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

When Portugal became unexpected champions at Euro 2016, few predicted their success. The Cristiano Ronaldo-led side went against the odds and pulled off major upsets on their way to defeating France in the final and lifting the trophy. Fast forward five years and Portugal have a quality squad full of world class players. For the first time in ages, Portugal have entered a tournament as one of the favorites – a position they are not accustomed to. With quality players on the pitch, Euro 2020 looked to be the tournament where the defending champions could make a statement as well as relieve some of the pressure from their talisman Ronaldo.

However, this has not happened. He continued to rely heavily on Cristiano Ronaldo for goals, and the Juventus forward scored five goals in four matches. The entire team except Ronaldo managed to score only two additional goals. One of them was set up for Diogo Jota, the 36-year-old himself, while the other was a deflected strike from Rafael Guerrero. Over-reliance on an aging player has been one of the major concerns for the 2016 European champions.

The second issue is their head coach and his safety-first strategy. Portugal has always been regarded as a good team, but not world class, ever since he took over. They were clearly not favorites when going into tournaments or competing against heavyweights from around the world. And Santos relishes the role of the underdog. This time, however, things are different – Portugal now have a team capable of competing against any team on any given day. The only issue is their coach’s inability to maximize the potential of his talented team.

Santos prefers the underdog tag

Santos is known for his practical approach. Previously, the 66-year-old has guided Greece punching above his weight, reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup. Greece weren’t playing attractive, pretty football to look at, and they didn’t have to be. Santos did what was expected of him in his usual no-nonsense manner, relishing the underdog tag. He took over as Portugal’s manager shortly after the World Cup.

The managerial role in Portugal couldn’t have come at a better time for Santos. The Ronaldo-led side endured a disappointing World Cup in 2014 and were eliminated from the tournament in the group stage. The timing was perfect for someone like Santos to take over. With minimal expectations, Portugal entered the 2016 Euros as one of the dark horses.

Their performance in the group stage didn’t inspire much confidence. They did not win a single game and drew all three to finish as one of the best-placed teams. As fans’ hopes began to wane, Portugal began to find a way to edge past teams in a friendly knockout draw. Their real test was against hosts and favorites France in the final. 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 favorites tag too hot for Santos?

Five years later, Portugal have arguably one of the most complete squads in a long time. They have quality players front-to-back, with many of their stars flourishing at club level. Despite being placed in the “group of death” with Germany, France and Hungary, many pundits favored Portugal to defend their title. However, this was an unfamiliar territory for Santos. Their 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.

It was a real test for the 66-year-old. With a quality side at his disposal, he has the option of playing either way. Be it high pressing, possession of the football, counter-attacking, Santos was spoiled for choices. But to the surprise of many, the head coach continued to play in his usual pragmatic manner. The safety-first approach prevented many players from expressing themselves.

In most matches, he played alongside two holding midfielders – Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho. Except in the last quarter against Hungary, the full-backs did not move 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 with lone support for most games. Despite the lack of support, the Juventus forward scored five goals, three of which were penalties, showing the team’s lack of creativity.

safety-first approach

Playing against the world’s No. 1 Belgium team in the last-16 on Sunday, Portugal was expected to struggle, but the opposite happened. The Santos side looked in complete control, especially in the second half. What they lacked was cutting edge in the final third and that was mainly for the coach. In his typical cautious style, Santos played three midfielders – João Moutinho, Renato Sánchez and João Palhinha – who started from deep and were tasked with securing the backline to provide support for the attacking players.

Signs from the first half clearly showed the shortcomings in Belgium’s defence, but the real question was whether Santos was brave enough to face them. The answer was yes as the 66-year-old unleashed his attacking arsenal in the second half with the introductions of Fernandes and Andre Silva. But they were already 0-1 behind at that point and Belgium were happy to sit back and watch a slow lead, which didn’t give the defending champions much room to work. Nevertheless, Portugal remained the better side.

But their valiant performance in the second half went in vain as the defending champions struggled to find the crucial goal to take the match into extra time. After the substitutions in the second half, Portugal looked a different beast on the pitch with their attacking players, which begs the question why did Santos go with a defensive set-up? If he had been brave from the start and accepted his team’s position as favourites, Portugal could have instead returned home to prepare for a mouth-watering quarter-final match against Italy.

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