Can I offer some help Mr. Santos?
We all have a national coach inside of us right? I’m no different, here’s what I would do after drawing the first game against Iceland. And in case you are wondering… yes! Renato Sanches plays.
So we should probably start by talking about the elephant in the room. The large, blonde elephant that yesterday silenced an entire country (or “iced” an entire country – if we want to use a word from today’s Portuguese newspapers). His name is Birkir Bjarnason, he plays for FC Basel, started his career at Viking, and back home is known as Thor (I imagine he is not the only Icelander with that nickname).
Thor scored the equalising goal yesterday, earning the underdog’s a point. A poor start to a tournament is not unfamiliar for us Portuguese. In 1996 we drew 1-1 against Denmark, in 2004 we lost 1-2 against Greece, and in 2012 we lost 0-1 against Germany. In all three we managed to reach the knockout stage so let’s not put our favourite Fado record in the stereo and start complaining how every year is the same just yet.
People who do not follow Portuguese football closely attribute this result to the same reason as every other bad result: the lack of talent around Cristiano Ronaldo. “Where are those other players who are supposed to take some responsibility off of Ronaldo’s shoulders?”, they ask. Well let’s start by reminding everyone that Ronaldo has played with played with the likes of Figo, Rui Costa, Deco, Maniche, Simão, Quaresma, Nani, Coentrão, Pepe, Moutinho and Edinho (joking). He has often had a solid supporting cast and some of them have actually been pretty good (and so is this one!).
The issues with this year’s team, as I said a few weeks ago in the Box to Box Euro 2016 preview magazine, is that Fernando Santos is trying to put together a team around Ronaldo that mixes young talent with proven experience, and I have my doubts this is the strategy that gives us the best chances. Santos’s biggest dilemma is having to choose between players with lots of caps’ such Joao Moutinho and those with raw potential like Renato Sanches, but we’ll get there. Let’s start with the back four (since few doubt Rui Patrício’s place in the team).
There is one player that even with all his flaws is pretty much a no brainer when assembling the defence. Pepe is still one of the best centre backs in the world and Ricardo Carvalho, even at 38 years old, showed no signs of not being able to keep up with the opposition. On the left, the new kid Raphael Guerreiro attacks well, still needs to learn how to defend properly, but he’s probably the best solution at left back. On the right Santos insists on adapting a winger – Vieirinha – when we have a player like Cédric on the bench who had a decent season at Southampton. It’s not like Cédric is a much better player than Vieirinha, but Vieirinha was shaky defensively and partially responsible for Thor’s goal. As a firm believer in accountability, you have my permission to drop Vieirinha, Mr. Santos, and start with Cédric against Austria. So that’s settled.
However the midfield selection is where Fernando Santos is really at fault – sorry Fernando but it’s true. It is not easy to coach national teams. National coaches have a very limited time with the team during the year and that time is clearly not enough to create a cohesive attacking unit. That’s why some national teams choose to use players who play together in their clubs. Look at Juventus’ three centre backs (Bonucci, Barzagli and Chielini), or at Spain’s midfield with Sergio, Fabregas and Iniesta (and Xavi for many years), or at the five Tottenham players in England’s starting eleven. This is not rocket science. It’s only natural that if a coach can take advantage of other coaches work he should do it, because that’s not only the best but the easiest way to create familiarity among 11 players who actually don’t really know each other that well.
Portugal had its own tournament where this theory was proven right. In 2004, Scolari decided to use Mourinho’s midfield that had won the Champions League that summer, and went on to reach the final of the tournament.
So the obvious change is to have both William Carvalho and Adrien alongside João Mário, and take advantage of the work already done by Sporting manager Jorge Jesus. Danilo is a good player – probably better than William – but he is lost out there. Adrien is no Maradona, but neither is Moutinho.
Finally, there’s Renato Sanches, and Renato’s inclusion is far from a given. When we talk about Renato, the 18 year old Bayern Munich paid 35 million euros for, there are two large groups in Portugal who scream over each other until someone leaves the room. On one side we have the Benfiquistas (like myself) who saw every minute of Renato’s season and have no doubt that he should be in the team, even if there are still flaws in his game. We have witnessed what he can do on the pitch, we’ve seen his ability to run with the ball through the centre of the field (something no other player in the team can offer) and we watched and loved his larger than life way of playing, whether he has the ball or is just chasing it. We saw a transformational player. A very young one, who is bound to still make a lot of mistakes, but a player that connects. Connects with the game. Connects with the crowd.
On the other side we have every other Portuguese soul who loves football as much as they hate Benfica. They cannot accept that Benfica can also be a club that creates world class players. Renato is not a world class player yet, but he has the best chance of anyone who has come through Benfica’s youth ranks since Rui Costa in the 90’s. Football fans who are not Benfiquistas, especially Sportinguistas, who are very proud of their youth academy, do not accept that Renato can be a great player, and obviously do not accept that he should already play for Portugal. In fact they have often criticized youngster this season, raising doubts over his age and temperament.
One of the main flaws that people identify in Renato is his low accuracy when it comes to passing. And even if it’s true he missed too many passes at Benfica, people seem to forget that in that team he was the main man in midfield and was in charge of getting the ball forward. In this Portugal team he would play alongside Adrien and João Mário who are more than capable of assuming that responsibility. In this team, Renato can be the joker. He can show up in places where he’s not expected, and he can be the first player to press the opposing team (and believe me, he will press the hell out of everybody). Moutinho and André Gomes are decent enough players, they offer solutions to employ during the game (especially if we are winning and need to keep the ball), but neither of them can offer what the Sporting midfield can offer through their familiarity, and what Renato can offer with his explosiveness and unpredictability.
So, to recap: William in front of the defence, Renato and Adrien in front of William, João Mário on the right (and NOT on the left like he did 90% of the game against Iceland), Nani on the left and Cristiano upfront.