Touted as a potential Seleção striker from an early age, 26-year-old Orlando Sá is currently enjoying the most successful spell of his career, at Legia Warsaw, in Poland.
Sá’s goalscoring form has not gone unnoticed by national team coach Fernando Santos, who included the former Braga and Porto marksman in his provisional long-list for the recent Portugal matches against Armenia and Argentina, although he did not make the final squad.
In an interview given to Portuguese website Maisfutebol last week the powerful forward said: “Fernando Santos has been watching me this season. I’m going to continue working hard and hope he gives me a chance. It’s his decision. I believe I can help the team.”
Orlando Sá is very different from the archetypal lithe Portuguese striker who relies solely on skill and technique. His height (1.88m / 6ft 2in) and bulky build have always been among his main assets. He started his international career in spectacular style, scoring a hat-trick of headed goals for Portugal’s U21 side in a 4-1 victory over Spain in 2008 in one of his first games.
At the time he was a Braga player, and Porto moved quickly to secure his signature. However, the dreaded cruciate ligament rupture in his right knee followed by more injury woe ruined his chances of establishing himself at the Estádio do Dragão. After a disappointing loan move to Nacional and failure to make an impact at English club Fulham, Sá’s career was in danger of petering out.
A move to Cypriot side AEL Limassol, where he scored 20 goals in 51 games, brought a new lease of life to the striker. It earned him a move to Legia Warsaw and this year Sá has continued to find the net regularly, scoring nine goals in twelve games this season in the Polish league for its current leaders.
Can he help solve Portugal’s perennial problem position at centre-forward?
PortuGOAL asked Polish football expert Marcin Ostrowski, who is a close observer of the game in Portugal, for his opinion on precisely that question and an update on the striker’s performances in Poland.
Has Orlando Sá been a success at Legia Warsaw?
He has had a year of two halves at Legia. In spring, during the 2013/14 season, he was hardly given a chance by the manager, scoring only once in seven appearances, only four of them as a starter. Questions about his fitness and quality started to arise and many fans were afraid that despite his age, Orlando Sá was a player past his peak.
But since the beginning of 2014/15, Orlando’s importance at Legia started to increase and everyone in Poland realised that he is a clinical finisher, probably the best classical striker playing in our Ekstraklasa today. Despite playing only 756 minutes in the league this season, out of a possible 1710 (19 games), Orlando Sá has scored nine goals, which works out as an impressive average of one goal every 84 minutes! It’s hard to imagine what he could achieve if he played more games in starting line-up.
He is Legia’s top scorer. Why does he start so many games on the bench?
My personal theory is connected to the background of Legia’s Norwegian manager, Henning Berg. Berg was a defender for Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. At the same time, his compatriot Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was lifelong substitute striker for United. His “super sub” status may be most remembered when he scored against Bayern Munich in 1999 Champions League final, but he scored loads of goals for Manchester United coming off the bench. Maybe Henning Berg, who has never hidden the big influence Sir Alex made on him, wants to have his own version of Solskjaer, a talismanic striker who comes on the field in the final stages of the game to kill the opposition.
Jokes aside, there are two popular explanations of Orlando’s role at Legia. The less sophisticated says that there is no chemistry between Berg and his Portuguese striker. After one of goals against Górnik Zabrze, Orlando’s celebration was widely interpreted as a sign of his unrest, as if he was asking “What else can I do to play?”
But probably the best answer is in Berg’s tactical choices. He wants to play with a fluid front like, often without a number nine, with technical players able to change positions. Sometimes there’s no place for a target man in his vision. For a large part of this season he has played Miroslav Radovic as a false nine. Radovic was a lifelong winger who was reinvented as a number ten a couple of years ago. When Radovic plays upfront, he often goes back to the middle of the field, leaving the opposition backline with no point of reference. Albeit at a different level, you can compare it to Spain in the last European Championship, with Cesc Fabregas as a nominal forward.
But almost every time he is given a chance, Sá scores for Legia.
What are his major strengths/weaknesses?
Against Polish top-flight opposition, it is not so surprising a striker of Orlando Sá’s top abilities scores more than a goal per ninety minutes. He has everything: technical abilities, positioning, physicality, strength, first touch, he is good in the air. He doesn’t need many situations to score, he somehow reminds me Miroslav Klose. He can score with his head flying above the opposition defence, he can score with his head if the ball is just one metre above the ground. I like his hunger for goals. One of his first goals for Legia, against Górnik Łęczna, shows that well. Orlando’s shot was blocked and the chance looked lost, but he followed up and got to the rebound before the defenders who blocked his shot could clear the danger. You may say that is a basic of any striker’s game, but most forwards shoot and look what is going to happen. Sá is always chasing the ball in the opponents’ penalty area.
If I have to find the weakness I would say he has not proven himself at the top level yet. For all his success at Legia, we have to remember it all happens in a league that is ranked around 20th in Europe. You can argue it is similar in quality to the Cypriot league, where he also scored a lot of goals. Sá did not deliver at Porto, was a failure in the Premier League and even though injuries took their toll, there’s still no certainty about whether he would be successful in a better league. For all the beauty of his goal in the Legia-Trabzonspor Europa League encounter, it was only the first time Sá scored for Legia in Europe, in his fifth game in continental competition.
What do the fans think of him?
The fans really like him and want him to feel good at Legia and in Warsaw. They hope he will stay for longer and that Legia will not be just a short stopover in his career. During the game against Cracovia fans sang his name and believe me this kind of approval doesn’t happen to every player. Most fans would like Henning Berg to play Orlando Sá in every game. In many ways, Sá is the fans’ spiritual heir to Danijel Ljuboja, a controversial, gifted Serbian striker who played for Legia a couple of years ago, in that he is a player with some level of recognition in European football, and a player who makes people want to come to the stadium to see moments of excellence.
Does he have a ‘good press’ in Poland?
Yes. In general, Polish media are critical about clubs bringing lots of average foreign players to the Ekstraklasa. In the dominant narrative, it blocks chances of development for young Polish players. The media want clubs to bring foreign players of a certain quality, players who can teach the local youngsters. Usually foreigners coming to the Polish league are anonymous players or players with some recognition but past their prime. In this backdrop, Orlando Sá, who is rebuilding his career in Poland, is a very different story.
The fact that Sá was considered for selection by the Portuguese national team manager is good for the image of the Polish league. I’d say it also gives more confidence to everyone in Polish football: players, journalists, fans. We beat Germany in Euro 2016 qualifying, Legia won their Europa League group, and the Euro 2012 semi-finalists may call up a player from our league. It’s all part of bigger picture.
Has there been any talk about his future?
I’d be very surprised if he goes now. I know there have been rumours about Portuguese giants interested in him, namely Porto and Sporting, but I don’t know how much truth there is in this gossip. I can’t see Sá moving to Portugal to be honest, because I don’t think he would be a first choice player in any of the Big Three while other Portuguese clubs could be too small for him. I think in terms of quality, support, atmosphere and economic health, Legia is above anyone apart from the top three in Portugal. And I don’t think it would suit Orlando’s ambitions to be a backup player for Jackson Martínez or Islam Slimani.
It is inevitable that if he continues to score goals so regularly, given his age, sooner or later a club from stronger league will come calling. But spring 2014/15 will be very intense at Legia, with the title defence an obvious task and a big Ajax tie awaiting in the Europa League last 32.
Just yesterday I read in A Bola that two Italian clubs, Sampdoria and Palermo, are interested in Orlando Sá. But speaking to the legia.net website the striker declared he was going nowhere and only an offer from a really big club could make him leave Legia.
In your opinion can he do a job for Portugal as the centre-forward?
I think he definitely should be given his chance. It’s no secret that since Pauleta the Portuguese National Team lacks a lethal striker and that somehow the country does not produce many good number nines, compared to the wealth of talent in other positions. Even Sporting, who seem to develop whole generations of great Portuguese players, somehow can’t produce a great striker.
Orlando Sá is a different player, a bit un-Portuguese, at least given our stereotypes about typical Portuguese footballing qualities, in that he is a tall striker not keen on dribbling and very good at heading. On the other hand, so far he has only scored regularly in Cyprus and Poland so there is a big question mark about whether he will be a success at a higher level. Given Portugal’s bad start to Euro 2016 qualification, Fernando Santos wasn’t in the position to take a risk.
We should be wiser after Legia’s two games against Ajax in the Europa League. If Sá shows his quality against this season’s Champions League participants, Fernando Santos and his staff will definitely take notice.
Our thanks to Marcin Ostrowski. For more from Marcin follow him on Twitter @seixalense.