Criticised, questioned, considered too defensive: Two trophies later, a word on Santos
Before Fernando Santos took over as Portugal boss, Portugal were trophyless in their proud but otherwise fairly modest 86-year history.
Since he became manager in 2014 though, Portugal have lost just 2 competitive matches in 120 minutes - against Switzerland in the World Cup 2018 qualifiers and against Uruguay in the round of 16 of the World Cup - and have two trophies safely tucked away in the cabinet.
With that in mind, Mr Santos has been close to impeccable at getting the results Portugal needs - his overall competitive record being 27 wins, 12 draws and 2 defeats. But he still, perhaps inexplicably to those from afar, has his fair share of critics.
Despite an on-pitch record to rival even the very best of countries in the last 5 years, fans of the Portugal national team have still, in some quarters, felt the need to chime in to give their messages of disgruntlement regarding his own style of play and approach to football, as if they have this in-born right to not only enjoy the impressive success Santos has brought to the table, but to also criticise him for the potentially defensive way in which he has helped Portugal achieve it.
It is, in many ways, a little absurd. With so many great footballing nations having struggled to lift a trophy in the past 40 or so years, with The Netherlands having last won a trophy - the European Championship - over 30 years ago in 1988, England having not won a major tournament since 1966, and the likes of Belgium, Croatia, Turkey and Switzerland having never won any major international tournament in their history, it seems incredible that there is still discontent amongst some fans.
Sure, Portugal’s style of play under Fernando Santos has often been defensive (though there have been some flashes of great quality and team attacks) but for so many years before Santos arrived we witnessed some excellent Portugal teams playing quality football and getting plaudits without getting the required results to see the nation lift a trophy. You would have to be a fool to choose free-flowing attacking football over tangible success.
Portugal certainly don’t get as much respect from the worldwide footballing community for their success as they could do if they played with more adventure and intensity, though ultimately, who really cares? The vast majority of fans from across the world would give a great deal to see their side win two tournaments in the space of three years. Either some Portugal fans are truly ungrateful, or have unrealistic expectations as to what one small footballing nation can realistically achieve.
You play your game and do what you have to do to win. Portugal’s more defensive game, from my perspective as a fan, is actually in many ways quite captivating and enjoyable; to see the team work so hard together as a unit is really a sight to behold, everybody carrying out their job, knowing that it’s for the greater good. To see some of the best sides in the world struggle to break us down because of our brilliant team effort and structure is quite satisfying, while we always have moments of brilliant attacking moves an counter-attacks thrown in too.
And for that Santos simply doesn’t get the credit he really deserves. At the helm, we now have one of the most experienced managers of the game that knows how to approach international football. He did a brilliant job with Greece, and he’s doing a brilliant job with Portugal too.
After the Nations League victory, Santos said: “If you want to win, you have to play well. We won, so we played well. Whether it was handsome or not I don’t know.”
And that pretty much sums it up. Santos is pragmatic, he’s efficient - but he gets the job done. Sometimes it’s not pretty - Portugal’s run to Euro 2016 glory required a third place finish in the group stage, as well as penalties on one occasion and extra time twice in the knockout stages - but Portugal came out victorious. And that’s what matters.
Santos also often seems to say and believe the right things. On his own mark on the team, he remarked: “I don’t enjoy talking about myself. My work must be assessed by others - by journalists, by the fans,” while he also realises the immense pressure and importance the national team holds for the country: “This joy is for them and I thank them for their constant support. Fans are essential. They brought us back up whenever we were down and prompted us. The national team is a manifestation of a nation, more than clubs. It’s there for the people of Portugal.”
At the same time, he does deserve criticism when it is due, there’s no denying that. Nobody is immune to criticism, and this season, the only competitions that Santos has had to navigate with Portugal are the UEFA Nations League and the Euro 2020 qualifiers. The latter has been undeniably underwhelming; two home draws against both Ukraine and Serbia have put Portugal in a tricky position to make the next European Championship. For that, you can have some complaints.
However, he deserves huge credit for Portugal’s Nations League run. Getting out of a tricky group with Italy and Poland with ease without Cristiano Ronaldo and while, in actual fact, playing some good football, he oversaw Portugal reaching the semi-finals of the inaugural competition and ultimately hosting their first tournament since the euros in 2004.
To then beat Switzerland and get to the final was also a great bonus on home soil, while his tactics in the final against The Netherlands proved to be near perfect as Portugal snuffed out any threat their opponents could pose and looked in full control throughout as they ran out 1-0 victors against a resurgent Dutch side that had just dispatched of an equally talented English outfit. That earned Portugal their second trophy in three year and, for that, Santos also deserves huge praise. He has helped deliver tangible success to a nation that was starved of it for decades before.
He simply doesn’t get the appreciation he deserves. Yes, you could argue that Portugal have far more talent than is being shown on the pitch in this system, and yes, the football could be more entertaining, but entertainment doesn’t guarantee success - pragmatism, however, usually does. Just ask Jose Mourinho, one of the most successful managers of all time that has built a reputation for being relatively pragmatic in his approach to football.
I do reiterate though that with the talent currently present in the national pool, those that criticise do so with some fair justification, with the football at times less than spectacular. But, if it keeps delivering success, as it has clearly done so far, that can - and should - most certainly be overlooked. It is when that success dries up that Fernando Santos can rightly be open for criticism.
Right now though, it’s time to recognise how Fernando Santos has masterminded Portugal’s European success and show the appreciation he deserves.