There is a lot of talk about the upcoming World Cup in Qatar with a fair amount of it focussing on Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo given it could be his last major tournament for the Seleção.

The reason that is relevant is that there are big questions about whether or not Fernando Santos is the right manager to lead Portugal in the World Cup. Even if Bovada sportsbook and other popular ones rate Portuguese chances quite high on the WC (at least of getting to the quarter-finals), there is huge scepticism among Portuguese fans.

Here we take a look at the pros and contras of sticking with Santos. 

What pedigree does Santos have?

Before we get into whether or not Santos is the right man for Portugal, we thought we’d look at where he has come from. It’s not like he’s been plucked out of nowhere and fast-tracked into the national team job. Santos has been involved in management for 35 years having started out as assistant for Estoril, where he spent the vast majority of his playing career, before bouncing around numerous clubs including Porto, Benfica and Sporting in his homeland.

During Santos’ club career the honours were limited with just the one Liga NOS title and a couple of Taça de Portugal triumphs - all with Porto. In Greece, he guided AEK Athens to a cup win whilst collecting several individual awards - namely the Manager of the Year award and the Greek Coach of the Decade award.

His overall club win percentage of 44% is hardly top tier. That aside, his performances in Greece had been impressive and the Greek national team took an educated punt on him as a manager; it went reasonably well according to their expectations with qualification to two major tournaments - Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup - with both seeing them make the knockout stages.

With those achievements in his pocket, Portugal came calling when Santos replaced Paulo Bento as manager. It was an appointment that did not enthuse Seleção fans at the time. Despite the unspectacular club career, during his time in charge of Portugal, Santos has achieved unprecedented success for the country on the international scene. He guided Portugal to a somewhat surprise trophy at Euro 2016. The Nations League, although it does not have the same level of profile attached to it, followed in 2019. Two pieces of silverware for a nation that had previously gone close but tasted glory elevated Santos to national hero status.

Yet what has happened since has taken the sheen of Santos’ considerable feats as the leader of his national team. Lacklustre showings in the 2018 World Cup and the 2020 Euro led many analysts and fans to call for Santos to be replaced. To compound matters, many believe that Portugal currently have their greatest ever talent pool with a whole slew of players occupying key roles at the world’s most successful clubs. Therefore, they should be doing better, the argument goes.

What is the Santos style of play?

We’ve already touched on varying degrees of Santos’ success in charge of international teams but there comes a point when fans want more. It feels like the Portuguese fan base is now creeping towards that point - if they’re not there already! The big reason for that is down to the style of play and general philosophy Santos uses to approach games.

When in charge of Greece, making the knockout phases of a big tournament was a success. And although Portugal expected more than just to be making up numbers, with zero trophies in the cabinet when Santos took over, actually winning a European Championship not considered a realistic goal. As such, Santos and co were able to cautiously approach games relying on a game plan that made them the underdog where they’d look to strike when the opposition were out of shape and exposed.

It was that method that saw Portugal lift the Euro 2016 crown but whilst the history books don’t remember the style of play, a lot of fans do, with the road to the 2016 title seeing Portugal manage to win just a single game inside 90 minutes. The 2018 World Cup was a broadly similar deal albeit this time without the success; the opening game saw a Ronaldo hat-trick as Portugal and Spain played out a barnstorming 3-3 draw. Game two was a narrow 1-0 win over Morocco courtesy of Mr CR7 whilst the third group game saw them struggle to a 1-1 draw with Iran. The round of 16 saw them eliminated. Pragmatism and defeats are not a good combination.

Have there been recent changes?

After the drab World Cup showing, the 2019 Nations League win was enough to re-inject some confidence into Santos and his team. It proved short-lived with Euro 2020 being another fail for Santos. His side won just once in the group and only made it to the next round as one of the best placed third teams; History did not repeat itself - Portugal also finished third in their group at Euro 2016 - as the Seleção exited in the first knockout round once again.

Worse was to follow, as Portugal were very nearly not even at the World Cup finishing second in their qualifying group and facing a four-team playoff, with Italy one of the possible adversaries. At this point Santos was being pilloried in the local press, his style perceived as overly pragmatic, tactically inept, too safety-first and generally out of sync with more modern, pressing, attacking models of play. The seriously impressive pool of talent in the ranks right now only intensified this notion, with many fans feeling the tactical setup is failing the players available to Santos.

Nevertheless, Portugal negotiated the playoffs, enjoying a slice of luck as Italy were shocked by minnows North Macedonia, who the Seleção duly beat in the playoff final, having seen off Turkey in the semi-final. The recent Nations League games have brought mixed results. Portugal were largely overrun by Spain in Seville and lost to Switzerland in Geneva, but in their two home matches played some sparkling football as they beat Switzerland and the Czech Republic with an aggregate score of 6-0.

How good are Portugal?

On paper, Portugal have a seriously strong squad that should be capable of controlling games of football. Ronaldo isn’t the player he once was but is still a world-class goal scorer. He’s ably supported at the sharp end of the pitch by Diogo Jota, with Rafael Leão and João Félix super talented options. Feeding those attacking players are the likes of Bernardo Silva and his club team-mate João Cancelo, who combined to devastating effect in the latest matches. 

These are top tier players with most of them playing for the elite club teams in world football. At international level they’re being asked to play with the shackles on by Santos. The credit he once had in the bank is running very thin nowadays and whilst his defend-first approach might see them come through what is a tough World Cup group, it’s hard to envisage Portugal winning the tournament. The FPF will not replace Santos before the World Cup, and his contract runs until Euro 2024, but failure in Qatar and it will likely be cut short.

That all said, crucially Santos has the backing of the players. He is already Portugal’s most successful ever coach, and a maiden World Cup triumph would see statues of Santos commissioned north to south of the country as well as vindicating the faith shown in him by the FPF. As with the nation’s greatest ever player, Cristiano Ronaldo, Qatar 2022 could bring either an extraordinary climax to an extraordinary spell in the history of the Seleção… or be something of a damp squib. May the ball start rolling.

 

Comments (9)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Let me premise this first: Portuguese fans are so fickle. A lot of posters on here will detract Santos but whatever. (and I'm Portuguese!)

I've seen managers come and go: Scolari (who I didn't think was the right man for the job), Queiroz and...

Let me premise this first: Portuguese fans are so fickle. A lot of posters on here will detract Santos but whatever. (and I'm Portuguese!)

I've seen managers come and go: Scolari (who I didn't think was the right man for the job), Queiroz and Bento (both who never had a game plan). The fact is, Santos has won while others haven't. The only manager I would want that is arguably more successful would be Mourinho, but even that debate has been had before on this forum (even MORE people didn't want him)

The one thing that Portugal lack is the mentality. They are certainly skilled enough to compete with the top teams in the world, but they seem to have a mental block with cohesion and taking them past an opponent. Santos should bring a sports psychologist expert on the staff to help this

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John
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John - sorry, disagree that Scolari wasn't the right man for the job...he had just won a WC with Brazil and came in and completely changed the attitude, the playing style and the general temperament of the Portuguese NT. Before he came, we were...

John - sorry, disagree that Scolari wasn't the right man for the job...he had just won a WC with Brazil and came in and completely changed the attitude, the playing style and the general temperament of the Portuguese NT. Before he came, we were the team that always had great players but always fell flat on their face; Euro1996 sad lose against the Cz Rep, no WC in 1998, a very bad tasting defeat to France in 2000, a laughable WC in 2002...(kind of where we are now - no mans land.) The two most attack-minded and offensively driven teams were 2004 and 2006...yeah, they didn't win anything, but ask anyone around at that time and they will tell you that team could have beaten any team in the world. You can't say that now. I wish Santos played the same way Scolari did with those teams (who you can argue weren't as talented as today's.) Always trying to win by scoring goals and by being better than the other team, not making less mistakes and playing for a tie..wish Santos grew a pair and took a page or two out of Scolari's book.

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Martim Lucena
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I esp. agree with the point about Scolari's Portugal looking like it could beat anyone. They did go far in their tournaments under Scolari, incl. finals Euro2004 and semifinals of World Cup 2006, but were missing something in their finishing....

I esp. agree with the point about Scolari's Portugal looking like it could beat anyone. They did go far in their tournaments under Scolari, incl. finals Euro2004 and semifinals of World Cup 2006, but were missing something in their finishing. Now we get nervous when Santos' Portugal plays the likes of Luxembourg.

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F.C.JCHarvard
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I like the sports psychologist idea, but Santos should start with himself. I get there is far more to leading a national team than how you conduct yourself while your team is on the pitch, but Santos looks like a "fish out of water" at the best...

I like the sports psychologist idea, but Santos should start with himself. I get there is far more to leading a national team than how you conduct yourself while your team is on the pitch, but Santos looks like a "fish out of water" at the best of times during matches. If the mentality of a bunch of world class football players is really the issue then perhaps the fix is to start by addressing the "tone at the top".

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Nelson A
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Santos has been brilliant and his records trump anybody's "feelings".

If I could change one thing is that he starts his most cohesive 11 every game. Portugal has essentially been a Top 10 team for over a decade - so let the other team adjust...

Santos has been brilliant and his records trump anybody's "feelings".

If I could change one thing is that he starts his most cohesive 11 every game. Portugal has essentially been a Top 10 team for over a decade - so let the other team adjust to our style. The recent loss to the Swiss was a prime example of this tendency.

For those who say Nations League is a "nothing tournament" you must not be watching how teams start/play their best. These are not friendlies and the trophy is a major achievement given the qualification path and level of competition.

We can re-assess Santos after this World Cup performance. Anything short of Quarter Finals would be time for a change.

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WinnipegDude
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Brilliant? I mean, he's gotten the job done, but I don't think anyone would describe Portugal under his leadership as "brilliant", even in the best of times.

Chris
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With the talent of players that we have as Portugal fans, I just think we set the bar higher now. Santos falls short of that bar regardless of his record. We constantly stumble and bumble into qualifications and tournaments. We barely...

With the talent of players that we have as Portugal fans, I just think we set the bar higher now. Santos falls short of that bar regardless of his record. We constantly stumble and bumble into qualifications and tournaments. We barely qualify. We have to go through playoffs. A rule change in 2016, allowed a 3rd place team like ourselves to move forward. It always takes CR7 to save us. We struggle against lesser teams, Serbia and Ireland. We always need luck, Turkey missing a penalty kick , Italy losing to North Macedonia. We just want to dominant and be like a Spain and Germany. Santos needs to step it up or step down.

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John Senos
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Life is always complex and full of nuance. This article, perhaps well-intentioned, will only spark the debate that has been raging for at least 4 years.

On one side, people will say "Santos is crap, he lucked his way into 2 trophies but he's...

Life is always complex and full of nuance. This article, perhaps well-intentioned, will only spark the debate that has been raging for at least 4 years.

On one side, people will say "Santos is crap, he lucked his way into 2 trophies but he's out of his depth."

The other side will say that "Santos is a genius and has done what no other Portugal manager before him has ever done".

Both arguments, to a certain extent, are correct.

I said back in 2016 that I was tired of Portugal's "Jogo Bonoito" with zero silverware. So when we won the Euro and then the Nation's League, I was perfectly content to "win ugly".

But that is not the problem anymore. When we were winning ugly, we at least had an identity, a style of play. Be solid defensively, be hard to break down, and hit them on the counter. This was the philosophy.

The problem is, Santos is too old-fashioned and been in the game too long to know what to do with all of the flair players he now has at his disposal. So what we have witnessed the last 4-5 years, is a man experimenting and to an extent, learning his job on the fly.

Rather than brainstorm and produce his own style of play, he throws out combinations to see what works. You can see it when the players hit the pitch. If we allow a goal against us first, we almost always lose, and most certainly never win. There seems to be no gameplan other than "attack cautiously".

The Nation's League games, we looked good, and Portugal's tenacity and unwillingness to give up after failing to win the qualifying group gave me some hope.

So, I am optimistic for now. I know Portugal as a team is capable and certainly good enough to win the World Cup. I just hope that Santos can find a formula that does not cost us victory because he's still experimenting. At some point, you need to stick to a fixed 11 and tactics and trust in the players.

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Chris
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

The players need to do better. They are close. They would be top of their Nations League group by 4 points if they hadn't made 2 very dumb mistakes. That is international football and that is why so many teams play cautiously. The chances of...

The players need to do better. They are close. They would be top of their Nations League group by 4 points if they hadn't made 2 very dumb mistakes. That is international football and that is why so many teams play cautiously. The chances of coming back from conceding first are never good because teams play so well defensively when they setup a low block. Scoring, however, seems to be so much more difficult for national teams. Maybe they need to build chemistry since most of them don't play on the same club?

Let's also realize how difficult it is to win in Europe. Want to make yourself feel better? Go look at where those Serbian players play. That team Portugal was suppose to be so much better than. Juventus, Ajax, Fiorentina, Frankfurt, Lazio, Werder Bremen, to name a few. So many good players. You are not going to beat them every time.

I've gone back and looked at the comments and, it's funny, most of the things people here criticize him for in one game will be changed in the next. He will literally do exactly what they wanted him to but we still talk about firing him.

Maybe this should be a discussion about how much an international manager can actually do with the limited time he has. What are we actually supposed to expect from a team that barely practices together?

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jc
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