How Portugal's 2018 World Cup hopes are tied to the fate of its key players at their respective clubs
Imagine you are Fernando Santos for a second. In less than nine months you must finalize the Seleção squad that, captained by Cristiano Ronaldo, will represent a nation bursting at the seams with a diverse array of marketable wunderkinds.
This is both a blessing and a curse, and you realize that poor squad selection may not only prevent Portugal from adding football’s Holy Grail to its trophy cabinet, it may yet damage your reputation despite your team’s victory in France at Euro 2016. Not to mention that top European clubs may or may not always be willing to afford your choice players the requisite playing time in key matches that is essential to their preparation for the World Cup.
These are not insignificant concerns.
Ever read the Biblical parable about seeds being sown along a road? Some fell on rocky soil, and some fell amongst thorns, and some fell along the path and were consumed while some fell on good soil and prospered. Similarly, some of Portugal’s young talent jumped at the opportunity to sign for bigger clubs, initially encountered problems, but still somehow flourished. Gonçalo Guedes made what now appears to be a very ill-advised move to PSG (where he will likely never play again), but seems to be thriving on loan with Valencia.
Others have simply fallen upon unfavorable ground.
Guedes’ recent call-up to the Seleção came at the expense of another player, Bruma, who yet again finds himself on the outside looking in because he cannot secure enough playing time with his domestic club. Recall that when he ditched Sporting in 2013 he initially found life at Galatasaray quite difficult as well. Injuries struck and he was loaned to first Gaziantepspor then Real Sociedad without much success. That critical moment he jumped ship at Sporting took him two and a half seasons to recover from, and now he is right back where he started.
As I watch the European football season unfurl, I have been thinking about the impact that club managers have on an individual player’s hopes of playing in a World Cup, and consequently that nation’s hopes of winning.
A multitude of factors must be in alignment for a manager to have a realistic chance of assembling a World Cup winning squad.
It begins with a tactical blueprint, but national team managers can only hope their preferred XI to execute that gameplan will be fit and in-form. An interview I had with Hungary’s Adam Nagy after the thrilling 3-3 group stage draw against Portugal at Euro 2016 provides the right context. He likened the individual players on his team to “small gears” that each performed their role seamlessly within the tactical context set forth by the manager.
Looking at past World Cup winning squads, several player variable trends emerge, but diversity in midfield is one of the most crucial. A good example is Italy’s World Cup winning squad in 2006. They utilized a deep-lying maestro in Andrea Pirlo paired alongside the unpolished force of nature that was Gennaro Gattuso. Pirlo had such an impressive range of passing that he was rarely forced to abandon his post just ahead of the back four. He effortlessly worked the ball across the entire length and breadth of the pitch. Gattuso’s job as a No.8 was simply to win back possession, get the ball to Pirlo, and let the process repeat itself. Italy wore their opposition down at that World Cup. Almost reminds you of Fernando Santos’ conception of Portugal at Euro 2016, doesn’t it?
Like Pirlo, William has evolved from a rudimentary defensive midfielder into a deep-lying playmaker for his national team. Like Pirlo, he is often called out for failing to cover every blade of grass on the pitch. But his range of passing has taken on new dimensions as he matures, and he is only just now beginning to exercise real command over matches for both Sporting and Portugal.
Similar to Italy in 2006, I think Santos wants an unchained, ball-winning No.8 to complement William, but that is precisely the problem. Currently, the leading candidates for this role, João Mário and Renato Sanches, are not being adequately prepared by their clubs.
It is time I put into words what we all know in our hearts to be true right now: Renato Sanches should not go to the World Cup in current form. Strong words maybe considering it is just now October, but the former Benfica player’s inability to establish himself at club level has shown little sign of improvement since being loaned to Swansea. In the most recent match against West Ham, there were only flickers of the extraordinary talent that lured Bayern Munich among other top clubs in the summer of 2016.
Once again Renato has just arrived in yet another new country with its own distinct culture and at a club with very different ambitions. Swansea is just not the type of club that regularly breeds World Cup quality talent. No slight intended when I say that Swansea is the kind of place that players like Sanches often go in search of the consistency that rebuilds their belief in themselves. Ideally, time spent at Swansea is merely a springboard back into the higher echelons of club football.
Although the expectations he has set for himself may be higher, Renato is in career-recovery mode, and at this point he might benefit more by continuing with the U21s in European Championship qualifying than by receiving a berth in Santos’ final World Cup roster. Likewise, Portugal would also suffer if it sacrifices a crucial midfield berth to accommodate him if he cannot overcome his present malaise.
Only 20 yrs old, Renato can still become a cornerstone of the Seleção, but right now his focus has to be on individual rehabilitation. He has returned for Portugal’s final World Cup qualifying matches against Andorra and Switzerland, but Santos’ comments on the matter were revealing. Asked why Renato had been called up, Santos stated that based on his known characteristics, “there was no reason not to pick him.” That is hardly a vote of confidence. Was there really no reason not to pick him, or just no other in-form options available? Consider that even André Gomes made the squad having played a grand total of 100 minutes this season in only five appearances.
Sadly, Renato’s situation is representative of the disadvantageous circumstances that several key players are now facing.
Take Bernardo Silva at Manchester City. Cast out of Lisbon years ago by Benfica when he would not convert to fullback, he had only just begun to realize his full potential at Monaco before Manchester City made him the proverbial offer he could not refuse. Since his arrival, he has only started two matches and was notably left on the bench against the two toughest league rivals his club have yet faced, Liverpool and Chelsea. Two of his nine total appearances were beyond the 80’ mark, hardly enough time to influence matches although he still managed to bag an impressive assist vs. Shakhtar Donetsk minutes after coming on. Bernardo has the ability, but does he play the right variety of football to suit Pep, that’s the question.
Here is where the calculus gets even more difficult for Fernando Santos. He cannot very well omit a player as talented as Bernardo Silva from the Seleção. On the other hand, Bernardo is receiving neither the quality nor quantity of minutes that would ideally propel him into his best possible form prior to the World Cup.
With Guardiola so spoiled for choice he could probably start a different XI every match, Bernardo’s arrival over the summer leaves him with the unenviable task of trying to outperform the stalwarts of previous seasons.
In this situation, it is in football as it is in politics: advantage goes to the incumbent.
João Mário and André Silva are facing similar difficulties. Both appear to be playing reasonably good football, but are strangely unable to secure consistent appearances in their club’s starting XI. André has six goals and one assist in eight matches, but has played only 208 minutes in Serie A. With his club struggling for attacking inspiration against Sampdoria, Silva was passed up for other options. They didn’t work. AC Milan lost 2-0.
Furthermore, statistical analysis shows on average that Silva wins more aerial duels, dribbles more effectively, gets off more shots, passes more, and is dispossessed of the ball less than his nearest rivals, Nikola Kalinic and Patrick Cutrone.
João Mário’s difficulties at Inter Milan have picked up where they left off at the end of last season. Mário has started only three of his club’s seven matches in Serie A, but still leads his nearest position rivals with four assists including the match-winning goal he set up from a corner kick against Genoa. He played nine minutes in that match.
If you are the glass half full type you might say “what if Gonçalo Guedes’ inclusion is the wonderful beginning of a storied player’s international career? The moment we added the final missing piece to the squad that will win Portugal the World Cup.” Santos himself spoke about Guedes’ distinctive skillset as something he wants to build on. It is too early to know everything the future holds, but one thing is certain. Santos will be forced to make tactical changes or else field out of form players if recent trends continue.
Either way it might be impossible for whoever takes the field to implement his tactical blueprint. Or maybe Santos, ever the adaptive one, will make fools of us all and win no matter who he has at his disposal or how many club minutes they have logged.
For the record, my hope is in the latter.
by Nathan Motz