Portugal 2-1 Czechia reflection: What to take away from Euros opener

It was a tense curtain-raiser for the Seleção in Leipzig, which briefly looked to be heading for disaster when Czechia seized a surprise lead after an hour. Roberto Martínez's side came through the test and left us with much to ponder ahead of Türkiye on Saturday.

Taking a look at the night’s action, we discuss the talking points as Portugal put their supporters through a rollercoaster which ended with a classic tournament moment provided by Francisco Conceição’s winner.

Martinez flexible as always

Throughout his time in England and with the Belgium national team, Roberto Martínez has long established a reputation for tactical flexibility. It makes the Spaniard a tough man to second-guess, especially in international tournaments where opposition varies even more so than any domestic football.

Although some decisions may confuse or draw criticism, there is obviously a clear rationale behind the calls and the Seleção manager appears intent on changing his method for success depending on the opposition. Martínez correctly anticipated that Czechia would not be influenced by the trademark energetic and dynamic approach undertaken by many teams at this tournament. They were stubborn, highly disciplined and rudimentary in their approach, which no doubt influenced his calls.

Mendes, Palhinha

Whilst deploying three central defenders is no surprise for Portugal or Martínez as a coach, opting to play Nuno Mendes as the left-sided CB caught many off guard. As did the omission of João Palhinha in midfield, where you would have been forgiven for expecting the Fulham man to be a constant presence.

However, Czechia often bypassed midfield. Their defensive build-up was slow across the back three or direct with long balls to the two centre-forwards Schick and Kuchta. Palhinha’s possession-winning ability in his typical zone was less required as the ball spent little time on the ground in those areas, meaning quality of build-up in deep midfield could be prioritised. Mendes’ speed offered good cover for the second balls as Dias and Pepe dealt with the aerial threat, while his ability to overlap on the left allowed João Cancelo to drift inside and create problems.

Mendes’ distribution felt hurried and careless at times, while some may pick at the lack of a natural defensive midfielder when Czechia went ahead with an uncontested shot from 20 yards. But Martínez's thought process behind his set-up was solid. Nevertheless, there was a sense that unfamiliar positioning, designed to surprise, perhaps created a slight confusion for Portugal’s players, who at times looked caught between ideas. 

Related: Francisco Conceição scores late as Portugal beat Czech Republic 2-1 at Euro 2024

Related: Portugal 2-1 Czechia match reaction: “Today it was about resilience” – Roberto Martínez


The system allows for freedom and exchange of positions, best demonstrated by the first big chance of the second half when Rúben Dias broke down the right and crossed for Cristiano Ronaldo to threaten. A team with 2024 Ronaldo has to be keen to cross the ball, be it for him or using his movement to create chances for others to attack the space. But before long the captain, who looked sharp on the night, became visibly frustrated when crossing opportunities were passed over. Another point of confusion in a team designed to be so variable, yet finding most joy when attempting to directly supply their expectant talisman.

Many Portuguese have grown up on wide play; the modern era littered with exceptional Luso wingers. Czechia provided some of the best possible resistance to crossing danger, filling the box with well-organised, disciplined defenders with significant height. Yet for Portugal’s 74% possession and short-passing potential, crosses into the six-yard box caused the most problems, leading to both goals as well as the disallowed initial winner. A good sign that the simple yet effective route to goal could become more fruitful against sides who afford more space in the box.

Subs vital

The major changes came late, partly owing to Czechia boss Ivan Hašek persisting with a strong physical presence up top for most of the match to pin Portugal’s defenders as much as possible. Martínez may have hesitated to make drastic changes as a result, fearing the knockdowns with tired legs as the match went on. Jota replaced Rafeal Leão and was an immediate threat, not least with his disallowed goal, which was impressively ruled out at lightening speed by VAR’s automated system.

As it turned out, we saw three substitutes introduced in the 90th minute – a tactic often seen in modern football which leaves so many of us on the outside bewildered. Martinez’s calls were highly positive, perhaps too positive to try much earlier than he did: Conceição for Vitinha and Pedro Neto for Nuno Mendes was a chaotic late gamble, but the Portugal boss was vindicated as the Czechs fell to his last throw of the dice.

The eruption of Portuguese joy after Pedro Neto supplied Chico Conceição for the winner will not only benefit morale in the squad, but will increase the confidence that the Seleção has the squad of game-changers we all believed. João Félix and Gonçalo Ramos were not even called, demonstrating the depth of options. Had reinforcements been needed further back, the likes of Palhinha, Danilo, João Neves, Rúben Neves, Matheus Nunes and António Silva were ready. Few teams in the tournament can call on the variety and strength of options Martínez has at his disposal.

Future changes

Teams with the attributes of Czechia are unlikely to feature in the knockout rounds. Even the upcoming match against Türkiye should provide a different type of challenge. With more opposition ball players between the lines, there will surely be a place for João Palhinha, who has conserved energy and his disciplinary charge sheet, as the tournament progresses.

We can expect more turnovers of possession in future matches. When playing against deep defensive lines, the balance between showing patience and maintaining a threatening tempo and incision can be tough to find. It proved difficult at times for Portugal, but prevailing against Czechia is a good omen ahead of facing such scenarios moving forward.

For Türkiye and particularly for the knockouts, the use of Mendes as LCB and Vitinha as defensive midfielder could be reviewed. Gonçalo Inácio provides the alternative at LCB if the current system remains; his use of the ball more assured than Mendes but not as multifunctional out of possession. Mendes may continue in the role if Martínez wishes to further assess João Cancelo in the left wing-back role with license to come into midfield; the physical dynamism of Mendes is a facilitator.

Vitinha performed admirably but will surely not be deployed as the deepest midfielder against high quality opposition with more threat to snuff out in the half-space; Palhinha’s physicality and instincts will become vital against teams with a more inverted wide threat than Czechia, while also allowing more freedom to Bruno Fernandes. Yet Cancelo’s positioning becomes a factor in such a call. With Vitinha and Bruno as midfield creators, is Cancelo’s roaming presence as an extra man in the middle as necessary?

Jota’s bright cameo, as well as those of the substitutes, will raise questions over the place of Rafael Leão, who was a bright spark in the first half but subdued in the second. It was the type of opposition many would anticipate Leão struggling with, but he kept good width on the left and made some dangerous runs with and without the ball; ultimately, he lacked the end product Jota so routinely displays. Yet higher turnovers in future games means more space, which suits Leão’s game. Without him, this side looks short of pace on the transition. If Leão is to lose his place, Neto feels a natural alternative.

I always expected Martínez to provoke a lot of discussion with his ideas. Plenty to chew over before Saturday. But nothing like a winning start. Vamos!

By @SeanGillen9