BRAZIL 2014: What We Learned From Portugal’s Group Stage Exit

Posted: June 28, 2014 in Brazil 2014, Features, Portugal
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Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup despite a 2-1 win against Ghana in their final group stage match. The victory was not enough to overturn a large goal differential left behind after a 4-0 defeat to Germany earlier in the tournament and the United States advanced to the round of 16 instead.

But the Seleção will not feel like they deserved a better fate. Throughout the tournament, this team looked predictable in attack, unstable at the back-end, and desperately lacking in intensity.

Many questions will be asked of Portugal’s leadership. Paulo Bento and the FPF face a long summer of reflection as they look ahead to qualifying for the 2016 European Championships in France.

Here are just some of the things we learned from Portugal’s early exit.

The Squad Has Aged and Declined Since Euro 2012

Portugal’s World Cup squad was little changed from the one that lost to Spain at the last European Championships two years ago. Bento went with a starting XI in the first match of this tournament that was identical to the one that lined up against Germany at Euro 2012, except Hugo Almeida started in place of the off-form Helder Postiga.

Many key players from the Euro 2012 squad had entered the downside of their careers since then. While Nani, Fábio Coentrão, Postiga and others had poor seasons at club level. Bento did not account for the decline of many of his players. And at the same time, not many players emerged as viable alternatives in the two years between major tournaments.

Paulo Bento’s Conservative Approach Has Backfired

Since his days at Sporting Lisbon, Paulo Bento’s coaching philosophy has been characterized by his conservative approach to squad selections and tactics. There is a good reason for this. Players often benefit from a certain level of consistency that is meant to help build team chemistry. However, this approach reached its zenith at Euro 2012.

The decline was evident during qualifying when the Seleção again struggled to defeat even minnows like Northern Ireland and Israel. No changes were made. Cristiano Ronaldo lifted Portugal to Brazil. But at the World Cup, the team’s weaknesses were badly exposed by the opposition. And the tried and tested system that had worked so well at Euro 2012 was no longer effective.

There Was No Plan B

Portugal electrified Euro 2012 with its entertaining brand of counter-attacking football. But two years after the fact, it was no longer a secret. Their opponents did a good job of defending the counter-attack leaving Portugal with fewer options. The team looked predictable and lacking in creativity.

There were attempts by Paulo Bento to experiment with a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1 formation during qualifying and even in recent friendlies. But, the team never played in either formation long enough to gel. The familiar 4-3-3 formation suits Portugal’s style of play very well, but it has left the team vulnerable at times.

Injuries and Suspensions Left The Team Depleted

Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness issues was one of the most talked-about stories going into the tournament. It is clear now that he was likely feeling some pain in his knee during the group stage matches. But it was the injuries to Portugal’s supporting cast that probably hurt the team’s chances the most.

The loss of Fábio Coentrão to a groin injury in the match against Germany left Portugal light in attack on the flanks, which is vital to the team’s game plan. Injuries to Hugo Almeida, Rui Patricio, Andre Almeida and Helder Postiga followed, leaving Portugal with even fewer options. Pepe’s absence against the United States forced Bento to field a makeshift defense that looked very vulnerable at times.

Portugal Are Still Looking For That Quality Striker

The centre-forward position has been a particular point of weakness for the Seleção in recent tournaments. Helder Postiga has provided some much-needed production in qualifying, easing the goal-scoring burden on Ronaldo. However, the Valencia striker was coming off an injury-plagued season and was obviously off-form.

Hugo Almeida was injured early in the first half against Germany, opening the door for Braga’s Éder. But the 26-year-old struggled badly to find positioning and often lost possession in good areas. Éder was coming off a serious knee injury and he had difficulty against tough opposition defenses. And unfortunately, there does not appear to be anyone else who can come in and make an immediate impact.

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