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

 

Comments (17)

  1. WinnipegDude

Great assessment Tom.

I think there were two major factors that muted the typical dissent we would have heard/seen from most Portugal fans.

The first being the honeymoon period of winning Euro 2016 and the "we can't win them all" attitude...

Great assessment Tom.

I think there were two major factors that muted the typical dissent we would have heard/seen from most Portugal fans.

The first being the honeymoon period of winning Euro 2016 and the "we can't win them all" attitude that would naturally flow from the amazing experience of celebrating our first major championship.

The second being the two world class goals scored by Cavani. This was no Euro 2004 set-play Greek header. I felt like a Juventus fan clapping for Ronaldo in the Champions League. Even my wife said to me after each of Cavani's goals... "I can't believe you are not screaming right now". Although I had some choice words for Suarez's antics.... made Neymar look like a saint in my books.

I won't repeat many of your points about players playing out of position (Guerreiro, Bernardo, Guedes) but I do think one thing that was lost in the WC2018 vs the Euro2016 was the sense of urgency in several of the games. We tend to see this in friendlies but generally Portugal has been a tournament team.

Santos has more risk in keeping things constant than making changes. He deserves to coach the Euro 2020 but if we see another repeat of the issues we saw in the WC2018 we may see Rui Jorge get his chance at the WC2022.

I want to end with one final thought.... a lot of folks talk about how well Iran played but in my opinion Morocco deserved a better fate. They were relentless and in fairness could have went 3-0 in the group.

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  1. Tom Kundert    WinnipegDude

Hi Winnipeg. Agree on all your points, especially Cavani - Portugal were beaten by two briliant goals - and Rui Jorge. I'm happy for Santos to stay for now but Rui Jorge would appear an excellent successor. He's done excellent work at U21 level...

Hi Winnipeg. Agree on all your points, especially Cavani - Portugal were beaten by two briliant goals - and Rui Jorge. I'm happy for Santos to stay for now but Rui Jorge would appear an excellent successor. He's done excellent work at U21 level for several years now so he knows all the players inside out.

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  1. Val    WinnipegDude

Exactly how i felt WinnipegDude. MEH is the perfect way to describe Portugal atm and Tom nailed it.

Their limp, lazy displays leading up to the WC and the 3 awful matches muted any negative reaction on my part as well.

Cavani is brilliant on on...

Exactly how i felt WinnipegDude. MEH is the perfect way to describe Portugal atm and Tom nailed it.

Their limp, lazy displays leading up to the WC and the 3 awful matches muted any negative reaction on my part as well.

Cavani is brilliant on on an entire different shelf not just in terms of talent but his desire is huge! Guy never quits and takes plenty of crap for the team. How the 2 asshats Neymar and Dani Alves treated Cavani is pathetic.

Anyhow I hope they get back to playing football and Santos drops anyone who is not givingn100%. Tired of the vacation mode play.

I am worried about the kids. They were dreadful. The best players were all over the age of 33! Hoping for the best with the recent Gelson and William transfer rumours/deals.

Oh and i not buying a damn Juve jersey Ronaldo or not! No chance in hell!! ?

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  1. WinnipegDude    Val

I agree about your "kids" comment.

They need to play regularly at the club level even if that means a smaller club or even a lower league (look at Neves development with Wolverhampton last year). I'm actually quite excited about the promoted...

I agree about your "kids" comment.

They need to play regularly at the club level even if that means a smaller club or even a lower league (look at Neves development with Wolverhampton last year). I'm actually quite excited about the promoted Wolverhampton team with all the young Portuguese players expected to get major minutes in the EPL.

TBH.... I'm worried an Atletico transfer will stunt Gelson and he will become another Renato Sanches or Andre Gomes. Having said that I think William will be fine where he lands.

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  1. SupremoGino

This "what if" talking point surrounding the match verses Iran is not even worth the discussion in my opinion. We lost in the Round of 16. If Portugal looked any where near decent we should have reached the quarter-finals at minimum no matter...

This "what if" talking point surrounding the match verses Iran is not even worth the discussion in my opinion. We lost in the Round of 16. If Portugal looked any where near decent we should have reached the quarter-finals at minimum no matter which side of the bracket. We made Spain look championship caliber after the first match. They proceeded to get bounced out immediately by Russia. Portugal going further was never relative to who we played in the next round because it wasn't the quality of opposition or the referee, it was simply us.

To say that Fernando Santos' tactics cannot be blamed at all is maddening. You know I was one of a very small group who backed Santos when he first took the job but we can't just make Guedes the equivalent of Nani and call it a day. While Nani is a winger, he had shown in years past his ability to operate in central areas. (e.g his goal vs. Bosnia in the Euro '12 qualifying playoffs) Guedes was forced into an unfamiliar role just 2 weeks prior. It was a terrible attempt at trying to mimic what worked two years ago. Missing the energetic Renato Sanches as the #8, was a huge loss no question but this does not excuse Bernardo being out of position for all but 35 minutes in the span of 4 matches. Moutinho being the only decent box-to-box style player in the squad also hurt us badly.

There are reasons to believe for the future but we also can't forget the inevitable retirements of Pepe and Quaresma. I know Ronnie just signed for Juve but I'll be pleasantly shocked if he merits a starting role by 2020 for club or country. It would definitely make my day. The most interesting thing though, will be seeing how Portugal can put together a brand new young, exuberant, and formidable center back partnership to defend our Euro championship in as little as two years.

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  1. Tom Kundert    SupremoGino

Hi Gino, thanks for your comments, always enjoy reading your opinions even if I disagree with some of them.

I agree with you that Portugal have only themselves to blame for going out. Too many players underperformed.

As for trying to mimic...

Hi Gino, thanks for your comments, always enjoy reading your opinions even if I disagree with some of them.

I agree with you that Portugal have only themselves to blame for going out. Too many players underperformed.

As for trying to mimic what happened two years ago, given that it brought Portugal the first trophy in their entire history, I don't think it was such a terrible idea. Playing Guedes up front went badly, we can see now that failed. But he played there for six months at Benfica when Jonas was injured and did welll, he looked fine there in the last friendly match, and André Silva is obviously out of form/short of confidence, so it was not such a bad idea in theory. Unfortuantely in practice it just didn't work out.

As for Ronaldo, I couldn't disagree more. He's in the running for the Ballon d'Or again this year yet again - that's hardly a player who's career is winding down! He's got a new challenge - winning the Champions League with Juventus - to keep him mentally focused on staying at the top, and it is well documented that there is no other footballer out there who looks after himself so well in terms of recovery, diet, sleep, lifestyle, etc. He's got a good 2 or 3 seasons at the top in my opinion and it would not surpirse me to see him play for Portugal until 37 or 38.

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  1. Danny DaSilva

SupremeGino- "I know Ronnie just signed for Juve but I'll be pleasantly shocked if he merits a starting role by 2020 for club or country." ????? What are you talking about?????

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  1. SupremoGino

@Danny

35 years for a professional player is a lot of mileage. I'm not ruling out a rightful place in Juventus' or Portugal's starting eleven but i'm just saying i'll be astonished if he maintains that same high standard of quality and...

@Danny

35 years for a professional player is a lot of mileage. I'm not ruling out a rightful place in Juventus' or Portugal's starting eleven but i'm just saying i'll be astonished if he maintains that same high standard of quality and excellence through 2020. If you take Eusebio for example, you'll see how quickly his career tapered off between the age of 33 to 35

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  1. Justin/rochester

In regards to Ronaldo, he’ll obviously decline in the next few years but I’d argue that even 75% of Ronaldo is better or equal to any forward we have coming up through the pool. He’ll lose some speed and a little of his jumping ability yes, but...

In regards to Ronaldo, he’ll obviously decline in the next few years but I’d argue that even 75% of Ronaldo is better or equal to any forward we have coming up through the pool. He’ll lose some speed and a little of his jumping ability yes, but that will just put him athletically on par with a current André Silva. I’ve never been a fan of André Silva but I won’t get into that. Who do you want Cristiano or Andre Silva? It’s a no brainer to me. As for the future, we need to work on the final decision in the attacking third of the field. We play as if we can just pass the ball and walk into the goal. I have so much to say but there’s no point right now.

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  1. Chris

So, another great article and topic on what is the premier footy site of the world. This is not opinion, it is fact. Tom, if you ever branched out and did an international soccer site, I know it would also be a success because of the quality of...

So, another great article and topic on what is the premier footy site of the world. This is not opinion, it is fact. Tom, if you ever branched out and did an international soccer site, I know it would also be a success because of the quality of journalism, analysis and camaraderie built on this site.

As for Portugal's performance, well as European Champions, if we are measuring by that bar, it was a complete failure. It was really a failure on 2 fronts; 1. we failed to go as far as this team, on paper, should go. 2. we played horrible football.

If we heap the praise on Santos for the job done in France, we must also heap criticism for this very poor showing on him. Does he still deserve to be Portugal manager? Based on his CV and the fact that we let Bento on for 4 years when a chimpanzee would have been an upgrade, the answer is yes. Santos does deserve to still be in charge.

However, if I am honest, and if I were the FPF, I would keep a very close eye on him. The fact is he failed to make the right selections, and worse, he misplaced his stubborness and will to make risks. How? He should have been stubborn in keeping Cedric as the starter against Uruguay and taken a risk in placing a more in form LB instead of Rapha G. He should have been stubborn in instilling an urgency and fire in the players, and made a risk when some of them stepped up to meet that challenge.

The fact that France, who are consistent if not particularly flashy (save of course Mbappe), can make it to the final playing safe, low risk footy under Didier Deschamps, there is no reason why we could not also have made it further. I would like to see Rui Jorge eventually given an opportunity. I think he is a marvelous manager, but we must also be cautious, Carlos Queiroz is another youth coach who was a disaster at senior team level.

Rui Jorge should be given an opportunity soon, but it should be as the heralded successor to Santos once his contract runs out in 2020, not in a "quick fix replacement" scenario. I have faith that the silver generation we have now, with the inclusion of guys like Ruben Neves, Renato Sanches (if he does well at Bayern this season), Gelson, Rony Lopes, Bruma, Bernardo, Cedric, hopefully some new CB's in Diogo Queiros at Porto, Edgar Ie and a few others can really solidify and win us another cup soon.

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  1. joe

Santos showed lack of imagination and creativity by trying to win like this was the Euro where Portugal was actually extremely lucky. They were also very lucky against Spain and Morocco and still Santos didn't adjust and as expected their luck...

Santos showed lack of imagination and creativity by trying to win like this was the Euro where Portugal was actually extremely lucky. They were also very lucky against Spain and Morocco and still Santos didn't adjust and as expected their luck eventually run out and so did their WC campaign. Sure the players are to blame as well but Santos lack of new ideas till finally using Bernardo in its proper position till was too little to late. He needs to step up starting in September or step out. the giddy feelings from the Euro won't last forever.

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  1. John

Thanks for article Tom, will there be a podcast coming up?
I'm curious to what adjustments with the national team and tactics will be made.
I'm not from the camp of just sacking the coach is the answer unless he shows he can't make adjustments.

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  1. Brain/US/RI

Santos sticking with something thinking it will work, until it actually fails in front of him, is the most Portuguese thing ever. I can't fault him, it what most of us would of done, it's in our blood. I do believe he'll re-access the squad and...

Santos sticking with something thinking it will work, until it actually fails in front of him, is the most Portuguese thing ever. I can't fault him, it what most of us would of done, it's in our blood. I do believe he'll re-access the squad and make some much needed changes. The interesting thing is I believe most of the youngsters would thrive in a 4-3-3, but as long as Ronaldo is producing and is in the starting 11, he'll need to play with a strike partner. So there are some hard decisions to make over the next 2 years, especially with us saying goodbye to aging team members.

Also, lets look to other futures as well, hope Tom and the team can produce some good coverage on the Under 19 Euro coming up!

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  1. Jose Da Costa

One thing that no one seems to be talking about is Portugal lack of threat from outside the box. In the past, we had players like Carlos Martins, Maniche, Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, just to name a few who could really shoot the ball from a...

One thing that no one seems to be talking about is Portugal lack of threat from outside the box. In the past, we had players like Carlos Martins, Maniche, Raul Meireles, Miguel Veloso, just to name a few who could really shoot the ball from a secondary position. Against team Like Uruguay that defends with 2 lines and very deep, you need that secondary punch to force them out and open up space for our frontline players. William, Joao Mario, and Adriano Silva are not goal threats from long range. I believe this is where in the future Renato, Neves, and Bruno Fernandes, could really give Portugal a boost. Would love input from the readers! Thank you

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  1. Roger    Jose Da Costa

Yep, not sure why Santos didn't take Neves, he's a gun from outside the box.

The others you mentioned couldn't hit the side of a barn.

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