Fun but flawed

Portugal’s Bruno Fernandes lands a kick on the face of Czech Republic’s Antonin Barak in their Group F match. — AFP

THREE fullbacks in the XI, two strikers with one of them playing on the left wing, Joao Cancelo drifting into half spaces as a floating No. 10, Bruno Fernandes in defensive midfield and six forwards on the pitch at full-time.

Welcome to Roberto Martinez’s crazy ideas machine.

Want more? Thrilling young leftback Nuno Mendes playing centreback for Portugal for the first time in a major tournament opener, a 3-5-2 formation that was as fluid as a reservoir (or as random as the lottery numbers) and then, in the desperate final knockings, probably the 26th man of a 26-man squad somehow gets the winner in stoppage time.

We could go on but you get the idea – Portugal under Martinez are what you might call crazy fun, with the emphasis on crazy.

That’s probably being harsh on Martinez.

His team beat the Czech Republic 2-1 in a game they looked like losing and two of his subs were involved in the winner.

Inventiveness and bold ideas should be applauded and, after all, this is part of what he was hired to do; be the antidote to the pragmatism and predictable tactics of his predecessor, Fernando Santos.

It’s just that if the Spaniard didn’t know his best XI or formation before this game – and 13 changes between his three warm-up games as well as enlisting two very different formations suggested he didn’t – then he’s not exactly any the wiser now.

“If Portugal had two teams, the second would also be a candidate to win the Euros,” Jose Mourinho said last week.

Portugal coach Roberto Martinez – ReutersPortugal coach Roberto Martinez – Reuters

Strength in depth is obviously a good thing, particularly if and when injuries and suspensions begin to pile up, but with only two players missing for this tournament (Bayern Munich leftback Raphael Guerreiro and Al-Nassr midfielder Otavio, neither of whom would probably have started) it has looked in recent weeks like Martinez almost too many ingredients with which to find a coherent XI and a consistent winning formula.

He’s cooking beans on toast with saffron and caviar.

The XI which starts an international tournament is seldom the one that ends it, even (or especially) among the winners – and the 2022 World Cup winners lost their opening game to Saudi Arabia – but at this early stage you feel Martinez is doing far more than simply fine tuning.

Against the Czech Republic it looked complicated.

Like, for example, Mendes in a left centreback position but pushing out to the wing and Cancelo in his weird hybrid floating/inverted role, which never really clicked.

Cancelo’s average position was just alongside Vitinha in a central area, but he offered little in an attacking sense (one shot, one take on) or a defensive sense (no tackles, no interceptions).

He was floating in every which way, a spare man when a more conventional attacker would have been more useful given how the game panned out as attack versus defence, for the most part.

“We wanted to have Joao Cancelo play a horizontal line,” Martinez explained of the Manchester City player’s inverted wing-back role.

“We wanted an extra man with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Vitinha,” he added of Cancelo’s positioning, when surely those three inventive players were enough.

Francisco Conceicao celebrates with teammates after scoring Portugal’s second goal at the Leipzig Stadium. — AFPFrancisco Conceicao celebrates with teammates after scoring Portugal’s second goal at the Leipzig Stadium. — AFP

“We wanted Nuno Mendes to come upfield and occupy space with Rafael Leao,” he said of the left side, which is fine in theory but both players ended up hugging the touchline.

“We had 70% possession, we had 13 corners, Czech Republic had none, we had eight shots on target, Czech Republic had one, we won the game because the group is united. Tactically and technically speaking it was a very good match.”

Martinez has talked a good game throughout his career and, as always, you came away from his press conference now believing you had just witnessed the greatest football team ever to set foot on a pitch.

In reality, Portugal, reduced to crosses and long shots by the second half, were indebted to a fortunate own goal for an equaliser and then some poor defending to allow Francisco Conceicao score a late, late winner.

It was certainly not just Cancelo who was oddly positioned; Fernandes blew fire through Portugal in qualifying with six goals and eight assists in an advanced central role, often ahead of Joao Palhinha, one of the Premier League’s best defensive midfielders, who did the dirty work. Yet here Fernandes was Portugal’s deepest midfielder.

And then Bernardo Silva (who has now played 14 games at Euros or World Cups without registering a goal or an assist) was sometimes playing off the last man, particularly in the first half.

Odd. And unbalanced.

Such are the riches at Martinez’s disposal, he made five subs but Goncalo Ramos, who scored a hattrick in the World Cup and ended the season with eight goals in 14 games for PSG, didn’t get a kick.

Neither did the new golden boy Joao Neves, or the old golden boy Joao Felix, nor the likes of Palhinha or Ruben Neves.

Yet, Portugal won, they’ll probably coast through what looks like a straightforward group and, yes, Martinez does look to have fostered team spirit within the squad.

Perhaps we should just embrace the chaos. Portugal, so often rightly accused of being too predictable and defensive under Santos, have now gone completely the other way. It’s why Martinez was hired.

And perhaps his greatest trick? He has distracted us all from talking about some bloke called Cristiano.

Roberto, let’s take it all back – you’re a genius. — The Athletic

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