Portugal may be in a group with Spain, but they’re still widely expected to make it through the first hurdle at the World Cup. The European champions have finished third in the group stage at their last two tournaments. That slip didn’t hurt them in 2016, but it cost Paulo Bento his job as manager back in 2014.
With the World Cup right around the corner, it’s hard not to look back at the 2014 edition in Brazil. A lot has changed in that time, with Portugal going from an early exit to our pick as the potential dark horse. Just how have the Selecao moved on since their troubled time in South America? Here we’re looking at how they’ve transformed over the last four years.
New Boss Brings Formation Change
Paulo Bento certainly had a gameplan in mind four years ago. He started every game with a 4-3-3 set up, even after losing the opening match 4-0 to Germany. That loss ultimately put them out of the tournament. Fernando Santos took over a few months after their exit in Brazil. He quickly turned things around, installing a 4-4-2 system with the national side. That set up feels influenced by Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side, which was a big departure for Portugal.
There’s also been a change in the selection, with only five of their starting line up from their opening game making this summer’s squad. We only expect three of those to make the starting line-up in the opener with Spain. The 4-4-2 stays after their success in France, while the team has been freshened up by the new man in charge.
Selecao Conceding Possession
It wasn’t just the shape of the side which Santos influenced. Portugal built their Euro 2016 success on a strong defence, which saw them draw six of seven matches in 90 minutes. They conceded just once in the knockout stages, and then they kept three clean sheets at the Confederations Cup a year later. That unit is perfectly suited to soaking up pressure, which is a benefit given that their squad is far from the most talented in the world.
Bento had a different approach in 2014, as they made a more aggressive attempt to dominate possession. They started the tournament against eventual winners Germany, and still had 46% of the ball; in a game they lost 4-0. They were dominant against the USA and Ghana, which brought better results. However, that approach clearly didn’t sit well with Santos, who was happy to give up the ball.
They used three central midfielders in Brazil. A switch to 4-4-2 came with the choice to move the two central midfielders in to defensive roles. As a result, Portugal had less possession in all four knockout games at Euro 2016. A year later, they only won the possession battle in one group game – a meeting with New Zealand. In their semi-final meeting with Chile, the European champions had 43% of the ball in a 0-0 draw. Santos clearly sees their limitations, but he’s used that to create a more effective side.
Building the Defence
Moving to a defensive approach obviously can’t be done without a solid defence. Portugal may have basically the same centre-back options, but they’ve been boosted at full-back. Man United are currently chasing Diogo Dalot, but he’s fifth choice for Portugal. They had a four way battle for two spots this summer, won by Southampton’s Cedric Soares and new Leicester man Ricardo Pereira. They beat Inter Milan’s Joao Cancelo and Barca man Nelson Semedo.
That’s a deep talent pool, one area where they’re spoilt for choice. Elsewhere, Fabio Coentrao’s decision to rule himself out of the tournament was barely felt. With Mario Rui impressing in Serie A this term. Raphael Guerreiro has that position locked down. The Dortmund man just needs to keep himself fit, which has been a worry for him of late. If he can stay fit, then the side will have a solid back four, albeit a little slow at centre-half. They have experience in the middle, and with their style of play Portugal are going to be a hard side to break down.
More Presence in Attack
It always felt a little harsh when pundits would claim that Portugal just have Cristiano Ronaldo up top. He has been their standout man up top for over 10 years, and he’d walk in to any team in world football. The Portguese weren’t exactly limited having him in attack, but number nine has always been a problem position for them.
Even the Portuguese golden generation of 20 years ago lacked a striker, and that carried over for years. It posed a problem during the 2014 World Cup, and Paulo Bento didn’t really have an answer. In addition to using all three of his goalkeepers at the tournament, he also handed a start to each of his three forwards in Brazil. Hugo Almedia, Helder Postiga and Eder rewarded the manager’s lack of faith as they all failed to score.
Three players scored a goal each for Portugal four years ago, but things have changed. The formation switch to two up front led to Nani partnering Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2016, which worked. However, the last 18 months have seen the emergence of Andre Silva. The former Porto striker has cemented his position as a favourite of Santos, after a strong run during the qualifiers.
Silva has hit it off with Ronaldo, and between the pair they scored 24 times. He has already made an impact in Russia, after scoring at last summer’s Confederations Cup. There’s also the emergence of Man City’s Bernardo Silva, who is taking charge of the creative responsibilities. With Bruno Fernandes also possibly providing goals from midfield, Portugal are much stronger up top.
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