Conservatism and question marks
As Fernando Santos leads Portugal to their second World Cup under his tenure, there are many questions surrounding the squad going to Qatar. Though Portugal seem to be one of the oddsmakers’ better rated teams going into the tournament, a combination of underlying issues in the squad and antiquated tactics may hinder them from making a deep run into the knockout stages.
This tactical preview has been written by Charlie Tuley.
After they failed to qualify for the World Cup during the group stage of the qualifying tour, Portugal had to win two knockout games to be given entrance to the Qatar games. Portugal got quite lucky in that they had to face North Macedonia in the final knockout match (after beating Turkey in the prior round), as they could easily have had a much more difficult match against Italy if Roberto Mancini’s Euro 2020 winners had not unceremoniously lost to North Macedonia in the first knockout round.
Santos has had mixed results in international tournaments during his time with Portugal, having led his team to a greatly unexpected victory in the 2016 Euros before crashing out in the round of sixteen in both the 2018 World Cup and the Euro 2020. The Euro 2016 win is quite misleading, however; Portugal failed to win a single match in the group stages, and only won one of their four knockout matches without going to extra time or penalty kicks.
Santos has named a squad of players with what seems to be a great mix of experience and youth, with only five of the twenty-six man squad over the age of thirty as well as seven under twenty-three players. Nine players have over fifty caps for the Portuguese side, and only three players (José Sa, Antonio Silva, Gonçalo Ramos) have not played for the national team yet in their careers. Santos has placed a big emphasis on retaining his core players from previous tournaments,and he will without a doubt rely on the same small group of players to lead Portugal in Qatar.
As has been the case for nearly twenty years, Cristiano Ronaldo will be expected to lead the line for his nation despite having a poor start to the season with Manchester United. His United teammate Bruno Fernandes will be expected to play behind him in Santo’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation, with Bernardo Silva taking up residence on one of the wings. The center-back position has two clear choices in Pepe and Rúben Dias, but Santos will have a headache when deciding who to field in the fullback roles. Manchester City star João Cancelo is a nailed-on starter, and his ability to play on both the right and left side is both a gift and a curse for the manager. Santos has to choose one of Diogo Dalot, Raphael Guerreiro, and Nuno Mendes to play opposite to Cancelo, each of which brings different strengths to the team.
A lack of defensive intensity from the front…
It is not a surprise that Ronaldo has become less mobile in his advancing age, and he has had to limit how often he puts his body under strain by taking a less intense approach on the defensive side of the game. As can be seen with his Manchester United side, Ronaldo puts in very little work when his team does not have possession of the ball. With their striker unwilling to actively engage in pressing their opponents, both of Ronaldo’s teams have to compensate by playing deeper and absorbing their opposition’s pressure as opposed to proactively trying to win the ball back.
46th minute vs. Spain (0-1 loss, September 27). Pau Torres is allowed to take as much time as he likes on the ball, and is given free reign to carry it until he reaches Portugal’s midfield.
As a result of Portugal’s lack of pressing intensity, their opponents’ center-backs and deeper-lying midfielders are given as much time on the ball as they please. Any team that faces Portugal will be allowed to move the ball around the back line for as long as they like without worrying that the Portuguese team will step out of their compact shell to make things more difficult for the team in possession.
…is compensated for by the conservatism of the rest of the team
Santos’ Portugal have had a solid defensive structure despite their captain’s lack of effort whilst out of possession. The two wide midfielders will take up very narrow positions to try and clog the midfield as much as possible, as the entire objective of Santo’s defensive setup is to prevent progression through central areas. The compactness of Portugal’s five-man midfield does quite well to prevent any advanced midfielders or central forwards from ever receiving the ball, and it takes serious disruptive events to shift the team in ways that allow for opposition reception in the central channel.
The narrow and deeper positioning of Portugal’s wide midfielders also incentivises the opposition fullbacks to remain deep, since there tends to be an abundance of space on the wings for them to receive the ball. Since the opposition’s path of least resistance is to progress the ball down the wings, it is easy for the Portuguese squad to anticipate how teams will try to break them down. If the ball is shifted to one side of the pitch then Portugal can allocate the players (usually the wide midfielder, the respective fullback, and one member of the double pivot) Two central midfielders next to each other. to close down the opposition players. Portugal’s defensive setup has been one of the biggest successes of Santo’s management; the team only conceded six goals from their eight World Cup qualifying matches, as well as three goals in their most recent Nations League group stage.
Portugal’s transition-based attack
This Portugal squad is extremely reliant on transition periods to get themselves into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. As soon as the team wins the ball back, all members of the front four are making forward runs trying to get into space by taking advantage of the high defensive lines that their medium block A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. affords their opponents. The Portuguese players take an extremely direct approach during these transition periods, and their goal is to get the ball to one of their forwards as quickly as possible. This results in many of their attacks being rushed, and they lose the ball often by trying to put players in behind the opposition defense with long passes.
56th minute vs. Spain (0-1 loss, September 27th). João Cancelo wins the ball back just inside his defensive third, and carries the ball to evade Spain’s press. All the players in more advanced positions than him make forward runs, giving him few low-risk options to pass to.
This direct approach tends to cost Portugal against sides that press them with great intensity immediately after losing the ball, as it takes a bit of time for the forwards to make runs where they are able to receive the ball. Their attacking style is incredibly predictable, and is easily exploitable by their opponents. None of the midfielders or strikers will move to provide a short passing option for their deeper teammates, which tends to result in them losing the ball over and over, keeping them in a perpetual defensive state.
In the instances when Portugal are able to maintain possession in their opponent’s defensive third, they tend to lack creativity. Fernandes likes to play “hero ball,” where every touch he takes needs to be a high-risk pass or a long-distance shot, which results in the team losing the ball often unnecessarily. As he is on the defensive side, Ronaldo is largely immobile, and he likes to drift into wide positions to (for no reason whatsoever) combine with teammates. This means that Portugal often have no presence near or in the opposition penalty area, which greatly hinders most offensive efforts. This is sometimes mitigated by the presence of Diogo Jota, who is willing to drift into central areas and deputize as a striker but his exclusion from the squad (due to injury) nullifies this occurrence.
24th minute vs. Czech Republic (4-0 win, September 24th). Bruno Fernandes is forced to make a run behind the Czech back line, whilst Cristiano Ronaldo remains in a central area to stretch the opposition back line.
Fernandes also likes to drift wide (especially to the right side) in the final third, which combined with Ronaldo’s tendency to do the same leaves Portugal without any central players in the final third. This creates a lot of problems for Portugal’s attack, and they usually resort to passing around aimlessly for a short time before dumping crosses into no one or taking long shots if they are unable to score from the transition phase.
Portugal’s most recent matches came at the end of September, as they beat the Czech Republic 4-0 and lost to Spain 0-1. Those two results encapsulate Portugal quite well: defensively solid with an inconsistent attack. In their six Nations League matches since June Portugal have scored eleven goals, which on the surface looks like a very respectable tally. However, those eleven goals came in just three matches, with two of those being 4-0 wins. When Portugal’s attack is firing (and their opponents are making it easy for them), they will undoubtedly score goals.
The side seems to be amongst the favorites to win the World Cup, though that seems to be on an on-paper basis. The squad looks great on paper, having a number of big name players who have had great success at the club level, but there are many underlying issues in the Portuguese team. With the players that Portugal has available the team should be much better than it is, but the extremely conservative management as well as the player selection holds the side back. It would be surprising if Portugal were unable to make it out of the group stages, but anything more than that would be considered overachieving given how the team has played under Santos.
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