Now for France: Portugal talking points ahead of Euros quarter final

48 hours on from Portugal’s dramatic penalty shootout victory over Slovenia, we are yet to truly understand how celebrated a page the drama of Frankfurt will be in Seleção history books.

Should Portuguese flags be draped around the Euros trophy and it be hoisted into the Berlin night by Cristiano Ronaldo ten days from now, Diogo Costa’s heroics will be further ingrained in folklore. Anything less and the chaotic triumph may tumble one or two places in the chronicles.

Roberto Martínez, much maligned but still standing and conducting himself with class, was adamant before the tournament: Portugal must grow across the seven matches. Acutely aware of peaking too early (commiserations Austria) the Seleção boss has seen moments of quality and of courage from his team, without Portugal really captivating the imagination of the punters.

France can relate. They provide the obstacle in the way of a Portuguese spot in the semi-finals, boasting a remarkable tournament progression which has seen them yet to score themselves from open play. Two own goals and a Kylian Mbappe penalty has been enough to see Les Blues emerge from a tough group and overcome Martínez’s former charges Belgium on Monday.

French manager Didier Deschamps boasts a C.V in great excess of that held by Martínez; a playing and managerial career littered with trophies, including World Cups in both disciplines. Yet like Martínez, Deschamps is heavily scrutinised at home and can often be seen as a man who should have his talented group playing in a more convincing fashion.

Substance over style

It’s not a France team that strikes the same level of fear as those which reached consecutive World Cup finals in 2018 and 2022. The current edition is a tougher watch from an entertainment point of view, while many in France fear they are simply not as good. But getting through the group phase without fuss and ending up in the final is what France do.

Deschamps has kept the defensive part of his team reassuringly consistent throughout the tournament: Mike Maignan in goal; right-back Jules Koundé; left-back Theo Hernandez; central defensive pairing William Saliba and Dayot Upamecano. Ahead of that is where the French boss has done minor experimenting with personnel and shape.

In midfield, the French have great quality and experience. For the opening match against Austria, Real Madrid duo Eduardo Camavinga and the unfit Aurelien Tchouaméni were not required. Deschamps went for a double-pivot of N'Golo Kanté and Adrien Rabiot behind playmaker Antoine Griezmann in a 4-2-3-1 system, as France survived an early onslaught from Ralf Rangnick’s rampageous Austria to win 1-0 via Max Wöber’s own goal.

Since then, Tchouaméni has become a mainstay as Deschamps beefed up his midfield and oversaw forgettable draws with Netherlands and Poland. By the time of the last-16 match with Belgium, Deschamps had moved into a 4-3-3 with Griezmann positioned on the right of the attack, Mbappe on the left and Marcus Thuram as the no9. The game was eventually won by a late own goal by ex-Benfica man Jan Vertonghen, giving France another narrow win and another clean sheet.

Critics will argue they should entertain more, but Deschamps will not change now. A man who won the World Cup as a player in 1998 with a French side based on solid foundations at the back, the former skipper is a firm believer that defences win tournaments. Current centre-back pairing William Saliba of Arsenal and Dayot Upamecano of Bayern Munich have been imperious so far.

Deschamps may not have convinced everyone in France, but he has seemingly convinced his players. The team knows what it is and is prepared to rely on their ability to avoid errors, instead using their immense physical presence and tactical awareness to wait for the mistakes in the opponent.

Martínez job secure? Big selection decisions to make

Roberto Martínez is part of a long-term plan put in place by the Portuguese Football Federation, having signed his contract to take Portugal to the World Cup in 2026. Defeat to Slovenia may have raised serious questions over his future, but having impressed in qualifying and reached the quarter finals of the Euros against heavyweights France, it’s hard to envisage Martínez not being in charge for the start of World Cup qualification.

His presumed job stability could have an impact on how he approaches some major selection considerations ahead of Friday. To begin with, Pepe and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two oldest outfield players in the tournament’s history. How does their conditioning affect selection and tactical approach ahead of a meeting with France’s physical prowess.

Friday’s showdown in Hamburg could easily go a similar distance. Martínez will give careful consideration to the problems which could occur in Ronaldo being asked to play another two hours, especially given the ramifications of any substitution of the captain. Does the political aspect of such a scenario bode well for a manager hoping to take Portugal to another major tournament? It seems a nonsensical thing to consider for a coach, but Ronaldo is a special case.

With job security, it is perhaps easiest for Martínez to indulge Ronaldo, possibly even against his own instincts. Or Martínez may simply take the view that however stodgy France are, they will cede more space for Ronaldo to exploit. Indications so far at the tournament are that Martínez is not wholly convinced by Gonçalo Ramos, but Diogo Jota offers a genuine alternative. The smart money is on Ronaldo being handed the big stage at the end of any deliberations.

Does Mbappe provoke another change?

Martínez’s attraction to a 3-4-3 has enticed much debate. So far in this tournament, the Spaniard has utilised a three centre-back system twice, while a back four has also been deployed on two occasions. Most would agree Portugal have looked more in control against Türkiye and Slovenia when using the latter, than against Czechia and Georgia in the 3-4-3.

Yet there will be temptation to consider another change. Two gruelling hours on Monday evening would have taken its toll on stalwart Pepe, the defender almost out on his feet during extra time. Beyond any recent discourse over which system suits Portugal, offering protection to Pepe is an early point in favour of switching back to three centre-backs.

One could easily trust Pepe’s powers of recovery, meaning a more salient issue could be the role of João Cancelo, who was so impressive in the second half against Slovenia. Should Cancelo continue at right-back in a back four, he faces the prospect of encountering perhaps the most feared wide combination in the tournament down his side.

Kylian Mbappe, seeking to define himself as the best player in the world in the post Ronaldo/Messi era, is flanked on the outside by AC Milan’s Theo Hernandez: a modern full-back with astounding athleticism and a keen eye for goal. Hernandez took just five minutes to break the Morocco rearguard which had denied Portugal when he scored in France’s win over the North Africans at the World Cup 2022 semi-finals.

Martínez will be minded to keep Cancelo in the team, meaning a change to a back three could be appropriate. For all Cancelo’s quality on the ball, he has endured some difficult moments defensively in the tournament, particularly when opposition full-backs advance. Against Mbappe and Hernandez, it feels bordering on reckless to charge him with a right-back role in a back four. Diogo Dalot, a more rugged and athletic prospect, would be more suited to such duels.

But any change back to Martínez’s 3-4-3 will displace an important player elsewhere. One of Palhinha, Vitinha, Fernandes or Bernardo would be relegated to the bench, or alternatively Rafael Leão is sacrificed, along with Portugal’s only outlet with significant speed. France tend to pack the midfield; the risk of being overrun in the middle of the pitch to accommodate an extra centre-back does not feel ideal. Belgium manager Domenico Tedesco opted for a 2-man central midfield against France, which was deemed poorly-judged. For what it's worth, I'd argue Palhinha's physical equalising and Vitinha's ball-retention under French pressure should exclude both from the possibility.

For France, Adrien Rabiot is suspended, but Eduardo Camavinga of Real Madrid or Monaco’s Youssouf Fofana will step in to provide excellent cover. Griezmann should continue on the right of the attack and although the notion of Mbappe as a false no9 has been lightly toyed with, it is expected he continues from the left, with Inter’s Marcus Thuram as centre-forward.

Whilst France’s system and selection seems set, there are multiple variations for Martínez to consider. That alone may worry some of the many Seleção followers partial to a touch of pessimism. The Spaniard is more than capable of a surprise. Ideas such as Jota taking the spearhead role in place of Ronaldo, or even Diogo Dalot featuring at RCB in a back three, have swirled around my head in recent hours in attempting to second-guess the Spaniard.

As Martínez prepares for the toughest challenge of his Portugal tenure, faced with Deschamps’ watertight results machine, we will better understand whether his focus on variation and unpredictability has helped or hindered the Seleção’s chances. Over to you, Roberto.

By @SeanGillen9