Roberto Martínez was announced as Portugal manager last week, with the former Everton and Belgium boss signing a contract that will take him to 2026.
He has his work cut out, despite having a talented squad with great depth, many feel that Portugal have largely underperformed in big tournaments. Martínez will also have to deal with the transition of senior players going out and the integration of younger players coming in. If the Spaniard is to be a success, he has to have the full support of the players, the federation and most importantly, the supporters
Here are four things that need to happen if Martínez’s reign is to be a success.
Play Better Football
“I don’t believe in systems. I believe in players, in human beings and in talent. You need to be tactically flexible to get the most out of every player, rather than the players adapting to the system. Portugal must always aim to win and to do that you need to be a modern team, with tactical flexibility”. Those are Roberto Martínez’s words from his presentation last week. The Spaniard knows that Portugal supporters want to see a team approach games to win, to be attacking and to play good football.
Heavy criticism was levelled at Fernando Santos – particularly towards the end of his reign as Portugal’s manager, largely due to the more pragmatic approach his side would adopt in certain games. Santos built a solid, resilient, hard-to-beat team in 2016 which allowed Portugal to defy the odds and win the European championship, beating heavy favourites and host nation France in the final. The discontent amongst many supporters started in the years after this triumph, with many feeling that the tactics simply hadn’t evolved to suit Portugal’s squad and that Portugal were actually now underperforming as opposed to overperforming. A Seleção have been accused of approaching games cautiously, still playing like a team with an underdog mentality, despite transitioning into a team with one of the best squads in world football. Certain matches where Portugal appeared to sit back and play for a draw angered many, especially in those matches where that tactic ultimately came back to haunt them – such as the clash vs Spain in the UEFA Nations League back in September. Portugal needed just a point to top the group and despite having just 32% possession, Portugal looked to have earned the point. That was until Álvaro Morata popped up two minutes from time to send Spain through. In the final FIFA World Cup qualifying match vs Serbia, Portugal were pegged back by a Dušan Tadić goal in the first half after Renato Sanches’ early goal had given Portugal the lead. Serbia had nearly 60% of the ball in the second half, knowing they needed a win and in stoppage time substitute Aleksandar Mitrović was on hand to stun Portugal with a last-gasp winner, sending Serbia through to the World Cup and sending Portugal to the playoffs.
Find A Consistent Source of Goals
One of the most significant challenges for Roberto Martínez is to find a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals. Should Portugal qualify for Euro 2024, Ronaldo will be 39 years and four months old when the tournament kicks off and if he is involved, he simply cannot be expected to, nor will it be possible, for him to perform at his previous level. Portugal of course will not be able to find someone who can replicate Ronaldo’s incredible numbers (118 goals) as that is akin to asking for the impossible, but they do need someone to establish themself as a consistent source of goals in a Seleção shirt.
Of the more established attackers in Portugal’s ranks, André Silva has 19 goals in 53 appearances, Diogo Jota has managed 10 goals in 29 games but has suffered with injuries of late and João Félix has four goals in 28 appearances. Two talents less established on the senior stage are Gonçalo Ramos (four goals in five games) and Rafael Leão (two goals in 16 appearances) – could they be the solution for Roberto Martínez?
Be More Ruthless in Qualifying
Portugal have qualified for every FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship since missing out on the 1998 World Cup, but it’s not been straightforward by any means.
This particular point didn’t start with Fernando Santos, in fact, straightforward qualification is something Portugal have struggled with for the past decade. The national team has developed a bit of a reputation, particularly in recent years, of making tough work of qualifying groups that they really should be topping without many issues. Portugal needed play-offs to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2012, 2014 World Cup and 2022 World Cup. With Portugal finishing second in their respective qualifying groups behind Denmark (2010), Denmark (2012), Russia (2014) and Serbia (2022).
No team has a divine right to qualify for a major tournament but too often Portugal have been guilty of lacking ruthlessness in matches particularly against opponents they are more than capable of sweeping aside.
Establish a Rock Solid Defence
It’s not just at the top of the pitch where a legend needs replacing, the defence also needs the same treatment. Pepe has been a warrior throughout his Seleção career and was a huge part of Portugal’s success at the 2016 Euros. Even at the age of 39, he is capable of turning in heroic defensive performances for A Seleção but the fact of the matter is he simply will not be able to play at such a high level for much longer. He is dealing with injuries much more frequently and Portugal needs to look ahead to establishing a defence without Pepe in it.
In the past 12 months, Fernando Santos played around with Rúben Dias partnering António Silva, Rúben Dias partnering Danilo Pereira as well as Pepe and Danilo Pereira. It’s good to have different options but Roberto Martínez will want to forge a central defensive pairing which is consistent and can be relied on.