Is the Portugal Coach Ruining Their World Cup Chances?

Fernando Santos, Portugal Manager

Portugal host Spain on Tuesday night in a Group 2 UEFA Nations League matchup. The Seleção currently top the group, two points ahead of the Spaniards in second place. The fixture is not only another rendition of an epic rivalry, but also a clash of the coaches who have different footballing philosophies, as well as a contrast in reputation among each nation’s respective fanbase, with many Portugal fans claiming the coach is ruining their World Cup chances.

Portugal and Spain have had some intense matches in the past, including in both the 2010 and 2018 World Cup, respectively. The latter was disappointing for both nations as they each crashed out at the Round of 16 stage. However, in 2010, they met at the Round of 16 with Spain running out 1-0 winners on their way to lifting the World Cup in South Africa.

However, it’ll be Portugal that are more likely to taste success in Qatar due to the conveyor belt of talent coming through the Seleção’s ranks.

Portugal’s attacking options are frightening, ranging from veterans such as Cristiano Ronaldo to young superstars with extremely bright futures ahead in Rafael Leão and Joao Félix. Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Jota and Pedro Neto are also all top-class attacking talent. Fernando Santos has a tough task ahead of him selecting an eleven.

Furthermore, going into midfield and defence, Portugal possess some of the best talents in the game plying their trade all over Europe’s elite clubs. Goalkeeping options Rui Patricio and José Sá both have Premier League experience, with the latter currently part of a Wolves team that presently have the best defence in the league.

Their backline is pretty solid too, consisting of PSG duo Danilo Pereira and Nuno Mendes, as well as Manchester City duo Ruben Dias and Joao Cancelo. Veterans such as Pepe and José Fonte, who have a combined age of 77, are also likely to be included in the squad to add their vast experience to the group, with the pair of them starting in the final of Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph.

For all the attacking talent across each position in Portugal’s ranks, Seleção fans are not too optimistic about their World Cup chances in Qatar. The main reason for their doubt: Fernando Santos.

Santos took over the Portuguese National team shortly after the 2014 World Cup. He guided his team to victory in Euro 2016, albeit in unconvincing fashion. Portugal finished 3rd in a group containing Austria, Iceland and Hungary but still managed to qualify for the next round as one of the best 3rd placed teams.

They progressed to the final after beating Croatia, Poland (via penalties) and Wales in the semi, before snatching a winner in extra-time against Le Bleu.

However, Portugal have disappointed in every tournament since, not making it past the Round of 16 in either the 2018 World Cup or the 2020 Euros. The negative style of football implemented by Santos has received a lot backlash, with many of them claiming he’s wasting a host of talent available to him.

Fernando Santos, Portugal Manager
Fernando Santos, Portugal Manager

Spain, on the other hand, are in an opposite position to Portugal. La Furia Roja have Luis Enrique at the helm, a manager of great pedigree after his trophy-laden spell in charge of FC Barcelona.

Enrique implements a very pragmatic and fluid style of play, often encouraging his team to be on the front-foot. A perfect example of how he likes his team to play would be the FC Barcelona team of 2014/2015, where the trident trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez fired them to the treble.

However, Enrique is not as blessed in terms of squad talent as tonight’s opposing boss Fernando Santos. Spain may have a few very talented youngsters in the squad, but the level of quality among their experienced players is alarming.

Players such as Marco Asensio, Pablo Sarabia and Ferran Torres, who all started in Spain’s loss to Switzerland on the weekend, are not among the first-choice players at their respective clubs. Furthermore, players such as Sergio Busquets, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba are all still getting plenty of minutes despite being involved in Spain’s Euros triumph 10 years ago.

The mix of manager and squad seems a bit odd, with the idea of Enrique being in charge of Portugal making more sense given the wealth of attacking talent they have. Enrique would almost certainly implement a style of play that would excite the Seleção fans, as well as get the best out of the squad.

Portugal are experiencing a bit of a golden-generation in terms of talent coming out of the country. They need to capitalize by appointing the correct manager or else they run the risk of being another Belgium: a very talented team of players with no honours to show for it.

Tonight’s encounter will showcase two managers with footballing philosophies that probably better suit the opposition squad at this moment in time.

Spain manager Luis Enrique
Spain manager Luis Enrique