With the World Cup in Qatar around the corner, the speculation on squads will reach fever pitch. Everyone has an opinion on who should be given a place in Qatar. Furthermore, there are countless permutations on potential lineups within a given squad.
The official deadline for coaches to submit the 26-man squads is Nov. 13. This is just one week before the tournament opens. The last club matches happen on that same day. Coaches wait to see what damage is done before finalizing their squads. Injuries are a common theme, unfortunately. Plus, managers can look at recent form without the usual break prior to a World Cup.
During the World Cup, I’ll be covering the Portugal national team (the Seleção Portuguesa de Futebol) for World Soccer Talk. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I lived in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Portugal is a proud soccer country in any circumstance, but during that World Cup they faced off against historical rivals.
The Portuguese faced Brazil in the group stage and Iberian neighbors Spain in the round of 16. It was exciting to be among the passionate Portuguese fans for these grudge matches. It was not meant to be for Portugal that year. However, the Portuguese did pick up two trophies over the last handful of years. Portugal won the European Championship in 2016. Then, three years later, the nation won the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Expectations for the Seleção are always sky high going into a major tournament. For the last 19 years, those expectations rested on the shoulders of Cristiano Ronaldo. The undisputed highest goal-scorer in soccer history, Ronaldo is one of the greatest ever to play the beautiful game.
His club, Manchester United, failed to qualify for the 2022/23 UEFA Champions League. The star forward made his desire to move away from Old Trafford abundantly clear. He has continued to demonstrate his displeasure under new United boss Erik ten Hag.
Coming into the World Cup, Ronaldo spent more time on the bench than he has been happy with. His form is not at the historical heights he expects of himself. With a talent as prodigious as Ronaldo, could Fernando Santos really leave him on the bench?
Cristiano Ronaldo left out of World Cup starting XI?
One proposed lineup is not dissimilar from the lineups Santos chose for the Nations League in June. Back then, Portugal defeated both Switzerland and the Czech Republic.
However, there are some big names left out. João Mário is terrorizing midfields all across Europe with Benfica and the numbers speak for themselves. He ranks in the 95th percentile compared to all midfielders when it comes to goals. Similarly, Renato Sanches at PSG is finding form at the right time to earn a place on the starting sheet.
The most obvious omission is, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo. I followed a fairly simple process for choosing in each position, though Santos has opted for a 4-3-3 more often than not. This XI depends upon a 4-4-2. However, Bernardo Silva on the left wing is very accustomed to getting higher up the pitch.
When looking at the statistics, Ricardo Horta is in the 90th percentile for Non-Penalty Goals. Also, he is in the 92nd percentile for the number of shots taken. This campaign, he has 11 goals and assists in all competitions with Braga.
Rafael Leão featured in the Milan team that won the Scudetto last season, and ranks in the 98th percentile for Non-Penalty Goals and the 99th percentile for the number of shots taken. Leão is at the top of the striker food chain at the moment and has 12 goals and assists in all competitions for Milan.
Cristiano Ronaldo is not matching his compatriots with only 4 goals and assists in all competitions for Manchester United, ranking in the 80th percentile for Non-Penalty Goals but the 95th percentile for shots.
Adding to the squad
Obviously, soccer is about more than statistics.
Cristiano Ronaldo knows how to perform on the biggest stages. He has five Champions League crowns and an equal five Ballon d’Ors. The World Cup is the only hole in his vaunted trophy cabinet.
That being said, Ronaldo will reach the end of his career at some point. Santos will have to balance CR7’s ego against the opportunity to field two in-form players with only 16 caps between them. Whether Santos has the discipline of ten Hag to bench Cristiano Ronaldo at the World Cup remains to be seen.
But, the numbers do not lie.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Xinhua