“We always play nice football,” Fernando Santos told World Soccer. “But sometimes playing nice is not playing beautiful.” Define nice: from a Portugal perspective it is an understatement to say it was pleasant to win Euro 2016. Yet it also felt that the end justified the means in what became a grind to glory. Santos’ Portugal conceded one goal in 450 minutes of knockout football. They only scored five, just three of them in regulation time.
Two years on, it has a pertinence. Certain parts of Portugal’s masterplan – if it can be so called – are hard to replicate: few major tournaments are decided by players as mediocre as Eder and seeing Cristiano Ronaldo scatter shots across France felt more inefficient than inspired.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo (L) and Portugal's forward Eder take a selfie as they arrive to receive their medals after the Euro 2016 final football match between Portugal and France at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, on July 1
But a blueprint based on defensive excellence is likely to spawn imitators. Fast forward five weeks and the chances are that most of the teams who have confounded expectations by overachieving will have done so with a diet of clean sheets.
Because while Portugal are an extreme example – if not as extreme as Greece’s Euro 2004 winners, a side largely devoid of high-class attacking talent – the trend is clear. The path to progress entails stripping games of drama.
Greece celebrate winning Euro 2004 in Portugal
Image credit: Reuters
Costa Rica were World Cup quarter-finalists in 2014, conceding only two goals in 510 minutes. Paraguay were their 2010 equivalents, being breached just twice in 480. Poland were a penalty shootout away from the Euro 2016 quarter-finals and exited the tournament after conceding a solitary goal. Switzerland beat that in the 2006 World Cup: four games, four clean sheets, no goals conceded and one penalty shootout lost.
Look at some of those who could be considered outsiders in the 2018 World Cup and there are common denominators: Morocco kept six clean sheets in as many games to book their place in Russia, Japan and Iran each only conceded two goals in 10 qualifiers and Panama scored under one per game.
And, with the exception with the Panamanians’ scoring record, there is nothing wrong with any of that. Defensive solidity tends to be a prerequisite of a successful side. Yet international football’s problem is that an imbalance has come at a cost to entertainment. There were just 2.12 goals per game in Euro 2016, a mere 2.06 in the 2017 African Cup of Nations. Rather than a festival of football, this could be a gala of dullness.
There are mitigating factors. It is easier to coach a side to defend an attack. International managers are deprived of their players for large swathes of the season. Those with a Guardiola-esque intensity tend to prefer the club game. Those in charge of countries are hampered by a lack of training-ground time and the inability to resort to the transfer market to find players who suit their ethos. A shortage of scorers or creators or talents make defensiveness a more appealing strategy. Some managers are born pragmatic, some achieve pragmatically and some have pragmatism thrust upon them.
But the limitations explain why there are fewer sides with a distinct style of play or original tactics. Spain could be a welcome exception. It will be instructive if Fernando Hierro revives their recent ploy of fielding a false nine, though that was Plan B for the suddenly sacked Julen Lopetegui. He could pick up to five likeminded diminutive attacking midfielders, supplemented by a passer of a holding player.
Gerard Piqué y Julen Lopetegui
Image credit: Getty Images
Brazil will try and play a pressing game; perhaps not as fervently as Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino may recognise, but more so than most in an international arena when most retreat to regain their defensive shape. But perhaps the most immediately identifiable, enjoyably unique side in international football are not in Russia: Chile stood out with back threes, undersized centre-backs, false nines and high-energy pressing. Four years ago, they were the opposite of Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 merchants.
Yet Chile did not qualify and while their two Copa America-winning managers are in Russia, Juan Antonio Pizzi will be on a damage-limitation exercise with Saudi Arabia. Jorge Sampaoli, a comparative rarity as a World Cup manager with a recognisable, progressive philosophy, has had too little time to stamp his mark on Argentina. He seems to lack the players to adopt his preferred high defensive line; he won’t mimic Chile’s striker-less 3-4-1-2. Argentina will be managed by Sampaoli, but they will not be a quintessential Sampaoli side.
An energetic figure can seem a young 58, but international football’s role as a semi-retirement home for managers feels a factor. A growing conservatism can be part of the ageing process and some of the older managers are notably cautious. The defensively suspect, 44-year-old purist Roberto Martinez seems an antidote to many of the other coaches in Russia. His tactics could be more enterprising and his team more entertaining than most.
The hope is that others follow suit. The fear is that the World Cup will be notable for a global recognition that getting numbers behind the ball, playing risk-free football and looking to stifle and subdue reduces the chance of embarrassment and offers the possibility of progress for teams with an inferiority complex. That may be nice, but only for those who share Santos’ definition of the word.