo had such an impressive range of passing that he was rarely forced to abandon his post just ahead of the back four. He effortlessly worked the ball across the entire length and breadth of the pitch. Gattuso’s job as a No.8 was simply to win back possession, get the ball to Pirlo, and let the process repeat itself. Italy wore their opposition down at that World Cup. Almost reminds you of Fernando Santos’ conception of Portugal at Euro 2016, doesn’t it?

Like Pirlo, William has evolved from a rudimentary defensive midfielder into a deep-lying playmaker for his national team. Like Pirlo, he is often called out for failing to cover every blade of grass on the pitch. But his range of passing has taken on new dimensions as he matures, and he is only just now beginning to exercise real command over matches for both Sporting and Portugal.

Similar to Italy in 2006, I think Santos wants an unchained, ball-winning No.8 to complement William, but that is precisely the problem. Currently, the leading candidates for this role, João Mário and Renato Sanches, are not being adequately prepared by their clubs.

It is time I put into words what we all know in our hearts to be true right now: Renato Sanches should not go to the World Cup in current form. Strong words maybe considering it is just now October, but the former Benfica player’s inability to establish himself at club level has shown little sign of improvement since being loaned to Swansea. In the most recent match against West Ham, there were only flickers of the extraordinary talent that lured Bayern Munich among other top clubs in the summer of 2016.

Once again Renato has just arrived in yet another new country with its own distinct culture and at a club with very different ambitions. Swansea is just not the type of club that regularly breeds World Cup quality talent. No slight intended when I say that Swansea is the kind of place that players like Sanches often go in search of the consistency that rebuilds their belief in themselves. Ideally, time spent at Swansea is merely a springboard back into the higher echelons of club football.

Although the expectations he has set for himself may be higher, Renato is in career-recovery mode, and at this point he might benefit more by continuing with the U21s in European Championship qualifying than by receiving a berth in Santos’ final World Cup roster. Likewise, Portugal would also suffer if it sacrifices a crucial midfield berth to accommodate him if he cannot overcome his present malaise.

Only 20 yrs old, Renato can still become a cornerstone of the Seleção, but right now his focus has to be on individual rehabilitation. He has returned for Portugal’s final World Cup qualifying matches against Andorra and Switzerland, but Santos’ comments on the matter were revealing. Asked why Renato had been called up, Santos stated that based on his known characteristics, “there was no reason not to pick him.” That is hardly a vote of confidence. Was there really no reason not to pick him, or just no other in-form options available? Consider that even André Gomes made the squad having played a grand total of 100 minutes this season in only five appearances.

Sadly, Renato’s situation is representative of the disadvantageous circumstances that several key players are now facing.

Take Bernardo Silva at Manchester City. Cast out of Lisbon years ago by Benfica when he would not convert to fullback, he had only just begun to realize his full potential at Monaco before Manchester City made him the proverbial offer he could not refuse. Since his arrival, he has only started two matches and was notably left on the bench against the two toughest league rivals his club have yet faced, Liverpool and Chelsea. Two of his nine total appearances were beyond the 80’ mark, hardly enough time to influence matches although he still managed to bag an impressive assist vs. Shakhtar Donetsk minutes after coming on. Bernardo has the ability, but does he play the right variety of football to suit Pep, that’s the question.

Here is where the calculus gets even more difficult for Fernando Santos. He cannot very well omit a player as talented as Bernardo Silva from the Seleção. On the other hand, Bernardo is receiving neither the quality nor quantity of minutes that would ideally propel him into his best possible form prior to the World Cup.

With Guardiola so spoiled for choice he could probably start a different XI every match, Bernardo’s arrival over the summer leaves him with the unenviable task of trying to outperform the stalwarts of previous seasons.

In this situation, it is in football as it is in politics: advantage goes to the incumbent.

João Mário and André Silva are facing similar difficulties. Both appear to be playing reasonably good football, but are strangely unable to secure consistent appearances in their club’s starting XI. André has six goals and one assist in eight matches, but has played only 208 minutes in Serie A. With his club struggling for attacking inspiration against Sampdoria, Silva was passed up for other options. They didn’t work. AC Milan lost 2-0.

Furthermore, statistical analysis shows on average that Silva wins more aerial duels, dribbles more effectively, gets off more shots, passes more, and is dispossessed of the ball less than his nearest rivals, Nikola Kalinic and Patrick Cutrone.

João Mário’s difficulties at Inter Milan have picked up where they left off at the end of last season. Mário has started only three of his club’s seven matches in Serie A, but still leads his nearest position rivals with four assists including the match-winning goal he set up from a corner kick against Genoa. He played nine minutes in that match.

If you are the glass half full type you might say “what if Gonçalo Guedes’ inclusion is the wonderful beginning of a storied player’s international career? The moment we added the final missing piece to the squad that will win Portugal the World Cup.” Santos himself spoke about Guedes’ distinctive skillset as something he wants to build on. It is too early to know everything the future holds, but one thing is certain. Santos will be forced to make tactical changes or else field out of form players if recent trends continue.

Either way it might be impossible for whoever takes the field to implement his tactical blueprint. Or maybe Santos, ever the adaptive one, will make fools of us all and win no matter who he has at his disposal or how many club minutes they have logged.

For the record, my hope is in the latter.

Força Seleção.

by Nathan Motz

Related: Portugal squad for Andorra and Switzerland matches - recalls for Euro 2016 hero Eder and Renato Sanches your social media marketing partner

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  • They will at least not be exhausted at the end of the season... Sarcasm off. You nailed it, Nathan. Thanks for the good read. William, Bernardo, Sanches in a 433, add Adrien in a 442 with in form player would indeed be THE midfield-formations able to go for glory. But you never know. Too early to be pessimistic. What counts now is Andorra. No Andorra, no Final in Lisbon, as Santos mentioned. After that achievement we will see. With the characteristics of Man City's offensive department it seems to be unlikely that Bernardo will get the foot to the ground. If there was a hope that Guardiola would use him in a Messi-like position and role, then this hope has gone now. And Renato Sanches: Yes everybody knows, he should be our verticalizator. And everbody knows he should play more. Total lack of rhythm. Midfield has become a reason to worry. But I am not worried about André Silva. He already proved to bite even when not played regularly. Some career moves were a pity But my hope stays alive, that things may turn around in a positive way. A good second half season run can still propel our golden boys up at the right moment. But let's get there first.

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  • Guest - jon/usa

    Great analysis yet again, Nathan. I agree that the fact that many of our regulars have had far from consistent playing time is certainly a cause for concern. Nevertheless, I am still confident that Fernando Santos will have more than enough quality at his disposal to select a squad that is capable of challenging for the world cup. In terms of both quality and depth, Portugal undeniably has one of the top 10 national teams in the world -- and I would argue that we are in the top 6-7.

    Therefore, while we will by no means go into the world cup (should we qualify of course) as one of the favorites. That honor will go to the likes of Germany, Brazil, France, and Spain, but I still think we should be considered genuine contenders (so in the same boat as Italy, Argentina, and Belgium).

    After watching Portugal perform at the confederations cup, I started to question the logic behind playing both Ronaldo and Andre Silva against quality opposition. Both players are far more than traditional target men, but I feel like we are a bit too dependent on crossing when those two are on the pitch at the same time, thereby making us much easier to defend against. This approach really only makes sense when we're going up against weaker sides that bark the bus, or if we're desperate for a goal.

    Fernando Santos, as we all know, has an extremely pragmatic approach to tactics. He is far more concerned with tactical discipline and defensive solidity than playing proactive, aesthetically pleasing football. I have no doubt that his number one priority before every big match is designing an approach that will effectively nullify his opponents' attacking threats. The game plan is always to defend in two compact banks of four, clog passing lanes, restrict space in between lines, etc. Offensive organization and chance creation very clearly comes second. This defense-first approach to football can be incredibly frustrating to watch, especially when you consider the players he has at his disposal, but at the end of the day, you can't argue with the results.

    Therefore, I am pretty confident that he is going to adopt a counter-attacking approach to big matches against quality opposition. I think he tried to implement a transition-based approach at the euros (and at the confederations cup), but most of our counter-attacks were far too sloppy and disjointed to pose a consistent attacking threat. Given this likely approach, I feel it would make sense to choose a starting 11 that incorporates players who are tactically disciplined, hard-working, and particularly dangerous in attacking transitions.

    I would personally opt for a starting 11 that looks a little like this:


    Some of these players (Guedes and Nelson Semedo in particular) have yet to do enough to warrant an undisputed spot in the starting 11, but I think they are well-suited to Fernando Santos' preferred tactical approach. Guedes may still be a bit unpolished in some areas of his game but his work rate is absolutely phenomenal and his movement both with and without the ball could make him a perfect fit for a transition-based approach. Renato Sanches' ability break lines with the ball at his feat in transition would also make him an ideal fit for this system, but as Nathan mentioned, he is nowhere near sharp enough to be given the keys to such a crucial position at this moment in time.

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  • I dont see why everyone is so worried about our young talent, Portugal still have a number of key players especially in the midfield position and lets not forget that the World cup is still 8 months away. Remember Renato Sanches only just appeared 6 months before the Euro 2016 and no even knew about this kid before he showed up. I have no doubt that even if no wonder kid shows up within the next few months we can still take this World cup. If the World cup was tomorrow this would be my starting 11.

    Rui Patricio
    Nelson Semedo - Pepe - Danilo - Raphael
    Joao Mario - Adrien - Bernardo
    Andre Silva - Ronaldo

    I dont understand why no one has thought about playing Danilo has a Centre back his played centre back at Porto before and his been solid I mean as a Portista I would rather him as DM but we all know Fernando has that spot locked down for William. I would rather see Danilo playing as CB than sitting on the bench, Its just a waste of talent in my opinion. This starting 11 has the potential to win the world cup and you can imagine all the super subs we would have sitting on the bench.

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  • Guest - George

    I agree with Hulk here: Are people really that worried about our young players and the World Cup in early October..?! I mean, come on guys. Take it easy.

    I don't really see this as a positive or negative at this early point in the season, but, if I had to choose, I'd lean towards calling these circumstances a positive.

    Have we forgotten what our team looked like in Brazil? They were injured and fatigued from a long season at club level. There is a severe risk to playing every single game as a starter, especially for younger players whose bodies are still developing and may not be used to the grind just yet. Would I like to see them all establish themselves at their clubs? Sure. But if given a choice between what we see now and what we saw prior to Brazil, I'll take what we see now every day of the week. The more energy we have in the tank come May/June, the better. You know other national teams won't be rested come Russia...

    Also, I'd like to point out that, for every young player "struggling" these past few months, there is another who's making a name for himself:

    Concerned about Bruma and worried about depth on the wing? Insert Helder Costa, Wolves' reigning player of the year. He has pace, trickery; can create and score. If you haven't heard of him yet, try to catch some Wolves games. It make take him a month or so to warm up as he's just come back from an injury late in the season, but, you'll probably be impressed with what you see.

    Worried about Bernardo Silva and creativity in midfield? No problem. Insert Bruno Fernandes or Diogo Jota. You might as well throw Joao Carlos Teixeira and Bruno Xadas in there as well as they've looked really good when I've watched them. All 4 players are versatile and are capable of creating and scoring much like Bernardo, so, I don't think there's much of a reason to panic in that regard. When it comes to creativity, we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

    When it comes to imperiousness in midfield, that's a little trickier, but I believe solutions can be found with faces arlready familiar to the squad. Danilo can fill that role partnering with William in either a 4-2-3-1, or, in a 3-4-3 system if need be. A more unique option - and one that I believe could be a like-for-like replacement for Renato if you will - would be to ask Ricardo Pereira to fill that role. You can file him in the too good to be on the bench category, like Hulk said with Danilo, with the big difference being he can't even find a place on the bench most of the time. RB is crowded, and it going to be crowded for the next decade. If you're not gonna put him at LB with Raphael, then maybe he can prove to be a valuable option and weapon in the middle of the pitch. As a former winger, I don't see it as that much of a stretch, especially in a 4-4-2 diamond formation for example. I see Ricardo doing a similar job to Battaglia for those of you who've caught how he's played with William for Sporting. Different systems, but I think we'd see a similar effect.

    So in closing, I think anyone who is panicking at this point just needs to calm down. These are early days in the season, and, even if the trend continues with some of the players mentioned in the article, we aren't short on options for most positions. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if a player no one's even thinking about makes waves much like Renato did prior to Euro. Maybe someone like a Sergio Oliveira (who's been getting some time recently) or Rony Lopes, or even someone younger like Domingos Quina. Who knows? June is a long time away.

    This isn't the Portugal of old. We aren't a two or three player team, and, we aren't in dire straits. We'll be fine come Russia, one way or another. Let's just focus on winning these next two games and getting there.

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  • Good write up thanks.
    Beranrdo Silva will take time to fit into Guardiola’s overly-complex system but I’ve no doubt by the end of the season he’ll be in the team and I think they bought him to replace David Silva so he’ll get games.
    I watch Inter Milan quite a lot and Joao Mario just doesn’t do enough in the game to warrant minutes. Games pass him by for long periods and he fails to impose himself or dictate play like he should be doing so I’m not surprised he isnt getting minutes. They have quite a few midfielders who will take his place and Spalletti can be ruthless. It’s a pressure club where players sink or swim.
    Andre Silva is another who has been bought with the long term in mind so will be in and out of the team though Montella does make some baffling decision… BUT he’ll be fired soon if Milan don’t start winning more games.
    Guedes is on loan and they rate him at Valencia so he’ll get game time but what happens at the end of the season is another matter as Valencia operate on a tight budget nowadays and if they cant afford him he’ll be on the road again.

    The flipside of all this is that important member of the Portugal team are young so the future looks good after many years relying on Cristiano. William Carvalho will become an excellent CM and Andre Gomes has already improved his positioning/tactical and decision-making skills after one season in Barcelona and can play in a few positions. Long-term I think he’ll have to move on and his next move will be crucial.
    The CB’s are less convincing.

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  • Nathan, although I agree with most of what’s written in your article, I’ll also say I agree with some of the comments here saying it’s a little early to panic about a tournament taking place 9 months from now.

    Here’s an interesting point:

    In October 2015 (9 months before Euro 2016), Portugal’s squad for an important Denmark qualifier included Ricardo Carvalho, Coentrao, Tiago, Veloso, Andre Andre, Neto and Danny –all of whom played little to NO part in our Euro 2016 conquest.

    That October 2015 squad did NOT include: Joao Mario, Raphael Guerreiro, Renato Sanches or Adrien –all of whom played KEY minutes at the Euro (and in the Euro final) and were of crucial importance to our only ever major trophy win. These 4 players grew immensely over the course of the club season thereafter, whether it be through increased minutes over the winter, increased confidence, strong club performances, or the simple fact that 9 months is an adequate amount of time for a young player to develop.

    The point: Confidence shifts quickly. For every Joao Mario situation, there’s a Bruno Fernandes situation. Example: If Joao Mario’s dip in form continues, we may not even be discussing his name in 9 months. We may be too focused on the unreal season Bruno Fernandes just came off –and who knows whether he becomes a key part of our squad (and even starting 11) come June.

    Santos knows what he’s doing. Team selection is about the here & now. The squad that helps us qualify for the 2018 World Cup may very well not be the squad that wins it for us. :)

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  • Roberto, Hulk, etc, good comments and I do agree that the club situation's for our players isn't worth panicking over yet. I certainly tried to avoid that tone when writing this piece. As I mentioned, the inclusion of Guedes (and possibly Bruno Fernandes) might be exactly the changes we need that never could have happened if some of our players weren't encountering difficulties at club level. But I do think Renato's situation is concerning because of the role he had at Euro 2016 and the fact that nobody else in CM has his skillset except possibly Joao Mario and he's in the same boat. Bernardo Silva is also the type of player I don't think we can replace with anyone else.

    National team managers speak all the time about how important it is for their players to compete against top level opposition at club level on a consistent basis. Jurgen Klinsmann upset all kinds of people when he was managing the USA by saying that he was frustrated that none of his players were getting regular UCL football experience. He didn't think it was sufficient for his players to just see the pitch every now and then or play in lower tier leagues. He wanted them to be regularly tested against the best in the world.

    It is a long season and a lot can happen, but I think it is safe to say that our midfield configuration is going to be evolve quite a bit.

    Thanks for reading/commenting!

    from United States
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  • Guest - Justin/rochester

    Very good article. I'd like to bring up some counterpoints to what you're saying though. I'm a firm believer that playing with better players will significantly improve your level as in the case for Bernardo and Goncalo. Bernardo Silvia will play enough this year and the minutes he lacks on the field, he still trains with the best players in the world. He'll be fresh and eager to play for Portugal. Now take Goncalos story, he struggled for playing time at PSG but he played with the best players everyday. Why do you think he looks so good for Valencia right now? It's because of the players that he trained with for a year at PSG. As for Renato, to me, he's 100% a player that should play under one circumstance...he must play regularly for Swansea and I think he will. Even if he doesn't play that well this year, he's still a big time player for Portugal. His side of the story is sort of the opposite of Goncalos and Bernardo's but they equal to be the same thing. Renato plays with worse players every day but he plays in the most competitive league in the world. The case for Joao Mario not playing for inter bothers me but I think Bernardo could be the number 10 and then start Gelson on the outside right. I'm not sold on Andre Silva, I think he's an upgrade to our most recent forwards but I don't really know how good he really is. I think he was sort of hyped up over the last year and fell into a perfect storm of European trans willing to pay for the "next big thing".

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  • Guest - Ivo

    Couldn’t agree more on all fronts. Great piece.

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  • Guest - Jimmy

    Horrible lineup selection! Luis Neto, Eliseu and Gelson Martins. Ronaldo should be playing. Need a win and is not stupid enough to get a yellow.

    from Toronto, ON, Canada
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