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Andrew Thompson writes about the pros and cons of Roberto Martinez for Belgium.
With Belgium’s disappointing performance in France this past summer, no one was surprised to see Marc Wilmots sacked by the Belgian Football Association. What did come as a shock, however, was when former Everton manager Roberto Martinez was named as his successor.
A former fan favorite at Wigan Athletic and Swansea City, Martinez made his name after successful spells at both of his former employers, helping Swansea reach promotion to the English Championship as well as leading Wigan to their first ever FA Cup win despite failing to avoid relegation.
His move to notable English club Everton would soon follow, where his brand of attacking football saw the Toffees break their single-season Premier League record for points during the 2013-14 campaign. Though they would end Martinez’s first season in charge in fifth, the following year saw them ousted in the round of 16 in the Europa League while also finishing eleventh and with a negative goal difference. Another eleventh place finish in 2015-16, a clear sign of regression after such a promising start, saw Everton chairman Bill Kenwright drop the hammer and sack Martinez.
After his time as a pundit for ESPN during Euro 2016, Martinez was deemed the proper replacement to build Belgium’s “golden generation” into the footballing force that many expect – but just what should Belgian supporters suspect under a Martinez regime?
Belgium possesses what is unquestionably one of the most talent-laden squads in regards to attacking talent. Though they were inconsistent this summer in France, the fact remains that the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and many others offer Martinez a plethora of attacking talent with which he can try to get Belgium back on track.
Beyond the players further up the pitch, the likes of Axel Witsel, Radja Nainggolan and up and comers like Youri Tielemans can slot into the center of the park and become a better source of creativity under Martinez. However, under Wilmots, they would have been asked to win the ball back and get it to the creative fulcrums that were Hazard and KDB. Everton under Martinez excelled on the counter-attack, something that we didn’t see enough from Belgium over the last two years. Improvement in that area could help Belgium get over the hump.
With an attacking approach that could improve and hopefully not be as one-dimensional as it was under Wilmots, Belgium certainly has the potential to kick on and become one of the most threatening attacking teams in Europe.
Knowing your player personnel is half the battle that managers need to fight when coming into a new post, and Martinez certainly has the drop on many of the players he will be working with. Having managed in the Premier League seven seasons with both Wigan and Everton, Martinez has also managed Belgian players.
During his years of service at Goodison Park, Martinez was headmaster to Lukaku and Kevin Mirallas, while seeing plenty of the other Belgian internationals based in England. It is this understanding and opportunity to have seen these players week in week out that could give him the inside track on figuring out how to get the best out of them as a unit for their country.
Though many wanted a Belgian to replace Wilmots, one who perhaps understands and has greater knowledge of the youth pipeline as well as players on the domestic front, the current crop of Belgium’s best and brightest are performing in England with great success. Given that fact, he’s a logical choice.
A recent tweet from new Chelsea center forward Michy Batshuayi summed it up best: “Not sure I ever listened to my parents like this #Titi #LearnFromTheBest.” The influence and the potential effect of Roberto Martinez naming legendary France and Arsenal striker Thierry Henry as his assistant could end up being a major coup. One of the most ruthless finishers of the modern era, with bags of confidence and an all-around ability that is still unmatched by most strikers around, Henry is the perfect mentor for Belgian’s young strike force.
Despite having a wealth of creative talent throughout the side, Belgium was guilty of being woefully wasteful with their chances during the Euro. Lukaku, Divock Origi and Christian Benteke all scuffed handfuls of chances, which, if converted, could have seen them progress past Wales in the quarterfinals. Having Henry’s goalscoring pedigree, understanding of the game in the final third and preference for being quick and direct when in the attack could genuinely benefit Martinez’s troops when negotiating World Cup qualifying and beyond.
One of Martinez’s biggest criticism’s during his time at Everton was the club’s lack of balance in the XI. Though Everton was always excellent going forward, especially on the counter, they lacked the right balance in midfield and at the back in regards to players who were effective defensively. Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines are both influential further up the pitch but often struggled in a defensive sense. The same can be said for James McCarthy, Muhamed Besic and Tom Cleverley – solid going forward but too easily beaten when not in possession.
Everton’s wide players were also ineffective without the ball in tracking back and lacked efficiency when pressing the opposition. These are all aspects that Martinez must improve on if Belgium is to progress on the international stage.
What Belgium do have in their corner (and where Everton lacked) are players who are capable of upping their game from a defensive standpoint. Radja Nainggolan, Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel, Leander Dendoncker and others are all very good two-way, transitional midfielders. Thomas Meunier and Jordan Lukaku, though both known for their abilities going forward are capable of tracking back and being defensively responsible – especially Meunier, who was arguably Belgium’s most consistent performer during the Euro.
Balance is the key to everything in football. A team built for all-out attack is usually (though there are exceptions) masking defensive frailties. Conversely, a team who defends with ten behind the ball for ninety minutes has to do so because they lack quality further forward. Belgium, genuinely, has quality in both areas of the park, it’s just about finding the right balance to get the best out of all areas of the team.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with being at a club where the expectation is to compete and try to establish yourself as a routine addition in the Europa League. The unfortunate reality for Martinez, however, is that Belgium is certainly asking for so much more.
In the midst of their proclaimed “golden generation”, the Belgian FA, the players, and the fans are looking to establish their country as one of the premier national teams in world football. For Martinez, this means immediate adjustment and the ability to push on and make them genuine contenders for the World Cup in 2018 and the Euro in 2020 – these are expectations he’s yet to face in his managerial career.
Though he cannot be faulted for never having taken up a post that came with a higher set of goals, pressure is sure to mount on Martinez almost right out of the gate if Belgium start slow in their World Cup qualifying program. How he guides his team on the training ground and through the progression in qualifying will make or break his opportunity to prove that he was not just a brief flash in the pan in the Premier League.
Though Belgium are absolutely minted in regards to how many talented players they have produced and continue to produce, the question of when these players deserve a genuine chance for the full national team is a tough one to answer. Already in his short time as boss, Martinez called Leander Dendoncker into his team. Further young players who are on the verge of breaking into the set-up are Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet and Bjorn Engels. Therein lies the issue.
Having such a star-studded first-team can often ruin chances for younger players to break through if too much faith is continually placed in the establishment, even if said establishment has not met requirements in regards to results on the pitch. For Martinez, one of the bigger questions he will have to answer, surely, will be just how long he keeps faith in Belgium’s bigger names if they keep failing to push the nation on to the next level, and when to give the next crop of youngsters a bigger opportunity.
These questions are sure to be addressed over the coming months, with Martinez giving chances to Steven Defour, Nicolas Lombaerts, Christian Benteke and one or two other fringe players who either take their chance in the team or be dropped for the younger players waiting to break through. Either way, as stated before, a wealth of options is never a bad thing, as long as you know when to move on from ones that aren’t performing.
Thankfully for Belgium, and Martinez, they’ve been drawn into a World Cup qualifying group consisting of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar. Simply put, this is not just a group they should top comfortably; it’s a group they should decimate. But even dominance during qualifying will not be enough.
Over the last two major international tournaments, Belgium has bowed out in the quarterfinals in performances far below their footballing ability. This is the hump that Martinez must get them over. With a squad surpassed by only a handful of other national teams in terms of raw ability, the main task must be to harness that raw ability and mold it into a well-oiled footballing machine.
Though it may seem like a big ask, at the end of the day, this Belgium side should be aiming to reach the semi-finals at the bare minimum. Brazil, Argentina, Germany, France and Spain (at least in my opinion) are genuinely the only sides in the world who, regarding available talent, can boast equal or better player pools. So is it a bridge too far for Belgium to push for consistently being one of the last four in major tournaments?
While it may not be make or break time just yet for Roberto Martinez, it is a job that certainly comes with a shorter tolerance for mediocrity and failure to reach goals that have been set.