When Portugal went to the finals of EURO 2016, they were not particularly praised by purists for being classic champions playing great football. In Portugal, the eventual champions were labeled defensive, dull, boring and people even went as far as labeling them the worst champions in history, questioning the validity of their win.
At EURO 2020, Portugal came into the tournament with arguably one of the best players of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo as captain, chief playmaker Bruno Fernandes coming off a season where he scored 18 goals and had 12 assists in the English Premier League alone, and Premier League Player of the Season, center back Ruben Dias. Renato Sanches and Jose Fonte had just capped off a great season with Lille as they dethroned PSG in the French Ligue 1. Joao Felix had just won La Liga with Atletico Madrid while Bernardo Silva played his role in Manchester City’s charge to their EPL title. It cannot, therefore, be said that they lacked the necessary talent to play better and go further than they eventually did at EURO 2020. Portugal labored in their first game of the tournament as they lacked the fluidity and creativity needed to break down Hungary who could have easily been 1 or 2 up early in the game with better finishing. Eventually, Portugal broke the Hungarian resistance with 3 goals in the last 6 minutes of the game, but the signs were there that this team would struggle against better teams.
Coach Fernando Santos started the tournament with a pivot of Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho and persisted with them despite their similarity and lack of ability to progress the ball that caused Portugal to struggle with chance creation. In the end, he ended up playing Joao Moutinho, Renato Sanches, and Paulinha in their final game against Belgium. Jota and Bernardo struggled as wingers, Bruno Fernandes looked a shadow of the player he was for Man United, and Ruben Dias was nothing like the imperious defender he was all season. Perhaps more expectedly Nelson Semedo struggled every time he played which was compounded by woeful defending by Raphael Guerreiro on the opposite side. For a team set up to be so pragmatic with 2 defensive midfielders, Portugal’s defenders were constantly under siege while the attackers were starved of proper service. Santos failed to correct the issues after the group stages and did a poor job of getting the most out of this talented squad which resulted in them crashing out to Belgium. Questions will be asked as to why Santos persisted with the struggling Diogo Jota, why Bernardo was not tried in central midfield and why Joao Felix and Andre Silva played so sparingly. The defending champions never had a chance of defending their title as Santos failed to structure a cohesive and coherent attacking unit from the embarrassing riches at his disposal. He did not know his best team, nor did he know his best approach.
FranceWhen France lost to Portugal in the EURO 2016 final, many questioned Didier Deschamps and his team selections after the loss. Two years later, despite playing the same football with a similar setup and the same players, there was no complaining as France won the World Cup. The entire nation was singing “Ramenez la coupe à la maison Allez les bleus”, without questioning player selections or tactics. Fast forward 3 years later and the questions have returned with new ones added to the mix. The questions start with why a change of shape… considering the old shape had worked so well with Olivier Giroud leading the line. The recall of Karim Benzema to the team heralded the change, and he started all the games.
France had an abundance of talent that they left out of the squad that could have possibly added something different, players such as Tanguy Ndombele, Eduardo Camavinga, Houssem Aouar, Maxence Caqueret were left at home while the uninspiring Adrien Rabiot and Moussa Sissoko made the trip. Theo Hernandez, one of the best left-backs in the world, would have provided a different option to his brother Lucas in the position. Karim Benzema’s reintroduction into the team was greeted with euphoria in France but one wonders why Deschamps waited so late to reintegrate the Real Madrid man into the team. Benzema played only two friendlies before the tournament and while no one can blame him as he scored 4 times, the team’s attack was not in sync. Mbappe had a poor tournament as he failed to influence the game in his new role on the left-wing while Benzema and Antoine Griezmann regularly occupied the same spaces, getting in each other’s way. All this transpired with Giroud being reduced to sparing minutes throughout France’s brief run in the tournament. As world champions, heavily favoured, widely regarded as stronger than the group that triumphed in Russia three years ago, France was embarrassingly sent home at the first knockout hurdle by Switzerland.
France went into their final game as they had the other games in the group stages, lethargic. Their build-up was slow, they struggled to progress the ball and outside of Paul Pogba no other player seemed like adding to the attack. In the game against Switzerland, France found themselves a goal behind after 15 mins and barely showed any response. France was still playing slow, languid, and lacking creativity going forward. After suffering the heartbreak of the penalty shootout loss, chaos followed. Only one player consoled a young and distraught Kylian Mbappe after his penalty miss. The Pogba Family and Adrien Rabiot’s mother had heated exchanges in the stands, who also had a dig at Mbappe’s father. There were arguments on the pitch involving senior players like Pogba, Rabiot, Varane, and Pavard. Interestingly, Raphael Varane, Antoine Griezmann, and Clement Lenglet were also allowed to fly off on holidays rather than traveling back with the rest of the squad, as is the norm. The two finalists from Euro 2016 came in with arguably better squads than they had last time around, but both went out with a whimper having only managed to win 1 group game each and losing their first knockout games. Both teams approached games pragmatically even against less talented opposition and when things went wrong, the managers did not have a clue how to adjust tactically. While some of the biggest stars shone for both teams, the managers could not find a way to get the best out of the supporting cast.