Friday, June 20, 2014

Portugal: What lies behind and ahead

Despite its high-profiled nature,
Pepe's ill-tempered reaction was not
the root of all evil for Portugal.
Photo by
Up until 5pm on June 16, 2014, everything seemed to be tip-top in Portugal. The sun was (finally) shining, summer was in bloom and the TV, press and Internet were littered with motivational jingles and clichés. The national team was just about to kick-off their World Cup in the fraternal soil of their "país irmão" and the side boasted Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's best player and figurehead of recent Champions League victors Real Madrid.

By 7pm, everything was a mess. The football team that used to unite all Portuguese people (or some thought or wished) had become a joke, its players a cluster of pampered professionals who did not deserve the money they got nor the pride their fellow country men had invested in them. In short: same ol', same ol' back in Portugal. Love and embrace 'em when they win, crush 'em when they lose.

Rather than discussing the result and what it all means - or may mean - at length, we will be looking at the process, namely where some of the problems lay and how/if they can be sorted out in time.

  • The formation

The formation of any given team is of little importance in the grand scheme of all things football. As the saying goes, tactics stand for nothing on paper - meaning that it's rather the dynamics that are implemented within said tactical framework that are relevant, not the theoretical representations of a 4x3x3 or 3x5x2.

In the case of the Portuguese national team, there seems to be little to no collective thinking, not in terms of group cohesion, but rather in terms of what to do in the game's different phases. The centre-backs seem to have the ball or their direct opponent as their sole responsibility, regardless of where it ends up taking them. The midfielders do not provide the necessary coverage for each other, let alone for their defence. The poor attackers are left to their own devices, with a game plan that essentially boils down to "get the ball to Ronaldo now!"

Therefore, it results utterly pointless to dissect the formation, since none will work if there is no tactical blueprint and if the players' features do not fit into it (when in doubt, please see Spain's case during the current World Cup). Whether in 4x4x2, 4x3x3 or 4x2x3x1, without an underlying collective understanding of the game, few teams will prosper.

  • The Ronaldo conundrum

Cristiano Ronaldo is by far the team's most gifted player. He is the captain, the man everyone turns to for guidance. That much was clearly on display when Nani (for instance), presented with a clear-cut opportunity, kept looking over his shoulder to give the ball to Ronaldo. However, it's become painfully clear that Ronaldo's numerous shots, sprints and goals come at a defensive cost.

The chances created by the German team and the absence
of defensive input down Portugal's left paint an explanatory picture.

It is no surprise then that Real Madrid managed to grab their Décima by pairing him with Benzema up front, thus efficiently covering both wings. Most opponents had identified Portugal and Real Madrid's left wing as their main gateway. If Portugal coach Paulo Bento is to insist on this formation based on the same principles, the left wing - now without Fábio Coentrão, no less - will be a primary target for upcoming opponents.

On the attacking front, Ronaldo actually suffered from being offered little service down his side, despite the scare Portugal gave Germany in the match's initial period, where Hugo Almeida ended up squandering a good opportunity presented by his captain.

Despite his limited playing time at Manchester United, Nani was often called upon to carry the ball forward.

In fact, it was Manchester United's once super-sub Nani that saw the ball more often, while also contributing a little more defensively. All this seems to confirm that Ronaldo might just be better off stationed up front - playing off a proper, designated no. 9 such as Éder - than parading all his abilities down the left.

Portugal ended up favouring their right side both offensively and defensively.

  • Miguel Veloso

When Miguel Veloso first burst onto the scene of Portuguese football, it was a breath of fresh air. It seemed Portugal would have a gifted ball-playing holding midfielder for years to come. Unfortunately for him, it did not pan out that way and Veloso now finds himself plying his trade for Dynamo Kiev after being considered for greater heights. He has become slow and apparently lost even the ability to put himself in the right spots according to his position, often jeopardising the team's defensive solidity.

Miguel Veloso contributed precious little defensively against Germany.

If William Carvalho is to replace him against the United States (a possibility formulated elsewhere), the defensive dashboard of Portugal's defensive midfielder might be a tad busier than the above one.

  • Éder

During his early years, Hugo Almeida was thought to be the answer to many Portuguese supporters: A tall, strong, robust, left-footed striker. The long-standing issue of "good football but the balls never goes in the net" that harassed the Portuguese national team (and clubs to a lesser extent) seemed to be all but over.

However, like Veloso, Almeida's evolution stagnated. A good four-year spell at Werder Bremen earned him a move to Turkish side Besiktas, all of which did not grant him an extension of his somewhat limited bag of tricks. Despite his physical presence, Almeida does not offer the link-up play the maligned Hélder Postiga provides and he's not exactly the most mobile of players.

Éder replaced the injured Hugo Almeida and immediately improved Portugal's incisiveness.

When Almeida was forced to limp off the pitch, on came Braga's Éder, a forward who, despite his long-term injury, seems to combine most features of his two fellow strikers: On one hand, he is able to hold the ball up and allow his team to progress up the pitch. On the other hand, he's fast enough to create problems, as Germany's Mats Hummels can attest.

  • Conclusion

All in all, there seems to be a glaring beckoning for greater collective organsiation within the Portuguese team. In a tournament where most teams have fared apparently under no detailed instructions from their managers and relied hugely on their top performers, the only way to improve the side's odds is to offer them a map they can follow, rather than leaving them to their own devices. In a competition that has been so dominated by individual displays, Portugal must make use of a clear plan if they are to stop the progressively decaying talent pool from drying out altogether.

Portugal vs USA: The Preview

After last Monday's dreadful performance and worse result against Germany, Portugal will certainly have a lot to improve if they don't want to start packing their bags just yet. A match preview that includes the reasons why Éder and William Carvalho might be the men to help them do just that can be found here.

Portugal: The truth behind the numbers

The Euros that saw "football coming home" to England in 1996 marked a revolution for Portuguese football. After that tournament, Portugal were present at every major competition with the exception of the 1998 World Cup in France (the start of a trend), with the Golden Generation taking centre stage.

The nearly twenty years that followed have seen Portugal progress to two semi-finals and one final, which led many to believe the side would finally be able to be a member of the elite club of European powerhouses. Boasting one of the world's two best players in Cristiano Ronaldo certainly didn't hurt matters; the future looked rosy.

  • Those dreaded World Cups

What those handpicked stats hide is that Portugal are usually terrible when it comes to World Cups. In 1986, Portugal defeated England 1-0 (the start of another trend) but crashed out after losing to Poland and Morocco, amidst disputes over bonuses and scandals involving prostitution. The tournament yielded bruised egos, one fired coach and a few banned players. In 2002, there were again squabbles over monetary compensation, poor managing choices and seemingly endless shopping sprees (besides defeats against South Korea and the United States). The tournament yielded bruised egos, one fired coach and a few banned players.

Luís Figo watches Landon Donovan's celebration at the 2002 World Cup.
Photo by

Only in 2006 did Portugal show up and manage to actually look good (the fact that the competition was played on European soil should not be deemed a random factor), reaching the semi-finals. However, it should be noted that the two opponents Portugal overcame to play Germany in the semi-finals were England and the Netherlands, the only two top teams Portugal have consistently beaten over the past 20 years. Against Germany, France, Spain or Italy, the track record is less than impressive.

  • Those happy Euros

One of the unheralded advantages of Euros is that if one team qualifies from the group stages, they immediately earn bragging rights about reaching a competition's quarter-finals. If the draw is favourable on top of that, players, coaches and directors (as well as supporters) might even go as far as saying that they've reached the semis.

In 1996, Portugal were eliminated by Karel Poborsky's (who would later play for Benfica) expertly taken lob in the quarter-finals. For a nation that had remained absent from tournament finals for so long, it was an honourable display. In 2000, the feared France put the Portuguese out of the tournament at the semi-finals with the penalty that spurred so much controversy throughout the nation (Turkey were the quarter-final opponents).

A tearful 19-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo will be out
to make sure such moments don't happen once again.
Photo by

The 2004 history is well known, of course, but it hides the fact that the opponents that Portugal defeated were precisely England and the Netherlands - the two teams that have become as close to automatic knock-out wins as possible for the Portuguese side. In 2008, Portugal crashed out against Germany (no coincidences there, then) in the quarter-finals and 2012 saw them being eliminated in the semis via penalty shoot-out at the hands - and feet - of Spain, after losing to Germany once again in the competition's first match. The team the Portuguese had beaten to reach the semi-finals was the Czech Republic.

  • Conclusion

While history might be cast aside as a mere collection of facts, it might help us shed some light on a few tendencies. In this particular case, it seems to show that Portugal fare rather well on European soil (whether it is the Euros or World Cups) and less well on other continents. It also reveals that, contrary to popular belief - and the 3-0 win against Germany back in 2000 notwithstanding - Portugal have consistently failed to punch above their weight and that their best results are usually linked with favourable draws.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Portugal 0-4 Germany: Where to go from here?

Portugal certainly had a nightmare of a start to their World Cup in Brazil, but all is certainly not lost. You can check out why here.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Portugal vs Germany: The preview

Today's main course at the World Cup pits Portugal against Germany. If you want to whet your appetite even further, you can have a look at the preview for Metro.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Combination Play on the Web

Despite the lack of new posts, there has been a lot going on during these pre-World Cup times. In fact, you can find me talking to Ireland's radio NewsTalk about the Portuguese National team (including the possibility of Cristiano Ronaldo playing up front or trying to find a proper comparison to William Carvalho) here.

Last night I had the privilege of being on CCTV America's The Heat, with Anand Naidoo, where we talked for a few minutes about the other side of the World Cup - whether the investment is really worth it, the FIFA scandals, among other things; you can watch the whole show here.

Finally, yesterday saw the launch of the official coverage of the World Cup for UK's newspaper and website Metro, where I will be covering Portugal throughout the tournament. The first piece is available here.

Stay tuned!