It wasn’t the smoothest of rides, but Portugal are through to the inaugural Uefa Nations League final.
Fernando Santos’ men overcame Switzerland 3-1, courtesy of a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick in Porto and will face the Netherlands on Sunday.
Regardless of the result, Portugal can take positives from the mini-tournament, and build on their performances ahead of next year’s European Championships.
Portugal are defending champions, having beat France 1-0 in the 2016 final, though some might say they were slightly fortunate on the night.
Now, though, they look like a team ready to compete with an impressive quartet in attack set to lead them all the way.
The magic square
When Portugal’s semi-final against Switzerland kicked off on Wednesday, the European champions started with a four-man attacking set up.
Leading the line was Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Felix, a combination of experience and youth, with both players capable of turning a game.
In his first season with Juventus, Ronaldo continued to carry himself at the highest level, scoring 28 goals and recording 10 assists across all competitions.
Portgual's front four for respective clubs in the league in 2018-19:
• 20 goals • 7 goals
• 13 assists • 7 assists
• 21 goals • 15 goals
• 8 assists • 7 assists
Fingers crossed they click. 🤞 pic.twitter.com/5uRiqgCowb
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 5, 2019
The 34-year-old started predominantly as a winger though he did have stints through the centre, and often roamed freely across the front line – to affect the game where he could best, on the edge of the opposition area.
For Felix, the 2018/19 season was a real breakthrough one, as he scored 15 goals and recorded seven assists in Liga NOS for Benfica, playing just behind striker Haris Seferovic.
Behind them against Switzerland were midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva, two players who bring very different skills to the Portugal team.
In Silva, Portugal have a versatile footballer capable of playing in central midfield and as winger, as proven for Manchester City last season. Although he only scored seven goals and recorded seven assists in the Premier League, Silva did so much more for Pep Guardiola‘s side as they retained the title.
And Fernandes brings an additional goal threat to support Ronaldo from deep, with 32 goals and 18 assists for Sporting CP across the season. But how do the four gel together for Portugal?
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How it works
Santos’ 4-2-2-2 is reminiscent of the system Brazil used at the turn of the century, when they had to fit the likes of Ronaldinho, Kaka, Ronaldo Nazario, Rivaldo and later Adriano into a starting XI.
Although it starts off as a square, Portugal’s attacking quartet very rarely sticks to one shape, fluidly changing as a game dictates.
Within minutes against Switzerland, the four had switched to a lineup more resemblant of a 4-3-1-2, with Fernandes dropping deep to accompany William Carvalho and Ruben Neves in midfield while Silva played as the No.10.
This allowed Portugal to take control of the game after an early scare, with Silva pulling the strings, creating four chances – more than any other player on the pitch. He also caused problems for the Switzerland defence on the ball, completing more take-ons than any other player, and more than the Swiss team combined.
He was joined deeper by Fernandes who contributed with three created chances, largely sticking around the halfway line alongside Neves and Carvalho to provide stability whenever Switzerland did break through.
Using his experience as a winger, Ronaldo moves slightly out wide to allow Silva more space to dictate the game, but is still fairly central, ready to pounce on any chances that come this way. Against Switzerland, Ronaldo was responsible for half of Portugal’s 10 shots on goal, scoring with all three of his efforts on target.
But when that didn’t work for Portugal, with Switzerland remaining firm, another slight formation came – which would ultimately win the game for the hosts.
Here, Felix – and then Goncalo Guedes – dropped deeper and Fernandes pushed forward to form a three-man attacking midfield with Ronaldo the sole striker.
In this form, Portugal overload opposition defences with Silva playing very close to Ronaldo down the centre, something that proved fruitful against Switzerland with an assist for the second goal. It came from a low cross inside the area which Ronaldo swept into the bottom right corner, showing just how much understanding these two players have.
And despite Fernandes moving further forward, Portugal’s defensive side didn’t falter, with Carvalho and Neves tightening up in the two-man midfield.
This duo is likely to change to Carvalho and Danilo for Sunday’s final, with the Porto man returning from a suspension, but their effect should not change. Danilo is a strong presence to have just in front of the defence, with aerial ability and good passing helping control the midfield.
Built for the future
Although the Portugal front four will be looking to make a mark this Sunday, the system – and personnel used by Santos is one which can bring success at Euro 2020 and beyond.
Next year’s European Championships are likely to be Ronaldo’s final games for Portugal, with the Juventus forward being 35 by the time they come around. And that’s perfectly fine, with Ronaldo consistently proving doubters wrong, showing up on the big stages when his team most needs it.
His hat-trick against Switzerland meant Ronaldo has now scored in 10 different international tournaments for Portugal, a run which started at the home-based Euro 2004 tournament and has spanned three more European Championships, four World Cups, a Confederations Cup and the Nations League.
And he’ll no doubt continue that form in Euro 2020, looking to lead Portugal to the Wembley showcase, as the man main of Santos’ square.
But even when Ronaldo does hang up his boots, three of the four players from their magic square will still be there and ready to take Portugal to the next level in their primes.
Despite his underwhelming performance against Switzerland, Felix is still expected to do great things in a lengthy career, still only 19 and learning his trade.
Then there’s Silva and Fernandes, who will be celebrating their 25 birthdays later in the year – still very much yet to reach their peaks – a scary thought given the success especially of Silva.