Was Portugal’s performance at World Cup 2018 underwhelming, in line with expectations, unlucky, or as the kids today like to say, just “meh”? The post-tournament reaction (or lack of it) would seem to indicate the last option.
There have been no recriminations flying around the media, no headlines demanding radical reform, not even a call for a period of introspection. Indeed, the silence has been deafening in terms of any formal reaction from the Portuguese Football Federation, coach Fernando Santos or the players regarding the campaign of the European Champions in Russia.
PortuGOAL assesses the Seleção’s showing at World Cup 2018 and looks for pointers for the future.
Iran – the “What if?” match
Cristiano Ronaldo’s heroics against Spain masked the fact that Portugal were largely outplayed by their Iberian neighbours in their first match. The Seleção then rode their luck to sneak a 1-0 victory against Morocco. Against Iran, Fernando Santos’ team performed better, albeit without dominating their Asian opponents, but in hindsight the failure to win that match proved decisive to Portugal’s campaign.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s missed penalty and the erroneous decision by the referee to award Iran a spot kick in the dying minutes for an alleged Cédric Soares handball resulted in a 1-1 draw that sent Portugal to the difficult side of the draw, thus missing out on a potential route to the final that would have featured Russia, Croatia and England. It is tempting to speculate whether or not Portugal could have experienced a similar journey to Euro 2016, when they were spared encounters against any of the big fish until the final.
Nevertheless, it is too simplistic to blame a poorly struck Ronaldo penalty, or Carlos Queiroz’s incessant pressuring of the referee to use VAR improperly, for Portugal’s failure. Or indeed bad luck. The fortune Portugal enjoyed with their path to Paris two years ago deserted them this time round, but when you are relying on luck to progress it is not a good sign. The fact is Portugal’s play in the group stage did not merit topping the group.
The “substance over style” debate
Given the array of talented players at Portugal’s disposal from midfield onwards, a desire for a more expansive or ambitious style of play has dominated Seleção fans’ forums in the aftermath of the World Cup exit. Fernando Santos had a reputation for defensive football before taking the reins of his home country after his stint as Greece coach, and that was only accentuated with the tactics employed in leading Portugal to the European Championship trophy.
It is easy to point the finger of blame at the manager for failing to endow the team with imagination and creativity, especially amid the frustration of a premature exit, but as this World Cup has shown us again, matches are won and lost on fine margins in international tournament football and it is tight defences and solid organisation that are key to going deep. Brazil, Germany, France and Spain were the four favourites going into the World Cup, but the only one that made it to the last four is the most balanced team of the quartet, while teams such as Sweden and England are proof that a well-defined and implemented strategy and cohesiveness take you further than individual brilliance.
For this reason, Fernando Santos’ tactics cannot be blamed for Portugal’s failure. At Euro 2016 Santos adopted a flat four in midfield, and a converted winger up front, Nani, and it worked to perfection, so blaming the exact same formula (for Nani at the Euro, read Gonçalo Guedes at the World Cup) for this year’s disappointment makes little logical sense.
Portugal do have the talent to make more things happen from an attacking point of view, but it is tweaks that are required to a productive model of play (2 competitive defeats in 33 matches under Santos cannot be disregarded) rather than ripping up the blueprint.
The Bernardo issue
Bernardo Silva has enjoyed two marvellous seasons at club level, winning successive league titles in France and England and playing his part for Monaco and Manchester City. He is often talked about as the most talented player produced by Portugal since Cristiano Ronaldo, but the truth is he has shown it all too infrequently in a Portugal shirt.
Although he has played much of his club football on the right, cutting into the middle to open up the pitch and use his wondrous left foot, his best position is surely in the centre of the field, where he can give full licence to his creativity and be constantly involved in the action. This was shown unequivocally in the second half against Uruguay when he was finally deployed in this position, and when his mesmerising dribbling looked like Portugal’s best route back into the game. In the group stages he had been stuck out on the right and completely anonymous, so much so that he was dropped from the starting XI for the Iran match.
Santos must surely persist with Bernardo in the middle, or we will risk seeing a similar fate befall him as Danny Miguel – another player whose potent attacking attributes were never harnessed by a succession of Portugal coaches, often because he was played out of position. As Cristiano Ronaldo’s extraordinary powers naturally start to wane in the twilight of his career, it is crucial Bernardo steps up – and that is given the platform to do so.
Youngsters fail to meet expectations
Today, 10 June marked exactly two years since Portugal were crowned champions of Europe. The collective giddiness following that memorable night in Paris was further fuelled by the widespread belief that the triumph could be the springboard for an unprecedented period of success for the national team.
The fact so many of the key players at Euro 2016 were youngsters, apparently with plenty of upside, provided solid grounds for such an idea. Renato Sanches, Raphaël Guerreiro and João Mário had performed admirably in France. As World Cup qualifying began, André Silva and Bernardo Silva were added to the mix, the former with considerable success. Ahead of the World Cup, Gonçalo Guedes and Bruno Fernandes joined the fray on the back of magnificent seasons at Valencia and Sporting respectively.
Alas, the Russia World Cup has forced us to re-evaluate how worthy this crop of promising young footballers is of “the new golden generation” epithet. Renato’s demise was so spectacular he did not even board the plane to Moscow, and with the exception of 45 minutes against Uruguay by Bernardo Silva, none of the others enhanced their reputations at World Cup 2018.
For the national team to prosper, the continuing development of this group of players and their successful transition to the international arena is crucial.
Reasons to believe
Russia 2018 has been a wonderful tournament overall, but for Portugal fans it will not last long in the memory as regards their own team’s contribution. But while the World Cup was a disappointment, it was no Mexico 1986, Korea and Japan 2002 or Brazil 2014.
The raw material is there, the coach who oversaw Portugal’s finest hour retains strong support among the players, media and fans, and Cristiano, as shown by his transfer to Juventus today, has no intention of disappearing from top-level football any time soon.
As Portugal embark on the next chapter of what has been an unprecedented level of consistency since the turn of the century, there is genuine hope that Russia 2018 was just a hiccup. Roll on Euro 2020.
By Tom Kundert