Can Santos harness the UEFA Nations League as a catalyst for Portugal's World Cup campaign?

The emotionally wrenching and unsavory business of qualification behind us, to what now should we devote our anxiety? The eternal question for Seleção supporters, is it not? But perhaps this go-around there is not so very much about which to be concerned?

A group stage draw of Uruguay, South Korea, and Ghana surely must be considered a rather delightful trio compared with those Groups of Death to which Portugal have been assigned in years past.

Alas, sadly, there can be no respite for the predictably morose and cynical following, can there? Portugal were lucky in the qualification playoffs, especially against Turkey.

Mercifully for us all, six months and six matches separate Portugal from the crucible of the World Cup group stage. Attention turns to the UEFA Nations League, an opportunity so essential to this squad’s ambitions at the main event later this year.

And what a spectacle it will be! Not only do we bid hopefully fond farewell to Portugal’s most successful manager, not only do we clash with Paulo Bento’s South Korea, but we cherish the hallowed occasion as three of the greatest to ever wear our colors play their final World Cup. When Moutinho, Pepe, and Ronaldo step off the pitch in Qatar for the last time, regardless how Portugal finish, so departs the heart, soul, and strength of Portugal’s most iconic generation of players. Remove these three, and the historical account of this nation’s struggle for footballing legitimacy is unrecognizable from its present condition.

They write the final chapter of their World Cup legacies, and very possibly their international careers, as legends, demigods of Portuguese football lore, let the paean be written, the tears and poetry spill; the sojourn of three football immortals concludes. How blessed was this fortune bestowed that we beheld the unforgettable theatre they routinely staged over the better part of 15 years?

To even attempt honoring their storied careers with a proper send off, there is much to do. Defense, midfield, all is out of sorts. How fortuitous, then, Portugal begin a genuinely competitive mini-tournament. The chance to forge the backbone of what we all hope becomes a World Cup-winning side.

All due respect to the Nations League, in its own right a compelling and momentous affair, these 6 matches are our rehearsal for the World Cup. Having fought so hard to get to Qatar, and with significant turnover likely to take place in the squad thereafter, this World Cup means just that much more.

Where even do we begin?

1. Centreback depth is our sine qua non

We cannot mount a serious challenge at this World Cup without readying at least one new centreback. This can has been well and truly kicked down the road for far too long. Against Turkey in March, Fonte and Danilo’s centreback partnership exposed how concerning our predicament is whenever Dias or Pepe are absent. At Euro 2016, Portugal needed all four CBs at different stages. If Portugal make a deep run in Qatar, we cannot expect both or any of our preferred CBs to be available for every match, especially Pepe.

As I see it, there is some good news and some bad news.

Santos elected well to assemble our strongest defence minus Dias, who is injured. David Carmo, Goncalo Inácio, Tiago Djaló, and Domingos Duarte all had involved club campaigns, and all save Carmo have been called up to the senior side previously. But only Duarte has been capped. Time being of the essence, it is impractical to grant every candidate a significant opportunity while giving Pepe and eventually Dias reps as well. Djaló and Inácio, therefore, were dropped to the U21 side. More on that later.

To replace Pepe, for example, is to replace the asymmetrical advantage he creates with his ability to bring the ball out of defense, a skill which alleviates stress on an already beleaguered midfield. We need a positionally-astute defender, not just someone strong in the tackle, and a defender who distributes well from deep can drag the opposition press out of shape.

But this is all a lot to ask of a young centreback, isn’t it? Who among our eligible cadre can deliver all or even some of these attributes?

Statistical analysis, within certain limitations, illuminates how each player approaches the game. When we contrast these tendencies with actual requirements, a better visual for how each player might benefit this squad emerges.

Looking at distribution, there are several interesting findings. Statistically, Rúben Dias is highest-rated across the full battery of passing metrics, but it is important to remember he plays for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City which grossly skews the numbers in his favor.

Both Pepe and Rúben Dias are fairly well-rounded passers. Relative to other CBs in top Europe’s top-five leagues, they deliver a high number of key passes p90 and both attempt a high number of passes longer than 30 yards with decent success. While David Carmo exceeded them both – and every other CB in this particular discussion - in key passes p90, his general passing metrics are uninspiring.

Of the four candidates mentioned above, Tiago Djaló was better-rated in nearly every passing category available.

Djaló is also much more involved in outfield play, registering more touches and carries p90, but I am sure others would like to know how these guys actually defend. Here we find the bad news: statistics do not paint a rosy portrait for any one defender. Carmo is a clearance specialist, but his tackling and pressing is mediocre; Inácio blocks shots well, but is bang average when attempting to dispossess an opposition dribbler; Djaló is the best-rounded of the bunch, a far better tackler and more likely to press yet he is unexceptional at blocks and interceptions – read, he is not planted along the back four disrupting passes and deflecting shots.

But I believe this squad needs more than a static defender who is tough to dribble around. Rúben Dias’ defensive metrics are not the stuff of legend either. We need a competent, involved centreback with the confidence to take risks – with an appreciable rate of success.

In my opinion, 22 yr old Tiago Djaló deserved first opportunity to prove himself. Some may be more interested in overall team impact and under-awed by Lille’s mid-table finish, but I am more concerned with how well a defender creates asymmetric advantage - how well he uses the ball in each facet of the game.

Of all our CBs, Djaló is most likely to out-dribble opponents - a sign of great confidence in such a young player - distributes more frequently and with better effect, and is defensively proficient enough to anticipate long-term development potential. He has Champions League experience, seems physically durable, and demonstrates his versatility for Lille by stepping in at fullback when required. He benefits from Jose Fonte’s leadership and regularly plays alongside Renato Sanches as well.

In summary, Fernando Santos missed another trick not calling up Djaló for the June matches. Why not drop William and register Danilo as a defensive midfielder to make space?  Duarte is very poor statistically and has not significantly improved from last season for now-relegated Granada. In contrast, Djaló had a very good season and by calling up Danilo as a CB, Santos deprived yet another emerging talent a key opportunity to establish himself before the World Cup.

Carmo may yet prove as essential to these proceedings as he was to Braga upon his return from long-term injury, and he will certainly amplify our set piece defence. But how well can he replace Pepe? His metrics do not suggest he can. We need a defender who is functionally and technically adept to do more than survive wave after wave of attack. 

2. Creativity

While depth at centreback is Portugal’s ultimate constraint at this World Cup, the creative engine stutters capriciously, ultra-sensitive to even subtle perturbations in our preferred XI. Bruno’s fine outing against North Macedonia notwithstanding, the aggregate effect of his inclusion alongside Bernardo Silva, Moutinho, Renato Sanches and others remains a riddle unsolved, in my humble opinion.

To be clear, as of this very moment my preferred midfield is Pahlinha, Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva – and Bruno Fernandes. Our very first UNL match against Spain will ask very hard questions of whomever Santos fields in the center of the pitch. He would do well to gather and carefully implement solutions to the problems which Spain will undoubtedly reveal.

There are good forwards in this squad, the problem is translating defence into attack. There are far too few chances created. A change in formation is unlikely, or I would suggest pressing Nuno Mendes and João Cancelo more into the attack in a 3-5-2 or 3-4-3. No, the innovative cure must be derived in some variant of a 4-4-2. The instinct then is to demand Vitinha or Ricardo Horta, but I suspect Portugal’s last two matches partially lifted the veil concealing what must be our creative plan in the days ahead.

I have written before that Renato Sanches is the metronome our midfield lacks. Yet in Renato Sanches’ absence, Otávio and Matheus Nunes have breathed life into Portugal’s creative symphony before, and they did so not by weaving neat passes through the lines, or with delicately chipped lobs over the defence. Their toughness and dynamic running opened seams which others exploited. It does not hurt they have also contributed as many goals as João Félix in far less opportunities, but these Nations League matches need to explore these findings more completely, without bias.

Vitinha and Horta need a workout too, especially the latter, but this midfield seems to benefit from a certain reckless abandon and disruptive vigor. Flair and finesse are worshiped to the extent that certain players may be deemed more valuable whether they can deliver the goods or not. Sometimes all you need is blunt force, and maybe just a dab of existential rage. 

If Matheus and Otávio are more potent in aggregate than more heralded players like Renato, Bruno Fernandes, and Bernardo Silva…let it be.

3. Much ado about Leão

While argument rightly festers over which of Diogo Jota or João Félix is better-suited as a support striker, Rafael Leão is in scintillating form and is due his opportunity. The soon-to-be 23 yr old has become renowned for his direct approach, one of the top dribblers in Europe this season, but goalscoring acumen has markedly improved. Even so, the urgency to evaluate his potential has risen to a fever pitch yet he, too, is a risky investment. His 1-v-1 ability Portugal lack, but his link-up play is quite raw - as reflected in his passing metrics - and he relies more on raw pace than good combination play.

An unpopular take right now – Leão’s statistical profile is that of an impact substitution, not a starter. Not yet at least.

Football is a game-state sport meaning the nature of a match pivots vigorously about specific occurrences. For example, when a team concedes early, the nature of the match dramatically shifts for both teams, and very different tactical responses must follow - or else. Leão will not simply be free to run at the backline unless the present game-state requires that. For much of the match, he will need to exercise patience in build-up play, assist defensively, drop into midfield to collect passes, and other tasks which in my opinion may distract him from what he does best: out-dueling beleaguered defenders on the dribble and creating chaos with his speed. Employing Leão as a substitute optimizes his effect by harmonizing his primary skills with the present game-state - one in which we specifically require an attacking outburst. 

Should he at least be given the starting role to see what he does with it? Unequivocally, yes. But as a supporter community there are several recent examples of bias for lavishly skillful young players which should serve as a warning. Granted, the player I have in mind, João Félix, was still a teenager when he was thrown into the first team, and we all know how that went. Leão is almost 23 so in many ways he represents the wise departure from the status quo I and many others have often recommended for young players – take the extra couple years to develop and become better established at club level, working incrementally toward international success. Talent aside, it may be because he’s been forced to wait these extra years that Leão ultimately surpasses all expectations set for his predecessors.

But those expectations…..that is where the reader would do well to consider how unlikely it is Leão strides onto the scene with resounding success over these UNL matches. A baptism of fire is far more likely, and it’s nothing against Leão himself. This entire squad has underachieved for years, and nearly every individual save Cristiano, Pepe and a few others escaped these effects. Leão, too, will experience difficulties in adaptation, and all of us should be anticipating his contribution one of gradual acclimation versus a thunderbolt from heaven. Just do not misunderstand me - how we get the most from a player with the talent of Rafael Leão is absolutely paramount.

I could go on, we all could. This side is bursting with unfulfilled promise - current champions in league’s across Europe, tomorrow’s headliners, and the best to ever play the game. There is such hope.

And there is Fernando Santos - with one more opportunity to get it right before it is all said and done. Several years of lethargy….and six matches to transform Portugal’s fate.

Am I having delusions of grandeur, or is there an epic finale in store? Get here, November.

Força Seleção.

by Nathan Motz

Comments (11)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Nice article Nathan, I hope you and your family are doing well.

Renato Sanches' constant injury issues is a shame for himself and Portugal. Who would have thought it would go this way in 2016!

Rafael Leão's rise has been sensational to see. The...

Nice article Nathan, I hope you and your family are doing well.

Renato Sanches' constant injury issues is a shame for himself and Portugal. Who would have thought it would go this way in 2016!

Rafael Leão's rise has been sensational to see. The problem for him is that Santos has gradually moved away from a 4-3-3 type formation where he would be most effective out on the left wing. Leão's transition from a striker to a winger has been on of the main reasons for his rapid improvement.

I don't understand you centre back analysis and I think the rationale you have used to say Tiago Djaló deserves first opportunity to prove himself is flawed. Are all the stats you quoted on Djaló when he played centre back, left back or right back? Djaló's relationship with Jose Fonte is largley irrelevant with Fonte unlikely to be called up again.

You appear to have dismissed David Carmo because his metrics don't suggest he can replace Pepe. If so, this is why using metrics and statistics to evaluate players can be problematic, because it neglects many factors that can't be measured with numbers.

I am in agreement about the decision to call up Duarte. It's clear Santos values age and experience at the expense of trusting Portugal's young central defenders.

Força

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Matthew Marshall
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Matthew, very true regarding Leao and that is one of my chief concerns with him for Portugal. Santos has struggled to use players in their preferred roles. It is not all his fault as there is quite a logjam of talent, but Leao may have difficulty...

Matthew, very true regarding Leao and that is one of my chief concerns with him for Portugal. Santos has struggled to use players in their preferred roles. It is not all his fault as there is quite a logjam of talent, but Leao may have difficulty in a 4-4-2.

Regarding CBs...I suppose I could have written the entire article about them only, haha. I tried to offer the reader some context for what we actually need in a CB. We need to look deeper at what skillset we need to replace whenever Pepe and/or Dias are out.

Statistics certainly have limitations, and it is also true that brilliant players normally leave statistically relevant indicators of their ability. In my analysis of Carmo, there was surprisingly little there and I did want to be honest about that. It does not mean he cannot become a wonderful asset for Portugal, but it remains the case he struggles in a lot of key areas which seem fairly important to becoming a reliable deputy to Pepe/Dias.

Ultimately, my frustration was not so much with Carmo, however, but with Santos' stubborn insistence to call up Danilo as a CB when he is so clearly not in his ideal element whenever he's on the backline. Duarte's call-up, too, frustrates me because there is literally no statistical basis whatever to select him over Djalo. He isn't a bad defender, but we need to consider our very best options and the statistics simply do not substantiate that in any way.

I do accept your point about statistics failing to provide universal clarity as to a player's real potential, but I'm also wary of the hype machine. Carmo right now, for better and for worse, is getting the hype. This is not an empirical proof he will perform well for Portugal as he does for Braga. Metrics provide us something more substantial than hype to evaluate a player. I've just attempted to be fair in my representation that between Carmo and Djalo, it is the latter who stands out. Djalo's stats are in comparison with other centrebacks, as he is predominantly a centreback for Lille. In summary, I don't think it has to be a zero sum game where stats either mean nothing or everything. Rather, stats mean something and it is our job to interpret them as best we can. Obviously, interpretation varies widely!

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Nathan
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I don't watch Lille very often but it seems Djaló played more games at left back and right back compared to centre back this season. Are the stats you referenced for all positions? Where are the stats coming from?

I haven't seen any hype about...

I don't watch Lille very often but it seems Djaló played more games at left back and right back compared to centre back this season. Are the stats you referenced for all positions? Where are the stats coming from?

I haven't seen any hype about David Carmo, but I don't exactly go looking for it. All of my analysis came from watching him play and talking to Carlos Carvalhal, we have approached him from two different angles but I am very pleased he was called up and hope he gets some game time.

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Matthew Marshall
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I used FBREF and looked at the last 365 days of action in league and European competition. I looked at their statistical comparison with other centrebacks. According to Transfermarkt, Djaló played more than twice as many games this season...

I used FBREF and looked at the last 365 days of action in league and European competition. I looked at their statistical comparison with other centrebacks. According to Transfermarkt, Djaló played more than twice as many games this season compared to last season, and played centreback the most but also split time at right back and left back. There's all kinds of nuance in this because Djaló also played a lot more games than Carmo so what we do have on Carmo is slightly less robust because the sample size is smaller.

A lot of people who love the Portuguese league seem to favor Carmo because he's a more known commodity. Djaló not so much. Ultimately, if I had been Santos, I would have called up Djaló and Carmo, leaving out Duarte and dropping Inácio to the U21s.

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Nathan
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Cheers Nathan, interesting site, I will have a deeper look at it when I get some time.

Yes, a little frsutrating that Duarte was called up ahead ahead of Djaló or Inácio. Let's see what happens.

Matthew Marshall
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I think the most important thing in CB is a the partnership, stats are great for recruiting and scouting. I love Pepe, but I think it maybe a bridge too far for him to win a World Cup.

I know Diogo Leite is down the pecking order, but I...

I think the most important thing in CB is a the partnership, stats are great for recruiting and scouting. I love Pepe, but I think it maybe a bridge too far for him to win a World Cup.

I know Diogo Leite is down the pecking order, but I remember watching him in the Portugal youth setup and was impressed with his partnership with Diogo Queirós. They both weren't the most athletic or the most talented, but they had an almost telepathic partnership. I'm not suggesting he's the answer, or Diogo Queiros, but watching them play I swore they were the future, but it was probably their past together that made them so efficient.

Whoever pairs with Ruben Dias needs to be on the same page with him. The pairing needs to happen soon. I would love Portugal to have their own Chiellini and Bonucci pairing for the next decade.

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Brian/RI/US
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I am still not sure about the Diogos. I am sometimes surprised by how much trouble U20/U21 stars have in adaptation at the senior level. It's frustrating because they are pretty good for the youth sides.

But you're right because I remember how...

I am still not sure about the Diogos. I am sometimes surprised by how much trouble U20/U21 stars have in adaptation at the senior level. It's frustrating because they are pretty good for the youth sides.

But you're right because I remember how well John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho bonded at Chelsea and that type of partnership stands out. Pepe/Ramos at Real Madrid was decent too.

Bottom line, we do need CBs who complement each other well. The team needs to be an integrated whole, not just a random assembly of talented individuals.

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Nathan
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On Center Backs...

The real opportunity lost, was not to debate who can replace Pepe, no one in the current picture can. Not just statistically, but in determination and leadership.

But how we could look with a back three. As mentioned, Djalo...

On Center Backs...

The real opportunity lost, was not to debate who can replace Pepe, no one in the current picture can. Not just statistically, but in determination and leadership.

But how we could look with a back three. As mentioned, Djalo plays FB as well as CB. He would be perfect for a back three. Also, Ruben Vezo is fairly similar to Duarte in stats, and I think would be better in a back three. Also, Toti Gomes played in a back three at Wolves and did well when called upon. Not to mention Inacio would fit right in, and as would Danilo.

This is not to say we have world beaters here, but to face the reality as it is. Without Pepe and Dias(playing at their best), we don't have solid lock down Center Backs. So we need to find another way to protect our goal. An injury to one or the other, and no matter how much mid and forward talent we think we have, being a goal down against a better team, like the ones we will meet in the world cup, spells doom.

Carmo before his injury was on fire. He hasn't quite been the same, but it may take a bit or it might not happen at all. But I do think he needs to given a shot.

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Paulo
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I agree about using a three centreback model, but I deemed it so unlikely to ever occur that I decided not to mention it. I also agree our strength in defense is not going to necessarily rest on our backline. We need better tactical defense and...

I agree about using a three centreback model, but I deemed it so unlikely to ever occur that I decided not to mention it. I also agree our strength in defense is not going to necessarily rest on our backline. We need better tactical defense and better midfield play to protect our goal. That said, we still have to build a more competent (and deeper) back four. Pepe will likely get injured or fatigued at some point because of the way he plays. And yes, it goes without saying, his demeanor and leadership are irreplaceable.

But he also performs certain functions which we need other CBs to do as well. I'm thinking of the passage of play near the end of the match vs N. Macedonia: Pepe is in our penalty area standing off the opposition forward. Pepe makes a typically staunch intervention leaving the forward in a heap then brings the ball up the field himself inside of just hoofing it clear or making a quick pass to a midfielder. That decision was crucial because it attracted the opposition and opened up more space to counter. We need defenders who can carry the ball a little bit more. Fonte, Danilo, and many others are in survival mode most of the time and can't process the game that way.

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Nathan
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Great discussion people. On the centre-back issue, I'm disappointed Gonçalo Inácio hasn't been called up. He is never going to catch the eye like other big strapping CBs but is extremely consistent and has shown he works well next to a more...

Great discussion people. On the centre-back issue, I'm disappointed Gonçalo Inácio hasn't been called up. He is never going to catch the eye like other big strapping CBs but is extremely consistent and has shown he works well next to a more dominant partner (Coates at Sporting) which would serve him well paired up with either Pepe or Dias. He is also an attacking threat at set pieces but best of all, he has superb passing ability, especially long-range passing, which could serve Portugal well with the likes of Jota and Leão latching on to accurate long balls because let's face it, Portugal will be counter-attacking with Santos for a substantial amount of the time.

I presume he's been overlooked because he is very young (still 20), but he's now got two years of experience under his belt, including Champions League football. He's ready.

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Tom Kundert
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Yep, and it does look as if your "eye test" is accurate as it pertains to long passes: Carmo attempts the most long passes, but completes the fewest. Inacio is the other way around - attempts fewest, but highest completion %. And while Inacio is...

Yep, and it does look as if your "eye test" is accurate as it pertains to long passes: Carmo attempts the most long passes, but completes the fewest. Inacio is the other way around - attempts fewest, but highest completion %. And while Inacio is lesser-rated than Djalo in most passing categories, he does have a better overall completion % than every other CB except Ruben Dias. Inacio also scored four goals in the league this year, not bad!

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Nathan
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“I tried to take advantage of every minute the mister gave me. It wasn’t the result we wanted, we always want to win, but we played a great team with some of the best players in the world and a draw ended up a positive outcome.”

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(Portugal’s goalscoring substitute after 1-1 draw against Spain in Seville in the Nations League) 

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