edro Martins and Nuno Espírito Santo were part of the Vitória de Guimarães side who finished fourth in the Primeira Divisão in 1995, one place behind Portugal’s traditional big three. More than a quarter of a century later the two are still challenging the status quo, this time in the Europa League.
Five months after the first-leg draw in Athens, Martins takes his Olympiakos team to Molineux to face his old friend’s Wolves side. Both were given chances as coaches in their 30s in their homeland, allowing them to learn and fail on their way to their current roles, and Martins even replaced Nuno at Rio Ave six years ago.
Feathers have been ruffled by the two this season, with Wolves missing out on a Premier League top-six finish on goal difference and Olympiakos dramatically beating Arsenal in the previous round of the Europa League. Martins is usually calm and methodical but when Youssef El-Arabi struck a 119th-minute winner at the Emirates, Olympiakos’s coach ran down the touchline, punching the air with delight.
“It was unbelievable, a fantastic moment … a magic moment,” Martins says. Olympiakos had lost the first leg 1-0 and when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang put Arsenal ahead in the tie again with seven minutes of extra-time remaining the Greek club appeared to be on their way out. “The team believed with confidence and we were very positive, and if you don’t think like this it would not have been possible to beat Arsenal at home.”
Plenty has – and has not – happened since. Olympiakos belatedly won the league, not that it was in doubt before lockdown, allowing Martins to focus on the cerebral side of management and self-improvement.
“Some of the players worked at home but our strategy was not how many days people were training because this is out of our control and the training is not the same if you do it at home. Our concern was more the mental side and the damage this pandemic can have, so for me it was more to make sure I contacted players daily.
“Many are from another country, they don’t have families, parents, wives or girlfriends [with them], so were here alone. Our concern was to control the mental damage with them, so all the time we were in contact, we prepared meals for them.”
Burnley, Tottenham and Arsenal can testify to the quality of Martins’ players. Olympiakos never back down from a challenge and their plan is to attack, regardless of the opposition, as shown in a 4-2 defeat at Tottenham and losing 3-2 at home to Bayern in the Champions League group stages. The team average more than two goals a game in the league, with El-Arabi top-scoring with 20 and the rest spread across the squad.
“I like my teams to play offensive football, I like my team to have possession – sometimes this is not possible, as the opponents are strong and have great quality, so have a lot of possession. Some of them are of greater quality than my teams’. I am looking all the time at the opportunities to win the game and for that we must play well. If we play well, we have a greater chance of winning. It is more than one philosophy but it is important to be more offensive than conservative.”
Wolves are the fourth English team Martins has faced in the past two years, allowing him to see something of the Premier League’s variety of styles. “Tottenham were Champions League finalists the year before, Arsenal were Europa League finalists. They were tough games but very good games. They have different philosophies; [Mikel] Arteta tried to input one team with possession and with José Mourinho the team is more pragmatic, more consistent. Wolverhampton are a very good team, I normally say a clinical team, as they are well-prepared in all moments. Nuno is doing a fantastic job and I think it will be a very good game in terms of tactics, it will be very interesting to watch.”
Portuguese coaches have eclipsed the achievements of their country’s clubs in Europe over the past two decades, with Mourinho and André Villas-Boas proving themselves in numerous countries, and Martins and Nuno part of the latest crop.
“It started 25 years ago with Carlos Queiroz and now we have good foundations for how we form the coaches and this is important. The level of teaching is very high in Portugal. With our financial problems in Portugal, the clubs have difficulties, meaning they have to give opportunities to young coaches with potential.
“It is the best value we have in our careers, because everyone in Portugal is giving opportunities to young coaches and our schooling is very strong and has improved a lot with coaches like Mourinho, André, Jorge Jesus abroad. Now we can easily understand the game more and this is important for our careers and development. This is why we improved so much our understanding of the game and our methodology.”
It is more than a year since Nuno and Martins started their European campaigns and, regardless of the result on Thursday, the friendship will remain, as one takes another step forward and the other finally earns a moment to reflect.