[size=14pt][b]Euro 2012: Portugal profit from ruthlessly efficient approach built on Sporting way[/b][/size]
What got lost in the disarray of Dutch elimination on Sunday night was quite how good Portugal were.
By Duncan White 9:30PM BST 20 Jun 2012
When compared with those in orange it made for a striking contrast: Paulo Bento’s team played their counter-attacking game with tactical discipline, each player demonstrating a perfect understanding of what his role was in the system. They ruthlessly exploited the weaknesses of their opponents and if they had a top striker, could have run up a huge score.
Portugal are back in action today as strong favourites in their quarter-final with the Czech Republic in Warsaw; if they repeat the kind of performance they gave against the Dutch — in which the only flaw was the finishing — neither Spain nor France will be relishing a semi-final meeting.
It has been a remarkable achievement from Bento. Portugal are supposed to be in a fallow period after the retirement not only of the Golden Generation of Luis Figo and Rui Costa but of the group, including Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, that succeeded them.
Certainly, their shaky performances in qualifying behind Denmark suggested they would struggle to get out of the toughest group at the tournament.
The opening defeat by a very good German side showed signs that they were not going to go quietly. Only a late Manuel Neuer save from Silvestre Varela prevented an equaliser.
Bento calmly rode the criticism his supposedly negative tactics received from Figo and Costa back home. He had seen enough to encourage him. Sure enough, Denmark were beaten 3-2 in Lviv (Varela making up for that miss with the winner) and the Dutch pulled to pieces in Kharkiv.
How is it that Bento has got this Portuguese team playing such cohesive, diligent football? The answer lies in a place called Alcochete, outside Lisbon. It is the site of Sporting Lisbon’s academy and the birthplace of this Portugal team’s football philosophy. Just as Spain have drawn on Barcelona and Germany on Bayern Munich, the Portuguese have looked to Sporting’s remarkable talent school.
In 2002, Bento was a holding midfielder in the Sporting team that won the double under Laszlo Boloni. It was also the year the club opened the Academia Sporting for developing young players. It is a state-of-the-art facility with seven pitches and an on-site hotel for the players.
Sporting try to get players young, whether from the slums of Lisbon or by casting their scouting net wide, as they did in finding Cristiano Ronaldo on Madeira and Simao Sabrosa in the north of the country.
When found early enough, players are able to adapt to Sporting’s extraordinarily high technical standards. Off the pitch a team of tutors and child psychologists work on their educational development. The attention to detail is incredible: Ronaldo’s bone density was measured to see how tall he would get, and his training schedule was adjusted so as not to put too much strain on him during growth spurts.
When Bento retired from playing in 2004, he took over the youth team. He had played alongside graduates like Ricardo Quaresma, Custodio, Beto, Hugo Viana and Ronaldo and imbibed the Sporting way. He selected all five of those former team-mates in his squad for this tournament.
It was working with the next generation that Bento made his name as a coach. He won the youth title in 2005 and was promoted to first-team duties the following season. It was thought to be a short-term appointment but so successful was he that by the time he resigned in 2009 he was the second-longest serving coach in the club’s history.
The team was built around the players he had nurtured in the youth team. Rui Patricio was promoted as goalkeeper, Joao Moutinho came in as playmaker, Miguel Veloso as holding midfielder, and Nani was brought through to replace Ronaldo on the wing. With this group Bento oversaw four consecutive second-place finishes, two Portuguese Cup victories and Sporting’s first progress beyond the group stages of the Champions League.
Those Sporting players make up the core of the Portugal squad.
Out of the 23, Bento picked 10 graduates to take with him to Poland and Ukraine (Varela also came through the Sporting system) and the Sporting way, albeit with a Bento twist, has been the reason behind their success.
Five of the starting XI are Sporting graduates while Joao Pereira, the right back, and Helder Postiga, the striker, have also played for the club.
The team play 4-3-3, with clearly defined roles for the midfield triangle. The No 4 — Veloso — plays more horizontally, covering when team-mates get forward and serving as the fulcrum of play. The No 8 — Raul Meireles — plays more vertically, trying to get from box to box. The No 10 — Moutinho — has the freedom to make the play, to roam between the lines and unpick the defence with his passes.
The Bento twist is to play with a bit more emphasis on defensive solidity than most Portuguese are comfortable with. His Sporting teams were sometimes criticised for being functional so it was no surprise that he faced the same thing after the German defeat.
Yet Bento is clearly playing to the strengths of his players. He is not being negative but simply seeing how much more dangerous Ronaldo and Nani are when attacking the broken lines of the opposition on the counter. If the Czechs get sucked too far up the pitch it will be very hard to resist Portugal’s transitional play.
At 43 Bento is a young coach, ceding two decades to many of his rivals, but in selecting players who he has played with or coached since they were teenagers he has forged a team with a strong identity. The question now is how much further he can lead them into this tournament. The Czechs face an unenviable task this evening.