On the 7th of September this year there was the mother of all coupon busters, Portugal lost at home to Albania, a team ranked 70th in the world, behind the likes of Libya, Panama and UAE. The result of this was not only did numerous betting slips get ripped up, mashed into a ball and chucked into a waste paper bin in anger but Paulo Bento lost his job as the national team manager. Should the result be that much of a surprise though, after all, this is the same country that drew with Israel, home and away, drew with Gabon and Northern Ireland and only beat Luxembourg 2-1? Surely a defeat to one of these minnows was due.
You may be forgiven for thinking Portugal probably bossed them all game and the opposition keeper had a blinder and it was ‘just one of them days’. It wasn’t. Despite 68% possession and 19 shots at goal, only 5 of which were on target, Selecao, were terribly uninspiring and lacked any real life or cohesion and without hero Cristiano Ronaldo, had no cutting edge. A huge criticism of former manager Bento was his lack of a plan B without Ronaldo or for when he was injured just like in the World Cup where they failed to get out the group stage following a battering off Germany and a draw against the USA.
Paulo Bento got the job after Carlos Querioz was sacked in 2010 and in his first few years he was very successful. He oversaw the 4-0 demolition of Spain in a friendly and went on to take Portugal to the semi-finals of Euro 2012 where they were knocked out with revenge by eventual champions Spain in a penalty shoot-out. However, this success has come at a cost. Bento has since gone on to have unwavering trust in the team that got them to that position but as Spain also found out this summer, international football is always evolving and you must move with the times. 7 of the starting 11 from the semi-final played some part against Albania, Ronaldo was injured, Meireles was an unused sub, Almeida is currently without a club and Bruno Alves wasn’t selected.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of Bento was exactly this; he seemed to have little faith in youth, which was surprising considering the success he had at Sporting Lisbon in bringing through players like Rui Patricio, Miguel Veloso, Nani and Joao Moutinho. In the latest squad announcement there was cautious optimism amongst fans that this may change as he brought a new crop of players into the squad including; Ruben Vezo, the centre half from Valencia, Adrien Silva who is in fantastic form for Sporting and Vitorino Antunes amongst others such as Luis Neto and Tiba. Yet none of these names played a single minute as the likes of 33 year old Ricardo Costa and Vieirinha were given the responsibility of seeing off the opposition. At least William Carvalho, the highly rated Sporting defensive midfielder, linked with Manchester United and Arsenal was chosen to start, unlike in the first game of the World Cup where 31 year old Fenerbache hipster Raul Merieles was given the task of stopping the likes of Kroos, Ozil and Muller which resulted in an embarrassing 4-0 defeat.
The future should be bright for Portugal, who need to follow England in accepting they need a new start with younger fresher faces. Their under-21 team has won all 8 of their European Championship qualifiers and if they beat the Netherland in their playoff will reach their first European Championships since 2007.
Bruma is already in the first team squad and the Galatasary winger is pushing for a starting place because of his ferocious pace and superb technique for someone at the age of 19. Carlos Mane has been dubbed the new Ronaldo at 20 and been linked with United and Chelsea and has just made his under 21 debut and has scored in one of his two performances. Another player with huge potential is Marcos Lopes who is on loan at Lille from Man City, he is currently still eligible to play for Brazil but is in the Portugese u21 side and it would be important for them to make sure he pledges his allegiance to their national side.
At the moment though Portugal are at a real low but have often struggled against smaller teams but excelled in tournaments because of the way in which the whole country set up and plays their football. The national team, all down the levels play a counter attacking 4-3-3 but ultimately they find it hard to break down teams who ‘park the bus’, especially when Ronaldo isn’t available. A new approach is needed, some innovation, some evolution or maybe revolution, however it does suit the players at their disposal, especially as they haven’t had an international quality striker since Pauleta’s international retirement in 2006, the likes of Eder have 12 caps to their name scoring 0 goals and has only 28 Primeira Liga goals in his career at the age of 26.
Id propose that they start with a 4-3-3 with Ronaldo in the centre in a deeper, almost false nine position, although he is someone who works better in space out wide, but he does need to be involved heavily.
For me this has the perfect blend of youth and experience, not much changing in the back five but with young Vezo starting alongside Real Madrid star Pepe. William Carvalho in the holding role as he is set to become one of the world’s best in his position, in front of him, the experience and class of Joao Moutinho and Adrien Silva who has all the attributes to be a complete midfielder and is displaying excellent form at the moment for his club side Sporting. Up front the youngster with the world at his feet, Bruma out on the left with the experience of Danny, who surely, with his quality has to play and can bring a cultured touch and play smart balls to feed the main man in the middle Cristiano Ronaldo.
Who will be the man to lead Portugal, to hopefully a new brighter future? Leonardo Jardim, the man at the helm of Monaco has reportedly rejected the job already. Fernando Santos would maybe be an unpopular choice, the former Greece manager has a defensive style but would maybe suit the counter attacking style of Portugal but the same issues of breaking down teams would likely still remain.
Vitor Pereira is perhaps the favourite; he currently is unattached after leaving Qatari side Al-Ahli but previously led Porto to consecutive Primeira Liga titles, in his second season, going unbeaten. He is cut from the same cloth as AVB, he has degree in Physical Education and has a technical style, high pressing, focusing on possession but has a more attacking approach than his former boss. He also has a do or die mentality which allowed them to overtake Benfica in the final few games of the each of their title winning seasons. However, despite only losing one league game as Porto boss he wasn’t the most popular amongst the fans by being quite withdraw unlike AVB and Mourinho so it is unsure if he will get the full support of the country behind him.
Jorge Jesus is someone also without international experience who is a possibility but is currently Benfica manager and led them to the treble last season aswell as to the Europa League final where they lost to Sevilla. However, with alot of players leaving in the summer Benfica are unlikely to replicate such achievements and this could be the perfect time for him to take on a new challenge.
Those who want a manager with international experience are looking at Jorge Luis Pinto, the man who nearly guided Costa Rica to the World Cup semi finals without conceding a goal from open play. Pinto is certainly someone who is open to new tactics and gets the best out of his players by playing to their strengths. The Colombian left Costa Rica after the World Cup because he felt he didn’t have full commitment from all his staff in regard to buying into his style. Obviously a man of principle and knows what he wants, he could well be the stern man who can say no to big names and name the best possible line up for the national team.
There is obviously a great deal of talent in Portugal and they just need the right man to exploit it and they can then again become the force they were not that long ago.