Know Your Enemy: Portugal's Joao Moutinho
In the build-up to the World Cup, SI.com continues to profile valuable, but perhaps undervalued players on each of the U.S. men's national team's Group G opponents at this summer's World Cup, Ghana, Germany and Portugal. The next in the Know Your Enemy series is Portugal midfielder Joao Moutinho.
Joao Moutinho was born in Portimao on the Algarve in September 1986 and joined his local side, Portimonense SC, as a child. He showed promise early and was 13 when Sporting took him to Lisbon. In the youth set-up there, he was coached by the present Portugal national manager Paulo Bento, and helped a side that included his international teammates Nani and Miguel Veloso to the national title.
By the age of 17, he'd been called into the first-team squad by the manager Jose Peseiro, operating as an attacking central midfielder behind the front two, making his debut in January 2005 and taking on the No. 28 shirt previously worn by Cristiano Ronaldo.
Industrious and versatile, able to play anywhere across the midfield, Moutinho soon established himself as a regular first-teamer, his performances against Feyenoord and Newcastle as Sporting reached the UEFA Cup final adding to a rapidly burgeoning reputation. The following season he played every minute of every league match and in 2006-07, in acknowledgment of the example he set, he was named vice-captain after the departure of Ricardo Sa Pinto. A year after that, aged just 20, he became the youngest captain in Sporting's history since its co-founder, Francisco Stromp.
Moutinho, having been part of the Portugal side that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2003, made his international debut at 18. His performances at Euro 2008 earned international attention and that summer Everton tried to sign him, with Sporting rejecting a bid of £12 million.
He finally moved in 2010, joining Porto in an acrimonious deal that had the Sporting president, Jose Eduardo Bettancourt, calling him "a rotten apple." The ill-feeling didn't affect Moutinho's form though as he helped Andre Villas-Boas' Porto to a treble of league (in which it dropped only four points), cup and Europa League.
Porto retained the championship in the following two years before Moutinho, in 2013, joined Monaco as part of a joint deal with James Rodriguez worth a total of €70 million, rapidly establishing himself as a regular and again showing his versatility. He has played as the central creator in a 4-2-3-1, on the right of midfield in a 4-3-3 and centrally in a 4-4-2.
Mystifyingly overlooked by Carlos Queiroz for the World Cup four years ago, Moutinho was a key figure in qualifying this time playing in each of the 10 group games and both legs of the playoff victory over Sweden.
HOW HE FITS IN
Portugal isn't quite Cristiano Ronaldo plus 10 others, although it can feel like it at times. Moutinho, as he has always been, is a key part of the platform Paulo Bento has built for Ronaldo because of his capacity to fit around others. When Portugal started the qualifying campaign with a nervy 2-1 win over Luxembourg, Moutinho was on the right of midfield in a 4-3-3.
As Paulo Bento switched to a 4-2-3-1, he became the central creator, although dropping deeper than the No. 10 role he occupied at the start of his career. He's also played deep in central midfield, as for instance when Paulo Bento shuffled hispack away to Northern Ireland and used Ronaldo centrally behind Helder Postiga.
In the two playoff games against Sweden, when Portugal approached what will presumably be the system they use in the World Cup, he was back to that shuttling central creator role, his discipline allowing Ronaldo and Nani to rampage outside him as he at times dropped back so deep he was almost a third holder alongside Miguel Veloso and Raul Meireles at times. It's a shape much loved by Villas-Boas -- a sort of halfway house between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3, a lopsided central triangle -- that Moutinho honed at Porto.
WHY HE POSES SUCH A DANGER
Ronaldo was the obvious star of Portugal's 3-2 victory over Sweden in the second leg of the playoff, but Moutinho's role was vital. It was his perfect through ball that laid on the first (although it would be wrong to give him too much credit for his positioning, given he was only there because he'd been writhing in supposed agony trying to get the game stopped). Still, having received the ball, his awareness and the weight of pass were exemplary.
In what often seems a broken team with six defensive players and three forwards, Moutinho's capacity to link the two parts of the side, both with his running and his passing ability, is critical. Efficient rather than flashy, he is the central intelligence that binds Portugal together.