Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly one of the most prolific footballers to ever grace the planet. Any club would assuredly jump at the opportunity to have him in their ranks, despite him being at the tender age of thirty-three.
Yet, due to Portugal’s recent successes post World Cup without their talisman, pundits and fans alike are beginning to question whether the five-time Ballon D’or winner is a hindrance more than a help for his national team.
Portugal’s new-look 4-3-3 formation has been a breath of fresh air for the Portuguese faithful along with the neutrals. The likes of João Cancelo and Rúben Neves – both of whom were left at home for the World Cup – have set the stage alight with a number of eye-catching displays in each of Portugal’s most recent outings.
Just four of the starting eleven that featured in Portugal’s round-of sixteen defeat to Uruguay have kept their places of late (Patrício, Pepe, William & Bernardo Silva), a reality which perhaps illustrates the versatility the alleged one-trick pony, Fernando Santos, possesses. In that game versus the Uruguayans – and throughout the entirety of their World Cup campaign for that matter – Portugal lived up to their ‘ugly duckling’ reputation, going about their business in a rather pragmatic, uninspiring manner.
Portugal line-up versus Uruguay (30 June) compared to line-up versus Poland (11 October)
The 4-4-2 formation which aided Portugal in conquering Europe was evidently outdated and clearly failed to suit the exuberant, phenomenally gifted youngsters that are coming through the ranks in Portugal. Of late, there is an entirely different feel to the team. There is a sense of freedom within the players. A fearless, jogo bonito vibe about their game – something the Portuguese faithful have been deprived of in over a decade.
This begs the unfortunate, pertinent question: are this crop of Portuguese players better without Cristiano Ronaldo? Answering such a question with a definitive yes or no is foolish – especially when talking about one of the finest footballers to ever grace the planet. However, it’s a question that must be addressed as, sooner or later, Portugal’s prodigal son will return to his national team duties.
Will Portugal’s formation change once Ronaldo is reintegrated?
Ronaldo is no stranger to operating in a 4-4-3 and despite being thirty-three, he still possesses the adequate athleticism and dynamism to operate as right or left winger. However, he has been most prolific when he is essentially given a free-role to roam in off the left-hand side, usually alongside another striker. This reality will undoubtedly make it arduous for Portugal’s newfound free-flowing, electric approach to function as the reigning Ballon d'Or holder is no longer an out-and-out winger.
Would Portugal, therefore, be foolish to start André Silva and Ronaldo together and revert to their pragmatic, largely uninspiring ways? It would certainly seem naïve to wipe the slate clean and undo all of Fernando Santos’ and Portugal’s admirable work over the last few months just for one player. But this player happens to be Cristiano Ronaldo – a player you simply cannot ignore.
We have seen Ronaldo operate as a lone striker in the past for club and country. It failed to yield spectacular results. Ronaldo, as previously mentioned, is at his best when he has a free role with a strike partner who is usually there to do the nitty-gritty work for him. André Silva is more than capable of fulfilling this role and we have seen them form a quite sensational partnership over the last few years.
Yet, operating with two strikers then nullifies the threat and sparkle that has made Portugal so scintillating to watch of late. So, what’s the alternative? If Fernando Santos does opt to stick to the same formation and utilise Ronaldo as a left-winger, Portugal will have to ensure there is somebody to cover for him defensively and even offensively at times when he decides to go on walkabouts in search of defensive lapses.
Portugal's newest unsung hero
A player that can fulfil such a role is Pizzi. His willingness to run in behind and go at the opposition has been particularly impressive of late and can undoubtedly fill in the gaps on the left-hand-side should Portugal require him to.
Even in Ronaldo’s absence, Portugal’s wingers often opt to come inside to free up space for the marauding full-backs to wreak havoc. This feature of Portugal’s play would suit Ronaldo down to a tee. Due to the cover of the left-back and the extra central-midfielder Portugal have been yearning for, Ronaldo would arguably have the same if not more freedom in this formation.
As seen in the images below, the vast majority of his touches for Juventus this season have come from that left-hand side. Contrary to popular belief, Ronaldo’s link-up play is phenomenal and, if he’s given licence to roam once he’s linked up with his colleagues on that left-hand side it simultaneously grants him the necessary freedom to wreak havoc in and around the box.
Images via WhoScored.com
He no longer boasts the electric pace we were fortunate enough to witness back in his Manchester United days, but Ronaldo remains a superhuman footballer in so many other facets. The trickery, pace and technical aspect of his game are overshadowed nowadays due to how prolific he is in front of goal but they are still there in abundance.
Portugal’s youngsters: what lies ahead?
In Cristiano’s absence, Bruma in particular has lived up to the hype – producing stellar displays whenever called upon. The Leipzig winger provides Portugal an outlet they have so desperately lacked in recent years, electric pace. Will he simply have to sit out and wait for Ronaldo’s powers and legs to finally dwindle to get ample playing time for Portugal? It remains to be seen.
Indeed, Ronaldo’s presence prevents many of Portugal’s youngsters from integrating into the squad which evidently hinders their development and cohesion with their national team colleagues. The likes of Bruma, Gonçalo Guedes and Rony Lopes all possess an abundance of talent and could easily cause any given defence a headache on their day. However, they are highly unlikely to be given a starting berth ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet, one positive Portugal fans can take from this endless pool of talent they currently possess is that Ronaldo’s match fitness can be carefully managed, meaning these youngsters on the fringes of the starting eleven can get ample playing time in the lesser games. Given the vast number of international fixtures on the horizon (UEFA Nations League, Euro Qualifiers, friendlies), it’s evidently not paramount for Ronaldo to play in each of these fixtures. The Seleção have shown of late that contrary to popular belief, they are no longer solely reliant upon their talisman.
Therefore, should Fernando Santos opt for a rotation policy that essentially builds for the future while simultaneously getting the best out of Ronaldo, it’s a win-win for all parties involved.
Emergency scenario: all guns blazing
Should, for instance, a scenario arise where Portugal are chasing a game and are in need of a goal – the Seleção could quite easily push Ronaldo up-top alongside André Silva while in the meantime sacrificing one of their three centre-midfielders to bring on an electric winger in the form of Bruma or Gonçalo Guedes. Such depth in options allows for Portugal to be prepared for all outcomes and allows for versatility – something all great international powerhouses possess in their arsenal.
Alternatively, in similar circumstances, Ronaldo could be utilised as an out-and-out centre-forward should the European Champions need a goal. As previously iterated, he has struggled there in the past, but Ronaldo has arguably turned himself into the game’s finest penalty box predator in recent years, and with an abundance of creative talent ready to serve him, in the right situations this may yet be his most useful position for the Seleção.
Fernando Santos responds to the notion that Portugal are better without their prodigal son
When asked if Portugal were a better team without Ronaldo recently, Fernando Santos responded: “No team in the world can be better if you take the best player in the world out of it.” But as alluded to above, there are advantages and disadvantages involved in Ronaldo’s reintegration.
The reason this discussion is taking place is because of Portugal’s terrific performances in CR7’s absence. As Santos alludes to, adding the greatest ever Seleção player to the mix would appear to logically make the team even stronger. However, to ensure that happens Santos must find the right formation and balance to ensure Portugal continue to hone their impressive new more proactive approach, and to simultaneously prevent halting the progress of exciting up-and-coming alternatives to the captain.
By Marino Peixoto