Portugal’s thrilling, stomach-turning, come-from-behind victory against Czechia felt more like a loss for Roberto Martinez and Portugal. Sure, Portugal took home all three points against one of the tournament’s trickier teams. And yes, they did show incredible resolve to claw back from a one-goal deficit against a frustrating low block. They bombarded Czechia with several crosses, creating chance after chance, and they can count themselves unlucky to not score more than two on the night.

But, there were times when Portugal seemed confusing and unpredictable to themselves. Chaotic, even. There was a limited understanding of which role each player should play, especially with the hodge-podge starting lineup Martinez chose for the game. Natural wingback Nuno Mendes at center-back? Joao Cancelo drifting as far out as at left wing? The shape Martinez planned out for the game fell to virtual pieces during the game, and it seemed Portugal relied on their quality and technical superiority to scrape by, rather than their tactical intelligence and patience. Their dodgy showing invited many questions, and the win didn’t bring any answers.

“Today it’s not about assessing this game from the technical or tactical point of view,” Martinez told reporters after the match. “Today we won because we showed resilience, willpower, and belief. It’s the first time we’ve come from behind to win [under my tenure]. Today we believed, and we showed incredible personality.”

Although leadership and motivation from the Portugal squad helped ignite the flames of their comeback, Martinez and the Selecao face important questions about their tournament chances after such a worrying performance.

Martinez’s tactics look confusing

The Portugal starting eleven was shrouded in doubt entering their date with Czechia. Martinez used two distinctly different shapes with different personnel in their two pre-Euros friendlies. Even after Portugal announced their starting eleven hours before the match, it was still a mystery about which roles each player would take.

Number one keeper Diogo Costa started the match. Martinez dropped left-footed center-back Goncalo Inacio, courted by the likes of United and Liverpool, for natural left-back Nuno Mendes. Mendes joined Ruben Dias and Pepe on the left of a three-man back line. Martinez also dropped Joao Palhinha, who impressed on the left side of a double pivot with Vitinha. Instead, Martinez opted to start Diogo Dalot and Joao Cancelo as wingbacks, with Vitinha and Bruno Fernandes as the central midfielders.

Rafael Leao got the start on the left wing, joining Cristiano Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva at the front.

Martinez had his team play fluidly, or disorderly, depending on how you look at it. Portugal’s players had creative license to drift into spots if they saw a benefit. Early on, we saw supposed ‘left wing-back’ Cancelo drift into kickstart quick attacks or wander into the middle and free up Leao. Although his performance seemed squarely average in terms of numbers, his presence helped free up attackers, creating space to launch quick crosses or counters.

“We wanted to have Joao Cancelo play a horizontal line,” Martinez said. “We wanted an extra man with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, and Vitinha.”

Mixing up traditional positions

Mendes also took off on blistering runs through the middle, meaning inverted wing-back Cancelo or defensive midfield Vitinha would drop deep to take his place. Mendes, who played well at PSG, shared spaces with Leao. At times, it helped Portugal overpower the wing with their numbers advantage, but it usually resulted in the wing getting jammed. Although Leao started well, creating several chances for Ronaldo and crew, his performance faded as Mendes continued on his marauding runs.

“Playing as a left-sided centre-back? I had never played in that position, and it’s true that I can’t attack so much, but the coach put me there for a reason,” Mendes shrugged. “I managed to do my job. Both me and the team did a good job and the victory was deserved.”

Ruben Dias and Pepe were the more reliable members of the backline in that they usually stayed back. The 41-year-old Pepe did a solid job in possessing the ball, circulating it, and completing several long balls, while Dias performed the same role. Arguably one of the best defenders in Europe, Dias did get upfield from time to time, but usually kept next to Pepe.

Vitinha thrills for Portugal against Czechia

The midfield was where Portugal excelled. Vitinha and Bruno Fernandes were the only out-and-out midfielders of the group, but Bernardo Silva would often come down from his right-winger role to help create for Portugal.

Vitinha put in a Man of the Match performance in the #6 slot. Despite playing in a very deep role behind more creative players like Fernandes and Silva, he shone. He made 20 line-breaking passes during the match — only Toni Kroos’ game against Scotland beats it. The PSG midfielder put in an excellent defensive performance while kickstarting most of Portugal’s attacks. Throughout the match, when Fernandes and Silva couldn’t provide a creative spark, it was Vitinha who stepped up.

Fernandes’ performance was similarly intriguing but for the wrong reason. Martinez pushed Fernandes out to a deeper role than he was used to, and he struggled because of it. Fernandes, usually the primary creator and attacking midfielder for United, was resigned to helping build up the play alongside Vitinha. He was able to make more big runs into the box, and his absence as a goalscoring threat was sorely felt throughout the match.

Silva also similarly struggled on the wing. He’s best in the creator role, launching deep balls to streaking wingers, usually cutting inside. However, Martinez had Silva playing up top and making runs onto the balls he would usually send. Silva was a nonfactor offensively when in those advanced areas, and it left Ronaldo in the box without any support.

“We threw more players in the box which I think was what was missing in the first half as we had few players to finish off our moves,” Silva said. “When Chico [Conceicao], [Diogo] Jota, [Pedro] Neto came on, they gave us this.”

Is Ronaldo still Portugal’s man?

With Cancelo pushed out to foreign territory, Fernandes and Silva out of their usual roles, and Leao struggling in the wing, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo would have a tough time. Although Ronaldo played his usual role as a poacher in the penalty box, he often came out of that role. He voyaged outside of the final third to link up play with the wing.

The game plan on the pitch looked like ‘get Ronaldo the ball in the box’. He’s arguably Portugal’s only reliable finisher out of the starting lineup and he’s proven himself to be reliable in front of goal. He scored 12 goals in 12 games under Martinez.

But, Ronaldo suffered without any support in the box. The lack of attacking players upfield meant Ronaldo was isolated. It was only until Martinez sent more players upfield and added more attackers that Ronaldo could excel. His best moment for Portugal was when Czechia’s defense, preoccupied with Leao, didn’t notice Ronaldo making a run. Fernandes sent Ronaldo a great through-ball that sent him one-on-one with the keeper, but he couldn’t convert.

Portugal’s success only came when several people went into the box. Robin Hranac’s own goal started when Nuno Mendes latched on to a Vitinha cross and forced a great save. Over seven people were in the box at the time. Francisco Conceicao’s stoppage-time winner saw six people in the box. The attack was largely exposed and isolated due to the unfamiliarity of Martinez’s shape. His substitutions of Pedro Neto (who assisted the winning goal) and Francisco Conceicao (who scored) were vital, and it looked like an attack should.

Is Martinez that bad for Portugal?

Truthfully, Portugal is lucky to score their two goals against Czechia. The first was a clumsy own-goal from Hranac; the second was a clumsy error from the same player. Although they did create some chance, Portugal looked tepid at times, controlling possession but not knowing what to do with it. Martinez’s tactics almost sabotaged this team, especially because he implemented his fluid shape midway through the tournament.

However, Portugal is playing the most exciting and beautiful soccer it has in years. It’s a refreshing change from the cynicism and predictability under Fernando Santos, and they’ve played more direct than ever. At its best, Portugal plays with the same attacking threat as Europe’s superpowers, and they showed a glimpse of their prowess against Czechia.

Portugal’s free-flowing football can only grow from here.

But, of course, it can only grow with improvement. No one is truly familiar with their roles for Portugal, and it showed against Czechia. Bruno Fernandes needs to play a more advanced role. Silva needs to cut inside more or play a creative role. Martinez needs to figure out an answer to the dilemma surrounding Leao and Mendes, who largely flopped.

The biggest question of all is Ronaldo, who didn’t have a big impact but is their only reliable striker. As it stands, Portugal is nowhere near the likes of Germany, Spain, or the injury-riddled France. They face the same questions as England, undergoing their lineup crisis; or Italy, figuring out their conservative playstyle.

Until Portugal solves their issues with their playstyle, they are doomed to another early exit. The cycle continues.