Four requirements for Portugal to build a World Cup winning squad
“Champions realise that defeat - and learning from it even more than from winning - is part of the path to mastery.” - Rasheed Ogunlaru
Euro 2020 was a revelatory tournament. An exposé highlighting essential criteria for building modern, championship-calibre teams. It also advertised characteristics which have proven most successful in major tournaments spanning many generations, football cultures, and the tactical zeitgeist.
Many, including Portugal supporters, are reticent to grasp the broader implications of tournament results. Alongside us, Spain, France, Belgium, and England trudge wearily through a wasteland of inquiry, sorting the rubbish of missed opportunities. As blame proliferates and hard proofs recede into the background, the time-tested virtue of learning from old mistakes seems forgotten. After missing the 2018 World Cup, Italy remembered. They are now European Champions.
Portugal would do well to follow their example over the next 16 months.
Raw and unremarkable impressions about Portugal’s Euro 2020 performance – wholly explained by Fernando Santos’ mishandling our attack-minded players, for example – have plenty of emotional appeal but often fail to inspire changed thinking. “Fire the coach now, and solutions will flow naturally….” or so many have claimed.
But as complaints there is some validity in what people are suggesting. This is indeed a different era for Portugal, and that requires a different conversation about our Seleção. Talent is abundant. We are a bridesmaid no longer. And, Ronaldo and Pepe will not long be with us.
This work is less a tournament review as an attempt to clarify meaning and direction. To unearth and refine abstract queries about what went wrong into a sine qua non strategy for Portugal’s World Cup ambitions next year in Qatar. For that reason, I will avoid or at least make only passing mention of factors such as luck, the tournament draw, and player injuries though each of these has significant impacts on tournament outcome.
Defensively, Euro 2020 was Portugal’s worst four-game stretch in three and a half years, and level with the 2014 World Cup as our worst tournament performance on record with seven goals allowed. Of all the reasons why Portugal suffered an early exit, this is arguably the most important yet it received the least attention. It is psychologically easier to wax indignant about your team not proactively creating than it is to howl about defensive ineptitude. Still, preventing a goal improves the odds of victory more than scoring one according to statistical records.
Whatever alterations we might require to our attacking arrangement, and Pepe’s heroics notwithstanding, Portugal surely have a bona-fide defensive problem to sort out, right? Rúben Dias did not perform like the EPL’s Player of the Year, and few centreback options aside from Domingos Duarte look anywhere near ready for next year’s World Cup.
But results such as these must always be assessed in their proper context: excluding the absolute train-wreck vs Germany - Portugal conceded a very soft penalty and a Benzema goal requiring a world class ball behind the defense in the match against France plus a brilliant solo effort vs Belgium in a match which Portugal defensively controlled throughout, full stop.
Yet Santos’ Portugal have been accused of playing unreasonably pragmatic football since he assumed his present role in 2014. Supporters overwhelmingly feel Portugal let Euro 2020 get away by neglecting to confront the issue with forceful, innovative solutions befitting the exquisite attacking players at our disposal.
So which is it? Did Portugal lack attacking potency? Or did defence betray them?
I think we are asking the wrong questions. Football is too complex an endeavor to be articulated in such a binary fashion. I do not simply recommend Portugal “attack more” or “defend better” because it lacks sophistication.
In tournament football especially, functional balance is paramount, not simply individual excellence. Portugal fielded the tournament’s top scorer, and one of its better defenders, Pepe. Merely demanding more goals or greater attacking emphasis is not a solution if it imbalances on-the-pitch dynamics – our ability to maintain positive control over the ebb and flow of the game.
Ultimately, offensive or defensive improvement cannot be a goal in and of itself. Rather, it is a by-product of the first essential requirement for Portugal’s success at the 2022 World Cup.
Forge a squad whose collective functioning harmonizes the progression into and out of the four basic modes of play: established possession, transitioning to defense, being without possession, recovering the ball/transitioning to possession.
The anatomy of a well-balanced squad features contrasting performance aptitudes – players who functionally complement each other well. Against Hungary and Germany, William and Danilo were redundant and severely disrupted the harmony of the squad in these four phases. Our transitions were easier to defend resulting in numerous turnovers. Our possession only improved once Germany no longer needed to press their advantage. We generated little defensive pressure and relied on unforced errors from Germany.
When losing the ball, Portugal were especially slow and predictable through midfield. Then Renato Sanches was introduced in the second half against Germany - the graceless force of his runs dramatically improving our progression through the critical game states. One player made Portugal an entirely different opponent because it changed the character of our midfield.
Collectively, our midfield can be our salvation at the 2022 World Cup, but it is also where we need the most improvement based on what I saw at Euro 2020.
That is, if players were allowed to excel in their natural roles.
I wrote years ago about Miguel Danny – former Portugal international and Zenit St Petersburg central midfielder – and how sad it was Paulo Bento and Carlos Queiroz insisted he play on the wing instead of as a No.10. This nightmare is being relived with Bernardo Silva and at some point you have to ask in frustration – how many insipid performances is it going to take for Santos to begrudgingly agree he is not a winger? At least, not for the Seleção. When he does feature, João Félix also needs a more central role.
If Bernardo is not good enough to start in central midfield then he needs to be on the bench not shoehorned into the squad as a winger. Same goes for the rest of our midfielders and thus our next critical requirement:
Renato Sanches is Portugal's metronome - choose two others and a No.6 based on who complements him best.
This iteration of Portugal's midfield cannot get through the gears - the four basic modes of play - quickly enough without the incandescence of Renato Sanches. William's loss of form severely hurt our transition and possession play, and Danilo only occasionally showed the creativity to quickly turn defense into attack. Renato Sanches is the modern No.8 we need and seems to thrive in an unstructured role similar to N'Golo Kante. We need one of Félix, Bruno, or Bernardo Silva in the hole behind our strikers to further develop our midfield. The others sit the bench.
Optimize talent distribution
Euro 2020 revealed how much Portuguese football culture has changed – we have not mass-produced wing wizards in years. I wrote both years ago and more recently how the trend in world football is also leaning this way. In today’s game, versatility and stamina are more desirable qualities in a midfielder than raw speed and technical skill. This reality is incontestable and Portugal need a better reaction, tactically and in terms of player selection.
Many insist Pedro Neto will be Portugal’s next great No.7, and he may very well be. But he is young, and there are huge questions surrounding his ability to recover peak form after injuring his knee. Trincão, and others in the current U21 generation are simply too young to evaluate with any real conviction.
At Euro 2020, Santos brought only two players who might be considered traditional wingers – Guedes and Rafa Silva – both of whom were excluded from the squad vs Belgium. Even so, the 4-3-3 continued as our base formation, a tactical blueprint which requires a great deal of pace and creativity from the wing to be successful. A formation we borrowed from the Dutch in the 1990s and perfected in the 2000s through Figo, Maniche, Nani, Quaresma, and especially Cristiano Ronaldo.
Looking at say, the top 30 players who might be Seleção candidates in the coming year, the distribution of technical skill has clearly shifted. The emergence of Nuno Mendes and utility of Guerreiro and Cancelo as wingbacks for their club sides screams the potential for a three-man defense, and the assembly of Portugal’s starting XI into either a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. When you consider Vitinha, Daniel Bragança, Fábio Viera and others are close behind, this player pool is looking less and less as if it justifies the 4-3-3. Neto aside, all the pace and trickery you might want in a natural winger currently resides with our fullbacks. This is one area where I definitely agree a change in manager may have given Portugal greater opportunity to develop a new formation.
The past may indeed live in us, but we should not live in the past. The next critical requirement for Portugal’s World Cup 2022 preparation represents a departure from tradition.
Be willing to abandon the 4-3-3 to emphasize Portugal’s talent at fullback and in midfield.
Finally, there are emerging presuppositions in the Portuguese supporter community which need further discussion. I see some opinions of our talent pool which are at best unjustifiable. Before you flip on caps lock and rage out in the comments section below, just hear me out. Some of the difficulty in evaluating player ability is due to personal bias. We like this club or that club and so favor their young players. Some of the difficulty is because there is no flawless technique for predicting which players realize their world-class potential and those who do not. In fact, I’ve wanted to write a piece on that very subject for many years – how should we evaluate and predict those players who become historical landmarks in the game vs those who become journeymen, never finding their place.
Some seem to believe we are so talented that nothing less than 90 minutes of attacking fury will suffice – no matter the opponent. My apologies for any offense, but this expectation is irrational and belies a proper understanding of the sport. Orthodox football is art and science – a creative ensemble of players who subscribe to an elegant common vision – a way the game ought to be played – and a tactical response which organizes highly technical players into a cohesive problem solving instrument. In football as in life, elegant romance and cold hard facts are always in tension, and too much force applied either direction snaps the cord.
A championship squad is both a machine and a symphony. It will take more than great management and great players to build on Portugal’s winning tradition. Most national teams go through peaks and lows on an irregular cycle. Argentina were great in the 70s and 80s and only just now returned to prominence. Spain won the Euros in 1964, but it took more than 40 years to win another tournament. It took them until 2010 to win their first World Cup. Belgium and Sweden have roughly the same population as Portugal and have never won a major tournament.
What Portugal has done over the last twenty-five years is inconceivable and should probably never have happened. Do the work of tracing our lineage – buy “The Thirteenth Chapter” from the Book Corner on this website – and read the trajectory of this national team in its proper historical context.
We all need an expectation reset before the 2022 World Cup. That is why my final critical requirement is for the supporters.
Understand we are playing the long game - overhauling Portugal into a dominant footballing nation.
Periods of failure and underachievement are inescapable, but the prosperity curve bends upward. Another U21 Euro final appearance, young players developing across Europe’s Top-Five leagues and experienced players in their prime. We are still gathering. Soon it will be time to let loose again, and I believe big tournament performances are in store over the next decade or two.
I want each one of you to remember this painful historical reality: the Golden Generation played wonderful football, and never won a single tournament. We cannot prepare for the 2022 World Cup by insisting our present squad can reincarnate the early 2000s Seleção. Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, André Silva, João Félix, Bruno Fernandes, Dias…..these players have not convinced me our only problem is poor management. Have they honestly convinced you?
For my part, I am ready for a new manager to address some of these problems, but that is not going to happen. I am also not eyes wide shut about the possibility this group of players, in spite of their talent, may not ever integrate well enough to become champions.
Love or hate what I have just written, but think about these things over the next five weeks before Portugal get back on task in World Cup qualification against Ireland.
by Nathan Motz