Fernando Santos had a 14-year professional soccer career as a defender, entirely in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, followed by a 23-year club coaching career in Portugal and Greece, before becoming the Portuguese National Team coach in September 2014. Since taking the reins, Santos has amassed a 63W-23D-17L record, winning the 2016 Euro and the 2018-19 Nations League (A).
Santos’ ace in the hole, of course, has been none other than Cristiano Ronaldo. For the majority of the time the coach and star have been together Ronaldo plus ten has been the roster selection motto and CR7 has delivered perennially.
At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Ronaldo had a great cup scoring a hat-trick against Spain in a memorable 3-3 draw and supplying the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Morocco. Santos placed a relatively similar team on the pitch for most of those cup games with but a lineup change or two and substituted the allowable three players per match, sometimes seemingly because he could rather than because the exchange was needed.
Santos has a great relationship with a number of his squad and in particular with Cristiano Ronaldo who has been on the national team since 2003 and most of those years as the team’s star. Ronaldo (37 years old) will be playing in his fifth and probably last World Cup in 2022 in Qatar and Santos (68) will likely coach for only a few years after the cup. These relationships and accomplishments have made him an untouchable national team coach every bit as much as Ronaldo is an untouchable roster choice for the team.
Qatar 2022 will be the most complicated competition the coach has ever faced and in many ways the toughest for Ronaldo who is clearly on the decline of his playing career. Both player and coach are looking to provide a last thrill to the Portuguese fans with their performance in this cup—and if they play their cards right, and do the right thing, it is all about doing the right thing, then they may succeed. But it will be difficult for both.
Santos has to take full advantage of the great squad he has at his disposal, and they are heavily weighted toward offense. Ironically, for a coach with a predilection for defense, he has a great defense too. So, the questions are who to play in the place of the injured Diogo Jota and just how offensive is he willing to go with his lineup? But there is also the elephant in the room—how to deploy one of the greatest players of all time now that he is in his declining years? The answer has to be that CR7 should be used strategically, and at times, yets, more of a bit part player, substitute, or decoy, than a 90-minute starter.
The approach should be: to use a 4-4-2 with a strong defensive line—such as using Diogo Costa in goal and a four-man defense of Joao Canselo, Diogo Dalot, Ruben Dias, and Nuno Mendes—then fill the midfield with a mix of creatives and recovery experts—Bernardo Silva, Joao Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, William Carvalho, Ruben Neves, and Vitinha are all great options—and in attack, replace Jota and Ronaldo with Rafael Leao and Joao Felix as your strikers, used as wingers who constantly rotate sides to confuse defenses and so that the midfield creatives can fill in the middle gap in offense. If Santos has the guts and Ronaldo the strength of character to do the right thing, Portugal could go deep in this World Cup.
Photo: Fernando Santos, Dreamstime.com ID 35346183, by