Portugal kick off their UEFA Euro 2024 qualifying campaign this week with matches against continental minnows Liechtenstein and Luxembourg. These fixtures are by no means blockbuster ties but this international break in particular carries greater significance than most for A Seleção as it marks the beginning of a new era. The Portuguese will be under a new manager for the first time since September 2014.
After nine years and 109 matches in charge – a period that saw Portugal win the European Championship in 2016 and the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019, the first and second honours at senior level in Portugal’s history – manager Fernando Santos was relieved of his duties following Portugal’s World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Morocco. In January 2023, former Belgium coach Roberto Martínez was hired as his replacement.
With the nation at a crossroads, struggling at times to balance the old guard and the burgeoning new talent and with supporters clamouring for better, more expansive football to be produced on the pitch, we delve into some of the most important talking points ahead of Martínez’s first matches in charge.
The Post-Santos Era Begins
When Santos assumed control of the national team in September 2014, he was brought in to steady a ship that had rocked against one too many waves.
Portugal had crashed out of the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the group stage and just three months later in their first match of Euro 2016 qualifying, they were dealt an embarrassing 1-0 defeat by an Albanian side ranked 70th in the world. The players were booed off the pitch in Aveiro and a few days later manager Paulo Bento was axed.
Santos was presented and would go on to lead his group of underdogs to the final of Euro 2016, scrapping their way through playing a pragmatic, hard-to-beat brand of football before going on to defeat heavy favourites and tournament hosts France in Paris. Santos achieved what no other manager had done before him and brought silverware back to Portugal, and he did it twice. However, particularly towards the end of Santos’ eight-year reign, there was a feeling that Portugal could and perhaps should have been doing more with their talent.
There was an overwhelming belief amongst supporters of A Seleção that Portugal’s aims and expectations needed to be realigned to match the vast array of talent within the squad. The feeling was growing that Portugal should no longer be a side looking to merely qualify for major tournaments but that they should be approaching these tournaments with a confidence and a belief that, with their quality, they could beat any other side in world football. And to do so by playing a system that moved away from the pragmatic underdog approach of 2016 and into a more fluid and free-flowing one that would enable Portugal’s most creative talents to express themselves.
The differences between Martínez’s Belgium and Santos’ Portugal during the European qualifiers for the World Cup are clear to see.
Belgium would look to build up from the back, moving the ball patiently and confidently into midfield or out to the wing-backs. In some matches under Martínez during this period, Belgium’s ball possession incredibly reached above 75% (81% vs. Estonia and 76% vs. Wales).
Portugal, on the other hand, moved the ball quicker upfield under Santos, completing fewer passes per sequence than the other bigger hitters of the UEFA region.
Regardless of the style of play he chooses to implement, Martínez and his coaching staff will be aware of these demands both from the supporters and the Portuguese media for a better brand of football. If Santos was brought in to steady a rocking ship, Martínez has been brought in to help unleash Portugal’s boundless potential.
The Introduction of a Back Three
When Martínez announced his first Portugal squad for the upcoming matches, his defensive choices gave a very strong hint that he is going to implement a system with three central defenders – something new for the national team.
The 49-year-old Spaniard initially called up 10 defenders, with six of those being centre backs. The experienced trio of Pepe (144 caps), Danilo Pereira (64 caps) and Rúben Dias (44 caps) were joined by young Benfica defender Antonio Silva (two caps), Gonçalo Inácio, who was featured in the 55-man preliminary squad for the World Cup but ultimately missed the cut, as well as a totally new face to the national team set-up in the form of 24-year-old Diogo Leite, a European championships winner at U17 level with Portugal and a player who has kickstarted his senior career by excelling in Germany with high-flying Union Berlin.
Given that Martínez started with a back three in 75 of his 79 matches in charge of Belgium, it will come as no real surprise if he elects to do the same with Portugal.
The inclusions of Silva, Leite and Inácio will no doubt please supporters given the concerns that have lingered around the future of Portugal’s defence when the time comes for the indomitable Pepe to hang up his boots.
The 40-year-old defender – who has since been ruled out of these qualifiers with an injury – is still very much a world-class operator, something his recent performances both for club and country have demonstrated, but sooner or later he will need to be replaced and for the last couple of years, there has been legitimate concern regarding who will partner Rúben Dias at the heart of the Portugal defence going forward.
The move to a back three possibly opens the door for the starting XI for Sporting CP’s Inácio. An intelligent defender that excels with the ball at his feet, the 21-year-old plays each week as part of a back three under Rúben Amorim therefore there would be no adjustment period to the roles and intricacies of playing in this system.
He’s been the ‘tempo-setter’ from the back for Sporting across the 2022-23 campaign, averaging a team-high 77.3 successful passes per 90 in the Primeira Liga and alongside team-mate Matheus Reis, he’s the most involved central defender across the Portuguese top-flight this season for average possession build-up in open play per 90 (excluding shots/chance creation – 54.2) and open-play sequence involvements overall (55.1).
Inácio is also very comfortable carrying the ball out from defence to help progress his team. No player in the Portuguese top-flight this season has made more progressive ball carries (295) or has carried the ball further upfield than he has (3,024m).
Danilo Pereira is another player that has become accustomed to the ins and outs of playing in a back three. Having played much of his career in midfield, the versatile 31-year-old has played primarily at centre back for Paris Saint-Germain this season, both in a back three and in a defensive pairing and is enjoying his best season so far in France.
An exciting prospect should Portugal switch to a back three is also what it would mean for the wide positions. Since moving to Bayern Munich on loan from Manchester City, João Cancelo has been playing a back three.
A player that thrives going forward, Cancelo has already provided four assists and scored one goal in nine appearances (six starts) for the Bavarian side giving him an average of a goal contribution every 96 minutes. Since his club debut on 1 February, Cancelo’s xA average per 90 (0.28) is below only Thomas Müller (0.36) and Kingsley Coman (0.46) at the reigning Bundesliga champions. His best traits come to life in attacking situations, so it would make sense for Martínez to push Cancelo further forward into more attacking areas.
Paris Saint-Germain’s Nuno Mendes is a player who is a complete natural in a wing-back role, having spent the majority of his young career operating and excelling in this position. Mendes is an accomplished defender and his close control, pace and superb dribbling ability mean that he is a real threat in the opposition half. Across Ligue 1 this season, he’s been just one of five PSG players to average at least 0.20 expected assists per 90 and three of the players that he’s below are Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé.
Given the attacking nature of Portugal’s full-backs, it’s an exciting prospect to think of the likes of Cancelo, Mendes and Raphäel Guerreiro in these more advanced areas.
The King is Dead, Long Live the King
There’s a potential new Portuguese superstar ready to burst. Gonçalo Ramos was thrust into the spotlight during the 2022 FIFA World Cup when he started against Switzerland in place of Cristiano Ronaldo. The 21-year-old then proceeded to score a hat-trick, becoming the first player to score three goals on their first World Cup start since Miroslav Klose in 2002.
For casual supporters, this was their introduction to O Pistoleiro or, ‘The Gunman’ – a player with tremendous movement who lives and breathes in the penalty area, a player who celebrates each goal by blowing the smoke off his imaginary barrels. For some though, especially those in Portugal who were already very familiar with Ramos’ explosive talent in front of goal, his exploits at the World Cup made sense – it seemed the next logical step for a player that had scored a plethora of goals at youth level, at B team level, at senior club level and now, he was doing it for his country on the biggest stage of all.
Fast forward to March, three months after the World Cup and Ramos has continued his upward trajectory.
This hitman from the Algarve is currently the Primeira Liga’s second top scorer with 16 goals. He also has three goals and three assists in the UEFA Champions League, helping his side into the quarter-final for the second successive season. He’s netted 24 goals across all competitions this season for As Águias.
Arguably Ramos’ key attribute is his ability to find fantastic scoring positions. His non-penalty xG per 90 average of 0.92 is by far the best in the Portuguese top-flight (0.39 higher than anyone else) and much higher than Darwin Núñez at the Lisbon-based club in 2021-22 before his move to Liverpool in the summer (0.69). In fact, across the top 10 ranked European leagues, no player to have played at least 1,000 minutes of league football can match Ramos’ npxG/90 rate – either this season, or last.
For Martínez, he has a decision to make regarding his forward options. All-time record scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, as expected, has been named in Martínez’s first squad – a decision which has had somewhat of a mixed reception particularly in Portugal.
The most obvious question on the lips of the supporters is how will Martínez use 38-year-old Ronaldo? Has he been picked to offer something different off the bench when needed, playing more sparingly as his wonderful career winds down or does he see Ronaldo as an integral part of the starting XI, perhaps as a focal point in the middle for the wing-backs to aim for from crossing positions?
Ronaldo’s move to Saudi Arabia has been highly controversial, with the Saudi Pro League hardly the most competitive league for someone wanting to be a focal point for a national team. Based on Opta’s Power Rankings, the Saudi League is the 27th strongest in club football across the world, while Ronaldo’s Al-Nassr team are ranked 115th worldwide – two places below English second-tier leaders Burnley. As expected then, he’s already the sixth top scorer in the league with nine goals in eight games – half the tally of appearances of players above him in the scoring charts.
Then, there are the other attacking talents that have been called up. Milan livewire Rafael Leão was voted Serie A MVP last season and despite only playing 16 minutes at the World Cup he managed to score two goals. João Félix has also made the squad as well as Diogo Jota – with the Liverpool man recently returning from a long injury layoff.
It’s intriguing to see where they will fit into Martínez’s system.
Worries and Concerns
The decision to go with Martínez itself was one that greatly divided opinion. His Belgian side were largely awful at the 2022 World Cup and crashed out in a group stage that they were expected to walk through, scoring just one goal across their three matches. It was an exceptionally disappointing final tournament for a crop that had been dubbed Belgium’s golden generation.
Martínez’s tenure lasted six years, with Belgium failing to make a major final during this period. At the 2018 World Cup, Belgium topped their group above England, an achievement which ultimately worked against Belgium given it thrust them into the more difficult knockout path. Belgium beat Japan 3-2 in the round of 16 and when they beat Brazil in the quarter-final, there was a feeling that they could go on and achieve something special. These hopes were dashed in the semi-final as they were knocked out by eventual winners France.
At Euro 2020, it was a similar story to the previous tournament, Belgium won all three matches in their group, knocked out Santos’ Portugal in the round of 16 before once again losing to the team that would go on to win the competition – on this occasion it was Italy in the quarter-final.
But at the same time, it’s important to not forget that under Martínez between his appointment in August 2016 and departure post-World Cup, Belgium won more games (47) and had the highest win ratio (77%) of any UEFA nation in competitive matches.
It seems the most obvious concern from those opposed to or at least skeptical of the hiring of Martínez, is that after ultimately failing to win silverware with one golden generation, will it be more of the same now he is at the helm of another nation that is full of talent, both established as well as up-and-coming.
Portugal underachieved in the later years under Santos, failing to get close to winning another title despite having a squad featuring players that ply their trade week-in-week-out for elite clubs around Europe. For some supporters and journalists, they feel Santos’ replacement should have been a proven winner with a more impressive track record.
The beauty of football though, is it allows you to turn over a new leaf and make history. A manager underachieving in one position doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen again, much in the same way hiring a manager who has tasted success before won’t always guarantee future glory. Whether or not Portugal are a success on the pitch under the new manager, only time will truly tell.