Nations rarely become World Cup contenders out of nowhere.
The Royal Belgian FA have gone to painstaking efforts to construct their ‘Golden Generation’, from huge investment in grassroots football and focusing on the national side’s youth teams, to completely restructuring the domestic league system. It’s just a shame their intricate plans never seem to influence who they appoint as manager.
When Roberto Martinez was appointed in 2016, there was a clip doing the rounds that purported to show Romelu Lukaku putting his head in his hands and smirking. Such was the damage to the Spaniard’s reputation following his spell at Everton that he had been all but written off.
There was a time when he was viewed very differently, as a talented up-and-coming coach, though admittedly one with a lot to learn. After guiding Swansea out of League One, he laid some of the foundations that would eventually see them reach the Premier League under Brendan Rodgers.
What he achieved in Wales led him to Wigan, with Celtic also having fluttered their eyelashes. Nothing sums up the emotional rollercoaster football can send one on like the experiences of May 2013, when his minnows won the FA Cup, but were then relegated three days later after losing 4-1 at Arsenal. That was the end of the Latics’ eight-year stay in the top flight, but he had kept them up for his three previous seasons in charge.
Even at Everton, where his standing would take its biggest bashing, there were positives to take from his first season. The Toffees fought for the Champions League, finished fifth, and earned the club’s record points tally for a Premier League season.
The next two seasons would see them finish 11th and Martinez was relieved of his duties with one game to go in the 2015/16 campaign. By the end, Everton fans treated him with utter disdain.
It is easy to see why, in light of all that, many may not trust him to handle such a pivotal moment in the history of Belgium’s national side. The trouble with the phrase ‘Golden Generation’ is that it immediately draws comparisons with England and is therefore associated with a side that achieved nothing.
Before the World Cup had even begun, there were question marks against Martinez’s squad selection, notably his decision to leave Radja Nainggolan behind. In Russia, if Belgium ever look like they are lacking a midfielder who will connect all their different components and drive them forward, then the Roma man’s absence is the answer to that conundrum.
Meanwhile, standby defender Laurent Ciman has been told he will not be needed and has headed home. Thomas Vermaelen and Vincent Kompany are injured – shock, horror – and are facing a race against time to be fit for the crucial Group G game against England. Given that the Red Devils play with three at the back, Martinez has somewhat shot himself in the foot already.
Injuries will be no excuse, however, given the players he has at his disposal all over the field. This squad is awash with class: Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Kevin de Bruyne making up an enviable attack.
Few other managers – Uruguay being a notable exception – can rely on a centre-back pairing that play together every week at club level, but he has that in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen.
Their opening result, a 3-0 victory over Panama, papered over the cracks of the first half. Belgium were flat, wasteful, and looked like the side of a man who has all the right principles but isn’t quite sure how to instigate them. Yes, they pass a lot, but often just for the sake of it, rather than to get the ball up the pitch.
As the tournament progresses, few other sides will allow them to get away with being so sloppy. It was fitting that it was a moment of individual brilliance from Dries Mertens that finally got them going, with Lukaku adding a brace – Belgium can excel in spite of everything.
Their tactics are sometimes bewildering, Martinez sticking to his ideas even when they don’t necessarily fit his players. Against better opposition, there is a clear disconnect between the defence and attack. They want to press, but the team sometimes lacks shape.
Marc Wilmots left a difficult legacy, the former coach never inspiring confidence and leaving his post after the quarter-final defeat to Wales at Euro 2016. As his successor is finding out, managing Belgium attracts a huge amount of scrutiny, and under it, his flaws risk being accentuated.
One way or another, the 2018 World Cup is massive for Martinez personally. A good run could help him to salvage his reputation somewhat, but if Belgium come up short, it could be the final nail in the coffin. So far, his reign has spoken of a football purist who is just not executing his ideals properly.
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Also published on Medium.