As the 2016/17 club season nears its end, attention has inevitably turned to an exciting summer of international football. Already a new generation of Portuguese talent is struggling to write their own bit of history at the U20 World Cup in Korea before Rui Jorge’s dominant U21 squad heads to Poland for the Euros.
Meanwhile, the Seleção face a congested list of fixtures beginning with a pre-tournament warm up against Cyprus on June 3rd in Estoril. Over the 5-6 weeks that follow, Portugal will play at least four but as many as six more matches depending on results in the Confederations Cup.
Join PortuGOAL.net’s Nathan Motz as he investigates how the Seleção might take full advantage of this summer’s demanding football calendar.
Odd-numbered summers. Footballers recharge spent batteries, fans lament the doldrums of summer heat separating them from the start of the next club season. But not this summer, not for Portugal at least. Less than a month remains before Portugal travel to Russia to begin their first ever Confederations Cup campaign.
With Euro 2016 in the rearview mirror and the 2018 World Cup looming, this summer’s fixture program might not rouse the same depth of emotion, but it is a time of crucial importance for our Seleção.
Much has changed in one club season. Older players like Vierinha and Ricardo Carvalho have moved on while young talents forged their identities. But it wasn’t all good. The fortunes of many key players rose and fell without rhyme or reason, and to an extent that this squad’s potential is difficult to evaluate. Talented they may be, still Portugal’s present generation has much to do in order to prove that last summer was not an anomaly.
I recall discussions had with journalists after Euro 2016 in which they expressed to me a genuine and forgivable lack of awareness that Portugal were entering another golden era. But we are entering another golden era, right? At present we have central midfielders at two of the top clubs in European football, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, a talented young striker from Porto, wing wizards in the typical Portuguese tradition from Sporting and Monaco plus a real life superhero we call “Cristiano Ronaldo.”
But as good as Portugal have been in competitive fixtures (minus the 2-0 setback in Basel last fall), there are missing elements that have to be addressed. That is why I propose that this summer’s fixtures, while lacking in prestige, retain significance as a crucible to refine this raw, shapeless group of prodigies into something real, concrete, and unstoppable. We need to set and achieve a few salient objectives over the course of this summer of football.
1. Design and implement a role for Bernardo Silva
It is my hope that fans of this website are football-cultured to the point of understanding that elite talent paired with no discernible player strategy is both foolish and impotent.
At some point or another, we have all lamented how Miguel Danny’s considerable skill was wasted in a role that simply did not allow him to be the creative force that he otherwise might have been. What I would like to suggest, and I am aware this is a contentious statement, is that we are at risk of doing the same with some of our current generation of players, Bernardo Silva in particular.
Please do not misunderstand me, this is not a criticism of Bernardo. I am as enamored with his talent as everyone else, but for me, something is not quite right when he suits up for Portugal. That delicate way he floats past opponents is missing. His work ethic is not in question, but mostly resembles the exertions of a player who is not quite sure where he is supposed to be in relation to the 10 other players around him. So he chases the ball, and often in vain. In 12 caps for Portugal, I cannot remember a time when I saw him open up the pitch the way he does for Monaco.
Bernardo Silva may be the most instinctively skillful Portuguese player since Ronaldo, but if there is no designated role for him, it is debatable whether he’ll be of any real use to Portugal at all. The problem is that serious. Players that do not find their niche fade into obscurity.
Bernardo can finish but is clearly not a striker, not even in a supporting role, and for all my clamoring that he can be a brilliant central playmaker, he operates exclusively on the wing for his club. He is too talented to become another workhorse midfielder like Adrien Silva, no disrespect intended. He needs to be entrusted with a unique playmaking role and given the personal space to bring his creative weapons to bear on opponents.
I have already elaborated on my desire to make Bernardo a No.10, but is there evidence to support this assertion? The statistical data this season shows that in Ligue 1 play Bernardo Silva led Monaco in total touches, chances created, assists, and blocks. He also had more tackles than any other player not in the back-four except Tiémoué Bakayoko, and recorded more shots than all but Radamel Falcao and Valère Germain, both of whom are strikers.
In short, he was the fulcrum of a squad that scored more goals than any other in Europe aside from Barcelona and Real Madrid. In a team of standout individual talent, he is a peerless maestro, and was unlucky to miss out on the Ligue 1 player of the year award, all due respect to Edinson Cavani for his outstanding season. What do you do with a player who does it all? Simple, you put him in the middle of the park behind your strikers, give him the reins, and let him win games for you.
What also strikes me is how he seems to insist on playing centrally anyway, despite his right side midfield assignment. With Monaco’s raging fullbacks on the overlap, Bernardo frequently cleaves open defences with a mazy run through the middle, kicks the ball wide then advances into the penalty area to receive a return pass. His final goal of the club season against Lille is a good example.
Combine this with the fact that none of Portugal’s other central midfielders are in particularly impressive form, and you already have every reason to evaluate Bernardo’s credentials as a No.10. Whether or not you agree, my point remains that a player of his quality has to be made a centerpiece, not simply thrown on as a late game afterthought in a false 9 role to chase the ball around. Bernardo is the type of player we need to cash in on now. There’s a reason Manchester City wanted him despite the attacking riches they already possess.
2. Develop a solid “Plan B”
Santos is certainly not opposed to shifting gears when things do not go as planned and this summer offers a perfect opportunity to reformat the overflow in Portugal’s talent pool by building an alternate script. Portugal do need a go-to starting XI to establish chemistry between the players, but cannot forget to design a blueprint for how our substitutes can turn a match in our favor.
Players like Ricardo Quaresma, Gelson Martins, Nani, and others can surely add attacking flair, but we need a lock-down defensive strategy too. At Euro 2016, Portugal suffered greatly whenever Raphael Guerreiro was injured, and the recent friendly against Sweden showed that Nelsinho and João Cancelo are not yet able to reproduce Cédric’s unperturbed mastery of the right side of Portugal’s defence.
Not every match will have the same challenges. In the Confederations Cup we face a talented but inconsistent Mexico side that is looking to reinvent themselves after years of underachievement. Russia has proven a difficult opponent in the past and have home field advantage.
The predicament is how to construct alternate gameplans for such a diverse group of players. Quaresma gives Portugal width and accurate crosses into the box while Gelson is a livewire that demands excess attention from the opposition defense. João Mário is coming off a turbulent season with dysfunctional Inter Milan.
Obviously, the June 9th World Cup qualifier against Latvia is not an ideal time to experiment, but the friendly against Cyprus is excellent. Key players will already be missing for that match due to club commitments (Ronaldo & Pepe in UCL final, Quaresma with Besiktas, etc). Furthermore, if the matches against Mexico and Russia go well, Portugal’s final group stage match against New Zealand might be another ideal time to try different combinations in midfield and defence.
For many of these players, just rebuilding confidence may be a task. Not everyone comes into training camp having played a significant role in a championship winning side like Bernardo Silva, Quaresma, or Ronaldo.
3. Sort out the holding midfield role
This final point might be my most contentious yet, but it needs to be said: both William and Danilo have flattered to deceive for Portugal. Yes, they are very different players and they have both had been decent at times.
But all things considered I believe the defensive midfield role to be the weak-link of a side whose need for a competent holder grows by the day. This Portugal squad is loaded with forward thinking, attack-minded players. Without a strong foundation to build from, a tactically intelligent opponent will easily sever the connection between defence and attack.
William was once touted as the type of player who could dictate the tempo in that deep-lying role which is apparently so difficult to interpret. So many holding midfielders simply cannot balance their defensive responsibilities with the desire to command the passing cadence in the attacking third. For those who remember, Manuel Fernandes was notorious for this transgression.
While I still believe William is the frontrunner for Portugal’s No.6 role due to his proficiency as a distributor, I certainly do not look at him as the rock in midfield that he was meant to become.
Danilo, meanwhile, still has not been able to express the all-action dominance that he regularly exhibits for FC Porto. Our back-four needs a breakwater player ahead of them and Danilo’s defensive metrics are good enough to make me think he is perfect for this role. But because William owns the starting role, Danilo’s chemistry with the rest of the squad is lacking. He needs to get some chances to outcompete William with the end result hopefully being that they both raise their standard of performance.
With some exceptions like Renato Sanches, this is likely going to be the exact group of players Portugal take to the World Cup next year. What a fabulous opportunity to integrate key talent and tactically retool this squad for what could be Portugal’s best ever chance to win a World Cup.
As I have mentioned in the past, in the long-term this team will not always be able to depend on Cristiano Ronaldo. In a few short years he will pass into legend. Now is the time to frame the squad of the future. One that will remain a fearsome world-class contender long after its greatest player retires from the game.
by Nathan Motz