Arsenal of talent
He calculated the trajectory of the ball with frightening precision, flashing quickly to his left at the last second. With an imperious flick of his outstretched left boot, the ball was helplessly committed to everything that would happen afterward as a defender crashed to the turf trying to clear the danger. They idly watched as he pivoted towards goal, letting him take two touches with a casual poise that belied his menacing intent.
A controlled effluence of fury, laces through the ball, and he had scorched the back of the net with a ferocious left-to-right veering effort from 30 yards…
Couldn’t we all wax eloquent in description of so many of Cristiano Ronaldo’s masterful goals?
But this final edition of my series, and indeed this World Cup from Portugal’s point of view, will not be about Ronaldo. Goals like the one described above against Armenia in Euro 2016 qualification may decide the outcome of some individual matches, but I believe the success or failure of Portugal’s 2018 World Cup campaign as a whole rests on other factors.
But that is not because Ronaldo has struggled at times for Real Madrid this season (Or has he? See graphic). On the contrary, Ronaldo, conceivably making his final appearance at a World Cup, is as important to the Seleção as ever, but this tournament like Euro 2016, will be marked by a shift from tactical reliance on one uber-talented virtuoso to a more cohesive team dynamic.
As discussed in Part 2, Portugal’s centreback partnership alone may lack sufficient quality to fend for itself, and will surely require a versatile midfield quartet to mitigate the defensive burden. How Fernando Santos ultimately configures the midfield jigsaw puzzle is as difficult to predict as the progress of the individual players themselves during this club season. As it stands, the depth of our midfield talent pool notwithstanding, the performances of several crucial players at their domestic clubs has not inspired confidence.
But not everyone is struggling, and Santos has proven himself an astute manager in terms of player selection. For the sake of brevity, I will only address three final points regarding Portugal’s dreams of World Cup glory: choosing the right defensive midfielder, choosing the right playmaker, and choosing the right strike partner for Ronaldo.
The age-old question is solved, isn’t it? William or Danilo, that is. Yet it is an obviously recurring phenomenon that Danilo absolutely dominates William statistically in nearly every available category of measurement during each club season. Furthermore, Danilo stacks up reasonably well against other notorious holding midfielders such as Casemiro and Sergio Busquets. Notably, Danilo’s physical dominance of midfield is a crucial asset that continually lures me back into this debate even after it seems well over. This is especially true given the state of our defence.
Even so, William consistently outperforms Danilo when it matters: for the Seleção.
His range of passing and placid nature anchors our midfield in a way that Danilo has been unable to replicate. My concern with William is how well he can screen our centrebacks during matches when Portugal are unable to retain superior possession. The truth is William plays defence a bit like Andrea Pirlo: not by actually playing defence, but by distributing the ball up-field as soon as he finds a yard of space to deliver a cross. Collecting and spreading the ball away from vulnerable areas as opposed to lying in wait to dispossess an unwary opponent. Of course he can tackle and win duels to an extent, but he is not particularly skilled at either of those activities. William epitomizes the mantra "slow is smooth, and smooth is fast."
While his style of play will suffice against many opponents, I question how well it will hold up against Spain, Germany, or Brazil? In the Euro 2016 final against France, Moussa Sissoko rampaged through our midfield with impunity and left me wondering who was going to stop him. The reality is that William is ill-equipped to solve that type of problem. Danilo has the physical tools and aggression to provide that particular service, which I suspect will be necessary at some point in Russia.
Oh, I remember, we still won the Euro 2016 final, and William was involved in the build-up to the decisive goal. All I am saying is that for our midfield to have the best chance of protecting our soft defence or sustaining an effective attacking rhythm, we need the right defensive midfielder for the right match. In my opinion, William and Danilo should both see the field at this World Cup based purely on our opponent’s identity and playing style.
Rather than fight over which midfielder that should be in each context, it is important to recognize the benefit of having two defensive midfielders who exhibit completely different expressions of the game. Too often when a substitute enters a match, they are just a lesser version of the starting player they are replacing. Not so with William and Danilo. Their natures are so different that their introduction into a match would fundamentally alter the DNA of our squad.
This is a huge asset, not a curse. We have a Pirlo-esque alternative and a midfield destroyer, both of whom must play their part if Portugal are to have a realistic chance to win this World Cup. For now, William fully deserves his starting role, but I do hope Santos remains versatile enough to consider Danilo’s merits when the situation requires.
For those suggesting it best to “have our cake and eat it too” by fielding William as the holder and Danilo alongside Pepe, please consider: the best central defenders in World Cup history were not merely those with elite physical tools. It was not those who won every duel and blocked every shot.
Often they were the most tactically astute, and the most experienced; masters of their craft as opposed to physical titans like Vincent Kompany or speed merchants like Rapahael Varane. Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta are ideal specimens. There is no question Danilo could play centreback, and Santos may yet opt for this solution. But it takes years to mature the rare ability to track diagonal runs, anticipate the evolution of play through midfield, and simultaneously maintain positional awareness with three other defenders in unison.
For me, this is the same context for understanding the key differences between John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho. The former was a physically aggressive combatant. The latter a graceful tactician.
Who was the better centreback? To that I simply respond with another question: do we really need to ask?
Guns-blazin’ or composed authority? Looking at the statistical output for the leading contenders in central midfield: Adrien, Moutinho, Bruno Fernandes, and Manuel Fernandes, it is a case of one or the other in terms of passing tempo, creative style, and offensive versatility. Both Fernandes’ give Portugal a cutting edge in midfield that could be so very essential given Ronaldo’s decreasing role in build-up play. Adrien is the raw bundle of energy that blunts the opponent’s creativity and the most capable defender in this role, a real Fernando Santos-kinda guy. Moutinho, meanwhile, is the tidiest option in possession.
Still, without hesitation I will argue Bruno Fernandes is in the midst of the most impressive season by a Portuguese central midfielder since the days of Deco or maybe even Rui Costa before him. He has scored 10 goals and recorded 13 assists in 31 matches….from central midfield. Can you even imagine the manner of volatile influence he might have behind a duo of, say, Guedes and Cristiano Ronaldo?
But wait, there is more. According to statistics, Bruno Fernandes is by far the worst in terms of possession. Quite the enigma: a goalscoring central midfielder that apparently cannot hold onto the ball. Is it simply because he so often dispatches it into the back of the net or makes the crucial pass for another player to do so? Or is he wasteful and overly ambitious?
This is where the conundrum deepens because while it seems foolhardy to deprive this Portugal side his goalscoring prowess, there are other important facets of the game that must be considered. What really matters is how Santos weighs up his potential to adapt to this squad’s tactical agenda. Will Fernandes be evaluated as reckless or innovating? Irresponsible or a cutting edge?
For me, the playmaker role is a three-horse race between the Sporting prodigy, Adrien Silva, and Moutinho, and these players could not be more different. For all of Adrien’s useful qualities in curtailing the opposition midfield’s attacking threat, he will likely never replicate Bruno Fernandes’ precision strike efficacy, or mimic the well-timed runs he regularly makes into the penalty area.
Moutinho is the sober choice. An experienced, imperturbable director. But can he defend well enough? Is he a sufficient offensive asset? His adjustment into Santos’ 4-4-2 has been arduous at times. But surely his chemistry with this squad and patient reading of the game could be the difference in a tight match? It was in the Euro 2016 final against France.
I think everyone of us wants to see fireworks at this World Cup. A rekindling of the Portugal of old. Swashbuckling adventure on the metaphorical high seas. But is that prudent? What kind of risk are we willing to embrace for the sake of watching Bruno Fernandes burn a hole through the net from 30 yards? How much risk will Fernando Santos be willing to assume?
I am fast running out of time and space to continue the mental exercise, but I would like to offer just this last morsel of thought that is rather uncharacteristic of me as a pragmatist...
We may need to go-for-broke this summer. Unleash Bruno Fernandes. Go straight for the throat of those nations who mistakenly believe what the international media is telling them: that Portugal lack the quality to hurt them.
Alexander the Great was one of the great generals of history in part because he behaved unpredictably. In battle, rather than look for weak points, he sought out his enemies’ most formidable defensive vanguard and struck with reckless abandon. He completely defied expectations and savaged those portions of the line that were deemed impenetrable. In destroying the heart of the enemies defence, Alexander shattered his enemies’ morale.
No one suspects a deadly-unpredictable, mercurial avant-garde from Fernando Santos’ Portugal. Right in this moment in which no one cares to assess Portugal as anything more than a hollow defensive shell of a team, it is time to leverage the very best of our attacking weapons with devastating effect.
Our defence is not equipped to hold forever. What is there to lose?
In the very same vein, Portugal now have at their disposal a rare attacking gem, unearthed and refined this season in La Liga. What really sets Gonçalo Guedes apart from his peers? The two simple characteristics assessed by Sir Alex Ferguson as absolutely essential factors for a top player: “a turn of pace and the ability to read the game.”
Guedes combines his intimidating strike power with that most elusive of talents, the means to find a center of inner composure before making the crucial choice to shoot, pass, or dribble.
Just 21 years old, he is choosing the correct option more and more frequently.
For me, it is not so much that Guedes dominates most statistical categories compared to Portugal’s other forward options, excluding Ronaldo. It is that unlike Bruma or Gelson, there is a broader range of possibilities with Guedes, not just the spectacular strike in the case of Bruma, or the mazy run in the case of Gelson.
Not to mention Guedes completely alters the speed of Portugal’s attacking threat. I love Andre Silva and scorn the day he chose to sign for AC Milan, a troubled club in need of renaissance, but he simply cannot reproduce the spectrum of attacking threats that Guedes consistently displays. Silva, to his credit, has been excellent for Portugal and remains a valuable asset, a luxury Portugal were so often without over much of the last decade.
But Guedes seems destined for something great. How great? I don’t know, but I am wildly anticipating the one-two punch of Cristiano Ronaldo, Portuguese football's own Hercules, with Gonçalo Guedes, quite possibly Ronaldo’s successor as the next mythological hero in the saga of Portuguese football.
The conclusion of the matter
In my estimation, whether it is Guedes or Silva paired with Ronaldo, this Portugal squad have the best forward arrangement of any since Euro 2000 when Nuno Gomes led the line, all due respect to Pauleta. In Bernardo Silva we have the elegant midfield orchestrator we lacked at Euro 2016, and diversely talented attacking options off the bench such as Ricardo Quaresma and Gelson. Only João Mário and his deteriorating situation at Inter concerns me.
Having examined this team’s potential from top to bottom, are we any closer to substantiating the effervescent hope we all feel about our beloved Seleção? Is it yet beyond us to attach our raw imaginations to a base of reason? Whatever you, the reader, have observed in your mind’s eye, I proudly stand by this team’s potential to shock the world for a second time. While potential itself is often as deceiving as it is alluring, I regard it as valid to conclude this Portugal squad has enough to stake their own unique claim to hope, a quality which earnestly resists my best efforts to rationally articulate.
This team may not appear flattering from every individual angle, but within them dwells a full-bodied will to survive and overcome, perhaps the one quality missing from the extraordinarily talented Portugal squads of the past.
Can they really do it?
Will we actually witness Ronaldo finish what his legendary predecessors began by finally scaling the very pinnacle of footballing achievement? The theatre begins 15 June in Sochi. A grander spectacle I can hardly imagine...
Força Seleção sempre.
by Nathan Motz