A keeper par excellence
Welcome to part one of the inquisition to substantiate Portugal's dreams of a World Cup victory. Before we direct our attention to the squad, let us briefly examine Portugal’s Group B circumstances and attempt to find that confident balance between timidity and arrogance as we discuss probabilities.
Spain, Morocco, and Iran. The case I will make regarding Portugal’s Group B situation is likely to be misconstrued so I will attempt to offer some clarifying remarks in advance. I am not suggesting this or any other World Cup group is easy or by any means a guarantee of safe passage to the knockout rounds.
Given what happened at Euro 2016, it would be foolhardy to assume anything at this point.
Having said that, Portugal are the reigning European Champions.
Despite almost universal doubt regarding Portugal’s quality, for example, I have read more than one article stating that by winning Euro 2016 they only proved you do not have to be the best team to win a tournament, I find it largely irrational to say Portugal will not qualify for the knockout rounds because it is best to avoid being overconfident.
Simply stated, what are normal expectations for a European Championship-winning side at the following World Cup? To advance, correct? Hence I do not think it smug or presumptuous to say I like Portugal’s odds to progress beyond the group stage. Whether or not they actually advance will be decided on the pitch of course, but there is still every reason to be hopeful.
At the World Cup, details matter. For instance, the order of Portugal’s group stage matches is relatively encouraging. I can feel the dissonance building when I consider Portugal’s true odds against Spain. Ultimately it is a situation in which my heart knows Portugal can win, but my mind simply cannot agree. We then face Morocco, whose first match of the tournament against Iran is an absolute must-win. Regardless, I expect Morocco to play to their strength against Portugal, which is clearly defence. The Moroccan FA is probably already spending countless hours analyzing how Iceland and Austria managed to hold back the offensive torrent that Portugal attempted to unleash on them at the Euros.
For me, the match against Morocco is the first tournament objective Portugal absolutely cannot fail to negotiate. Independent of Portugal’s result against Spain, defeat Morocco and the most likely scenario is that Iran will be forced to beat us in the final group stage match to advance. Their Carlos Queiroz-inspired defence is certainly intimidating, but if Iran is compelled to press forward and snatch victory, the dynamic is altered in a way that simply does not favor them. Portugal have all the advantage in that scenario.
Looking at potential Round of 16 opponents, again I think it reasonable to conclude Portugal could have done worse in terms of their knockout round alignment. Russia or Uruguay seem the most likely adversaries and the match will be held either in Moscow or Sochi, stadiums Portugal will be familiar with from the group stage.
But calculating Portugal’s chances based on the quality of opposition is perilous at best. Instead, I would like to adopt a more introspective posture, look at the make-up of Portugal’s squad, and ask hard questions about how it compares to World Cup winning sides of the past. In essence, what does the historical data tell us about the essential components of a World Cup winning squad? We begin by examining Portugal's No1.
Without exaggeration, Portugal have quite possibly the most underrated keeper in world football.
Rui Patrício is experienced but not old, the top-rated keeper in the Portuguese Liga conceding just 10 goals, and the #6 rated keeper across European football’s top seven leagues according to Squawka’s performance metric (domestic league matches only). Just for fun, consider Patricio’s back-up, Anthony Lopes, is rated #10. Patricio makes over 4 saves per every goal conceded, a rate higher than Hugo Lloris, David de Gea, Alisson, and Thibaut Courtois, the starting keepers for France, Spain, Brazil, and Belgium, respectively. Of course, these statistics do need to be understood within context as tactics and the individual and collective strength of the team greatly influence a given keeper’s performance score.
When I evaluated World Cup winning goalkeepers and their performances at the tournament proper, two important points became apparent.
First, even more than an acrobatic shot-stopping keeper that delivers impossible saves on a regular basis, a World Cup-winning squad needs a safe pair of gloves. A keeper who provides dependable and routine post-to-post cover and rarely makes poor choices in distribution, or mistakes concerning when to claim or punch a free kick delivery into the penalty area. Patrício has fine-tuned his cross-claiming proficiency, completing 42/42 attempts this season. Every great keeper will concede eventually, but history shows that those keepers who master the conventional tasks required of them and do not give away soft goals can be every bit as successful as the likes of Gigi Buffon. Legends of the game such as the aforementioned Buffon, Iker Casillas, or Manuel Neuer are not to be dismissed, but inspired greatness is not always superior to steadfast and unremarkable execution.
Second, nearly every World Cup champion needed their respective keeper to make one or maybe two stupefying, freakishly athletic saves or interventions that kept them in the tournament. Whether it be penalty kick shootout heroics or timely defensive interventions, even keepers that have the luxury of a world class defence in front of them are required to produce a moment or two of miraculous ingenuity when all else fails. Think Rui Patrício in the penalty kick shootout against Poland, or Iker Casillas preventing a certain goal at the expense of Arjen Robben in the 2010 World Cup final.
Despite Patrício being overlooked by the international football community, I would like to go on record by saying that if the World Cup winning nation in 2018 were to be deduced based on the quality of their goalkeepers alone, Portugal would be right alongside Brazil, Germany, and Spain as favorites. Patrício is just that quality of keeper, proving it at Euro 2016 with a matter-of-fact performance so routinely excellent that many people simply neglected to recognize its value. He began the tournament with a crucial one-v-one save against Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, and went on to consistently disguise even exceptional feats as ordinary.
Other than stop a penalty against Poland, he was rarely ever in the conversation quite feasibly because he almost never acted in error. The man made one bad free kick clearance in the entire tournament, and two of the five goals scored against Portugal were the result of wicked deflections, the type of calamitous circumstance for which no keeper should be required to offer an apology.
He followed his Euro 2016 display by conceding only four goals in ten matches during qualification for the World Cup, and allowed three goals in five matches at the Confederations Cup, saving 82% of the 17 shots he faced. Only FC Barcelona’s much-celebrated German keeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, recorded a higher shot-saving rate and he played one less match than Rui Patrício.
All of this reveals that what Patricio may lack in terms of the "wow-factor," he more than makes up for in his ability to personify Fernando Santos' team ethos: being "very difficult to beat."
The reality, of course, is that a given team’s chances in Russia will not only be decided by their keeper. Still, the fact remains this Portugal squad is blessed to have such a consistent and accomplished performer between the posts, a luxury many other nations at this World Cup will have to do without.
As for the quality of defence that Portugal will field in front of Rui Patrício, and how that will impact their odds of victory … that will be the subject of inquiry in the next episode of this series to be posted on Tuesday, 16 January.
by Nathan Motz