Five things we learned about our Seleção

Portugal's Euro 2024 group stage review

Ever verbose if not pedantic, ever candid if not bombastic,’s Seleção correspondent Nathan Motz dissected every match, every player, every story, and sifted through stacks of supporter opinions. With a technical panache long since established, Nathan shares his top five lessons learned as Portugal topped Group F.

Recounting this group phase, as ever, was an immense difficulty requiring aid from’s writing team, encouragement from the Seleção podcast’s Danny Pinto, and the respected views of this community’s most seasoned Seleção analysts.

What has been will yet be again, as the intrepid voyage of the Seleção was again epitomized by vivid and familiar themes, for better and for worse. Each beheld in various degrees during the group stage, may this squad and our hopes grow having reconciled the unpleasant, rejoiced in the exemplary, and prepared for the trial to come – the group stage is over, the knockout rounds begin!

1. Players define tactics, not the other way around

Against Czechia, Martinez decreed, among other things, that Pahlinha was in excess to requirements, and trotted out an eccentric 3-5-2 featuring no holding midfielder and three fullbacks with Nuno Mendes as left side centreback for the first time in his young career.

Exposed as problematic during qualification, one might suspect Martinez had all the evidence required to avoid that very system in game 1 of a major tournament. To the contrary, Martinez, a thoughtful, polished, and gregarious figure, deployed the element of surprise with his anarchic formation.

If there existed any confusion previously, all doubt is now removed. Martinez suffers from that peculiar managerial delusion. Etched in his mind, a perfectly drawn image resides. One Martinez believes can be summoned to life without regard for individual player competencies. Or, if you will, a song is playing that only he can hear. A merry tune describing irrational associations between key players and roles. Abstractions which fragment upon contact with reality, and more importantly upon contact with a determined adversary.

And perhaps worse, it’s been suggested about Martinez – “whenever he tells you what he’s gonna do, you walk away thinking ‘yeah, he’s right, he knows what he’s doing.’” That is to say, he does what he does then delves into imaginative, philosophical post-match banter to charm audiences.

But this group stage has rendered his situation indefensible. With all due respect to the make-believe tactical masterpiece roaming across his cerebral cortex, material facts must be consulted first. Each individual player has a particular aptitude, distinct role, and unique fit for his or any side. One which may either be inspired or obstructed by the manager’s plans.

As in most other periods of its renowned history, Portugal’s current group strongly advises a 4-3-3 with two dynamic wingers either side of a central striker, a throwback to a simpler time when full-tilt counterattacks - the Seleção’s bread-and-butter in the Ronaldo era – had not yet been extinguished by stodgy, possession-obsessed routines.

João Palhinha is as competent a defensive midfielder as there is in Germany – he’s won 6 tackles/90 minutes played. Yet for the second tournament running, lesser players occupy this role, say what you will about his early yellow card.

Nuno Mendes is a generational talent who suffers when constrained by the team’s defensive silhouette as he was against Czechia. Pepe and Dias don’t require assistance from a third centreback. They need a rugged defensive midfielder shielding them, and effervescent fullbacks to suppress the opponent’s outside midfielders.

Bernardo Silva is an old-fashioned maestro with great ball skills and modest pace. Bruno Fernandes lacks the discipline to impact the game from deep. One wonders if Cancelo’s career inconsistencies resulted from Pep and others assigning one too many roles rather than simply letting him become a world class right-back.

Any arrangement forcing these unique talents to preserve a manager’s preferred tactical shape can only end in disappointment. Nearly every player underachieved to various degrees against Czechia and only by balancing the formation with two speed merchants – Neto and Conceição – was Portugal able to subdue its opponent.

The far more effective 4-3-3 fielded against Türkiye bears further witness. As inhospitable as my critique has been, Martinez must be lauded for rightly understanding the match context and tailoring an effective squad. Prioritizing the direct translation of defence into attack and sacrificing bland possession works for us. In its 3-5-2 against Czechia and Georgia, Portugal recorded 70% and 68% possession, respectively.

In the 4-3-3 against Türkiye, 56%. That is the Portuguese football of the last 2-3 decades, if not longer.

But the 2-0 loss to Georgia, featuring Pedro Neto at LWB in a 3-5-2, was undoubtedly the high-water mark, the atrocity par excellence - psychopathic in form and abominable in result. And in a tournament teasingly praised for its “anti-woke” football – long range goals, and the refreshing absence of over-elaboration – in comes Roberto Martinez to say hello. Fullback redundancy aside, Martinez revealed a disquieting obstinancy to accept blunt facts by ignoring the result against Czechia as a counterproof to his schemes.

Regardless if there is any merit to criticisms of tacticos or so-called woke football – with its possession-dominance, back 3s, false 9s, and pressing – Martinez’s crusade to resurrect Total Football has resulted in Total Insanity.

And just 3 months ago, Slovenia defeated Martinez’s experimental 3-5-2 hybrid featuring two DMs, and more notably, no wingers.

The findings are unanimous. Will Martinez heed the score, or chase butterflies in his head?

2. Wings of Destiny? – Search continues for Ronaldo’s heir apparent

The mercurial wing wizard occupies a unique place in Portuguese football lore. Ronaldo’s epochal No.7 and its association with the margins of the pitch might rightly be described as a spectacle conceived without aid. Certainly, the rich mystique left behind by his career exploits must be properly attributed.

Yet it would be shamefully ignorant of Portugal’s football heritage to omit how Paulo Futre, Luís Figo, and even Ricardo Quaresma stylized the compelling aura surrounding the wing position, transforming player ambition and development in Portugal over the better part of the last 40 years.

But after Luís Nani, the production line seized up.

Ronaldo took on characteristics of a centre forward though never a classic No.9. Every so often, a player would emerge stirring fond memory of a young Ronaldo only to crash out of the conversation as soon as they had entered, and often spectacularly. Rony Lopes comes to mind. Bruma as well. Benfica’s Rafa Silva flashed then sputtered, eventually retiring in disgust at his lack of opportunity. Diogo Jota and João Félix, meanwhile, are employed in such dissimilar fashion it’s difficult to classify them as doctrinal wingers. And need I comment further about Bernardo Silva’s performances on the right wing in Portugal’s 4-3-3?

Then, over the last few seasons, Rafael Leão and Pedro Neto entered the conversation. Yet at 25 and 24 years old, respectively, neither have given the imagination anything save a flicker, and that for a moment, of possibility they might lay hold of the iconic mantle left by Portugal’s talisman. This is not to suggest foolishly any player could wholly reincarnate the Cristiano of old. Mark my words well - there will never be another Cristiano Ronaldo so long as anyone reading this will live. But the archetypical role, bombing down the flanks…who will take this on?

If the group stage suggested anything, Rafael Leão is not the one. You watch him and marvel at his graceful stride. Might he better young Ronaldo in a sprint even? Yet the way he carries the ball is still naïve, still too easily cornered, still too easily poached, and given to simulation in an era with less tolerance of this behavior. His crosses are wild – only 16.7% completed - and he’s produced 2 shots in 2 matches – one blocked, the other off target. No goals, no assists, one key pass. And for all his pace, only 1 of 7 dribbles completed.

You might argue tactics against Czechia stymied Leão as it did other players. But these remain wasted opportunities for a guy who has so much more to give. Bernardo Silva finally scored against Türkiye in what felt like validation of what we all know by now – he is not a winger. But where else does he fit in this squad?

Pedro Neto and Conceição’s outing against Georgia seemed more compelling – six dribbles and four key passes combined - yet they tallied zero shots on target. Neto may rightly be considered another casualty of Martinez’s tactics, but despite all suggestion this Seleção might be the most gifted, the most deep of any Portugal side in history, who is worthy to draw the sword from the sacred stone and assume Ronaldo’s powers?

3. Vitinha the midfield metronome

After Rui Costa, there was Deco, then one might argue João Moutinho filled the creative gap in midfield, albeit not in the same way as his predecessors. Aside from Moutinho, a clever but more subdued figure, avant-garde demonstrations of technical genius have been exceedingly rare in Portugal’s central midfield over much of the last 15 or so years.

After a captivating but unsuccessful Euro U21 campaign in 2015, Bernardo Silva seemed the next most likely successor, but he missed Euro 2016 through injury. Then both Santos and Martinez ensconced him on the wing.

Bruno Fernandes deserves admiration for the player he is, a peculiarity with respect to his forebearers. In the Euro 24 group stage, Bruno showed in fits and starts how essential he is to this squad so long as conditions favor his risk-taking activities. He’s brilliant in his own way, but even he cannot conjure anything resembling mastery of the park the way his ancestors did at Euro 2004, for example.  

Then there’s Vitinha.

In the group stage, we were offered a mere glimpse of Portugal’s next great creative force in midfield. An impish, artistic, and irrepressible virtuoso. And not fully matured either.  

But he’s got what every dazzlingly skillful central midfielder has in common: more time on the ball than anyone else. Vitinha plays top speed yet slows the game down. He’s inventorying options but not overthinking. And the ball never stops moving, dragged to and fro across his body.

Against Georgia, Vitinha was rested and João Neves anchored midfield behind a highly mobile João Félix. Neves passed the ball well enough and made three interceptions. But great teams need a fire and ice type of player who reads the pulse and controls the match tempo accordingly.

Tactics notwithstanding, Vitinha showed the most situational intelligence, essential when playing alongside less risk averse players like Bruno Fernandes. He showed outstanding courage against Czechia, taking command of central midfield with 113 touches, rifling in the back-post cross resulting in the own goal which changed the outcome of the match.

Astronomical expectations were set for several of Portugal’s players coming into this tournament. During the group phase, Vitinha was one of only a few who justified them. And in a squad replete with diminutive midfield playmakers, Vitinha stood tallest in the group stage.

4. Rarely tested perhaps, but defense our top concern

An outsider might suggest Portugal’s defense did its job in the group stage. Three goals allowed, one a wonder strike, the other two arising from blunders committed by major tournament debutante, António Silva.

However, a more thorough examination will regard the level of competition this team has faced since Martinez took over. Even in friendlies, Sweden scored twice with its only two shots on target in the match only for Finland to replicate the feat just 3 months later.

The gravitational attraction to debate Ronaldo’s participation or how to summon the best from our attack further obfuscates this discussion. Each of Portugal’s recent tournament exits occurred first because of some key lapse in defense. The lack of initiative, the absence of dogged determination to recover in these situations is noted. But egregious defensive gaffes have precisely the effect of killing belief in a more hopeful outcome.

If we exit this tournament prematurely, it will not be because Cristiano Ronaldo played instead of Gonçalo Ramos, full stop.  

In the group stage, there were some breaks where you could see Portugal’s defence was in real trouble but for the opposition to blunder the opportunity. Czechia scored from its only shot on target in the match. Georgia ran through our second-string unit with near-impunity and could easily have added to their tally.

Few would argue the variety of opponents we’ll face in the knockout rounds will prove uncomfortable for this defence, especially if Martinez doesn’t level his tactics, see #1 above. Combine this with Rúben Neves’ yellow card and Martinez’s strange aversion to João Pahlinha, the best defensive asset not named Pepe this side has, and this unit seems structurally unstable.

Possession-centric football is ostensibly more secure in that it limits time needed for the opponent to generate meaningful threat. But Czechia and Georgia reminded supporters of Portugal’s historical ineptitude against defensively compact, counterattacking adversaries.

Whoever controls the ball may not always control the match. Portugal’s transition to defense being what it is, the takeaway seems obvious: accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can, and learn to tell the difference.

Portugal need to do what works for Portugal, not what’s fashionable or notionally more successful.

5. The Bracket of Death awaits

Whereas in tournaments gone by Portugal supporters winced at every group stage draw, this time a more manageable group scenario yielded an unnecessarily cruel knockout round gauntlet. In addition to Slovenia in the R16, France seems the most likely QF opponent followed by either Spain or Germany in the semis. However tight one might cling to belief in Portugal’s depth of talent, this path is fraught with peril, and would be for any nation.

And of course, the typically cynical Portuguese rendering of this situation is not the only way. Fortune mocks inevitability. There is no guarantee yet, for example, that Spain, France, or Germany win their respective R16 fixtures, nor that Portugal wins theirs. Were all such matters foregone conclusions, Portugal would surely have lost the Euro 2016 final against an opponent it had never beaten on their home soil.

Football is beautiful one minute and sadistic the next. There are no immutable laws to its nature. Its predictability may seem certain, but this is an illusion we conceive in effort to control and suppress our emotions. In this case, that we will be sad when Portugal inevitably lose. But in the international game especially it is so often luck, injuries, and suspensions which decide the outcome even between absurdly mismatched opponents.

I do not ask the reader to recant all pessimism nor ascribe undue belief in the likelihood of Portugal’s success. Just remember why we love this game. The magic of international football, of knockout round football, is in its mystery. We are simultaneously horrified at the prospect of colliding with Europe’s heavyweights, and tantalized by the opportunity presented. These emotions are in unbearable tension, and we crave some way of speaking about them which comforts anxiety. Outlandish pessimism is a very Portuguese way of finding ourselves out of control and attempting to right that.

Will this talented generation make good on its potential? I don’t know, and that’s unsettling to think about. The brilliant Portugal squads at Euros 2000 & 2004, and WC 2006 – lost. Across the grain of competitive sports, it is more common for individuals, teams, and generations to fail than ascend the pinnacle of achievement.

Remember Switzerland quieted Germany, and France have scored one goal, a penalty, in three matches. And Portugal will get its chances on the counterattack against Spain, should it come to that.

But will we even beat Slovenia? If the group stage is any indication, the tactics of Portugal’s own manager should be more greatly feared than our opponents, whether its Slovenia, France, or whomever.

by Nathan Motz