Two years after winning the European Championship in France, Portugal will fly to Russia for the World Cup, full of confidence. Their success at the Euros in 2016 was a combination of luck, good timing and an occasional genius from veteran coach Fernando Santos. But now, two years on, the young side they had then has improved drastically at both club and international level and is brimming with poise. Portugal look like a side ready to end dependence on Ronaldo.
Gone are the days where they had to rely upon captain and star man Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Santos has done an incredible job with the talent he has at his disposal. At the last World Cup in Brazil, Portugal looked like a side heavily-reliant on their captain to do the job up top, with the inconsistent and ageing Nani, Hugo Almeida and Hélder Postiga amongst others failing to aid him in attack. They were easy to play against, predictable and lacked an identity and that was evident in their performances at the finals where they lost 4-0 in the opening match to Germany, drew 2-2 against the United States and won 2-1 against Ghana, but still failed to qualify from their group.
Fast forward four years and they’re now in a much better position than before. Now, they have an identity and their style is difficult to predict. Throughout their successful European Championship campaigns, Portugal have mostly fielded a 4-4-2 formation, with a diamond in midfield to protect the ageing back-line. A year later at the Confederations Cup, Santos tested the same formation with a flat midfield and in the recent friendlies, the flexibility in the side and within his players has allowed him to experiment with a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. Such is the influx of talent in the nation that the days of lamenting the lack of options are long gone and this refreshing generation can challenge everything.
Even with the three primary centre-halves being Pepe, Bruno Alves and José Fonte, players with a combined age of 105, the cohesiveness and experience is coming to good use. They are likely to be given a greater test against faster, more direct opposition such as Spain, who they will kick-off their campaign in Russia against, but the recent stability shown by them in the warm-up games has been encouraging. Portugal faced Belgium, a country filled with attacking talent and managed to keep them quiet, with the likes or Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard particularly ineffective against them. Against Algeria, they played the strongest XI and were relatively untested.
The two lynchpins for this side, however, come up top in the form of two great prospects for the future, Gonçalo Guedes and Bruno Fernandes. Amazingly, neither of them have been in Fernando Santos’ starting plans throughout the qualifying campaign, but recent form suggests they more than deserve to be the starters in Russia. In the 4-4-2, André Silva was preferred to Guedes and João Mário was preferred to Fernandes, but they now have increased strength in depth and that could come to great use for Portugal.
Gonçalo Guedes did an excellent job against Algeria in their most recent friendly, supporting Ronaldo in attack and even scoring once. After a decent season with Valencia, on loan from Paris Saint-Germain, he linked-up well with the rest of the attacking force and was one of the best players on the pitch. His directness, as evident so often during the season, can come in handy and can form a great partnership with his captain in attack.
Although Silva, Portugal’s second highest goalscorer in qualifying, is likely to start ahead of him, it would come as no surprise to see Guedes in the starting eleven and continue being influential to the team. The nation had a crisis of forwards following the great Pauleta’s retirement, but they now have two fully able and devastating forwards.
Perhaps more exciting is the inclusion of Bruno Fernandes who, at 23, has already played for four clubs in two nations and is entering the World Cup on the back of his most impressive year. A hugely creative player, he can play on either wing, but has mostly played behind Bas Dost this season for Sporting and even contributes heavily in defence. Fernandes can change a game in a second with his killer passing and impressive shooting ability from long-range. What will interest Santos the most is his movement around the pitch and willingness to contribute to the team’s defensive side of things.
A look at his heatmap from the Portuguese Primeira Liga and the Europa League shows his versatility as a player. In late April against Portimonense, he played his usual role as the number 10, behind Dost where as in the Europa League against Viktoria Plzeň, where he played alongside William Carvalho in a midfield two, as Sporting fielded the 4-2-3-1 formation. In both these games, he provided an all-round display which will be useful in the later stages. These are mere examples of just how capable Fernandes is and how important he can prove to be for Portugal.
Recent games have also shown how Portugal’s reliance on Ronaldo is slowly drawing to a close. Undoubtedly their best player, he too has picked up a more contributing role, as evident in the match against Algeria recently, where he often set up team-mates, even picking up a fine assist for Bruno Fernandes’ goal. If Portugal are to be successful in Russia, one of the most important factors will be the players exhibiting self-confidence and assurance by finishing moves themselves and creating chances without fully depending on their captain. It is clear that Portugal have the quality to do so, they just need to put it into practice.
Morocco and Iran come after the crucial Spain clash and will be a tough test. Morocco have been one of the best sides in Africa, with their form in recent years being highly impressive, while Iran, a country ever-so-passionate about its football have always proven to be a tough challenge on the biggest stages.
Portugal enter the tournament with an average age of 28.4, marginally less than the 28.52 from four years ago, but that is largely due to the century-old back-line. This team now has a blend of exciting, young footballers that are brimming with potential and composure and can combine it with the experience of the old guard as well as a well-respected coach who is already in Portuguese football folklore with the greats. They enter the tournament as one of the dark horses. Eight years ago, they played Spain at the World Cup and lost, but back then, they had a disorganised team with no clear plan. Portugal will now enter the field in Russia with a clearer vision, a better plan and much more skill.
There is great optimism in the Portuguese camp and the recent years have been encouraging, due to which it seems highly unlikely that they will exit in the early rounds. The fact that players such as Rony Lopes and Rúben Neves were dropped says a lot about the talent coming through, and that paints a pretty picture for Portuguese football.