It’s the year 2000, folks. The millennium bug hasn’t destroyed the planet, Tony Blair’s really popular, Bradford City v Charlton Athletic is a top-flight fixture and people using this newfangled internet thing (i.e. geeks and nerds) are dubious as to whether Ian McKellen will make a good Gandalf.
If you weren’t too busy listening to Macy Gray on MiniDisc you may have watched Euro 2000. It was a great tournament and in one of the semi-finals Portugal played France, losing 2-1 to a golden goal in extra time.
What’s the significance of this and why won’t you just get to the damn point, I hear you ask. Well, dear reader, before Tuesday night, that was the last time Portugal played a knockout-stage match in a World Cup or Euros without Cristiano Ronaldo in the starting XI.
Laurent Blanc played in that match. He’s 57 years old now.
It’s important to bear in mind that weight of history when dissecting Fernando Santos’ decision to drop Ronaldo, who — let’s not forget — is the top scorer in the history of international football.
It wasn’t the only bold call Santos made with his line-up — he left out one of the foremost full-backs in world football in Joao Cancelo, he benched Ruben Neves and he placed his faith in a 21-year-old striker with 33 minutes of international experience to his name in Goncalo Ramos — but it was the most seismic. Ronaldo isn’t just a player, he’s an entity and a demigod. He also carries an increasingly farcical circus around with him, one which Santos has undoubtedly had enough of.
Agonising over the call probably added a few more wrinkles to Santos’ asperous, brow-beaten 68-year-old mush. Once, rightly, seen as a pragmatic, and rather dour, safety-first manager (particularly after Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph, described in some quarters as anti-football), Santos’ team are now the joint-top scorers at the tournament with 12 goals.
Ronaldo isn’t the first Portugal hero he’s dispensed with lately. Twelve months ago, the team’s spine comprised Rui Patricio in goal, Joao Moutinho in midfield and Ronaldo up front. All the wrong side of 34 but all cap centurions with vast experience and having done great things for their country. All three are now out (Moutinho isn’t even in the squad) and the one old-timer Santos has retained, Pepe, has been solid so far and scored against Switzerland.
Is Santos liberated, perhaps in the same manner as Gareth Southgate, because he/they know this is probably their last tournament? Maybe. Or maybe they’re both just playing to their team’s strengths. To add an early caveat, Switzerland were awful and Portugal (like England) are yet to face top-class opposition in the competition, against whom the temptation will be to go safety-first.
But for now, Portugal look free. And it seems fair to suggest that Ronaldo not being in the side played a sizeable part in that.
What difference does it make when Ronaldo doesn’t play?
Here’s their pass matrix in their previous ‘proper’ game against Uruguay (Santos rested half the team for the defeat to South Korea with Portugal having already qualified).
One of the things that immediately sticks out is Ronaldo’s proximity to Joao Felix, whose job it was to dart inside from the left. Ronaldo would often come deep and roam, alongside Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes.
He would pop up in the penalty area occasionally, but as you can see from his heatmap below, he spent most of the match in deeper areas linking with Bernardo, Fernandes, the rest of the midfield and the full-backs.
This was a fairly typical picture of how Portugal would build up play against a defensive-minded Uruguay, with Ronaldo dropping not just in front of Uruguay’s defence but also in front of their midfield to get involved in play.
A few seconds later the attack isn’t really progressing and Ronaldo catches the attention of William Carvalho, asking for the ball. He duly gets it, recycles possession and then does finally head for the penalty area, but the attack comes to nothing. It’s a relatively easy situation for Uruguay to defend when a lot of the play is in front of them.
While Portugal won the game pretty comfortably 2-0, they did so by scoring from a left-wing cross which went straight in and a penalty (both courtesy of Fernandes). While it was a satisfactory result, it wasn’t a particularly fluid attacking performance.
And passing to Ronaldo is a theme that many think has inhibited Portugal. He wants the ball a lot and his standing in the group dictates that they pass to him. If they don’t, he’ll have a strop. Likewise when the ball ricochets off his back from a corner and South Korea score in Portugal’s final group game, he immediately starts blaming others.
His personality is all-encompassing and there’s been a growing school of thought for some time that Portugal play better without him (a poll in Portuguese paper Record on the eve of the Switzerland game resulted in 70 per cent voting that he shouldn’t start). They have enough vibrant young talent that they can cope without him. The Switzerland performance and result only added to that theory.
Tactically, the introduction of Ramos, a penalty-box striker, facilitated a change in the team’s attacking dynamic.
Ramos is not really involved in build-up play and his zippy presence around Switzerland’s centre-backs means Felix no longer has to play off the last man (Felix wasn’t doing this constantly in Portugal’s previous games but it was part of his remit). So from being (fractionally) Portugal’s highest attacker against Uruguay, Felix was the fourth highest against Switzerland.
He played a deeper playmaker role which mean he could do stuff like this…
In other words, idle sensually past one man, play a give-and-go and then caress a first-time love bomb on to Ramos’ toes.
Felix was excellent, but, more importantly, Ramos’ position on the last man occupied Switzerland’s back line, stretched play out and created a hole behind their midfield in which Felix, Fernandes and Bernardo operated whenever Portugal advanced.
Their back line was in disarray when Ramos darted through at 2-0 to collect Fernandes’ through ball.
In fact he really should have scored from here.
The goals he did score saw him take the ball in the penalty area. Here’s the first, when he turned and fired through the narrowest of gaps at the near post.
This was his second goal when he fired in Diogo Dalot’s low cross.
And this is the hat-trick goal when he took Felix’s pass (occupying that space in front of the defence again) and dinked over Yann Sommer.
Given where Ronaldo had been stationed earlier in the tournament, it’s hard to imagine he’d have replicated Ramos’ positioning for all three of those goals, if any. The fact Switzerland would have prepared their game plan with Ronaldo in mind is another factor worth taking into account. They just didn’t know how to cope with Ramos, or how to plug the gaps that his presence helped generate.
Again here, Ramos (the central of the three attackers) is eyeing up a dart beyond the last man, as are full-backs Raphael Guerreiro (left) and Dalot (right). If Fernandes (in possession) spots this and plays to Felix, he can turn and immediately have three runners to find with a through ball.
Ramos’ heatmap against Switzerland is vastly different to Ronaldo’s against Uruguay.
And that’s the way he’s tended to play his football. He is a striker who comes alive in the penalty area with exceptional movement, a natural instinct for where the ball is going to be and a clinical finishing ability.
He’s the top scorer in Portugal this season (nine in 11), he’s scored 14 in 18 for Portugal Under-21s in the past couple of years and he was top scorer at the Under-19 Euros in 2019.
All of which makes it feel pretty unlikely that Ronaldo will be drafted back into the side for Portugal’s quarter-final against Morocco.
That game will be a totally different proposition — for a start, Sofyan Amrabat can cover the cavernous hole Switzerland left behind their midfield on his own — and, in what could be a tight game of few chances, Ronaldo may very well come off the bench to score the winner, perhaps with a header, perhaps from the penalty spot (probably not a free kick though).
Morocco will likely find Portugal a much tougher side to deal with than Spain, though. The prospect of Bernardo, Fernandes (two goals and three assists in three appearances this tournament) and Felix buzzing behind Ramos, with support from two attacking full-backs, is an exciting one.
In one fell swoop, Santos has loosened his own shackles to produce an attacking performance which will be one of the most eye-catching and memorable of this World Cup while also taking off the Ronaldo-shaped shackles too. And Portugal looked much better for it.