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

Portugal arguably have one of Cristiano Ronaldo’s greatest strikers and have midfielder maestro Bruno Fernandes in their ranks. But coach Fernando Santos put Fernandes on the bench early against France and he only entered as a substitute. In the round of 16, Portugal will have to find a way for Fernandes and Ronaldo to tie up against a talented Belgian side.

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How does Fernandes work for his club?

Fernandes typically operates on the left of a three-way midfielder for Manchester United. This area of ​​the pitch allows him to drift further into the central areas, while also being a supporting member of the left wing led by Luke Shaw-Marcus Rashford. Being surrounded by overlapping runners is linked to two aspects of strength in Fernandes’ game. This gives him the opportunity to drop a pass while his opponents are moving back. If he does not choose this, the runners open the area outside the penalty area to allow him to charge 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 underutilized. Santos prefers the ball to pass from the widest positions through his full-backs in midfield. The role of the full-backs becomes one of support at this stage, rather than that of running into the box (unlike Manchester United). For Portugal, ahead of Fernandes are Diogo Jota and Ronaldo, both of whom prefer to be fed with the ball rather than moving through space to open the pitch. They also play prominently on the left central city of the pitch, an area usually occupied by Fernandes. Therefore, the two main ways he impacts a game for his club are messed up in the Portuguese system.

What do Fernandes’ performance figures say at Euro 2020? The Manchester United attacking midfielder has played 171 minutes in the European Championship. Meanwhile, his stats on goals, assists and chances created – his strengths – have plummeted. For his club, he averages 3.3 shots per game while making 2.6 assists. His flair for creating opportunities was considerably reduced at the Euro. So far, operating to the left of a three-way midfielder with Portugal, he has managed 0.7 stingy shots per game while making 1.3 assists and, more importantly, 2.3 bad hits per match.

Can Ronaldo and Fernandes coexist on the same team?

The answer to that question lies in removing Ronaldo from the central role. Using their full-backs to do more than support the midfield, Portugal can essentially play in the middle of the park. Allowing full-backs to run the last third of the pitch, opening up new passing lanes, while pushing and pulling on the opposition’s defensive lines. The sacrifice Ronaldo would have to make would be to not go deep into midfield to retrieve the ball, but rather to stay high on the pitch and continue to be the goalscorer he is. Rather than being part of the creation of the attack, Ronaldo should allow Fernandes to control the midfield. It could very well be the difference between Portugal being a talented, but one-dimensional team, and a team capable of dealing damage in multiple areas.

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Is such a means possible?

Yes, and we shouldn’t look further than Portugal’s opponents in the round of 16. For all the comparisons made between Fernandes and Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgian system tries to accommodate all his talents. De Bruyne thus becomes more of a creator for Romelu Lukaku at the national level, compared to Manchester City, where the Belgian has the freedom and the ability to be the focal point of Pep Guardiola’s attack as a False 9. An offense egalitarian, which is based on the principles of everyone eating, it is the one lacking in Portugal, and the one that Belgium shows the way.

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