Is Fernando Santos the right man to lead Portugal now that the underdogs' days are over?

Santos is known for relishing the underdog tag, but can he embrace the “favourites” label to transform Portugal into a world-beater?

Fernando Santos in a file photo. (Credit: Twitter)
By Karthik Raman | Jun 28, 2021 | 5 Min Read follow icon Follow Us

When Portugal became the unforeseen champions in Euro 2016, few predicted their success. The team led by Cristiano Ronaldo went against the odds, producing major upsets along the way to defeat France in the final and win the trophy. Fast forward five years and Portugal have a quality team filled with world class players. For the first time in ages, Portugal have entered a tournament as one of the favourites – a position they are not accustomed to holding. With quality players all over the pitch, Euro 2020 appeared to be the tournament where the defending champions could make a statement while also relieving some of the pressure off their talisman Ronaldo.

However, this has not been the case. They continued to rely heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo for goals, and the Juventus forward delivered, scoring five goals in four games. Barring Ronaldo, the entire team managed to score only two additional goals. One of those was set up by the 36-year-old himself for Diogo Jota, while the other was a deflected strike from Raphael Guerreiro. The over dependence on an ageing player has been one of the major concerns for the 2016 European champions.

The other issue is their head coach and his safety-first strategy. Portugal have always been regarded as a good team, but not a world-class one, since he took over. They were not clear favourites going into tournaments or when competing against heavyweights all over the world. And Santos relished the role of the underdog. This time, however, things are different – Portugal now have a squad capable of competing against any team on any given day. The only issue is their coach’s inability to maximise the potential of his talented team.

Santos relishes the underdog tag

Santos is well-known for his pragmatic approach. Previously, the 66-year-old guided Greece in punching above their weight, by reaching the knockout stages of the Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup. Greece were not playing visually appealing, beautiful football, and they didn’t have to be. Santos did what was expected of him in his usual pragmatic manner, relishing the tag of underdog. He took over as Portugal manager immediately after the World Cup.

The managerial role at Portugal would not have come at a better time for Santos. The Ronaldo-led side endured a disappointing World Cup in 2014, bowing out of the tournament in the group stage. The timing was perfect for someone like Santos to take over the job. With expectations at a bare minimum, Portugal entered the 2016 Euros as one of the dark horses.

Their performances in the group phase did not inspire much confidence. They did not win a single game and drew all three to finish as one of the best third-placed teams. With fan expectations beginning to fall, Portugal began to find a way to edge past teams in a favourable knockout draw. Their real test was in the final against hosts and favourites France. With few predicting a Portugal victory, the stage was set for Santos to work his magic as the underdogs produced a stunning result to take home the trophy.

Is the favourites tag too hot for Santos?

Five years later, Portugal have arguably one of the most complete squads it has had in a long time. They have quality players from back-to-front, with many of their stars thriving at club level. Despite being placed in “Group of death” alongside Germany, France and Hungary, several pundits backed Portugal to defend their title. It was, however, an unfamiliar territory for Santos. His world-class team is no longer an underdog, as they have a squad capable of going toe-to-toe with any team on any given day.

This was the real test for the 66-year-old. With a quality side at his disposal, he has options to play in whatever way he wants. Be it high-pressing, possession football, counter-attacking, Santos was spoilt for choices. But to the surprise of many people, the head coach continued to play in his usual pragmatic way. The safety-first approach denied many players from expressing themselves.

In most of the matches, he played with two holding midfielders – Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho. Barring the final quarter against Hungary, the full-backs did not burst forward enough. Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva struggled to make an impact as they continued to play a pedestrian passing style, and their talismanic forward Ronaldo was left alone in most games with little support up front. Despite the lack of support, the Juventus forward scored five goals, three of which were penalties, demonstrating the team’s lack of creativity.

Safety-first approach

Playing against the World No.1 Belgium side on Sunday in last-16, Portugal were expected to struggle, but it was the opposite. Santos’ team looked in complete control, particularly in the second half. What they lacked was the cutting edge in the final third and it was mainly down to the coach. In his typical cautious style, Santos played three midfielders – Joao Moutinho, Renato Sanches and Joao Palhinha – who started from deep and were tasked with securing the backline over providing support for the attacking players.

The signs in the first half clearly showed the shortcomings in Belgium’s defence, but the real question was whether Santos was brave enough to confront them. The answer was yes as the 66-year-old unleashed his attacking weapons in the second half, with the introduction of Fernandes and Andre Silva. But they were already 0-1 down at that point and Belgium were happy to sit back and see out the slender lead, denying the defending champions much room to work with. Still Portugal continued to be the better side.

But their brave second-half performance went in vain as the defending champions struggled to find the crucial goal to take the match into extra time. Following the substitutions in the second half, Portugal looked a different animal with their attacking players flocking the pitch, which begs the question as to why Santos went with a defensive set-up? If he had been brave from the start and embraced his team’s status as favourites, Portugal might be preparing for a mouth-watering quarterfinal match against Italy instead of returning home.

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