World Cup countdown: Portugal's centre-back questions... and answers

Following André Silva’s flourishing partnership with captain Cristiano Ronaldo as the Portuguese national team’s main striker the main worry among Seleção fans has shifted from “the number 9 problem” to “what on earth are we going to do with our centre-backs”?

Who better to run through the options for Fernando Santos than PortuGOAL’s resident football analyst Tiago Estêvão, who taps into his encyclopaedic knowledge of the game throughout Europe in an attempt to second guess which central defenders Portugal will be taking to Russia for this summer’s World Cup.

The Seleção centre-back situation very much an issue and I get asked it about every week. So I decided to go over every single option for the position in this article.

The issues are self-explanatory: the group of four central defenders that ended up lifting the Euro trophy two years ago is now a combined 137 years old. Fernando Santos hasn’t necessarily done a great job integrating newer faces in this position but he will have to do so eventually, if not for the World Cup, shortly after.

The usual options

Pepe: One of the pillars of the team over the last few years, Pepe is still doing well even at 33 and will be an important part of the team in Russia. Having moved to Turkey means he escaped being benched in Spain so he is fit and ready to go for what might not even be his last major competition.

Fonte: Let me start this by saying how much I admire José and his story of rising through the ranks against adversity to eventually play for his national colours. Now let me say that if there was a vote for Santos to keep on playing him, I’d be eagerly pressing the ‘no’ option. He’s a year younger than Pepe but doesn’t look any younger at all. The move from Southampton to London a year ago really hasn’t helped him much either. He wasn’t overly impressive on the pitch during the second half of last season and has now had a bad injury that has kept him off the pitch since October. I’m not sure how well he’ll come back from it and doubt he’ll get substantial minutes until the summer. If fit, I wouldn’t be against taking him, as an experienced-squad-player type. I wouldn’t bring him as a starter though, which I unfortunately see Santos doing seeing as he was used as a starter during the qualifying campaign. Maybe he’ll be forced to change his mindset due to his lack of playing time/fitness.

Bruno Alves: Bruno remained Fernando’s third option for the position during the qualifiers so there’s no reason to believe things will be different in Russia. At 34, he’s now playing in Scotland with Rangers so I went ahead and asked Dougie Wright (Twitter: @Dougie_Wright) for his assessment on him. The main ideas are the following: he’s only been playing when he feels truly fit - sitting out whenever there’s risk of aggravating an injury that could take him out of the WC. And he’s been Rangers’ best defender, “organizing well, impressive with his long passes and winning everything in the air.” I personally rate him above Fonte, and Santos might be forced to do so as well due to the difference of game time between the two.

Neto: With Ricardo Carvalho out of the game, there will at least be one switch in the four centre-backs that lifted the Euro 2016 trophy. Neto is probably the biggest candidate for that spot, at least in Fernando Santos’s eyes seeing as he is the only different CB to have been called up for an official game since then. The ex-Zenit man is now getting decent minutes with Fenerbahce and has always seemed a solid-if-unspectacular asset who isn’t too mistake or injury prone, so I’m all for it. The fact that he seems like an all-new asset to take advantage of, yet he’ll be 30 come the World Cup, shows just how problematic this section is.


In contention

Ruben Dias: Ruben Dias has recently won a spot in Benfica’s starting eleven as Rui Vitória strives to renew his centre-backs himself. He’s only 20, is probably going to remain a starter for the remainder of the season and is, supposedly, in with a solid chance of making the World Cup. Now I don’t think he is a new Lindelöf because he is a lot more limited – I would even go as far as to call him somewhat of a liability on the ball –  and I don’t particularly think his ceiling is tremendously high. That said, he is spectacular in the air and a solid no-nonsense defender. I’m fine with having him on the plane to Russia simply because Fernando Santos hasn’t asked a huge amount from our CBs on the ball, so he fits the rest of the profile.

Ruben Vezo: Vezo is probably the one player on this list that I have a stronger opinion about, perhaps because his name is brought up so little. He’s still only 23 and is having more minutes than he’s had in any other season with Valencia, which is impressive considering how impressive they’ve been and the quality of the competition he has in the squad. He’s been getting some time on the right side of defence as well and is probably our most complete centre-back not called Pepe.

He perhaps doesn’t have Ruben Dias’s top notch aerial ability but is less one dimensional, harder to exploit, able to adapt to more kinds of games. To me Vezo is a must-have in Russia and would even make a compelling case for him to start with Pepe, but I see no indication of how much Fernando Santos is onto him unfortunately.


Other options

Edgr Ié: Yet another 23-year-old, Ié moved this season from Belenenses to Lille and has played literally every possible minute. Bielsa brought him in for his capacity to control space and play a high-line, due to his quickness. The Bielsa project went downhill and they are now fighting relegation which, combined with his profile not really matching what I’m expecting Portugal to present as a team at the World Cup, means he’ll sit this one out. But could be a very useful player for future endeavours, even more so due to having an unusual profile of characteristics.

Domingos Duarte: Think he is just a step behind the group of players in contention for this World Cup but I believe he’ll get caps in the future. After a season on loan with Belenenses, he is now on loan with Chaves. They’re having a good season and, at 22, he’s playing a more ball-oriented game under Luis Castro that could be the push for him to have a future with Sporting’s main team relatively soon.

André Pinto: André Pinto seems to really be carving out his place as Sporting’s 3rd choice centre-back and is a reliable player in case of emergency or in case he picks up a great sequence of form which is unlikely. I mention that just because he is 28, another one who isn’t one for the future but who could get an extra cap or so here and there (he has 1). 

Ricardo Ferreira: Ricardo is only here because I truly find him one of the most talented and complete assets for the position that Portugal have access to, which explains why Fernando Santos included him in the squad for the Seleção’s last couple of friendlies. But unfortunately he is just way too injury-prone. Since 2016/17, he’s been out injured for a total of 292 days – and counting since he is out at the moment – with several reoccurring injuries that make me worry about his future in the game in general. He’s still only 25 but I’m not quite sure what I see in the road ahead for him.

Rúben Semedo: Rúben went from being a powerful, yet mistake-prone, young defender with Sporting to a complete disappointment at Villarreal. He would need to make a jump if he wanted to get minutes in La Liga, but instead he seems to have declined massively. Was poor when he played and now has literally been arrested just as often as he has started for Villarreal - three times each. Insane, I know. Figured he was worth a mention as an example of a path not to follow.


Why the dearth of options?

We’re all aware that the major academies in Portugal are connected to the country’s major teams, so they’re the ones who we expect to produce national team calibre players. So why doesn’t it happen in this position as frequently as it does in pretty much all the others? Well it just so happens that these clubs are even more dominant, throughout youth levels. This means that throughout their development, centre-backs in these clubs play a ball-oriented style where they’re more occupied playing passes and controlling space than in more classic defensive actions, per se.

When the time comes for them to turn professional, if they’re not good enough to break straight into one of the big 3’s first team (which is natural), they have a very troublesome time adapting on loan to a minor team. This puts a large dent in their development, something that is now being slowly corrected with the presence of the B teams in the 2nd tier, usually battling it out around mid-table. If you take a look at the players analysed in this article, most of them spent the core portion of their development at a non-big-3 academy or, like Fonte, did spend time there and then only broke through later after growing elsewhere.

From Fernando Santos’s perspective, I believe Pepe is guaranteed (both on the plane and in the line-up), while Neto and Alves will be on the plane as well. Santos rates José Fonte very highly but his presence will be fitness depending – if fit and on the plane, he could be a starter as well.

Ruben Dias seems to be the man in pole position for Fonte’s spot if he isn’t fit or in case Fernando Santos simply decides to pick only one of Alves and Fonte. On the one hand, I think it would be important to renovate this sector of the squad, and bringing younger players to a major tournament side-by-side with the older guys is a major step for that. On the other hand, these kinds of high pressure short-term tournaments really do suit more experienced players. Under Fernando Santos we really do not play a dominant style, unless we’re forced to – for the most part we will sit relatively deep like we did in 2016. As such, I’m confident for the summer even if Santos calls up older guys since our game plan doesn’t make it that detrimental for them to play.

Moving forward, there are a couple more quality youngsters playing at youth levels or for B teams but this position will be forced into renewal come September at most, so the selection of players really won’t go much beyond what we have here.

While in general I don’t think the players are worse than the current ones, in the future I do believe Portugal will deeply miss the presence of an elite defender like Pepe who rarely makes a mistake and constantly improves the game of everyone around him. Between Ricardo Carvalho and then him it’s been a long while without one of these and I don’t foresee us having one in time for Pepe’s goodbye.

By Tiago Estêvão