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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Explained: Why the Ronaldo-Fernandes combination is Portugal’s best bet against Belgium today

How does Fernandes operate for his club? How does Ronaldo’s position affect Fernandes in the Portuguese setup? Can Ronaldo and Fernandes co-exist in the same team?

Written by Shashank Nair | New Delhi |
June 27, 2021 10:26:23 am
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, right, celebrates with Portugal's Bruno Fernandes after scoring his side's opening goal during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group F match between Portugal and Germany at the football arena stadium in Munich (AP)

Portugal are blessed with arguably one of the greatest forwards in Cristiano Ronaldo and have midfield maestro Bruno Fernandes in their ranks. But coach Fernando Santos benched Fernandes at the start against France and he came on only as a substitute. In the Round of 16 game, Portugal will have to find a way for Fernandes and Ronaldo to link up against a talented Belgium side.

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How does Fernandes operate for his club?

Fernandes usually operates on the left of a three-man midfield for Manchester United. That area of the pitch allows him to drift further into central areas, while also being a supporting member of the Luke Shaw-Marcus Rashford-led left wing. Being surrounded by overlapping runners ties into two aspects of strength in Fernandes’ game. It gives him the option of dropping a pass while opponents backpedal. Should he not choose that, the runners open up the area outside the penalty box for him to either charge into or attempt a long-range shot.

How does Ronaldo’s position affect Fernandes in the Portuguese setup?

For Portugal, the best parts of Fernandes’ game remain under-utilised. Santos prefers the ball to move from the wider positions through his full-backs onto the middle of the pitch. The role of the full-backs becomes one of support at this point, rather than one of making a run into the box (unlike at Manchester United). For Portugal, placed ahead of Fernandes is Diogo Jota and Ronaldo, both of whom prefer being fed the ball rather than moving into space to open the field. They also prominently play on the left-central city of the pitch, an area usually occupied by Fernandes. Therefore, the two primary ways that he impacts a game for his club, are laid to waste in Portugal’s system.

What do the numbers say about Fernandes’ performances at Euro 2020? The Manchester United attacking midfielder has played 171 minutes at the European Championship. In that time his stats across goals, assists and chances created – his strong suits – have fallen. For his club, he averages 3.3 shots per game while making 2.6 key passes. His flair when it comes to creating chances has reduced considerably at the Euros. So far, operating on the left of a three-man midfield with Portugal, he’s managed a miserly 0.7 shots per game while making 1.3 key passes and more importantly, has made 2.3 bad touches per game.

Can Ronaldo and Fernandes co-exist in the same team?

The answer to this question lies in taking Ronaldo out of the central role. By using their full-backs to do more than midfield support, Portugal can essentially play through the middle of the park. Allowing full backs to run onto the final third of the pitch, open up new passing routes, while pushing and pulling at opposition defensive lines. The sacrifice that Ronaldo would have to make would be to not make deep runs into the midfield to get the ball, but instead stay at the top of the field and continue to be the goalscorer that he is. Rather than being a part of creating the attack, Ronaldo would need to allow Fernandes control over the midfield. It might very well be the difference between Portugal being a talented, yet one-dimensional team, to a side capable of inflicting damage from multiple areas.

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Is such a way possible?

Yes, and one has to look no further than Portugal’s Round-of-16 opponents. For all the comparisons made between Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s system attempts to accommodate all of its talents. De Bruyne thus becomes more of a creator for Romelu Lukaku at the national setup, as compared to Manchester City, where the Belgian has the freedom and ability to be the focal point of Pep Guardiola’s attack as a False 9. An egalitarian offense, one that is based on the principles of everyone eating, is one that Portugal lacks, and one that Belgium shows the way.

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