Portugal managed to win the second largest tournament in international football yesterday, in shocking fashion. The champions managed to win just one of their seven matches in regular time, tying all six of their others through 90 minutes. Had the Euro stuck with 16 teams in 2016, Portugal would not have even advanced out of the group stage! Outside of Cristiano Ronaldo and Pepe, Portugal does not have a single other player that has proven they can be a top player at a top European club. In other words, this team was not talented enough to even be considered among the favorites prior to the tournament. Heck, even England had a more talented squad overall, and we all know how they did. So how did Portugal manage to pull off the impossible? Was it luck? Certainly some, but there is more to it than just that. Fernando Santos, Portugal’s manager, played all of his cards right. From the team spirit he instilled, to his tactics, Santos put his team in the best position possible to survive and advance.
Hard work and discipline will forever be key to the success of any team in football. As the game continues to revolutionize and change, players and fans sometimes forget how important such traits are to any successful team. Fernando Santos was able inspire his 23 men to work for one another on both sides of the ball and play with a sense of cohesion that we have not previously seen in Portugal. To illustrate this, most people will look at Ronaldo’s willingness to play as a central striker (where he has played before sparingly with Madrid), rather than in his more natural position on the wing. While that is a great example of the influence Santos had on his players, taking a look at Nani’s role within the team may paint an even clearer picture of the manager’s influence. Nani is of course famous for his time with Manchester United where he was often viewed as a show pony that played no defense and did not produce enough goals or assists. The Nani of Euro 2016 was a completely different man. He, like Ronaldo, was asked to play out of position at times for the good of the team. During the final, after Ronaldo injury, Nani played as a striker, moving up high from the wing to replace Ronaldo up until Eder entered the match. When he was on the wing, his work rate was fantastic. He got up and down the wing and probably covered as much ground in each Euro match as he did in every 3 EPL matches during his time in Manchester. We even saw him tracking the overlapping runs of outside backs late in matches, where did that come from? There are several other examples of selfless play throughout the tournament within the Portugal squad, too many to include in just one post.
Managers have two major tasks, to inspire their players and to figure out tactics. Many good managers specialize in just one of those two categories. The great managers are the ones that can do both and Fernando Santos was able to accomplish both of these tasks throughout Euro 2016. In the semifinal against Wales, we saw a different tactical approach from Portugal. Ronaldo and Nani took up wider positions defensively which forced Collins and Williams (Wales CBs) to make decisions on the ball. Renato Sanches also pushed higher up in the midfield to prevent the Welsh central midfielders from collecting the ball and facing up to pick out a pass. The result, a lot of long balls and speculative passes along the ground. Wales were never really able to find any passing rhythm. In the final, Portugal set up quite differently. Their three frontmen lined up in a more traditional defensive shape. Renato Sanches was the one who had the task of really changing his game defensively. Sanches dropped deeper into the midfield almost next to Carvalho to help out with Antoine Griezmann’s tendency to drop off deep and collect the ball. Griezmann is quick and clever with his positioning, it would have been incredibly difficult for Carvalho to cover his movements on his own. Pepe and Fonte never had the option of stepping out of the backline to track Griezmann. For all the criticism he gets, Giroud does do a fantastic job of staying high, being patient, and stretching backlines. Had Pepe or Fonte left the backline to track Griezmann, Giroud would have been in dangerous one on one positions against the other central defender. After scouting France, Fernando Santos came to the conclusion that dropping Sanches deeper into the midfield to help with Griezmann’s movements was best for the team. These are the kinds of tough tactical decisions that managers need to make.
Euro 2016 is going to be remembered 20 years from now as Ronaldo’s tournament. It should be. The man has done so much in club football and was the star of the country’s first ever major championship. He is one of the greatest footballers of all time. However, Fernando Santos was the real brains behind the operation. You are crazy if you think Portugal was the best team at this tournament. They were not even in the top five and maybe not even in the top ten, but Fernando Santos got it right. He continuously gave his team the best chance to win, and believe it or not, they were the last team standing.