Martínez & Ronaldo: Unique mitigation, or weak management?

As one of the many who has watched Cristiano Ronaldo’s career in its entirety. As someone who stood in Old Trafford and saw him star for Manchester United as a teenager. This European Championships played out in line with my worst fears regarding Portugal’s greatest ever player.

The Seleção were rightly installed as one of the tournament favourites. With a squad as diverse and deep in talent as one could ask for, Roberto Martínez took over last January knowing expectations were high. Yet in his captain, there was always the potential impediment.

As Ronaldo departs his final Euros having not scored a goal, most notably during consecutive 2-hour knockout ties, it is difficult to turn away from what has proved a major issue. And one that may have shaped a perception Martínez finds it difficult to shake, in the light of an exit which yielded an admirable showing against France but two blank scoresheets at the business end of the tournament.

When Ronaldo selflessly squared the ball for Bruno Fernandes to score the simplest of goals and round off a 3-0 win over Türkiye, he left the field with an assured demeanour of a man who did not feel he needed to score to demonstrate his contribution. Maybe he should have scored himself; by the final inconsequential group match against Georgia, a different tone to his influence was quietly developing.

On the face of it, Martínez resting all his key men but persisting with a 39-year-old striker against Georgia felt routine. It’s Ronaldo; if he wants to play and he wants so score – he plays. Yet with some reflection, it was bordering on preposterous. Not only did such a scene reinforce the sense that Ronaldo does what he wants, the decision was laced with conciliatory management, given Martínez surely would have preferred to shuffle his pack entirely.

The Georgia game didn’t matter. But as things got serious, it became clear that Martínez had decided he would not rest, bench or substitute Ronaldo whatever happened. I mentioned in an article prior to the France game that Martínez had probably achieved job security with his quarter-final run; perhaps avoiding a fallout with the ultimate national hero was self-preservation at its purest.

Before the tournament, Martínez emphasised how much the finer details would guide progress at the tournament. Against Georgia, Slovenia and France, the Portugal manager clearly felt substituting an out of form striker did not merit consideration as an example of such nuance. Even Didier Deschamps ended Kylian Mbappe’s Friday evening midway through extra time with penalties looming; similarly, England boss Gareth Southgate withdrew Harry Kane against Denmark to encourage a sense of meritocracy.

When Ronaldo broke down in tears after missing a penalty against Slovenia, the images displayed a different side to a figure most see as Superman. Ronaldo does not cry at missing penalties against Slovenia with the score level; the truth is we were likely witnessing self-doubt for the first time. The consequence of an entire evening in which the mind had designs on what was needed every time, but the body could not execute. By the end of the France game, Ronaldo looked a man who had reach acceptance. There was less emotion; this time he was consoling others.

Martínez may not have been convinced by his other options. Gonçalo Ramos touched the ball six times in half an hour after he was introduced against Georgia. The PSG man is a pure penalty box striker who has youth over Ronaldo but cannot match his sense of positioning; Ronaldo’s best chance of the France match came after he had bamboozled Dayot Upamecano with a fake run.

Diogo Jota was the more tempting possibility. Although the diminutive Liverpool striker would also have relied a little more on nous to trouble the impressive French defence, Jota is a known big-match player and made decisive contributions against Slovenia. We should never pretend such predicaments are easy - Martínez could reasonably argue that the greatest goalscorer in history warranted trust and loyalty. He may also feel disappointed by the performance of other key players. But a manager is obliged to address things that are not working. Ronaldo was an issue Martínez resolutely chose to ignore.

Some may point the finger at Ronaldo, insisting his ego smothered the other twenty-five players to an extent which precluded them from overcoming his off days. In truth, an unflappable ego is vital in being able to perform on the biggest stage and the star players will rarely volunteer reducing their status after years of responsibility.

Ronaldo has confirmed he will not play another European Championships. He may stand down altogether. Should he be intent on taking part in Portugal’s World Cup campaign, he will surely be prepared for a reduced role. It’s hard to imagine even Ronaldo having a credible cause for indignation, should he be rotated at the age of 40 during the qualification campaign.

The awkward early dynamic that greeted Martínez in his role is probably over. No Portugal boss from this moment onwards will be at the behest of such a figure, making the issue a unique case of mitigation that would have burdened any manager. I believe Martínez succumbed to Ronaldo’s authority feeling he will be judged more sternly on the upcoming World Cup cycle. A free hit for the manager, at the expense of a nation’s dream.

But international football management is the most scrutinised of roles. Gareth Southgate is derided with England in the latter stages; Deschamps is in the last four against the backdrop of sniping at home in France. For Martínez, whose side exited with an otherwise valiant effort last night, an early show of indecision is a risky mark to leave in his first tournament with Portugal.

By @SeanGillen9