There’s not much you can hide from Roberto Martinez if he is your manager. The Spaniard with the amiable manner is a coach of rigour and detail. He’ll personally inspect hotels his team are scheduled to stay at, well ahead of their arriving there. He has on his laptop state-of-the-art technology full of live scouting reports from across the world on how his players are performing, or running, or resting.
Martinez, formerly of Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton, brought the intensive, 24/7 approach of a club manager to his work with the Belgian national team between 2016 and 2022 and now does the same with Portugal. He may only gather his first-team squad together for isolated periods but his scrutiny and planning seldom ebbs.
Fair to report that after seven months in charge of a national squad with huge potential if you add up the sum of its gifted parts, Martinez has made quite the impact.
Portugal have booked their ticket to next summer’s Euro 2024, along with Belgium and France, earliest of anybody apart from hosts Germany and the manner of their qualifying sends out an ominous message. A 100 per cent record from their eight games; 32 goals scored and seven clean sheets.
There’s goodwill in those soaring statistics, too. When Portugal were knocked out of the Qatar World Cup last December, the combined creative influence of Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Joao Felix could not find a way past Morocco’s well-organised defence in the quarter-final.
Nor could Goncalo Ramos, the striker who in the previous match – a 6-1 thrashing of Switzerland – had scored a hat-trick. The then manager Fernando Santos, in his last game in charge, brought on Rafael Leao, Serie A’s reigning footballer of the year; he brought on Cristiano Ronaldo, and still they lost 1-0 to the Moroccans.
Martinez took over with several pending issues. Not least that three of Portugal’s major stars were in states of professional turmoil in their club careers.
Ronaldo, miffed at being left out of the starting XI in the second season of his second spell at Manchester United, had his contract abruptly terminated. He had sought a new employer who was involved the Uefa Champions League but could not come to an agreement with any European club.
He joined Al Nasr in Saudi Arabia instead. Having been relegated to the bench in Santos’s last two games in charge of the national team, his Portugal future, at the age of 38, was in serious doubt.
At the other end of the age scale, Joao Felix, the most expensive teenager in the game’s history when he left Benfica for Atletico Madrid in 2019, was suffering a double rejection.
He had fallen out with Atletico manager Diego Simeone. He joined Chelsea on loan in January. When Martinez took over Portugal, Felix was about to embark on a very rocky period in London, sent off on his Chelsea debut, suspended for three games, and by May, looking for a third different club to see out his 2023. It turned out to be Barcelona, where he started on loan in August.
Joao Cancelo was also involved in a rift. From his elevated status as chief assister of goals and emblem of the sort of positional versatility Pep Guardiola admires in his Manchester City players, Cancelo’s place in the City hierarchy plunged suddenly through the late autumn of 2022. Guardiola gave his blessing to a departure from City.
Cancelo joined Bayern Munich on loan, but by March, as Martinez was naming his first Portugal squad, he had appeared more often on the German club’s bench than in their starting XI. Like Joao Felix, Cancelo made Barcelona his third club in the space of eight months during the summer.
Fast forward to last Tuesday evening in Sarajevo. Bosnia-Herzegovina away is no cinch of a fixture. Portugal made it a breeze, with the footballers who spent large portions of the last 12 months feeling like misfits very much to the fore.
Joao Felix’s shot, blocked by a Bosnian arm, earned a fifth-minute penalty, converted by Ronaldo; Felix played the measured pass that gave Ronaldo his second quarter of an hour later – a goal that made CR7, who was unemployed at club level last December, the most prolific goalscorer across club and country, for 2023 so far. He has 40 this year, one more than Erling Haaland.
Cancelo started and spectacularly finished the move to make it 4-0 to Martinez’s fluent side. Joao Felix struck number five.
“It's about striving to always be at the highest level,” said Martinez, pleased with Ronaldo’s new landmark, and with his two Barcelona-based Joaos, Cancelo and Felix. “We saw examples of work, attitude, commitment, and character. Winning 5-0, winning eight in a row, that's something to be very happy about.”