Eyebrows were raised when Roberto Martinez was appointed Belgium coach in 2016. Two years on, the Spaniard is unlocking Belgium’s abundant potential and proving himself to be a perfect fit for their World Cup campaign.When Belgium lost their opening game of the 2016 European Championship to Italy, the Belgian coach refused to accept his role in the defeat.
Marc Wilmots had been tactically outclassed by Antonio Conte’s side, but Wilmots pointed the finger at his players in his post-match press conference, blaming Romelu Lukaku and Toby Alderweireld for their part in the defeat — a gesture that went down like a lead balloon.
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That was the beginning of the end for Wilmots, whose side were eventually undone in the quarterfinals by Wales in a humiliating defeat for a Belgian team packed with stars mainly from the English Premier League. There was a growing sense in Belgium that this once-in-a-generation crop of players were going to waste under a coach whose tactical ineptitude and chaotic management created more problems than answers.
The move to appoint Roberto Martinez baffled many in Belgium and beyond for quite a while. This was a man whose greatest success to date remains an FA Cup win with Wigan Athletic in 2013, an astounding achievement but not an obvious calling card for one of the most exciting jobs in international football.
Martinez was fired by Premier League side Everton in May 2016 after a disappointing league campaign. But he’d guided Everton to the semi-finals of both English cup competitions that season, and Belgium spotted a niche: a man who possesses the rare ability to rouse his players for the one-off demands of tournament football. A definite gamble, but a calculated one, and after Friday’s stunning performance against Brazil, one that appears to have paid off.
“We are at the start of a process and we need to be all together to allow these players to perform with the right freedom,” Martinez said at the start of his Belgium tenure. “We have to help our team so they play with passion, with quality, but also with freedom in order to beat the opposition.”
Those words are looking prophetic now. Always a coach with a penchant for attractive, attacking football, the Spaniard has built a Belgium side in his own image. Kevin de Bruyne was exceptional in Kazan, slicing open the Brazil defense with pinpoint passes and carrying the team forward as they looked to hurt Brazil on the counter-attack.
The Manchester City man was like a bullet train at times, steaming forward against a Brazil defense that looked petrified to touch him. The key was that De Bruyne had the license to attack with freedom, something he wasn’t always afforded under the previous management.
De Bruyne was on another level to anyone else on the field, while Lukaku and Eden Hazard were also at their best. But this is the direct result of being given the platform to play by a coach whose philosophy is to attack at speed and with precision.
Martinez’s strategy forced Brazil to deal with them, rather than look over their shoulders and worry how Brazil might inflict damage on them. That fundamental shift in thinking has happened since 2016, when the shackles were blown off this team. For that, Martinez deserves all the credit.
These are unchartered waters for Belgium. A first ever World Cup semi-final awaits, and after this performance, many will fancy them to beat Didier Deschamps’ France in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday. Belgium have been threatening this for a while, but now they have a coach capable of unlocking their potential.