Tactics and how Portugal's elite players will revolutionize the identity of the Seleção
Watching the 2016/17 club season unfold, I can’t help but wonder how Fernando Santos is going to get this done. By that I mean assemble the sparkling array of talent at his disposal into one coherent unit. The more I reflect, the more it seems that what is at stake is the very identity of the Seleção.
Under Fernando Santos, we’ve witnessed the significant transformations that effectively won Portugal’s first major tournament. From graceful finesse to unyielding steel. From often reckless attacking instinct to methodological control of the opposition. But to sustain this level of performance, is the pragmatism at the heart of Fernando Santos’ plans going to get the most out of players like Gelson, Bernardo Silva, Renato Sanches, João Cancelo, and others? Let me turn that question on its head: how well are those players going to operate a system that is built on organized defense, physical endurance, and aggressive utilitarian (means-to-an-end) football?
Shifting away from the less restrained attacking indulgence of yesteryear transforms how we approach player selection. Years ago this would not be much of a discussion anyway because the talent pool was so shallow. Today, as many as 3-4 evenly matched players are vying for each position. Right back, for example, is hotly contested real estate. So is every position in Portugal’s four-man midfield.
The classic Portuguese footballer is driven by an attacking energy that permeates his every move on a football pitch. The more romantic among us might say it is “in their blood.” But then Santos came along and insinuated there might be higher priorities on a football pitch than dribbling and goalscoring. Consider that several of Portugal’s best players at Euro 2016 were defenders: Ruí Patricio, Pepe, and Raphael Guerreiro.
Others, like Adrien, Joao Mario, and Renato Sanches play their football with a higher degree of physical tenacity and defensive responsibility than many of their predecessors. They advance the ball, yes, but I would argue their fundamental value to the squad is not grounded in their playmaking ability so much as in their tactical effectiveness. In other words, Santos’ tactical arrangement does not always favor elite technical players over more efficient, functional, and industrious options. For example, Renato Sanches over Moutinho or Adrien over André Gomes. Santos simply has different priorities for this squad than previous managers, that much is fairly obvious. Moving forward, the identity of this team seems destined to be a synthesis between attacking ingenuity and functional, systematic pragmatism.
Some of you are no doubt wondering why I felt this article necessary. We have so much talent now, surely there is no real concern? Certainly, but we still need to pass that talent through a tactical filter that capitalizes on their unique skillsets. Work is still needed to cement an attacking ethos without upsetting our defensive stability. In conversations I have with supporters about player selection, there are a few blindspots emerging that merit further discussion.
The right player for the right job
My case is that the arrangement of footballers on a pitch is no less important because those players are prodigiously talented. I’m confounded by the number of managers, national teams, football supporters, and analysts that overlook the danger of haphazardly selecting only those players that exhibit the most attacking threat. Is offense the only facet of the game?
While I understand the clamor for players that are exciting as opposed to efficient, history reveals that major tournaments are almost never won by teams that focus on the individual skill of key players as opposed to those that form a cohesive unit.
Euro 2016 was “Exhibit A” for that argument. Portugal finally got away from utter reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo. He was integral, but not exclusively accountable for Portugal’s success or failure. Every one of Portugal’s outfield players was used. Defence was our foundation, but our offensive metrics were quite good as well (the data exists to prove this point, but I won’t focus on that now).
Whenever I see a debate about “who’s the better left back, right back, left mid, right mid, etc” it almost always takes the same path. Players are preferred either as the result of club bias or more often because they have the best attacking metrics (goals, assists, dribbling, crosses, etc).
This is at best an incomplete picture of what makes a given player the best option for a certain role. Wouldn’t it be better to define a player’s role then ask who best embodies the set of skills necessary to accomplish the associated responsibilities? If I need a pragmatic midfielder that combines well with my strikers, but also recovers well on defense, realistically I have to think twice about selecting Bruma (all due respect to the youngster, who’s had a fabulous season thus far).
Identity is about more than just style of play. Managers can and often do require players to adjust to a style that doesn’t naturally suit them. Identity should be an organic expression of the tactics and playing style that the players instinctively perform (e.g. 2008-2012 Spanish side that played tiki-taka). Contrast the employment of Gelson in a role where he is freed to embark on his trademark marauding runs vs entrusting him with a balanced, surge-and-defend assignment. Most would agree that Gelson’s instincts are better suited for the former situation compared to the latter.
The dominant foot effect
We need to better understand a player’s skillset and how that might be compatible with the rest of the team before we say one player is “better” than another. I’ve made some admittedly anecdotal observations of the strengths and weaknesses of Portugal’s outside midfielders. One which becomes quite clear is how the player’s dominant foot influences both their style of play and their effectiveness in certain roles depending on which side of the pitch they own.
For example, I have witnessed the following scenario multiple times this season while covering Galatasaray’s Bruma, a right-footed player who operates on the left side of midfield:
Bruma receives the ball just over the midfield line and immediately beats his midfield opposite with pace and trickery. This draws in the opponent’s fullback to confront Bruma giving him two options: get to the byline to deliver a cross, or cut inside to shoot or square the ball for a teammate. In this situation, Bruma rarely directs his run towards the byline because from that position he would need to cross the ball with his weaker left foot. Instead, he reveals a distinct predilection for taking a touch inside with his stronger right foot and curling a shot towards the right (far) post.
Because he is able to open his body and strike the ball firmly with the instep of his right foot, his shots are almost always on target in this scenario. However, his crosses from the left are less accurate because he is forced to deliver them with his weaker foot or use the outside of his right boot, a more difficult technique.
Contrast this with Gelson, a right-footed midfielder who plays on the right for Sporting. Gelson also strongly favors overcoming his marker with technical skill, but is more balanced in his decision making. He will head for the byline if given the option to send in crosses with his dominant right foot.
But being right-footed, he faces a challenge whenever he tries to cut inside and shoot. Often I’ll see him turn a defender inside-out and try to squeeze the ball in at the far (left) post only to drag his shot wide or place it too near the keeper. The inherent difficulty is that unlike Bruma on the left, he is unable to square his hips and apply sufficient power and accuracy for a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner. He is shooting “across his body” which naturally constricts the angle.
Playing on the right, Gelson is predisposed to be a better provider than goalscorer relative to Bruma. I’ve witnessed similar tendencies in other players based on this combination of position (right or left) and foot preference.
Bernardo Silva, left-footed but on the right side of midfield, also has a tendency to drift towards the center of the pitch onto his dominant foot. He also enjoys receiving the ball in space just beyond the midfield circle so he can turn and have a run at the back four. The first of his two goals against Marseille was created after his run through the center lured the defence out of position so he could push the ball wide then meet the return cross with a fine header.
Bernardo is the type of player that creates space for others to exploit even when he doesn’t complete the final ball or test the keeper. For the Seleção this is especially useful because Ronaldo is superb at timing his runs for whenever the defence has become distracted by another threat. I’ve said since at least 2009 that if we had a player who could create from midfield, Ronaldo could thrive as a No.9. Bernardo has that creative ability plus the tireless work ethic many players need just to get by in top level football. But there’s still work for him to do, and he’ll hopefully have a chance to create better chemistry with the Seleção this summer at the Confederations Cup.
Making a masterpiece
So how should we approach player selection? What kind of dentity should we cultivate based on the available talent? Barring injury, Rui Patricio, Raphael Guerreiro, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Andre Silva are at the top of the pecking order in their respective positions. That means five starting berths are up for grabs plus back-up roles. Crafting identity should be thought of as constructing a mosaic with many individual players (pieces) that each might yield a very different objet d’art depending on their combination with other teammates.
Let’s look at our midfield. There are two base models that I’d like to consider. Each configuration would fundamentally change the expression of play and the inherent personality of the Seleção.
Option 1: Intelligent, balanced, midfield facilitators
Realistically, for at least the next 2 years and probably longer, the team’s identity will continue to be heavily influenced by Cristiano Ronaldo’s role in the side. In fact, Santos’ move to a 4-4-2 suits Ronaldo’s adaptation as a less mobile No.9 who’s looking to get on the end of crosses from wide positions rather than create opportunities himself. Pairing him with a competent strike partner like André Silva gives Portugal the kind of threat up front that begs for a specific breed of midfielder: the facilitator. I choose this description because theoretically in a team with two consummate finishers, there isn’t as much need to employ attacking midfielders who go for goal themselves. This is a huge departure from the tradition that most of us have become accustomed to with sparkling wing-play being a hallmark of our national team for so long.
This option is more defensively stable, an attribute that Santos prioritizes. Midfielders that focus on providing crosses are often not as prone to being caught out of position versus midfielders who embark on mazy runs up the pitch at the risk of being dispossessed in the attacking third.
Furthermore, because our midfielders stay wide to deliver crosses, our fullbacks would often remain in a support role instead of overlapping and possibly getting caught too far up the pitch. In short, facilitating midfielders naturally maintain the shape of the tactical formation, an important feature against teams that carry a significant attacking threat.
Based on club form, player metrics, and many hours of watching film, my preferred midfield quartet for this system is Danilo, João Mário, Bernardo Silva, and Adrien. All of these players are very hard working and have respectable defensive metrics (interceptions, tackles, etc). They specialize in facilitating the attack with incisive crosses and accurate passing (but aren’t necessarily incapable of finding the back of the net either).
If we ran this midfield, Adrien would be the central mid with Mário on the right and Bernardo on the left (Silva is left-footed). Danilo, as the statistics below clearly reveal, is a better defender than William on almost every level, but also gives us more of an aerial threat on set pieces. Mário is statistically the better passer and crosser, better in the air, and better in possession compared to Bruma, Gelson, and Renato Sanches. André Gomes has a higher pass success percentage but plays in a system that enhances that particular metric, is inferior in every category of defense, and has only two assists compared to Mário’s seven (all competitions).
I favor Cedric as the right back for his big game experience and because he is statistically the best crosser and more difficult to beat in 1-v-1 situations. Otherwise, the metrics strongly favor Ricardo Pereira, especially in pass accuracy, goals/assists, and aerial duels won. It’s been the better part of two seasons that Ricardo has been one of the best fullbacks in Ligue 1. He’s more than earned his shot.
In theory, this system could work in a variety of applications, but it probably wouldn’t be as effective against a bunkered-down-defense that had enough height and physicality to prevent crosses from reaching their intended targets (e.g. Iceland at Euro 2016). In that case, we’d need a change in personnel and a corresponding change in the balance of attack and defense.
Option 2: Mavericks with an eye for goal
This midfield system emphasizes pace, technical skill, and direct running with the ball. Ideally, the passage of play is higher tempo, and there is less insistence on delivering crosses from wide positions. Instead, outside midfielders attempt to cut inside allowing their supporting fullbacks to overlap. In this system, our two wide midfielders would be more responsible for carving open shooting opportunities with Ronaldo and Silva looking to finish any rebounds. We’d also need a more traditional No.10. This incarnation of the Selecão is the version that idealists rhapsodize about on social media.
My preferred midfield quartet for this system would be William, Bruma, Bernardo Silva, and Gelson. Although Gelson might struggle to score goals from the right, he would be ideal for creating chances for Ronaldo and André while Bruma drifts inside from the left to create shooting opportunities.
This system is about overloading the defence with 1-v-1 assignments. Individually, Bruma, Gelson, and Bernardo Silva are very difficult to cover unless there is defensive support. Good defenses hunt the ball in packs, but if every attacking player requires extra attention it’s simply impossible to prioritize all of them. According to attacking metrics, Bruma takes on his defender in 1-v-1 situations more than any other Portuguese player with Gelson and Bernardo Silva next in line behind him. Adding João Cancelo or Nelsinho at right back would best complement this system as the data reveals they complete more successful dribbles per match than Cedric or Ricardo Pereira.
William is statistically a better passer than Danilo and would be ideal for getting the ball to the feet of our dangerous midfielders. The downside of course is that you lose some defensive presence without Danilo. Naturally, this XI might be extremely vulnerable on the counter, but it’d still be a nightmare to defend.
Bernardo Silva makes the cut again, but in a different role as he would pull the strings of our offense from central midfield. I ultimately believe that Bernardo, despite playing on the right for Monaco, would best realize his potential for Portugal as a No.10. It’s his technical ability and direct runs that leads me to this conclusion. He commits defenders, and has an eye for goal that Renato Sanches, Adrien, Moutinho, and Gomes can’t duplicate. You could argue Pizzi for this role and formation also, and I do think he needs another chance to prove himself in the upcoming qualifiers.
Although I’m pragmatic at heart, I do want to be fair. Unbridled attacking invention can be a strategy against certain opponents. But there are inherent limitations, and to run this system against a team with the quality of Germany or Spain would be reckless.
One of the major features of Portugal’s identity at Euro 2016 was its versatility. Santos has shown his intelligence in making adjustments and there are several key players not in the starting XI that could round out the character of this team. Both Nani and Quaresma have something to offer as an impact sub. Quaresma has altered his game significantly at Besiktas, delivering more crosses per match than any other Portuguese midfielder. As a result, only Gelson can claim the same number of assists (7) as Quaresma in league play. His implementation as a provider worked wonders in the last World Cup qualifier against Latvia.
Meanwhile, Nani is an ideal late game sub, but for André Silva rather than in midfield. Although he plays on the wing for Valencia, his metrics don’t compare well to Portugal’s other midfield options. It’s a luxury that we have better dribblers, crossers, and goalscorers than Nani in midfield these days. We do lose some aerial threat with Nani, but he has relatively good instincts for finding space behind the back four. He and Eder should share the responsibilities of augmenting Portugal’s No.9 position.
Finally, Renato Sanches is a player whose mark on the squad is likely to grow tremendously over the coming years. The sheer force of will that he exerts on the pitch is being adapted and improved by Carlo Ancelotti at Bayern Munich. Though his club form has understandably declined since moving from Benfica, I think it is only a matter of time before he assumes control of one of Portugal’s midfield positions. Right now, he is best suited to be a late game injection of menacing pace and raw power. He is and will continue to be the type of player that alters the “mood” of a game.
There you have it. Creative, unrestrained attacking expression versus sophisticated tactical command of the game. These are just two examples of the kind of identity we can establish with the current pool of players. There are obviously many more tools for assessing talent and the type of squad we can build, but my intent is just to expand the conversations on how to evaluate players, individual roles, and squad tactics and their implementation beyond club bias and rudimentary offensive figures.
World Cup qualification restarts in March against Hungary. Santos knows that different opponents require different strategies to overcome, and for the first time in many years we have the raw talent to make just about whatever kind of team we want. Whether we throw caution to the wind or not we’ve all got plenty of good football coming our way in 2017.
*Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com
by Nathan Motz