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.