The increasingly alarming weakness of the Portugal national team: The centreback situation.
Portugal may be the reigning European Champions, a trophy earned based on a strong team ethos and stubborn defensive endeavour, but Portugal's solid defensive line is waning, with Portugal's lack of immediate and obvious centrebacks to succeed the current ageing generation the major concern among Seleção supporters today.
It's very much the elephant in the room with regard to the state of Portuguese football; it's the weakness that threatens Portugal's very future of competing for silverware on the biggest international stage and, with a lack of clear-cut, high calibre talent breaking through the ranks, Portugal's previously strong defence may be taking a step back in terms of quality in the years to come.
Portugal did, of course, win the U19 European Championship only last month, an exceptional team display where Portugal's centrebacks - Romain Correia and David Carmo - impressed and looked like they could go on to be highly competent defenders for the senior side. However, they have a long way to go to fulfil that raw potential and, as we have seen in the past, with both Edgar Ie and Ruben Semedo serving as examples, impressing at a youth level does not always translate to becoming top quality centrebacks capable of playing for the senior national side.
It is therefore something of a concern that there are few mature and fully ready individuals - that are of sufficient quality - to take over the reigns of those that have served the nation so admirably over the last decade and are on the wrong side of 30.
Experience at the back is no doubt crucial for any side aiming to compete with the biggest sides in international football, but there's a fine line between much-needed footballing pedigree and players who have well surpassed their peak performance level. Inevitably, those that have served the nation so well will, at some point, become something of a liability, with age one day getting the better of them.
Indeed, a worrying trend has become evident in the national side over recent years, with the same players being called up year after year and few natural successors entering the fold. Ricardo Carvalho, for example, made his international debut back in 2003 and was one of the main players for the nation at the home Euros in 2004, where Portugal went all the way to the final, only to lose to Greece. By this point, he was already 26 years of age. Surprisingly mature for someone making their major tournament debut but a no doubt perfect age for a centreback playing for the national team.
He then played a major role for Portugal at the next three major tournaments, helping the side get to the World Cup semi-final in 2006 and the quarter final of the Euros in 2008. The next World Cup just two years later was rather disappointing, with Portugal failing to make it past the round of 16, but Carvalho still played a significant role at the tournament, by now aged 32 but still undoubtedly a top quality central defender.
Ultimately, however, it appeared as though his international career was coming to a natural end, with Carvalho not even making the squad in either 2012 for the Euros or 2014 for the World Cup. Deep into his thirties, the Portuguese legend, although refusing to turn his back on the national team, likely also believed that his time as a Portugal player had all but finished.
However, the hiring of Fernando Santos as manager ahead of Euro 2016 saw Ricardo Carvalho reinstated to the team, aged 38. While surprising on the surface, there is actually neither no grounds for criticising the decision to recall him, nor any cause to complain about his footballing ability; after coming off a fantastic season with Monaco - where he played 33 league matches as the side finished third in Ligue 1, as well as starting four of their Europa League fixtures - it is testament to Ricardo Carvalho for getting himself back into the national side late into his career.
Portugal, of course, also went on to win the Euros with him playing three of Portugal's seven matches, so there's even less reason to be sceptical at his inclusion in the squad. After all, international football is all about picking your best players at the time - those that are in the greatest form, regardless of age, and Ricardo Carvalho certainly merited inclusion.
Focus on the present, but prepare for the future
But, Carvalho was never a long-term solution; he was the best Portugal had available at the time, but when you look at the age of all of Portugal's Euro 2016 centrebacks, the issue becomes increasingly clear. Of the four central defenders chosen, none were below the age of 30; the youngest of them all, Jose Fonte, aged 32, was actually making his debut at a major international tournament, while Pepe (33) and Bruno Alves (34) were the other two centrebacks to be included in the squad. They all featured for at least 90 minutes in the tournament, showing a degree of rotation was important to keep the older legs fresh, and while the tournament itself was an incredible success for Portugal, the long-term did not look as promising.
Indeed, at the World Cup in 2018, it came as no surprise to see that both Pepe, by this point 35, and Jose Fonte, aged 34, were not only included in Portugal's squad, but also the starting centreback pair. Bruno Alves, aged 36, was also taken to his sixth major tournament, although did not play a single minute.
When you then look at the two other centrebacks that made Portugal's stand-by list for the 2018 tournament, the apparent depth of the issue becomes even clearer, with Luis Neto, aged 30 and having just come off a frustrating season at Fenerbahce, and Rolando, now aged 33, the two other central defenders chosen for Portugal's 35-man provisional squad. There is neither no faith in the younger generation of Portuguese players to take over from the senior players, or there is a lack of quality. Either way, it could be a serious problem for Portugal going forwards.
Of course, it should be noted that Fernando Santos did also elect to bring Benfica's 21-year old centreback Ruben Dias to the World Cup to operate as fourth choice behind Fonte, Pepe and Alves. But, while his inclusion does offer a degree of hope to the future of Portuguese football and the defensive concerns, he still has some way to go to fulfil his potential, having only played 24 senior matches in his entire club career and having earned just a single cap heading into the World Cup.
In fact, while it seems a certainty that Ruben Dias will go on to have an excellent career as a centreback, the fact that a 21-year old with barely half a years' worth of top-level experience to his name was viewed as one of Portugal's top 4 defenders in the world could in itself be construed as concerning. He possesses the ability and potential to be a future international without a doubt, but this seemed like a tournament too early for him, and as such he failed to make a single appearance at the World Cup to add to his one cap earned in a friendly against Tunisia.
Rising age with increasing dependence
To further emphasise the nation's defensive concerns, the average age of the centreback's chosen to represent Portugal at major international competitions has been steadily and consistently increasing for the last seven tournaments, no doubt due to the fact that the likes of both Bruno Alves and Pepe have been able to sustain their place in the squad for the previous 6 competitions on the bounce.
At the 2006 World Cup, for example, the average age of Portugal's centrebacks was just 27.5, while four years later, this number rose marginally to 28.25. This average increased again for the 2014 tournament to 30.5, while for this year's World Cup, the number rose yet again to 31.5, a figure that was actually heavily reduced due to the inclusion of Ruben Dias. Nevertheless, the trend is still significant, and shows the struggles younger centrebacks have had in breaking into the national team.
Average age of centrebacks at major tournaments
With the average age continually increasingly year upon year, attentions now turn to the 2020 European Championships to analyse whether this concerning trend is likely to come to an end, with Pepe, Bruno Alves and Jose Fonte, crucial figures in the last two tournaments, going to be 37, 38 and 36 respectively by the time it comes around. What's more, there's a realistic possibility that all three will end up retiring at approximately the same time, meaning that an inevitable period of transition may be needed in Portugal's national team as a new era of Portuguese centrebacks is brought into the fold.
What do you think? Is the centreback situation something that concerns you about the Portugal national team? Are the likes of Pepe and Fonte going to be part of Portugal's next Euros squad? Let us know by having your say in the comments below.