Onward and upward

Momentum. The mathematical description of an object’s mass and velocity working in concert. It is much harder to stop an object in motion.

Having overcame the mountainous obstacle of securing its first major championship in 2016, the Seleção have gathered velocity and hurdled the negative inertia of the shattered hopes and dreams of 1966, 2004, 2006, and 2012.

Our destiny has been fundamentally altered. It is now inexorably tilted in the direction of prestigious achievements which would have been unimaginable even just five years ago. There is a palpable sense of expansion, something building. But we are not there yet.

After adding the inaugural Nations League trophy to the cabinet, the Seleção must now decipher how to channel the building momentum into a vehicle for further conquest: next year’s Euros and possibly the World Cup, where even Cristiano Ronaldo’s leadership has proven insubstantial to propel the Seleção into that elite class of nations.

But the more immediate concern is qualification for Euro 2020. That there are still people who do not believe we can correct course after the disappointing results against Ukraine and Serbia…well, read your history. That said, the Sept 7th visit to Belgrade looms large, especially with the return leg against Ukraine still to play on 14 October in Kiev.

Realistically, Portugal need to win one of those matches, draw the other, and run the table against Luxembourg and Lithuania. If that fails, the UEFA Nations League playoff route is still open to us.

That all sounds like relatively decent news, but there are a few difficulties Portugal will have to sort out first. Despite my own personal reservations, the double pivot worked pretty well against the Dutch in the Nations League final, but will it be as successful against a less adventurous side that does not try to control possession? If Plan A is the double-pivot, a formidable Plan B will be required when Ukraine or Serbia choose to sit back in two banks of four at the edge of their own penalty area for the entire ninety minutes.

Defense

Our preferred centreback options of Rúben Dias plus one of Pepe or José Fonte might be enough to get us through qualification, but there has to be serious mental capital invested in selecting more robust options for next summer’s main event. Montpellier’s Pedro Mendes has been ripe for development for the past few seasons, and you have to think one or both of Rúben Vezo and Paulo Oliveira might deserve a chance if they can sustain good form for their respective La Liga clubs. Many Portugal fans are screaming for Ferro to make Fernando Santos’ cut too, and his partnership with Rúben Dias at Benfica surely cannot hurt his chances. Meanwhile, at 25 years old, Edgar Ié appears to be taking a step backwards having been sold to Trabzonspor and immediately sent on loan to Feyenoord in the Dutch Eredivisie. My overall rendering is that our CB situation does not appear as hopeless as it once did, but it still is not altogether inspiring either. Nevertheless, failure to eventually replace Fonte and Pepe is probably the scenario most likely to halt Portugal’s forward momentum in world football. Serious talent is readily coming available in just about every other position.

Raphaël Guerreiro's situation at Dortmund is also a potential concern. He is being offered an improved contract and an extension, but if he does not accept he will likely be sold, destination unknown. Thorgan Hazard, brother of Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard, featured at LB last weekend and was good so there is no assurance Guerreiro will be able to hold onto his starting role anyway. Guerreiro may be one of Portugal’s most underrated talents, but his form with Portugal is strongly linked to his utilization at club level. When Dortmund consistently play him in midfield, he seems to lose a certain degree of tactical nous. When they play him at left-back as they did towards the end of last season, he plays much better defensively for Portugal, see the Nations League final against the Dutch. Mário Rui’s future with Napoli is also uncertain. His playing time diminished considerably in the second half of the 2018/19 season to the extent that Rui’s agent began making the type of statements you only hear when their client’s relationship with their present club has become irreparable. Statements like “there are no shortage of offers for Mário Rui” and “the player’s dream is Benfica.” But no move has transpired so far which likely means more time on the bench for Rui as reports indicate Faouzi Ghoulam will start for Napoli.  

On the opposite side of the back-four, Nelson Semedo does appear to be asserting himself both for Portugal and his club side, Barcelona. This is great news because I wonder how much playing time João Cancelo will actually get for Manchester City. As happy as I am to see him at a big club, Cancelo’s utility as a right-back for Pep’s version of City appears limited at best. There is even talk he might not feature as a RB at all. If that happens, Cancelo’s outlook with Portugal certainly is not going to improve, especially with Ricardo Pereira in such terrifc form. Pereira has been his side’s best player in both of their Premier League matches so far this season and looks set to be Semedo’s main competition at right-back.

Midfield and forward options

Bruno Fernandes staying put at Sporting is going to give him something to play for which can only help his form. I like him to score 30 more goals this season. His combination with Bernardo Silva in midfield is arguably becoming one of the more attractive pairings in world football. They complement each other well, Bernardo Silva better in possession and Bruno Fernandes more direct, and both are well-known for outworking every other player on the pitch. Then there’s Pizzi. At 30, his career seems to be just beginning. The beating heart of Benfica, he and another rejuvenated talent, Rafa Silva, are playing so well it might not be possible to keep them out of Portugal’s starting XI for much longer.

William and Danilo will likely form the base of Portugal’s midfield for the foreseeable future, but there are so many good alternatives present now that it seems unrealistic to even guess who Santos will choose in any given match. Rúben Neves, in my opinion, is still a season or two away from stamping his permanent claim in defensive midfield, all due respect to his goalscoring prowess.

Finally, at the cutting edge of Portugal's 4-4-2, João Félix and Diogo Jota are both clamoring for their place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. The calculus is not that difficult though. If Félix has even a modicum of success with Atletico, the role is his. Diogo Jota has great qualities, but he doesn't play Champions League football, and his skillset is not as diverse. For the record, I still think Jota deserves to start with Ronaldo in a 4-4-2, but Félix gets better press and, perhaps more importantly, has already featured with Ronaldo while Jota is still waiting for his first senior cap.

Make no mistake, on the strength of its midfield and attacking options, Portugal are even now devising a hostile takeover of world football. Bernardo Silva is becoming a phenomenon and João Félix is poised to stake Portugal’s claim in La Liga. The sale of Bruno Fernandes might not have happened this time, but it will. Rafael Leão is carrying the flag for Portugal in Serie A. Wolverhampton are the most exciting non-UCL team in England, and it’s due almost entirely to their Portuguese contingent. All of this success is going to fuel the momentum Portugal are riding in the wake of events over the last three years of competition. 

Critics still reject the merit of Portugal’s achievements. “The Euros were a fluke” and “the Nations League was unimportant.” But Portugal are competing alongside and defeating quality teams. We are led by a thoughtful and strategically astute Mister who seems wholly unaffected by criticism. While the international media spins our every achievement, Portugal are quietly assembling a formidable squad of precociously talented youngsters and weathered veterans led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the nation’s heritage of bravery, conquest, and heroism personified. Though he recently admitted that criminal accusations against him made 2018 “the worst year of his life,” Ronaldo’s irrepressible nature continues to inspire everyone around him. Off the field, there may be troubling indictments which I very much hope are untrue. On the field, he is Portugal’s center of gravity, its forever talisman, and the trailblazer for pathways new, along which future generations of the Seleção will carry on the legacy.

Who knows? Within the next 10 months of international football we may be talking about Portugal’s very own European dynasty. Don’t believe me? Neither did many believe we could win Euro 2016, myself included. The momentum is with us. There is plenty of football legend yet to be told before this rock we abide on ceases to rotate on its axis. It is inescapable now…..the pages of history will continue being bathed in the red and green of Portugal.

by Nathan Motz

Comments (6)

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As Nathan mentioned, many people have downplayed Portugal's Euro 2016 and Nations League triumphs as a fortunate fluke and glorified friendly tournament respectively, but anyone who has been following Portugal and our incredibly promising pool of...

As Nathan mentioned, many people have downplayed Portugal's Euro 2016 and Nations League triumphs as a fortunate fluke and glorified friendly tournament respectively, but anyone who has been following Portugal and our incredibly promising pool of young talent knows that we have every chance of winning the Euros next year, and we will undoubtedly have a strong enough squad to compete for the World Cup in 2022.

In all honesty, the only European national team than is objectively better than Portugal at the moment is France, and I don't think there's a massive difference in quality, especially if you look each side's strongest starting 11. Spain and Germany have regressed over the past 4 years and neither country appears to be producing a plethora of exciting young talent, especially compared to the teams they had 5-10 years ago.

Italy, once a powerhouse of the international game has some promising young talent coming through but they are a far cry from the Italian sides of hold. How many of Italy's current stars would even make it on the 2006 World Cup winning squad? Chiellini, Verratti, and perhaps one of Isigne or Chiesa. The Dutch and English have definitely improved over the past two years, but both teams lack world-class talent in several key positions.

Belgium have an excellent squad on paper, but without a competent coach, I don't see them making it past a semifinal.

Therefore, it is up to Fernando Santos to devise a tactical scheme that gets the very best out of this hugely promising squad. Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, William, Pepe, and Patricio as of right now are the only guaranteed starters. Joao Felix and Bruno Fernandes need to be somewhere in the picture, preferably in the starting 11, but it remains to be seen if Fernando Santos has what it takes to accommodate these two guys in a system that works without stifling the influence of Ronaldo and Bernardo.

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future is bright post-ronaldo&pepe. for atleast next 10 years i think we can qualify for all major tournaments without much sweat. bernardo could be our flag bearer but i think so joao felix looks also very promising. goals are in the plenty, the...

future is bright post-ronaldo&pepe. for atleast next 10 years i think we can qualify for all major tournaments without much sweat. bernardo could be our flag bearer but i think so joao felix looks also very promising. goals are in the plenty, the usual suspect andre silva joined by raphael leao, paciencia, lopes, jota, rafa and alexander guedes should atleast assure us goals against minnows and defensive teams. our young wingers/ wingbacks also look promising - cancelo, semedo, ricardo, gelson, bruma, etc. we have ruben dias, ferro, leite, queiros, cardoso our future centre backs. the only worry for me is in holding midfield. william, danilo havent taken to the next level. maybe neves or andre gomes in future.

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Yes exciting times indeed for the Selecao. We are really on the brink of another golden generation of players. Some would argue that we are already in the midst of one, having won two of the last three official tournaments involving UEFA national...

Yes exciting times indeed for the Selecao. We are really on the brink of another golden generation of players. Some would argue that we are already in the midst of one, having won two of the last three official tournaments involving UEFA national teams. I think no country on Earth has been producing more exciting young talent in recent years than we have. Not France, not Spain, not Brasil....not anyone. The last 5 or 6 years have seen an amazing abundance of talent produced. Benfica's Seixal academy has been churning out talent at an incredible rate, Porto's academy has begun to follow suit recently, and Sporting's academy will always produce talent too. So exciting times ahead for the national team.

I would like to see this line-up for the remaining Euro qualifiers:

4-4-2 (but flexible to change to 4-3-3)

Patricio

Semedo Dias Pepe Guerreiro

Bernardo William Bruno Fernandes Rafa Silva

Joao Felix Ronaldo


This 4-4-2 could easily shift to a 4-3-3, even within a match, as Rafa Silva is a very offensive winger, he's practically a forward, so that could just as much be a front 3 together with Ronaldo and Felix.

Perhaps in more demanding matches, against stronger opposition when we'd need to be more solid defensively, Ruben Neves or even Danilo could come in for Bruno Fernandes.

I include Pepe for his experience, but he is past his best years now. In the last year or so, Ferro has been much the better CB of the two, and it's surely only a matter of time until Ferro takes the other CB spot in the team

All in all I think this would be a very balanced line-up, with the potential to be very potent in attack..

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Portugal has a good chance at winning euro 2020. I agree that right now, there are few objectively better squads in international football.

Media will always hate on us. They don’t like to acknowledge Portugal’s success.

Even in my daily life,...

Portugal has a good chance at winning euro 2020. I agree that right now, there are few objectively better squads in international football.

Media will always hate on us. They don’t like to acknowledge Portugal’s success.

Even in my daily life, people do not want to acknowledge my success as a man of Portuguese descent. We are a marginalized group in Canadian society.

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Until Portugal wins another World Cup they will never get the Respect they earn and deserve

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For the World Cup we need a world class defender or two, and I don’t mean Pepe or Fonte as I believe they’re aging out. Hell I don’t know if they’ll make it to Euro 2020. Ferro, Diogo Leite, Diogo Queiros, need to develop quickly or Ruden Mendes...

For the World Cup we need a world class defender or two, and I don’t mean Pepe or Fonte as I believe they’re aging out. Hell I don’t know if they’ll make it to Euro 2020. Ferro, Diogo Leite, Diogo Queiros, need to develop quickly or Ruden Mendes and Paulo Oliveira need to suddenly becomes world class overnight. And I mean world class, the rest of the national team has world class players on world class teams, so to lower our standards for CB’s is selling ourselves short.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We knew we had to start well, try and score early and not give Lithuania the chance to counter-attack. I think we did that. Scoring early was important.”

Ricardo Pereira
(Portugal right-back explains the recipe for the thumping win in the Euro 2020 qualifier against Lithuania) 

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