Portugal’s players are good enough, is the coach?

May 31, 2010

Line-up v Cape Verde

In theory, Portugal playing Cape Verde just before the World Cup was a decent idea. They’ve struggled to score throughout the past two years, so how about a morale-boosting thrashing of a former colony to get the goals flowing?

That was the idea, anyway. An embarrassing 0-0 draw was the actual outcome, with Portugal demonstrating precisely why they struggled to qualify for this tournament in the first place. They dominated, as you would expect, but constantly got into the final third and then seemed to run out of ideas.

Defending is not the problem. Nine clean sheets in the twelve qualifying matches demonstrates a solid, resilient side, helped by the surprise use of Real Madrid centre-back Pepe in a holding role. (He has not played a game since December after suffering cruciate ligament damage in a match away to Valencia, but appears to have returned to fitness in perfect time for the World Cup.)

Problems scoring goals

Further forward, though, they struggled, with three 0-0 draws taking them to the brink of elimination. Of course, they do possess the most expensive footballer in history, but Cristiano Ronaldo has struggled for international form in recent seasons – he hasn’t scored in a competitive game since Euro 2008. Being the main playmaker, main goalscorer and captain, Ronaldo playing below-par is simply not something Portugal can cope with.

Many believe he is playing in the wrong position. Portugal have had the same problem for what seems like an eternity: solid defenders, decent midfielders, skilful wingers…and no top-class strikers. (Pauleta and Nuno Gomes had excellent records in qualifying but often struggled to perform in major touraments). The obvious solution is to push Ronaldo into a striking role where he has excelled at times for Manchester United, but Carlos Quieroz (who was at United during Ronaldo’s best years) has been reluctant to do this.

Here is Portugal's basic shape, kicking from right to left. The two centre-backs (in red) play a relatively deep line. The two full-backs (in yellow) push on. One central midfield player remains deep in front of the centre-backs, with his two colleagues (all in pink) not too far away. Ronaldo (in blue) comes short to get the ball when playing as a winger, and operates too far from goal.

Instead, Portugal have gone for the tried-and-tested solution to their problems – a Brazilian. After Deco in 2003 and Pepe in 2007, Liedson became a Portuguese citizen last summer, being immediately called up to the national side and making an instant impact in his first appearance – coming off the bench to head home a crucial 85th minute equalising header away in Denmark.

The irony of recruiting a foreigner to fill the gap upfront is that Liedson is every inch the stereotypical Portuguese forward. His movement is sublime and his link-up play is excellent, but he’s not a world class finisher and at 5′9 and 63 kilos, he can’t win the ball in the air, or hold it up and wait for the onrushing midfield players. His goalscoring record is good rather than great – he has played for a Sporting Lisbon side who have been quite poor and quite negative for the past two seasons, but the relative weakness of the bottom half of the Liga Sagres means he should be scoring more than he does.

Ronaldo is hardly a makeshift striker – look at his goals record – and he also offers an aerial presence. Some may argue that it is not his best position, but then his qualifying form hardly shows him at the top of his game on the wing. Against Cape Verde, he was too keen to be involved in build-up play miles away from the opposition goal – the main question should be why Quieroz hasn’t used him upfront before…perhaps Ronaldo doesn’t want to play there? If he was deployed upfront, Simao would come in as an additional winger.

Portugal's three central midfielders take up similar positions and play similar roles. Here, the ball is with Fabio Coentrao (marked in yellow) and the three midfielders (marked in pink) all stand level with him, not looking to penetrate the Cape Verde midfield line.

A midfield lacking flair

Opinion remains divided about Pepe in the holding role; he looks what he is – a centre-half playing out of position – for he offers defensive solidity but doesn’t move the ball forward quickly enough. Indeed, that’s the problem with the Portuguese midfield as a whole.

Quieroz likes to play another workmanlike player in the middle – Raul Meireles started every qualification game – as well as Deco. You can’t argue with his talent or medals haul, but Deco now plays quite a low-tempo passing role which doesn’t help Portugal’s game. The problem is not Pepe, Meireles or Deco individually, but the fact that they don’t work well together – on the Venn diagram of what they bring to the side, there’s too much crossover.

Just as Manuel Rui Costa was superseded by Deco after the first game of Euro 2004, you can imagine a similar thing happening to Deco himself. Danny Alves, the Zenit St Petersburg No 10, is in the squad and offers a much more direct threat than Deco, with his driving runs from midfield. Having only really fulfilled his potential having moved to Russia, his stock in Portugal is not particularly high, but he might be the answer to Portugal’s lack of creativity in the centre of midfield. Another option, Miguel Veloso, didn’t play well against Cape Verde, and is probably seen as Meireles’ backup.

Defensively sound

The likely World Cup line-up

The back four is as you would expect. Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves are physically imposing in the centre, whilst Paulo Ferreira replaces his injured club teammate Jose Bosingwa at right-back, having been shifted over to the left for much of qualification.

Instead, the left-back contest is between Duda, the experienced, solid Malaga player, and Fabio Coentrao, the converted winger from Benfica. Coentrao appears to have the slight edge and is certainly the better player going forward – and Portugal really need an attacking left-back. The identity of Portugal’s left-winger is unknown, but it will be one of Ronaldo, Simao and Nani – all wanting to cut inside onto their right foot, meaning width is needed from left-back; not dissimilar to England’s situation with Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole.

Conclusion

The concerns about Portugal’s line-up are amplified by their presence in the toughest group in the tournament. The games against the Ivory Coast and Brazil will be interesting, but so too will be the contest against the defensive-minded North Korea side – considering how Portugal failed to break down Cape Verde, you can imagine a similar situation against Korea’s five-man defence.

The key man is not Ronaldo, but Quieroz; he needs to be bold – push Ronaldo upfront, play Coentrao to offer an attacking threat from full-back, and give the midfield more of an attacking tilt. In the 2000s, this Portugal side arguably had the best balance of any country between being functional and being creative – backed up by three semi-finals in their past five major tournaments – but under Quieroz the creativity seems to be sadly lacking.

Portugal’s players are good enough, is the coach?

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