With the World Cup in touching distance and Portugal’s 23-man squad finalised, Seleção fans can at last start to ponder about Portugal’s starting eleven when the European Champions take to the field in Russia in a little over three weeks’ time.
With youthful talent and exuberance combined with several seasoned veterans of the game at their disposal, pin-pointing Portugal’s eleven is not as clear-cut as it once was, despite Fernando Santos’ reputation for being overly pragmatic and stubborn.
PortuGOAL looks at the possible formations and line-ups for the Seleção’s group stage matches of the 2018 World Cup.
Throughout Santos’ virtually faultless tenure with the Seleção, he’s almost always opted for a 4-4-2 formation. This entails a few things. Portugal’s wing-backs are key to the attacking game plan. With the wide playmakers often opting to drift inside onto their favoured feet (João Mário and Bernardo Silva), it’s often down to the European Champions’ adventurous, galloping full-backs to provide width which, more often than not, results in several hit-and-hope-type crosses in the direction of Cristiano Ronaldo and André Silva.
One of the central midfielders (usually William Carvalho) will sit in front of Portugal’s back four, anchoring Portugal’s midfield and transitioning their play from defence to attack. This requires the other central midfielder (usually Adrien Silva) to cover endless amounts of ground in order to stifle creativity amongst the opposition’s midfield.
Certainly – and perhaps unsurprisingly - Adrien’s turbulent season with Leicester City has prompted many Seleção fans to be outraged by his inclusion. However, as stated by Santos in an RTP interview earlier this week, “Adrien is a player with different abilities, who offers great tactical discipline and deep knowledge of the way we play.” Portugal’s remaining central midfielders that make up the 23-man squad fail to possess such an astute discipline, in addition to Adrien’s ability to stifle the opposition’s creative hub. Therefore, Adrien is an invaluable option to have should Portugal come up against the calibre of opposition whose midfield in particular is their strongpoint.
Against the lesser nations where Portugal are likely to control large spells of the game, the Seleção will be more inclined to field one of their more creative centre-midfielders (Bruno Fernandes, Manuel Fernandes or João Moutinho). Their technical prowess and forward-thinking mindsets are key to ensuring that the European Champions translate their possession into something creative.
The manner in which Portugal’s wide playmakers operate is particularly exciting given the Seleção’s depth and variation of options. When without the ball, we usually see them revert to their starting positions as left and right-midfielders, respectively. Yet, when in possession – depending on the personnel operating in these roles – at least one of the wide playmakers will drift into the centre. This manifests a gaping hole for one of Portugal’s forwards (Cristiano Ronaldo or André Silva) to run into the channels.
This is a feature we often see the Seleção use to ensure Cristiano Ronaldo sees as much of the ball of possible. And – I must say - it’s worked magnificently well thus far. Cristiano aside, when the said playmaker drifts inside, the opposition are often at sixes-and-sevens as the interchanging amongst Portugal’s front four is arduous to keep track of. Therefore, enabling players who boast a technical prowess most would die for come inside into what essentially is a number-ten role is a feature of Portugal’s play that often goes unnoticed, but is a particularly deadly weapon to have should the team implement it correctly.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s strike partner is most likely to be André Silva, despite his lacklustre debut season in Italy. André Silva is the sole pure centre-forward in Portugal’s 23-man squad, too – a reality which reaffirms my assumption of him almost being guaranteed a start. Gonçalo Guedes does possess an interesting arsenal of attributes which may well complement Cristiano Ronaldo very well. But Guedes is yet to produce a string of stellar displays for the European Champions, mainly because the abundance of talent from midfield onwards has limited his chances, prompting me to assume that this partnership is highly unlikely for the time being at least.
Horses for courses
And so, with that being said, here are the elevens I think the Seleção will field in the group stage. While we’re on the subject of predicting, if your think you know who will win the 2018 World Cup in Russia and are keen on other sports bets, visit LSbet.com and use your knowledge to profitable advantage.
Portugal vs. Spain
Given Spain’s unfathomable quality in all areas of the pitch, I think Santos will approach this game cautiously, and understandably so. This is the same back four that Portugal fielded for much of the European Championships as well as in qualifying and it has failed to let him down as of yet. Despite their ageing limbs and injury plagued seasons, José Fonte and Pepe have formed quite the partnership over the last two years – a feat which in itself leads me to believe they will be Santos’ go-to men at centre-back to start with. Many Seleção fans are calling to see Rúben Dias start alongside Pepe and I am intrigued by such a possibility. Yet, given his youthfulness and lack of experience (he is yet to debut for the full national team), I think it’s unlikely that he will secure a starting berth for the opening game.
Cédric offers more of defensive rigour than his fellow right-back, Ricardo Pereira, and has all the necessary attributes to stifle Spain’s left-hand side. Adrien, too, possesses a similar defensive sturdiness, and his ability to make a nuisance of himself defensively is key in this encounter if Portugal are to curb Spain’s dominance through the midfield areas. João Mário offers more cover centrally – something which the Seleção are likely to need as the Spaniards often play with their inverted ‘wingers’ particularly narrowly.
From an attacking standpoint, as previously iterated, João Mário’s ability to come centrally when in possession is a feature of play that the Seleção use frequently. Indeed, the likes of Gelson Martins and Gonçalo Guedes perhaps possess better attributes for this position in an attacking sense. However, the West Ham loanee has been one of Santos’ go-to men throughout his tenure and is highly unlikely to be benched for other personnel, especially in an encounter against a nation with such an array of world-class players.
Portugal vs. Morocco
Much depends on the outcome of the Spain result. Should Portugal win or get a point, it’s unlikely that Santos will tinker with the line-up a great deal. However, should the Seleção come away from their first game empty-handed, a cautious line-up is unlikely to be fielded.
That said, the back four will be largely unchanged – bar the inclusion of Ricardo Pereira over Cédric. Leicester City’s new right-back offers far more going forward and – as seen in Portugal’s three-nil win over Saudi Arabia in November – he and Bernardo Silva can form a formidable partnership down Portugal’s right-hand side.
Morocco boast some fantastic players in their ranks and their quality should certainly not be overlooked. But, they aren’t Spain. And so I think a partnership centrally of Bruno Fernandes and William Carvalho would be the best fit for this encounter. Sporting’s magisterial number eight offers a great deal more in an attacking sense than his compatriot, Adrien Silva. Bruno Fernandes boasts a rare well-rounded ability, which enables him to be a goal-threat and creator while maintaining and executing his defensive duties admirably.
As stated previously, João Mário is a viable option against opposition who are likely to dominate large spells of the game and who operate narrowly as he rarely hugs the touchline in order to beat his opposite number. Gonçalo Guedes in that sense is the total opposite of João Mário, as he often stays very wide in order to isolate his marker in one-on-one situations. Portugal rarely utilise such players to start with, but if they need goals I think that Gonçalo Guedes has all the necessary attributes to break lines and ultimately ruffle a few feathers amongst the Moroccan defence.
The remainder of the line-up is unchanged as I believe that regardless of Portugal’s result in the first game, most of these players are undisputed starters should their fitness prevail.
Portugal vs. Iran
Again, such things are incredibly precarious to predict as much of this depends on how Portugal do in the first two games. Yet, as mentioned previously, I do believe that there are at least seven undisputed starters for Portugal who have almost always - barring injury spells - been called upon by Fernando Santos.
The remaining positions up for grabs are particularly interesting given the varying personnel the Seleção have in contention for these positions. The likes of Gonçalo Guedes, Gelson Martins, Manuel Fernandes and Ricardo Quaresma are all fabulous players in their own rights. But, they each bring very different things to the table. Two of the aforementioned possess pace in abundance (Gelson Martins and Gonçalo Guedes), while the other two rely upon their outstanding technique to create with either exceptional crosses (Ricardo Quaresma) or intricate through-balls (Manuel Fernandes).
For the sake of intrigue, I’ve gone with something a little different – despite the inevitability of this not happening. I think if Ricardo Pereira does make an appearance at any point in the group stage and should he produce the calibre of performances he has for FC Porto this season, then he will make the right-back position his own. Barring injuries or blunders, I also think José Fonte and Pepe will remain Portugal’s first-choice centre-backs.
In the midfield, Manuel Fernandes’ unique skillset could prove to be exciting – as long as there is pace elsewhere on the pitch to offset his lack of pace. Bernardo Silva’s form is key, too. After Cristiano Ronaldo, he’s arguably Portugal’s most gifted player at this moment in time and in order for Portugal to create ample opportunities, his form and contributions are pivotal.
Ifs and buts
Indeed, bar the Spain eleven, these line-ups are entirely hypothetical as we have no idea what the outcome of Portugal’s opening game versus Spain will be. And if Portugal win their first two matches (we can dream!), then we can expect several usual starters to be rested against Iran. I’ve simply created these line-ups and have explained them in detail in order to give Seleção fans an idea of each member of the squad and the manner in which they can be utilised should they see the field of play in Russia.
By Marino Peixoto
Related: Portugal’s 23