In only 48 hours, the Seleção return to action in the UEFA Nations League semifinals against Switzerland. With the inaugural tournament finals being hosted in Portugal, big expectations are being placed on the shoulders of Fernando Santos and his men.
The squad, meanwhile, remain hesitant at a figurative crossroads. With so much talent, the path ahead could arguably be onward to heights previously unattainable for a nation as small as Portugal. Yet, there exists a palpable uncertainty about how to get the best out of this talented group of individuals. It is possible they could fall astray and get caught in limbo between greatness and outright mediocrity.
Seleção expert Nathan Motz previews the Nations League showpiece and briefly discusses future implications to the development of the team.
Portugal’s match against Switzerland on Wednesday in Porto is a significant opportunity. Obviously it is the first step to reaching the tournament final against either England or the Netherlands. It is also a platform for Fernando Santos to finally determine the right configuration of the considerable talent he has at his disposal.
Switzerland were excellent in group play, scoring 14 goals in four matches and clinching their semifinal berth with a sensational performance against the Belgians. Portugal were inconsistent in a very defensive Group 3, scoring only five goals in four matches.
Head-to-head, Switzerland have the upper hand, winning 10 of their 22 matches. In recent times, Portugal were defeated in Switzerland during 2018 World Cup qualifying, but had the last laugh as they forced the Swiss into the qualification playoffs on the last matchday, winning 2-0 at the Estádio da Luz.
Meanwhile, the opposite semifinal match in Guimarães features two squads in white hot form. The Netherlands, after missing out on the 2018 World Cup entirely, were able to dispatch World Champions France and powerhouse Germany to book their ticket. England narrowly edged out Spain and World Cup runners-up Croatia in Group 4.
England lead the Netherlands head-to-head with 14 wins compared to 10 for the Dutch, but both sides are loaded with talent and will certainly feel they have every opportunity to move one step closer to silverware.
Thus far, the tournament has proven to be an overwhelming success with results on the pitch mirrored by enthusiastic fan support. The additional avenue to secure qualification to the European Championships also increased the impact this tournament has on the international football calendar. Though it is fair to say the prestige is lacking with respect to the European Championship, this tournament is likely to become a feature for many years and it represents another opportunity for nations to gain competitive advantage in the build-up to the traditional and more renowned tournaments.
For Portugal, it is imperative the squad be refined in an actual competition and in that sense the Nations League is good value. Though a great chance to add another trophy to the cabinet, the bigger picture for Portugal will be about cementing the right formation ahead of next summer’s showpiece event, the European Championship, which will be held in cities across Europe.
There are multiple issues for Santos to address. Providing cover to an aging group of centerbacks is paramount and might warrant the inclusion of two defensive midfielders as Santos did against Serbia in March. But there are huge question marks regarding how that affects Portugal’s offensive capabilities, especially with so many attacking specialists in the squad.
Portugal have indeed struggled for consistency in attack, particularly since the end of group play in the Nations League and into the opening two matches of European Championship qualifying. Calls for Bernardo Silva to move centrally have only increased, especially since Bruno Fernandes’ creative prowess makes him very difficult to leave out of the starting XI. Moutinho and Pizzi also had superb seasons for their respective club sides and Gonçalo Guedes will be eager to erase his poor World Cup from memory while Benfica's Rafa Silva showed this season he may finally be ready to make good on the promise he showed at the beginning of his professional career.
Santos will also have to decide whether he sticks with Guerreiro or defaults to Mario Rui at left-back. Cancelo must prove he can stabilize his side of the back-four in addition to supplementing the attack. While the long-term stability of our defence may rest more on who succeeds Pepe and Fonte at centerback, Portugal’s fullback options have yet to conclusively demonstrate their merit on the pitch. All things considered, Portugal's defensive situation is still very much less than ideal.
Finally, João Félix has been heralded by some as the most exciting Portuguese player since Cristiano Ronaldo, a comparison which has been made many times in reference to young, exciting Portuguese players. But Diogo Jota will feel his time has come to support Cristiano Ronaldo after concluding a successful first season in the English Premier League with Wolverhampton.
Santos is expected to favor some variation of 4-4-2 to accommodate Portugal's wealth of midfield talent, but a late game 4-3-3 looks possible as well. The stage is set for Fernando Santos to design the squad which will either drive Portugal to victory and perhaps onto even greater things in the years to come, or leave Portugal fans desperately wondering at the state of our underachievement despite the luxurious individual talent in the squad.
As a side issue, this summer will add more arguments to the ongoing debate comparing the two greatest footballers on the planet over the last decade. The Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo narrative has been on social media for almost a decade now, just like the craze of playing poker online. Messi leads his Argentina side into Copa America in Brazil, while Ronaldo will hope to captain Portugal to a second conquest of Europe in three years.
Despite Switzerland’s ominous form, they are faced with the task of beating Portugal on its own turf, and even with respect to the aforementioned squad conundrum and inconsistent displays, the Seleção will be eager to remind the world they are the reigning European Champions. If Santos can find the magic combination in midfield that gets the best out of Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, rejuvenated talents like Rafa Silva, and stalwarts Moutinho, Pizzi, and William, Portugal will be able to control this match. However, Champions League winner Xherdan Shaqiri and Seferovic will spearhead an attack that will almost certainly give Portugal’s backline problems, especially if Guerreiro and Cancelo fail to mind their defensive responsibilities.
In the other semifinal, one gets the feeling that England is coming due for a trophy. Even a less glamorous occasion such as this will likely compel this talented squad to perform at their collective best. With many players coming off great seasons in the English Premier League, it is difficult to see England not reaching the final.
As a longtime Seleção fan, I would love to see Portugal win this tournament. My heart tells me this is going to happen. My mind tells me our squad is in a state of transition and has not yet found its best tactical arrangement. While the future looks incredibly bright, I believe Portugal will defeat Switzerland only to succumb to England in the final.
5 June, Portugal vs Switzerland, Estádio do Dragão, Porto 2045 CEST
6 June, England vs Netherlands, Estádio D. Afonso Henriques, Guimarães 2045 CEST
Third place play-off
9 June, Losers semi-final 1 vs losers semi-final 2, Estádio D. Afonso Henriques, Guimarães 1500 CEST
9 June, Winners semi-final 1 vs winners semi-final 2, Estádio do Dragão, Porto 2045 CEST
by Nathan Motz