A keeper par excellence

Welcome to part one of the inquisition to substantiate Portugal's dreams of a World Cup victory. Before we direct our attention to the squad, let us briefly examine Portugal’s Group B circumstances and attempt to find that confident balance between timidity and arrogance as we discuss probabilities.

Spain, Morocco, and Iran. The case I will make regarding Portugal’s Group B situation is likely to be misconstrued so I will attempt to offer some clarifying remarks in advance. I am not suggesting this or any other World Cup group is easy or by any means a guarantee of safe passage to the knockout rounds.

Given what happened at Euro 2016, it would be foolhardy to assume anything at this point.

Having said that, Portugal are the reigning European Champions.

Despite almost universal doubt regarding Portugal’s quality, for example, I have read more than one article stating that by winning Euro 2016 they only proved you do not have to be the best team to win a tournament, I find it largely irrational to say Portugal will not qualify for the knockout rounds because it is best to avoid being overconfident.

Simply stated, what are normal expectations for a European Championship-winning side at the following World Cup? To advance, correct? Hence I do not think it smug or presumptuous to say I like Portugal’s odds to progress beyond the group stage. Whether or not they actually advance will be decided on the pitch of course, but there is still every reason to be hopeful.

At the World Cup, details matter. For instance, the order of Portugal’s group stage matches is relatively encouraging. I can feel the dissonance building when I consider Portugal’s true odds against Spain. Ultimately it is a situation in which my heart knows Portugal can win, but my mind simply cannot agree. We then face Morocco, whose first match of the tournament against Iran is an absolute must-win. Regardless, I expect Morocco to play to their strength against Portugal, which is clearly defence. The Moroccan FA is probably already spending countless hours analyzing how Iceland and Austria managed to hold back the offensive torrent that Portugal attempted to unleash on them at the Euros.

For me, the match against Morocco is the first tournament objective Portugal absolutely cannot fail to negotiate. Independent of Portugal’s result against Spain, defeat Morocco and the most likely scenario is that Iran will be forced to beat us in the final group stage match to advance. Their Carlos Queiroz-inspired defence is certainly intimidating, but if Iran is compelled to press forward and snatch victory, the dynamic is altered in a way that simply does not favor them. Portugal have all the advantage in that scenario.

Looking at potential Round of 16 opponents, again I think it reasonable to conclude Portugal could have done worse in terms of their knockout round alignment. Russia or Uruguay seem the most likely adversaries and the match will be held either in Moscow or Sochi, stadiums Portugal will be familiar with from the group stage.

But calculating Portugal’s chances based on the quality of opposition is perilous at best. Instead, I would like to adopt a more introspective posture, look at the make-up of Portugal’s squad, and ask hard questions about how it compares to World Cup winning sides of the past. In essence, what does the historical data tell us about the essential components of a World Cup winning squad? We begin by examining Portugal's No1.

Without exaggeration, Portugal have quite possibly the most underrated keeper in world football.

Rui Patrício is experienced but not old, the top-rated keeper in the Portuguese Liga conceding just 10 goals, and the #6 rated keeper across European football’s top seven leagues according to Squawka’s performance metric (domestic league matches only). Just for fun, consider Patricio’s back-up, Anthony Lopes, is rated #10. Patricio makes over 4 saves per every goal conceded, a rate higher than Hugo Lloris, David de Gea, Alisson, and Thibaut Courtois, the starting keepers for France, Spain, Brazil, and Belgium, respectively. Of course, these statistics do need to be understood within context as tactics and the individual and collective strength of the team greatly influence a given keeper’s performance score.

When I evaluated World Cup winning goalkeepers and their performances at the tournament proper, two important points became apparent.

Squawka GK ratings through December 2017 - Portuguese Liga

First, even more than an acrobatic shot-stopping keeper that delivers impossible saves on a regular basis, a World Cup-winning squad needs a safe pair of gloves. A keeper who provides dependable and routine post-to-post cover and rarely makes poor choices in distribution, or mistakes concerning when to claim or punch a free kick delivery into the penalty area. Patrício has fine-tuned his cross-claiming proficiency, completing 42/42 attempts this season. Every great keeper will concede eventually, but history shows that those keepers who master the conventional tasks required of them and do not give away soft goals can be every bit as successful as the likes of Gigi Buffon. Legends of the game such as the aforementioned Buffon, Iker Casillas, or Manuel Neuer are not to be dismissed, but inspired greatness is not always superior to steadfast and unremarkable execution.

Second, nearly every World Cup champion needed their respective keeper to make one or maybe two stupefying, freakishly athletic saves or interventions that kept them in the tournament. Whether it be penalty kick shootout heroics or timely defensive interventions, even keepers that have the luxury of a world class defence in front of them are required to produce a moment or two of miraculous ingenuity when all else fails. Think Rui Patrício in the penalty kick shootout against Poland, or Iker Casillas preventing a certain goal at the expense of Arjen Robben in the 2010 World Cup final.

Despite Patrício being overlooked by the international football community, I would like to go on record by saying that if the World Cup winning nation in 2018 were to be deduced based on the quality of their goalkeepers alone, Portugal would be right alongside Brazil, Germany, and Spain as favorites. Patrício is just that quality of keeper, proving it at Euro 2016 with a matter-of-fact performance so routinely excellent that many people simply neglected to recognize its value. He began the tournament with a crucial one-v-one save against Iceland’s Gylfi Sigurdsson, and went on to consistently disguise even exceptional feats as ordinary.

Other than stop a penalty against Poland, he was rarely ever in the conversation quite feasibly because he almost never acted in error. The man made one bad free kick clearance in the entire tournament, and two of the five goals scored against Portugal were the result of wicked deflections, the type of calamitous circumstance for which no keeper should be required to offer an apology.

He followed his Euro 2016 display by conceding only four goals in ten matches during qualification for the World Cup, and allowed three goals in five matches at the Confederations Cup, saving 82% of the 17 shots he faced. Only FC Barcelona’s much-celebrated German keeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, recorded a higher shot-saving rate and he played one less match than Rui Patrício.

All of this reveals that what Patricio may lack in terms of the "wow-factor," he more than makes up for in his ability to personify Fernando Santos' team ethos: being "very difficult to beat." 

The reality, of course, is that a given team’s chances in Russia will not only be decided by their keeper. Still, the fact remains this Portugal squad is blessed to have such a consistent and accomplished performer between the posts, a luxury many other nations at this World Cup will have to do without.

As for the quality of defence that Portugal will field in front of Rui Patrício, and how that will impact their odds of victory … that will be the subject of inquiry in the next episode of this series to be posted on Tuesday, 16 January.

Força Seleção.

by Nathan Motz

Comments (7)

  1. Roberto Castro

Great Article! Looking forward to the next one.

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  1. George Moita

Great work as always,Nathan!
Excited for the next one...(defence?oh no..)

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  1. Joao Acores

Rui Patricio is a Franguero, what a disgrace this article is.

he is a terrible keeper and Portugal is lucky they won with him.

seriously I dont see what anyone sees in him.

All Benfica fans agree, remember Benfica is CAMPEAO

BENFICCAA!!!
ACOO...

Rui Patricio is a Franguero, what a disgrace this article is.

he is a terrible keeper and Portugal is lucky they won with him.

seriously I dont see what anyone sees in him.

All Benfica fans agree, remember Benfica is CAMPEAO

BENFICCAA!!!
ACOORRESS!!!
WELFAREE!!!
CONSTRUCTION!!!

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  1. Nick J

Excellent article.
Rui is quality. In this age of hype and boasting De Gea/Ter-Stegen/Neuer benefit from higher profile teams but personally I wouldn’t take any of them over Rui. As for the group I can see a win v Iran, draw v Morocco and loss v...

Excellent article.
Rui is quality. In this age of hype and boasting De Gea/Ter-Stegen/Neuer benefit from higher profile teams but personally I wouldn’t take any of them over Rui. As for the group I can see a win v Iran, draw v Morocco and loss v Spain but still getting out of the group. Avoiding Brazil and Germany in the knock-outs for as long as possible will be key (and injuries to key players!).

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  1. r

Finally! Some recognition for Patricio! It's astonishing that teams in bigger leagues in Europe spend ginormous amounts of money on players and there is never any discussion/rumours regarding a team wanting to spend a large transfer fee on...

Finally! Some recognition for Patricio! It's astonishing that teams in bigger leagues in Europe spend ginormous amounts of money on players and there is never any discussion/rumours regarding a team wanting to spend a large transfer fee on Patricio! The guy has been consistently outstanding for years, so he's not a gamble, he's the real deal. How is it that the powerhouses of Europe look to people like Claudio Bravo and ignore Patricio. One obvious example is Liverpool. They have been unconvinced about Mignolet, Karius and their predecessors for ages, yet don't think of saying, 'look we give up on gambling on some young guy taking a jump to a bigger stage, and we take a proven winner with bags of international experience and that has a track record of year upon year delivering outstanding quality'. This just boggles my mind!

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  1. David

Hmm, it seems like the big clubs of Europe aren't calling because with every big stop Patricio makes, he'll fumble and let in one or two squeaky goals. Every time a goal is scored on him, he throws his hands in the air and blames players around...

Hmm, it seems like the big clubs of Europe aren't calling because with every big stop Patricio makes, he'll fumble and let in one or two squeaky goals. Every time a goal is scored on him, he throws his hands in the air and blames players around him rather than sticking up for himself. He lacks mobility and is playing because of Portugal and their stellar defense.

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  1. jon/usa

I completely agree, Nathan. While I wouldn't go as far as to rate Rui Patricio among the top 5-6 goal-keepers in world football, he is certainly what I would consider elite. He isn't as flashy as some of the other big-name keepers, but he does...

I completely agree, Nathan. While I wouldn't go as far as to rate Rui Patricio among the top 5-6 goal-keepers in world football, he is certainly what I would consider elite. He isn't as flashy as some of the other big-name keepers, but he does have a knack for saving his best performances for the biggest games.

I must admit that I felt he was a bit overrated by Sportinguistas during the early years of his Seleccao career (I can recall quite a few costly frangos in key qualifyers and prior to the 2016, he didn't really have any stand-out performances in an international tournament), but over the last two or three seasons, he has definitely become far less error prone. He still isn't great with the ball at his feet, but he's come a long way from the guy who looked like a nervous wreck every time he received a back pass. Moreover, as you mentioned in your article, his ability to come off his line and effectively catch or punch away crosses and set-pieces is significantly better than what it used to be.

In short, while I still place him in the "second tier" of elite keepers behind the likes of Neuer, De Gea, Courtois, Lloris, and Ederson, he is still, without doubt, one of the best goalkeepers in Europe.

With regards to our alternatives, Anthony Lopes is going to be one of the best back-up keepers at the world cup. His style is much flashier, yet also much riskier than that of Patricio, but by all accounts, he's been one of the best keepers in France for quite some time now. Beto is probably going to be our third-choice keeper, but with Bruno Varela and Jose Sa playing consistently for Porto and Benfica respectively, they have an outside shot of making the squad. It's highly unlikely that Rui Patricio will miss any of our matches in the world-cup, but goal-keeper injuries do happen (remember Brazil 2014?). Beto has a wealth of experience, and from what I've seen/read, he's very well-liked by some many of our most established players.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"Portugal will play to win every match, one by one. That’s the winning mentality of the team, of Mister Fernando Santos and of our captain Cristiano."

Rony Lopes
(Monaco and Portugal forward on Portugal's World Cup prospects)

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