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.

Força Seleção.

by Nathan Motz 

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  • Guest - ---Z---

    It is cool to hate on william

    if William is so bad at his defensive midfield role, why was he the starting DM when Portugal went to the U21 final in 2015 and then when Portugal's Senior side won its first major trophy at Euro 2016?

    IMO William has actually looked better for the Seleccao than he does when he plays for Sporting (Especially in 2016-17).

    William was one of the best Portugal players at EURO 2016, and only those who understand football understand why.

    What do I expect from this site run by Lampioes? especially with the first of the month quickly approaching, the time where they often collect their welfare cheques/social assistance benefits to fuel their alcohol dependencies. .

    ...BEIFICCAA!!!! ASOORESH!!!

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  • Z, I certainly don't hate William, but I think by now most would have to admit that he has not reached the heights he is capable of for Portugal. His U21 feats were really special, but I've written before about how impossible it is to compare that level to senior international competition. It is a huge jump from the U21s to the senior side, and for that reason many, many talented players simply don't make the leap. Remember Nelson Oliveira and his incredible U20 World Cup years ago?

    I'll also disagree about William being one of Portugal's best players at the Euros. He was very inconsistent and I wrote about that in my player ratings review after the tournament. It's frustrating because you can tell he is very talented but he just doesn't seem to want it bad enough in every single match. Neither does Danilo for that matter, but my point is not that I don't like Sporting or William or any other club team. I just do not agree that his current level of performance is to the standard required if our Seleção is to compete against the top teams in the world. Our formation is going to get stretched to the breaking point without a midfield anchor and William and Danilo both need to do more in my opinion. Thanks for the comment!

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  • Hey Z....
    http://m.quickmeme.com/img/3a/3ab296129de5b4c0a65fe1e1ae4a35ef7b96415ca338c3f12d5a2bdfa3dbf64f.jpg

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  • Guest - Boston

    I really hope Santos tries and uses Danilo at CB. He's already played there before and we know he's capable. If he leaves Porto this summer I'm hoping and assuming Neves takes over that DM spot. Hopefully he dominates and makes it his own. Our CB options could be Pepe, Fonte, Danilo, Semedo while or DM's are William and Neves. Looks pretty damn solid to me and fixes our biggest issue

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  • I'll admit that while this option intrigues me I'd rather just see some of our young CBs mature then put Danilo on the backline. The reason is because he isn't preparing for that role day in-day out at Porto. He can do it in a pinch, but if we're playing Brazil in a WC semifinal I don't want him on the backline. I'd rather him play the midfield destroyer role instead. Taking a player out of his primary role is doable, but I think it's especially risky when you're talking about the CB position.

    I also agree that having Neves become an Andrea Pirlo style No.6 would be amazing for this team. That kid can really strike the ball. He also has some developing to do, however, and hopefully he has a great U21 tournament + a good club season next year. He's still young but I'd like to see him at Euro 2020 at least.

    Thanks for your comment!

    from Louisiana, USA
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  • Guest - jon/usa

    Yet another brilliant article, Nathan! I agree with most of your points, especially with regards to making Bernardo Silva the focal point of our attacking play. While he has shown some glimpses of his world-class quality for the Seleccao, he does struggle to really stamp his authority on the match as he does not appear to have a well-defined role. The good news is that Fernando Santos' preferred 4-4-2 set up is actually quite similar to the 4-4-2's that are utilized at clubs like Benfica, Sporting, Monaco, and Real Madrid.

    Bernardo has been absolutely brilliant when operating as a false right-winger in Jardim's narrow 4-4-2 formation, so I see no reason why he cannot be just as successful in a similar role with the Seleccao. Quaresma and Gelson Martins are more orthodox wingers who can be just as effective, but I think Bernardo is a better fit for Santos' preferred style of play, especially when you consider his tactical discipline and phenomenal work rate. Joao Mario, like Bernardo, is also far from an natural winger, but he has the football IQ, technical ability, and work rate the excel as an left-sided inverted winger.

    Pizzi and Danilo have been superb for Benfica and Porto respectively this season, but I still think Santos should stick with the Adrien-William combination in midfield. They play with each other week in and week out at club level for Sporting, they are used to playing in a 4-4-2 (Moutinho is still an excellent player, but he is far more comfortable in a 4-3-3), and lets not forget they were our starting midfielders throughout the knockout round of the Euros last year.

    Cedric's all-around game has improved significantly over the past two seasons for both club and country and he is still our best option at right-back. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that Nelson Semedo and Ricardo Pereira have much higher ceilings than the Southampton defender. Nelson Semedo in particular has been absolutely outstanding for Benfica over the past two seasons and he has never looked out of his depth against Porto, Sporting, or any of the quality sides that we have faced in the Champions League. I would argue that he is already among the top 10 right-backs in all of Europe, and if he can maintain this elite form in a top league (he has heavily linked with Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent weeks), it will only be a matter of time before he is considered among the top 5 in his position -- he is already world-class.

    The only thing I am worried about is our depth at center-back. That being said, even with our aging center-backs, I would argue that we have one of the strongest squads in international football. I have no doubt that this is, by some distance, the strongest squad we have had since 2004, and I would argue that this current crop of players (especially if you consider the incredible amount of quality we have between the ages of 16-23) has even more potential the golden generation of Figo and Rui Costa.

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  • Jon, thanks for the comment. Portugal really do need to work on that CB problem and I did want to write about that. Unfortunately it doesn't look like this summer will be very productive in that department since we didn't call up any new CBs! On one hand I can understand why you would want our young CBs to get experience and maybe a trophy for the U21s this summer. On the other hand I really wish Oliveira or Semedo (or both) would have been called up to the senior side anyway. I do hope Neto will get some playing time at least. Honestly, I expect our CB issue to be more of a problem for Euro 2020 and beyond so we do have some time to sort that out.

    I agree with you that Nelsinho has proven himself at club level, but he still has yet to do that for the Seleção. Cédric is also generating attention from some big clubs, but what will ultimately make the determination regarding our long-term RB option is tactical responsibilities. If Santos wants a more defensive option, I think Cédric will likely remain the frontrunner. If Santos wants a "Marcelo" type fullback then Nelsinho will have a better chance at some point. This is just my hunch, but because we have so much attacking energy/intent on the pitch already, I don't know how adventurous Santos will want our fullbacks to become. Again that's just a hunch, but we need to keep our shape while our offensive players are laying siege to an opponents goal. I suspect that Portugal's style of play will really begin to change from what it was at the Euros last year (i.e. it will become more attack-oriented in nature)

    from Louisiana, USA
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  • I agree completely with your assessment of Bernardo I see an attacking midfielder a number 10. Devising a plan on how to unleash him is very important.

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  • Guest - Larry USA

    I'm pretty psyched for this years CC in Russia. I like the players selected by Santos, a Mix of young and old. This team can go far like they did in the Euro. I think Andre Silva will have a huge tournament, hes a aggressive, young, striker we desperately needed throughout the years. Im sure they can go far in the tourney. One area that does worry me is yes, their defensive back four. Pepe and Fonte are workhorses, however father time may be catching up with them. I was going to see if Santos called up some other young, experienced CBs, but I'm cautiously confident of what we have. Surprised Beto got a call up. Have not heard much from him. We can win this! Forca!

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  • Great article as always Nathan. Agree with the Bernardo Silva issue. To me it is absolutely open: He can be the magician in the future but it can also be that he will never play a significant role in the national Team.
    Besides that I am a 100% admirer of the seleção, BUT: It really irritates me, that everybody seems to be sure, that they will be part of the WC 2018... Everywhere one can read "they will be this and that in Russia..." or "they can go far in Russia...". I would say, this over-confidence is the much bigger threat to the Portuguese team than any discussion who should play, what CBs will be called up, will Bernardo play the role in which we see him etc. Just imagine, Portugal does not make the 1st place in the group. And then have to play a barrage against Italy or Spain or another strong team? Don't forget: Switzerland did not play well in the group matches so far. They were even embarrassing against Hungary and particularly Andorra. But they made the points! Portugal just has to fail winning every single game against the smaller opponents in the group, and immediately they don't have it in their own hands anymore! Of course my wish is to have a "final" in the last game in Lisbon and the seleção wipes the opponents from the table - best would be with a very clear result. But it can also happen, tat this game even won't be decisive for 1st place anymore... or it could happen that Portugal gives away tons of chances in this game and must leave the win of the group to Switzerland. Therefore it can only be ONE goal to be focused on now: Winning all games and qualify directly for Russia 2018. there can be no other focus. Portugal has to remain humble, even with the Euro title. I am sure, Fernando Santos knows. And therefore I am sure he will take the right decisions to get there. Força!

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