Sunday, April 1, 2012
Why the best player of this season's Portuguese championship won't start at the Euro
In football, as in so many other areas in life, context is everything. Whether (s)he's a club manager or the coach of a national team, it's absolutely critical that the players hired/called up are chosen according to the manager's ideas, and not just because they excelled at their (previous) club. Otherwise, (s)he would be left with a bunch of players with little or nothing in common, creating chaotic scenarios that we see in football far too often (Gian Piero Gasperini's case at Inter immediately springs to mind*), in which the manager has the ungrateful task of being forced to try to concoct some game plan that accommodates everyone. In case you're wondering, that's the ideal way to ruin a team and their manager - just look at how Real Madrid, Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City ended up spending so much money in unsuccessful newcomers (from Wayne Bridge to Shevchenko or Torres, from Robinho to Sahin, from Carroll to Charlie Adam), most of which they couldn't get rid of. As for national teams, just think of why the performances from Messi, Ronaldo, Lampard or Gerrard (to name but a few) draw so much criticism from their own fans.
As decisive as Viana has been in Braga's exhilarating season, it's important to analyse if his traits, tendencies and overall game are suitable to Paulo Bento's ideas. Regardless of how much you may or may not agree with Bento's ideas, it's still up to him to make the decision in the team's best interest and, therefore, there will be no discussion of his perspectives.
1. Braga's tactics. Leonardo Jardim's Braga usually play a 4x2x3x1, with Custódio as the holding midfielder and Viana alongside him. Additionally, Lima is a fast, mobile forward and Mossoró provides the link-up between midfield and attack. Viana's precise passing offers an alternate route to Mossoró, allowing Braga to quickly break away by bypassing Mossoró with long passes to Lima or Alan. Defensively, Braga tend to be quite conservative, dropping back and usually creating two banks of four. There are numerous players around Viana to cover for him when he strays for an attack, for instance.
2. Portugal's tactics. Again, this issue does not revolve around whether this is the best option for Portugal, rather if Hugo Viana is a suitable pick. The Portuguese eleven has traditionally lined up in a 4x3x3 for quite some time now. Paulo Bento has kept João Moutinho and Raúl Meireles, with Miguel Veloso lately getting the nod ahead of Carlos Martins. It seems clear that Bento favours a team that is capable of exerting pressure higher up when necessary, a job for which Hugo Viana does not seem fit. Unlike Braga, Portugal does not have a typical regista, which means both midfielders (ahead of Veloso) must defend and attack - if we take a closer look, Bento has been calling up players capable of doing just that, such as Meireles, Moutinho, Ruben Micael or Ruben Amorim. Even Castro or André Santos have been called up precisely because they fit the bill. With so many offensive-minded players at the back (João Pereira and Fábio Coentrão, for instance) and wingers who rarely help out defensively (Nani, Ronaldo, Quaresma), it's up to the midfielders to provide coverage, and not the other way around.
3. Portugal's approach. It only seems logical to infer from Bento's stint so far that he will be going for a different approach from Carlos Queiroz. Instead of sitting and waiting for opponents, the Selecção will be looking to stifle opponents and play with a high(er) defensive line. Again, unfortunately this does not bode well for Hugo Viana, who is particularly prone to tiring out mid-game and does not usually do well in such sides. Besides, Viana is vulnerable to being muscled out of the park (the Besiktas tie is proof enough), a threat he will face on most matches of the European Championship.
Conclusion. All in all, I don't believe that this is a case where a stubborn coach does not want to admit he got it wrong at first, rather a case where the player does not go well with the team's tactics and approach. To put things in perspective, even though they are very important at their current clubs, it would be nonsensical for Barcelona to hire Luisão, Milan to hire James Rodríguez or Manchester City to hire Matías Fernández - the teams' principles and the players' features simply do not add up. Personally, I do believe that Hugo Viana could be a valuable asset (particularly for matches where Portugal may not be the clearly superior side), but I also think that his playing time would be limited.
*Gian Piero Gasperini was hired by Inter at the start of the current season, only to be fired after five (winless) matches. The oddness of it all was that he was dismissed precisely for implementing his game plan (known to everyone for being a high-pressure and very intense one), one that didn't fit the players he had at his disposal - mostly players on the wrong side of thirty.