It would have been this past weekend. In an alternate universe in which COVID-19 was merely the stuff of nightmares rather than the very real plague on our existence it has become, Fernando Santos would have announced the 23-man squad set to defend the European Championship.
As it is, Portugal internationals will have another year of football to make the grade, but who would have made the Fernando Santos cut if – you know – the calamitous events of 2020 had never transpired?
Seleção expert Nathan Motz discusses the squad that might have been….the squad that in fact, will never be.
It has to be said: “Man, how I wish I was on that plane to Europe in a few weeks!” But that won’t happen, nor will the Portugal national team or any other nation be gathering to contest the European Championship until next summer. While the circumstances are lamentable, it must also be said this may be very advantageous indeed for the Seleção given our group opponents and the untimely injuries that occurred within the last couple months.
Portugal were not at all ready to defend their European title this summer.
Any football team hoping to win a major tournament requires such an unlikely combination of skill, commitment, historical momentum, and luck that it takes whole books to describe it. I have written about some of these things in my time covering Portuguese football, but I won’t have the space to cover everything today. All I can say is that from the perspective of squad strength and the form of key players, the Seleção benefit greatly by having one more year for several vital pieces of the championship puzzle to fall into place.
If I made it sound like every one of our players was in miserable form then that argument certainly does not apply when considering Rui Patrício. A keeper who has never been known for his theatrical saves or proficiency in distribution that is all the rage for his position these days, Patrício was always going to lead Portugal into Euro 2020, and there is every reason to believe he’ll still be the man this time next year.
As for his back-ups, Beto and José Sá can certainly make their own claim, but I still think it would have been Anthony Lopes. For one thing, he’s a better distributor than Rui, and he’s held down the starting job at Lyon for eight years now. That’s 242 appearances for his club, but only seven for his nation in that period. You could say it’s a testament to how great Saint Rui has been for Portugal, or you could say that Lopes has been done wrong. But one thing is clear to me – Lopes is talented enough to be a starting keeper for his country should that moment arise, and I think Santos would have turned to him and probably Sá because of his age.
Left back. The enigma worsens every time Raphael Guerreiro plays a match because he is so obviously meant to be an attacking player in some capacity. He is simply too skillful to be left the wearisome burden of holding Portugal’s defensive shape in a 4-4-2. But our midfield is stacked right now. Could he dislodge Pizzi or Bruno Fernandes, who are both in great form? Regardless, Guerreiro would have been the guy on the left side of Portugal’s defence, no question. But it would have been a round-peg-in-a-square-hole situation and the sooner we all admit that, the better off we will be. That may be a tough pill to swallow for some because Guerreiro was in senstational form at Euro 2016. He was also an outright calamity at the 2018 World Cup.
Either way, Guerreiro would have received the nod ahead of his back-up, Mario Ruí, who did reasonably well to hold down a starting position with Napoli for much of the truncated 2019/20 season after a slow start. But Rui lacks technical ability, and often makes the easy back-passes instead of pressing the issue whenever I watch him.
Bottom line: Portugal need to move Guerreiro to midfield and find another left-back, but we would not have had the time to pull that off if Euro 2020 were being held this month.
At centreback, we would have seen Rúben Dias and one of Pepe or Fonte as the starters with Domingos Duarte as a reserve option. It goes without saying this situation needs improving, but again, we would not have had time to do any better if Euro 2020 was being held in just a few weeks. Now, Duarte will potentially have time to integrate into the squad, and other players like Rúben Semedo and Pedro Mendes will have time to improve their form and possibly punch their own ticket.
If Euro 2020 had happened this season, we would have had a very difficult time protecting Rui Patrício with the centrebacks at our disposal. Will that change considerably in only one year? I don’t want to cast an awful spell on us by making comment, but I will say our defence in general will need some support from our supremely talented midfield.
Because of Ricardo Pereira’s ACL rupture, Nelson Semedo would have been the obvious starter and João Cancelo, despite his ill-fated experiment at Manchester City, would probably have been the back-up. It’s very revealing that Ricardo Pereira’s injury, while awful for him personally, would not have dramatically altered Portugal’s fortune. Perhaps only England can boast a stable of right backs as accomplished as ours at the present moment.
William, Danilo, and Ruben Neves would all have been there, and there isn’t much else to say except William is an obvious starter. Coming off a back injury I would have wondered about his form, but Danilo has not been at his best either and Neves still isn’t fully ready to stand out as a lone, deep-lying maestro. William also has great chemistry with this group of players which Neves does not yet have, but it is also a very real possibility that both of them would have started with Santos showing a preference for the double-pivot. Alternately, William and Danilo may also feature together as was the case in the UEFA Nations League final against the Dutch.
But the double-pivot, while defensively robust, does not allow for more than two additional midfielders unless we fielded Cristiano Ronaldo alone at the top of the formation, which is unwise. Pizzi, Bruno Fernandes, and Bernardo Silva would be at the top of my pecking order if Portugal were going to Budapest in a couple weeks.
Two additional players who surely would have made the cut: Renato Sanches and Rafa Silva. The former is one of the best players in France all of a sudden, and the latter has somehow blossomed into a very respectable finisher as he enters the prime of his career. With Renato Sanches you get a completely different blend of technical skills and physical ability compared to any other midfielder in the pack, which is why I think he would have edged out Moutinho, and Rafa brings the kind of pace which can create dangerous match-ups along the margins of the pitch.
Ultimately this group of midfielders would have allowed Santos the range of options he normally wants – the 4-4-2 double-pivot midfield, a more traditional 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2, and a 4-3-3.
At this point, no huge surprises perhaps, but now we consider our forwards, and aside from Ronaldo, for whom no explanation is required, I have to say it’s a bit of a hot mess for Portugal right now. João Félix’s injury would likely have ruled him out, and Gonçalo Guedes is coming off the worst season of his professional career, full stop. His precipitous decline robs us of versatility as well since he can play as a winger or secondary striker.
You might go with André Silva who has recovered somewhat at Frankfurt, but Paciência would likely have missed out due to injuries and that age-old problem for Portuguese strikers – untimely loss of form. Eder is a hero, and Podence has great speed, but I just cannot say with great confidence that either of these players truly deserves to be in the squad. Same for Bruma, who is again enduring one of the worst seasons of his career, and I’m so disappointed about Rony Lopes’ situation at Sevilla I don’t even want to write about it.
But we could not only bring Ronaldo so I think if the Euros were happening this month we would have undoubtedly seen Diogo Jota, and not just because the other options are not at their peak. Jota has been a bit of a slow burn at Wolves, but he has impressive skill and determination. For me personally, he may have the most potential as a foil for Cristiano. In the end, I think it’s likely Santos would’ve chosen Ronaldo, Jota, André Silva, and maybe Podence as a reserve option. With a midfield like ours, how many strikers do you need?
All together, here’s the great “what if” squad of 2020:
Finally, this squad on paper is good enough to win a European Championship IF a few upgrades happen during the 20/21 season: just one forward to have a breakout season, continued improvement from our stable of midfielders, and a clearer option at centreback. In the meantime, there are some seriously important UEFA Nations League matches this fall, especially those against France and Croatia in October and November.
Santos and the rest of the squad have the time and space to make this work. Can they take advantage of the unexpected delay and come together again as champions next year?
by Nathan Motz