Erik ten Hag adopted an interesting setup in tonight’s starting eleven.
Bruno Fernandes was deflected to the right to accommodate the return of attacking midfielder Donny van de Beek against Real Sociedad.
Manchester United dominated the first half of the occasion but ultimately failed in their attempt to top Europa League Group E and avoid a difficult qualifying round.
Fernandes, playing opposite Diogo Dalot, was excellent in the first half, producing some “superb passes”. Like his progressively reliable compatriot at right back he won six rushing duels and completed 12 long balls.
Ten Hag changed United’s form and dynamic during the second half. But displays from Fernandes and Dalot on the same flank in the first half show a connection Portugal can rely on for the impending World Cup.
It is true that Dalot will find it very difficult to force João Cancelo and Nuno Mendes, two elite full-backs, out of Portugal’s starting eleven.
However, as Portugal lost two of their last three games and won the other in a game in which Dalot started and United’s two stars flourished (4-0 against the Czech Republic; Dalot scored two, Fernandes scored one and attended one), Fernando Santos should start eyeing the United right-back as an immediate member of his World Cup squad. This would also present the opportunity to slot the supple Cancelo behind his Manchester City team-mate Bernardo Silva on the opposite wing.
International football, unlike today’s club game, must rely on familiarity if a team is to be successful. Due to the ever-changing selections throughout a calendar year, a national team coach may find this difficult to implement.
Fernandes and Dalot’s chemistry of playing together at club level, where they are both performing at a high level this season, as well as their ability to profitably play adjacent positions, should be a key tool for Santos in Qatar this winter. .
Although Fernandes excels in the role of second striker rather than right forward or midfielder, the familiarity between two crucial players (currently at the top of their game, just without the goalscoring contributions) cannot be overlooked.
Dalot knows Fernandes better than any other Portuguese national team player who can position himself alongside the United maverick, and vice versa.
Getting the basics right, starting with on-pitch chemistry, is intrinsic to making a successful international team because of its difficulty starting straight away. Dalot and Fernandes’ performances this season, coupled with their display together at United right-back tonight, must be seen as a critical piece of Portugal’s World Cup puzzle.