Euro 2016 was a transformational tournament for the Portuguese. Ever the bridesmaid, the squad finally broke through the glass ceiling, conquering Europe to claim the country’s first senior international trophy.
In previous tournaments, the prevailing theme was hope. Hope that the Golden Generation would break the deadlock. Hope that Cristiano Ronaldo could lift the squad to new heights. At long last, hope was fulfilled, a lasting memory formed and a place among the champions secured.
Now, as the reigning champions of Europe, Portugal enter the tournament with a new mindset. Far from being outsiders, Fernando Santos and Cristiano Ronaldo enter Euro 2020 supported by a new generation of players that could very well exceed the talent and accomplishments of Luis Figo and Rui Costa’s group from the 90s and early 2000s. Portugal enter the tournament with extraordinary depth and an abundance of top-end talent, making them one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
Ronaldo will continue to lead the line, but opponents can no longer afford to build their tactics around stopping one man. With the likes of Bernardo Silva, Joao Félix, Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Jota set to feature in the squad, the concern isn’t with the talent available. Rather, it’s a matter of deploying the right mixture of world-class talent into a cohesive squad.
If these are the issues Santos faces, it is a nice problem to have.
As the Portugal careers of Ronaldo, Pepe and Joao Moutinho come to a close, the next generation looks poised to take the reins without a drop in quality. Whether you’re looking at the dynamic, young attacking nucleus or the defensive stalwarts led by Ruben Dias, this next generation of Portuguese players offers their veteran teammates two more opportunities to hoist a trophy on the international stage.
Expectations are high, both among the squad and the nation, that despite a draw into the Group of Death, which is becoming commonplace for A Seleção. This tournament preview offers insight into the squad, as well as a tactical analysis of the squad. Data analysis visuals offer insights into player performances in the 2020/21 season and how their skill sets fit into Santos’ tactics.
With the abundance of talent on the 26-man roster, expect rotations throughout the tournament. That’s especially the case with some of the veteran players. Moutinho will certainly not start each match in midfield, nor will Pereira. There’s simply too much talent in the squad to start the same 11 players.
One player who should start every game is Patrício. The Wolverhampton man has been the uncontested starter for nearly a decade. The former Sporting Portugal keeper will be the man between the posts barring injury.
Along the backline, don’t expect much rotation at centre-back. Dias is the PFA Player of the Year award winner and Pepe has put in another brilliant season for Porto. Cancelo is the leading option at right-back while Guerreiro should hold his spot on the left. Santos has top options at outside-back, including Mendes and Semedo. The centre-back options aren’t as abundant as Fonte is the only other centreback in the reserve squad.
In midfield, Santos has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. The tricky part is finding the right fit. Carvalho Is the preferred starter at defensive mid, but his lack of playing time and match fitness at Real Betis is an issue, one swinging in favour of Pereira. Sporting CP’s Palhinha is another holding mid who could make the team and steal some minutes, as is Rúben Neves. Higher up the midfield, Moutinho, Renato Sanches and Sérgio Oliveira will battle it out for playing time in the box-to-box role. Portugal does tend to operate with one midfielder in a more attacking position. Expect Bruno Fernandes to claim that spot, but Bernardo Silva and Rafa Silva can also fill that role.
If you thought the midfield was complicated, the forward situation is even more difficult to parse out. If there’s one given, it’s that Cristiano Ronaldo will be in the lineup. That leaves Bernardo Silva, Félix, Jota, André Silva, Gonçalves, Rafa Silva and Guedes to battle it out for the remaining two spots in the forward line. This is where we’ll likely see Santos adapt his starting XI to the opponent. Against possession dominant teams, look for Jota to earn a start. If Portugal expects to dominate the ball against an opponent that will often defend in a low block, André Silva offers the box presence the squad needs.
In terms of the squad’s age demographics and minutes played during the current campaign, four of the key players are 33 or older. Pepe and Ronaldo are both on the other side of 35 and have played significant minutes this season, but don’t expect them to rest during their final Euro campaign.
The majority of the Portuguese squad falls in the peak age range. Bernardo Silva, Fernandes, Jota and Cancelo are the four most notable names. They’re joined by fellow starters Guerreiro and Pereira. Should Carvalho garner some starts, he’s a player at the top end of this bracket, whereas the other defensive midfield option, Neves, is just entering his peak.
Although few players in the Portuguese squad are younger than 24, you can see the type of impact in that youngest age range. Dias, Sanches, and Félix will all play a role at the Euros. While the remaining players in the 18-23 category are a tournament or two away from making an impact, you can see the incredible talent in the pipeline. Once the last of the Ronaldo generation retires from international play, don’t expect a drop off for the Portuguese.
True to their footballing heritage, this Portuguese side will favour an attacking brand, despite Santos’ natural inclination to a more pragmatic style. With the abundance of talent in the squad, they won’t have many issues generating chances on goal. In terms of their percentile rank across all competitive matches in the last calendar year, Portugal was one of the best in the world in chance creation and shots on target. Their 88th percentile xG points to the frequency and quality of the chances they produce.
When Portugal is in possession, expect them to keep the ball on the ground, overwhelming opponents with their security in possession. This is a side that uses its exceptional wing play to progress, which leads to a high number of crosses. Fortunately for Portugal, Ronaldo, André Silva and Jota are all proficient in the air. Fernandes is also capable of getting into the box and winning a header or finishing off the second ball.
Even though Portugal has the personnel to play more direct, expect them to save this tactic for some of the bigger teams in Europe. Granted, two of those nations, France and Germany, are in their group, so we could see the more pragmatic approach from the Portuguese early in the tournament as they try to advance from the Group of Death. If the UEFA Nations League was a foreshadowing of the Euros, don’t expect Portugal to fear France, the favourite to win the group. They’ll also like their chances against one of the weaker German sides in recent years.
As Portugal build up, look for them to offer a nice balance of a strategically located player around the ball to offer security in possession and transitional defending. Higher up the pitch, you’ll see the forwards and attacking mids cooperating to drag the opponent out of shape and create low-risk/high-reward opportunities to play forward. In our first tactical image, the left sided overload leads to a switch of play behind the backline on the right. Portugal followed up this move with Jota’s third man run into the box, leading to a goal.
With regards to the wide overloads, if Portugal has quantitative or qualitative superiorities in the wing, look for them to use their wide playmakers to break down the opposition’s defence. Even if the opponent’s defensive structure is unbalanced towards the ball, Portugal’s comfortable engaging the press. Breaking the press then creates a ripple effect of chaos and disorganization amongst the remaining opposition.
Once Portugal drive their opponent into a low block, look for them to overload on one side, then switch play to the other. One of the attacking cues the team will look for is the positioning of Ronaldo. If he’s positioned on the near side, look for them to switch the point of attack to the other. That will situate Ronaldo on the far post, giving him more flexibility in his run into the box.
When Portugal look to shore up defensively, look for Ronaldo to play more centrally, Jota to receive the start on the left and the hard-working Bernardo Silva on the right. He not only gives them the creative presence they need higher up the pitch, but he’s also willing to track back and put in the work defensively. He’s a huge asset for the Portuguese midfield as they settle into middle and low blocks.
While the opponents will likely determine who starts in midfield, we can expect Portugal to use their outside-backs higher up the pitch. With creative talents like Guerreiro and Cancelo, this Portuguese team looks to establish qualitative superiorities in the wing to break down the opposition before launching their attack on goal.
From a defensive standpoint, we must look at Os Navegadores in two regards. The first is when they enter a match as the possession dominant team. In those matches, their knack for recoveries in the final third, which rates in the 80th percentile, will help tremendously. Even though Portugal’s PPDA (passes per defensive action) only rates in the 44th percentile, Portugal does tend to up their pressing intensity when enjoying a substantial percentage of possession in the opposition’s half. When Portugal is the possession dominant team, look for a higher PPDA and more recoveries in the final third.
Should the opponent beat the high press, Portugal’s deeper midfielders and backline slow the opponent’s attacking progress to allow the rest of the team to recover. Once Portugal settles into their middle or low blocks, they’re very willing to show patience, taking away the middle and baiting the opposition to play into their press. Portugal prioritizes structure over pressure on the ball when they defend in their own half. A Seleção want to operate from a position of strength, so the team takes a very disciplined approach and forces the opposition to break them down.
When Portugal defend in a middle block, look for a 4-1-4-1 setup with Ronaldo at the top of the formation with the other two forwards and two attacking mids making the line of four. That will leave the defensive midfielder to operate between the lines to intercept passes.
That point links closely to the second. When Portugal do not enter the match as the possession dominant team, look for them to sit deeper and absorb pressure. This is where we could see them field both Pereira and either Carvalho or Neves. Carvalho in particular would give them four central players who are exceptional at defending in and near the box. If Carvalho is deemed ready for play, we could very well see him join Danilo in the starting XI against France.
The style is very similar to what we saw in their Euro 2016 finals win over France. Santos’s side was willing to let France dominate the ball, but the Portuguese controlled the match through their defensive initiative. Though France had a couple of quality scoring opportunities, the Portuguese were able to keep them at bay and ensure France’s scoring opportunities were infrequent and complicated. Though this Portuguese side is more talented than the Euro winning team, this group is still highly adaptable and capable of playing a possession dominant style with a corresponding high press or look to initiate play through their defensive tactics.
This isn’t a team with many defensive vulnerabilities, but the performances of the outside-backs will be key to their defensive success as Portugal’s outside-backs tend to be more attack-oriented. In the final image from this section, we see Guerreiro using poor defensive technique and losing his 1v1 duel. The attacker runs into the space behind Guerreiro, forcing Dias to slow his approach to goal and impact the angle of his shot.
Pepe and Dias will certainly give Portugal the defensive security they desire, but the outside-backs have to put in the work as well, reducing the opposition’s attacking success in the wings.
Attacking transitions are a source of strength for the Portuguese. Jota gives them someone who can run behind the lines and wreak havoc on the opposition. Ronaldo’s a willing runner as well, as is Bernardo Silva who, while not the paciest player, uses intelligence to receive the ball high up the pitch, then uses his playmaking ability to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
In transitional moments, it’s not uncommon to see Portugal connect two or three passes to draw in the opposition’s counterpress, then hit them with a line-breaking pass.
At other times, as seen against France, A Seleção play a positive first pass, set back into midfield and then hit the third runner. Ronaldo and André Silva give them excellent high targets, which then allows the wingers to make their runs behind the backline. Look for Portugal to target the up/back/through sequence.
Defensively, Portugal will engage in an aggressive counterpress once they’ve lost the ball. When the counterpress is working, they’re able to deny progression opportunities. If they can’t win the ball immediately, denying progression is the minimum expectation. Forcing the opposition to play square or negative then allows Portugal to regain their defensive shape.
One key for Portugal will be the team-wide awareness of pressuring the ball carrier in transitional defending moments. In the UEFA Nations League match against Croatia, Portugal overcommitted in their pressure of the ball carrier without having adequate coverage behind the ball or accounting for Croatia’s second attackers. In this instance, Croatia targeted Portugal between the lines. Poor communication from the centre-backs led to both pressuring the ball carrier, leaving the two wide runners open high in the half spaces.
Depending on the personnel, we should see more effective counterpresses than in this image. For example, should Pepe, Dias, Pereira and Carvalho form the central square in Portugal’s formation, their chemistry and quality will lead to more efficient defensive transitions to combat the opposition’s threat.
As the domestic seasons come to a close, the Portuguese are likely to end the year with top-five goal scorers in the English Premier League, Serie A and the Bundesliga. They’ll also have the leading scorer in the Portuguese Primeira Liga. Once a cause for concern among the Portuguese, goals should not be in short supply at the Euros.
In terms of the forwards’ shots P90 and touches in the box P90, it’s no surprise that Ronaldo continues to set the standard, offering the best combination of the two categories. Though players like Jota and André Silva aren’t taking as many shots as Ronaldo each match, they’re still incredibly effective at latching onto balls in the box. Each player, as well as Ronaldo, averages approximately five to five and a half touches in the box per 90.
In terms of goal contributions and expected goal contributions P90, André Silva, Ronaldo and Jota stand out. Each offers greater than a 0.6 xG contribution and a 0.6 total contribution towards their club’s goals.
Looking beyond the four players mentioned, who should earn the majority of the minutes up top, Santos has plenty of secondary options. Among the players we haven’t mentioned in the section, Félix is the most likely to earn minutes, either as a starter or super-sub. Despite his Atlético Madrid minutes sparse in the build-up to the tournament and the fact that he hasn’t necessarily shown exceptional chemistry within this Portuguese squad, he’s undeniably one of the top individual talents on the team. He’ll get his chances in a second striker role.
With the tournament roster expanding to 26 players, many of the forwards are needs-based picks. Since Rafa Silva, Guedes and “Pote” Gonçalves are not core players at this time, Santos will look to that group to shore up any situational needs within the squad.
Much like the forwards, there’s plenty of talent in the Portuguese midfield. For Santos, the task is finding the right combination of players in each match. When the team has to play more pragmatically, Pereira and Carvalho have historically offered the best partnership. When Os Navegadores expect to have more of the ball, players like Neves and Moutinho often claim the two deep midfield roles.
In terms of what the players have accomplished during the current league season, we see Neves, Sanches, Oliveira and Fernandes in a cluster of progressive passes and passes to the final third P90. The veteran Moutinho isn’t far behind that cluster in either category. In the case of Pereira, if you got the impression he’s more of a defensive stalwart than someone to direct the attack, you thought right. He is there primarily for defensive security.
Interestingly enough, the leader in both statistical categories is the little-used Carvalho. His falling out at Real Betis is a surprising one. Not only was he one of their key players in previous seasons, but he is typically one of the most important players on the pitch for Portugal. His defensive security and smooth attacking contributions earned him the nickname “The Velvet Tank.”
You may have noticed Bernardo in our midfielder category even though he’s the projected starter at right-forward. The reason is that he commonly plays midfield for Manchester City. It’s also a role he can play within the Portuguese national team. Though the presence of Fernandes will likely limit the need for Bernardo to slide deeper into the midfield, it’s certainly a role he’s willing and able to play.
Looking briefly at the xG contribution and real goal contributions P90, Fernandes is easily the strongest player among Portuguese midfielders. Expect him to feature heavily at the #10 for Santos. If Portugal needs more dynamism in midfield, Bernardo can drop deeper or Santos can lean on Sanches or Oliveira. Sanches is electric while Olivera had a brilliant season for the Champions League quarter-finalist and offers a nice creative element while still chipping in defensively.
Turning now to the defenders, arguably the area of the team with the least depth, we still find a stacked group of outside-backs. Ricardo Pereira, regarded as one of the best right-backs in the English Premier League over the past few seasons, didn’t even make the 26-man squad. That’s because Manchester City’s left-back, Cancelo, is likely to start on the right for his country. He can play on the left if necessary, but Guerreiro is still the incumbent in that role. Even if the Borussia Dortmund man is given a day off, Sporting Clube de Portugal’s promising youngster, Mendes, who has been linked with a move to just about every European giant, put in some excellent performances in World Cup qualifying. He’s likely done enough to earn Santos’s trust and make the team, and could even see the field.
Since we’re on the topic of outside-backs, have a look at the right side of the graph first. That’s where we compare the Portuguese defenders in terms of their progressive passes and runs P90. It’s tough to beat Guerreiro’s attacking influence from that left-hand side. That’s the reason he has been the go-to left-back for Santos since he entered the national team fold. One player we failed to mention in this section is Nélson Semedo. The former Barcelona right-back, who’s now at Wolves offers the most progressive runs in the group but rates among the worst in terms of progressive passes P90. There are also some concerns about his defensive reliability.
Moving now to the left side of the graph, we have possession adjusted interceptions and successful defensive actions, each on a 90-minute basis. In terms of the outside-backs defensive qualities, Pereira and Mendes stand out.
Looking at the centre-backs, we see the high number of interceptions Pepe collects each match while nearly equaling Dias’s successful defensive actions P90. In fact, each of the centre-backs ranges from approximately 6.5-8.5 defensive actions P90. Rúben Semedo leads the group with seven possession adjusted interceptions P90, followed by the veterans of the group, Pepe and Fonte.
Though it hasn’t been an easy year at Juventus and rumours of Ronaldo’s exit are swirling, the 36-year-old forward is still carrying the Torino based side, leading them in goals and easily leading the way in percentage of goals contributed. He could very easily finish the season with 20 more goals than the next Juventus player.
In terms of his attacking and shooting performances at Juventus, our player profile scout report shows he ranks in the 90th percentile or better in nearly every category. The only two categories where he falls short are xG per shot and goal conversion percentage, the latter of which still is in the 60th percentile. His presence up top gives Portugal a lethal finisher to cap off their attacking moves. With so many proficient crossers in the team, his aerial prowess in the box is vital to A Seleção’s success.
With Juventus struggling for creativity in deeper areas of the pitch, Ronaldo also rates among the best Serie A forwards in most passing and progression categories. xA is the lone category where he rates below the league median. Other than that, the 60th percentile is his performance floor. He’s shown excellent accuracy with his forward passes, rates in the 90th percentile of smart passes P90 and approximately the 80th percentile in both passing accuracy and passes to the penalty area P90. He’s had another phenomenal season at Juventus despite the club’s lacklustre performances.
Defensively, when you start Ronaldo, there’s an understanding that you’re not getting much out of him on that side of the ball. While he’s exceptional in his aerial defending of set pieces, note that we’re not talking about standing in a wall, Santos will try to structure the defence to account for Ronaldo’s limited contributions. If positioned well, the former Real Madrid star has shown an opportunistic approach in pressing, rating in the 70th percentile among Serie A forwards in possession adjusted interceptions P90. When he does intercept passes, good things tend to happen, and quickly.
Having delivered the country’s first two trophies, Ronaldo will enter a tournament with the strongest supporting cast he’s had since the Portuguese Golden Generation of Luís Figo, Ricardo Carvalho, Rui Costa and Deco. He’ll be the focal point of the attack, but he certainly won’t be the only threat up top.
The combination of Jota, Bernardo, André Silva, Félix and Fernandes gives this Portuguese side all the attacking punch they’ll need. With those players supported by talented midfielders, such as Mourinho, Neves, Sanches and Oliveira, Portugal will not have to lean as heavily on Ronaldo’s goal-scoring as they have in previous seasons.
Two other players worth mentioning in this section are Pepe and Dias. If Portugal makes a deep run in the tournament or manages to defend their title, those two will play a huge role in the team’s success. In the deep stages of the tournament, it’s often a team’s defensive unity and a moment of attacking magic that secures results. Pepe and Dias will be up for it, ready to deliver for Portugal.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
Unexpected champions in Euro 2016, this Portuguese team won’t sneak up on anyone. Loaded with some of the top talents the game has to offer, this is a side with sky-high expectations. Though some will point to France, England, Belgium, Germany and Spain as the favourites, looking past the experience and talent of this Portuguese team is to their detriment.
Many of these players have either helped Portugal hoist one of their two recent trophies or have experienced domestic and continental success at the club level. They certainly don’t lack big-game experience, nor will they shy away from Europe’s other powers.
This is a side that’s up for a fight.
The mentality Santos has instilled in this team is the backbone for their success. They’ll use their intelligence and pre-match analysis to determine their approach in each matchup. Santos has shown that he’s willing to adapt his tactics to the opponent, giving his team clear instructions to maximize their impact on the match.
Despite their draw into the Group of Death, there’s an expectation that the team make a deep run in the tournament. A semi-final appearance is the minimum expectation, but this is a team and a nation with a fervent hope for so much more. Should Portugal defend their European crown, they shock the world again, but certainly not themselves.