Portugal’s disappointing last-16 exit at Euro 2020 has not given rise to an angry mob calling for Fernando Santos’ head. The reaction is more akin to a trip to the psychiatrist to treat an identity crisis. The debate has centred around whether it is time for a change in Portugal’s entire football philosophy, as much as it has a change of manager.
There are good reasons why Santos has largely escaped the wrath of the masses in this football-obsessed country. He is the architect of Portugal’s greatest ever football moment, leading the nation to Euro 2016 glory. He is a fair-minded coach who has shown he can adapt, at least when it comes to personnel, frequently changing the line-up and usually to good effect. His deeply religious beliefs and likeable personality mean he will never be the target of the vitriolic abuse and/or ridicule often associated with failing national team managers. In Portugal’s final two games at Euro 2020 the team more than matched the current world champions and the current number one ranked team in the world.
That said, it would be wrong to suggest Santos retains the support of the majority of the Portuguese population, press and pundits. Questions were being asked of his overly-cautious approach even before Euro 2020 kicked off, and those concerns have only been exacerbated as Portugal failed to truly take the game to the opposition until they were left with no choice after falling behind to Belgium. Winning just one match in 90 minutes at each of the last three major tournaments (Euro 2016, World Cup 2018, Euro 2020) is seen as further evidence that Portugal are too circumspect under Santos, especially given the evident wealth of attacking talent at his disposal.
Change of manager or change of approach?
Many are of the opinion that a different manager must be installed to fully harness the creativity, vision and technique of the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva and company. But given that Santos has proved he can adapt in the past, in addition to the important caveat that he retains the full support and respect of the squad, equally passionate arguments are being voiced that swapping managers now – in the middle of a World Cup qualifying campaign – is not the answer to the problem.
The analysis in the wake of Portugal getting knocked out of Euro 2020 has mainly focused on the way the Seleção approach games. Instead of arguing about selecting player A or player B, or a new man in the dugout, a somewhat meta-discussion has ensued, whereby “a ideia do jogo” (the idea behind Portugal’s game) has taken centre stage.
“Players such as Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix have been sacrificed in the name of defensive solidity, but you can achieve defensive solidity by hogging possession of the ball, precisely with these types of players,” argued one of Portugal’s most respected journalists and football pundits Carlos Daniel in the wake of the Germany debacle. The way this tournament played out for Portugal certainly lends weight to that argument. Fernandes and Felix spent more time on the bench than on the pitch, while apart from one flash of brilliance against Germany, Bernardo failed to put his attacking virtuosity at the service of the team. Yet the trade-off in terms of a stronger defence was non-existent. Portugal conceded seven goals in four matches.
Whether or not Portugal play better with Cristiano Ronaldo in the team has been another recurring discussion. In this tournament the Portugal captain once again took it upon himself to prove that all the talk about him being unable to cut it any more at the highest level is premature. Quite apart from his five goals, Ronaldo was excellent in his link-up play, especially against France and Belgium, justifying his current position as an untouchable in the line-up for Fernando Santos.
However, the time will inevitably come when it is not in Portugal’s best interests for Ronaldo to play every minute of every game. Perhaps sooner rather than later. The intelligent use of Ronaldo in his twilight years is a delicate issue for the coach and for Ronaldo himself to ensure that the greatest player in the nation’s history continues to be an asset rather than a hindrance to the team’s chances of success. Coming on as a second-half substitute against tiring defences is one strategy that could bear fruits for all parties. But who makes that call? Ronaldo himself, Santos or a new man in the dugout?
There is plenty for the Portuguese Football Federation to ponder between now and next year’s World Cup. Finding the right answers to harness the bountiful talent available, whether or not that entails a new manager, will be the difference between putting Portugal back on the road to success or squandering an exceptionally gifted generation.