After a disappointing World Cup and an atrocious start to the European qualifiers with a loss to Albania at home, Paulo Bento was sacked from the managerial position of the Portuguese National team back in September 2014. Albeit being in charge of such an important national team for four years, it always felt like most people in the country were somewhat doubtful of his qualities as a manager. Even after a really solid campaign in the 2012 Euros, with Portugal reaching the semi-finals, there wasn’t really any consensus among the people about keeping Paulo in charge. Most people felt like he had a paucity of ideas, mostly when it came to the call ups that tended to have a clear lack of variation – keeping basically the same team intact, meaning that a lot of players on a clear rise of form or youngsters that were appearing would a lot of times be left out for more experienced players (a lot of times in subpar runs of form) who had national team experience.
Looking for someone to take the coaching position as soon as possible, the FPF didn’t have a long list of candidates available. From the moment Fernando Santos took over the national team, “everything” changed. Right after his first press conference as the new manager, a refreshing atmosphere was already felt. The generality of people accepted and embraced the new coach unlike what has ever really happened with Bento. It’s not like there weren’t any doubters of his qualities because there always are and it’s not like he was treated as a savior of the team either. It really felt like most people just looked at Santos as the fair, experienced and unyielding manager he is, who could bring a different dynamic to the side. Which he did. Changes were perceived right from the first few matches. With the most relevant for the majority of people being the fact that everyone can be called up to the national team if they do deserve it – something stated by the ex-Greece manager from day one.
Several new players got called up, many of them after performing in the u21 side, and another handful of PLAYERS started to be called again after a lengthy hiatus from the squad – the likes of Ricardo Carvalho and Tiago, for example. This lead to a steady “refresh” in the national side, with youngsters being brought in and given playtime but with more experienced players also having new chances of proving their worth to balance things out. But the transformation didn’t stop with the refresh on the call ups. Moves were made to try and solve the one problem that has been haunting this team for years: the lack of a world class striker. The “new” coach is in the process of converting the “Seleção” into a team able to play in a 442 formation with two open forwards instead of a stand-alone striker. With that said I wouldn’t exactly say that there’s been a complete conversion that 442 “diamond”, since it has only been used in certain matches – like in the wins away versus Armenia (2-3) and at home versus Serbia (2-1) – while the “usual” 433 was still the formation utilized in the 1-0 victory against Armenia at home. But from what we’ve gathered so far, the 442 “diamond” seems to be Fernando Santos’s formation of choice for the national team.
With that said, I think it’s as good of a time as ever to answer what has been questioned the most about the Portuguese side in the past few years: “Is the Portuguese national team only in need of a world class striker to succeed?”
Looking at the last few call ups we can see that the strikers that make the cut are quite lackluster comparing to the rest of the side. The underwhelming Éder that has been given such a small amount of playtime at Swansea is actually the only true striker in the squad for the matches against Denmark and Serbia of Euro Qualifiers – which already sums up how poor the situation is. As far as other options go: Postiga was always injury prone, is now playing in India and doesn’t have time on his side, Reading’s Orlando Sá is someone that’s possibly deserving of an opportunity but who’s quality is probably subpar to handle something like the Euro and both Gonçalo Paciência and André Silva are kids with enough quality to be there one day but who still have to grow quite a bit prior to being called for the A team. Rui Fonte is worthy of a mention as well: when fit, the Braga striker is quality but I don’t see him being the one leading the charge for Portugal. So that would settle it correct? I wouldn’t say so.
Fernando Santos is in the process of changing the team’s main formation into a 442. Danny has been the one in the offensive triangle, playing with Ronaldo and Nani. The Zenit forward tends to switch positions during throughout the match with Nani, normally with playing in what is more of a “number 10” role and the other besides Cristiano up front. Either way, the formation grants the trio considerable freedom to make runs from the inside towards the wings and vice-versa which is incredibly beneficial to someone like Cristiano, who doesn’t have the same output in the middle of a 433 as he does when he drifts inside from the left wing.
In the games that I mentioned a certain player was absolutely crucial in the midfield of the team: Coentrão. Fábio Coentrão is from my point of view one of the, if not the most important player to the team for it to work as well as it should in this formation. Great in transitional play, the ex-Benfica player can be vital for Santos in the next Euro. With Eliseu being a really offensive left back, coupled with Ronaldo’s defensive negligence, having a midfielder with influence from box-to-box, who’s great at covering spaces and helping defensively is extremely important. Furthermore, Fábio has been having more minutes of game time and has been playing higher up the pitch quite often since he moved to Monaco which will undoubtedly be beneficial to the Portuguese side. Alongside him in the midfield the always dynamic and tireless Moutinho covers the ground further to the right with either the experienced Tiago or the talented William playing in a deeper role, a really impressive midfield if you ask me.
Looking back at the question: I actually think that what this national squad needs the most is time. Time for a relatively new staff to work with a set of players that are getting used to a new system. Moreover when many of the players aren’t used to play in such a formation in their respective clubs. That being said, just like a world class striker, time doesn’t come out of the blue. Especially for national teams whose players barely have any chance to be together prior to a match due to how short the periods of international fixtures are.
I personally believe that if in preparations for the Euro 2016 (assuming that they qualify) the Portuguese staff fully commits to the new system, and keep working on it during the month preceding the tournament, remarkable things can be done in the competition.