“DE BRUYNE AND HAZARD ENDED UP GETTING IN EACH OTHER’S WAY – TWO MASTER CHEFS IN THE KITCHEN WOULD NOT WORK”
The phrase ‘l’embarras du choix’ is often used in French-speaking parts of Belgium about their national team. Literally translated, the English equivalent is similar to ‘an embarrassment of riches’, particularly when uttered in reference to the selection dilemmas Roberto Martinez faces as coach of the country’s much-lauded Golden Generation.
When the former Wigan Athletic and Everton boss was unveiled as the new manager of the Red Devils, following the disappointingly early exit from Euro 2016 against Wales, it’s safe to say the reaction from fans and media was one of surprise.
His disastrous final campaign at Goodison Park didn’t exactly etch his name into the history books as one the game’s iconic gaffers, which was the level of applicant the Belgian FA were hoping for after sacking Marc Wilmots. Former Barcelona, Manchester United and Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal revealed he’d been approached in the summer of 2016, but had decided “out of spite” not to give up his severance payment by taking a new job so soon after leaving Old Trafford.
Other big names cropped up, but one by one they were ruled out and it was ultimately Martinez who got the gig. If the sceptical Belgian press and supporters – still weary after the Wales defeat – were impressed by one thing, it was the fact the Spaniard had brought in Thierry Henry as his assistant. There would be a big name in the dugout after all.
There has long been a theory that the abundance of talent in Belgium could mean it’s not entirely necessary for the national coach to boast vast experience. As long as the gaffer had some tactical acumen – the one thing Wilmots seemingly lacked in Brazil four years ago and at the following Euros – he should be able to mould these world-class players into a team capable of beating the very best.
After all, with gifted individuals like Thibaut Courtois, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku in his starting XI, Martinez had l’embarras du choix. And it didn’t take him too long to use this to his advantage. “To have all this wealth of talent in one team is unique,” he said during his first press conference, hoping to revive national pride. “Of course we can become world champions.”
Not that it made much difference. In Martinez’s first match in charge – a home friendly against an under-strength Spain in September 2016 – the country paying his wage were roundly beaten by the country of his birth. David Silva scored twice in a 2-0 defeat that didn’t do justice to the one-sided nature of the contest. The Brussels crowd reacted with boos and whistles. It was not the start anyone had hoped for.
Fortunately for Martinez and Belgium, this proved to be no more than a false start. The Red Devils strolled through their World Cup qualification group, dropping just two points from 30 across the campaign. But while that record might suggest Martinez had succeeded in turning this gaggle of stars into a fully-functioning football unit, the general air of scepticism never really faded. Belgium’s qualifying group was weak (Greece, Bosnia, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar) but more importantly, Martinez still hadn’t settled on a system that could squeeze every last drop of quality from the talent at his disposal.
So far, just like his predecessor, Martinez has found l’embarras du choix more of a burden than a blessing. This is particularly true in his midfield, where he has been searching for the right formula to unshackle Hazard and De Bruyne in a way that allows them to deploy their genius as they do for Chelsea and Manchester City respectively.
Early in his reign, Martinez adopted a 3-4-2-1 system with room for two free-roaming playmakers behind lone frontman Romelu Lukaku. It looked great on paper – Hazard and De Bruyne, two of the most ruthlessly efficient playmakers, operating behind a line-leading striker. But the midfield pair would ultimately hinder more than help, getting in each other’s way so often that eventually one of them would be forced to drift to the wing to find breathing space. This, in turn, occupied the space that wide players Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier should have been bombing into.
In other words, two master chefs in the kitchen just would not work. Comparisons with England’s Lampard and Gerrard quandary won’t be lost on Martinez, given his 21-year association with the British game. Now he had to find a way to succeed where Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and Fabio Capello all failed.
In a November friendly against Mexico, Martinez pulled De Bruyne deeper into central midfield, allowing Hazard to play off the striker. The game ended in a 3-3 draw. Hazard seemed to enjoy his new-found freedom, exploiting small pockets of space created by Lukaku’s movement and causing no end of problems with his trademark dribbling and through-balls on the edge of the penalty area. De Bruyne, on the other hand, wasn’t satisfied as swiftly. “Mexico were just tactically better,” the 26-year-old schemer admitted to Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws. “Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were swimming in midfield – it was five vs seven.
“As long as we do not have a good tactical system, we will have some difficulties against countries like Mexico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution.
“Of course we are playing with a system that is in principle very defensive, but it’s filled with attacking players who want the ball. Then you have a bit of a problem.
“It was a match in which we had very little possession and everyone playing in a system that doesn’t really fit. But eventually Martinez decides. I think the trainer must come up with a solution so that we can avoid such situations happening in the future.”
Despite what some read as a dig at his boss from the City man, De Bruyne was deployed in a similar role in a friendly against Japan later the same week, this time with Napoli star Dries Mertens taking a more attacking role alongside Hazard. Belgium won 1-0, and Martinez made few changes to the system ahead of the next friendly – at home to Saudi Arabia in March. Everything appeared to click into place during a 4-0 Brussels romp, with De Bruyne setting up the opener for Lukaku and Hazard assisting the second. De Bruyne was revitalised and finally began delivering for his country in the way he has done for English football’s top side; creating danger with his sublime passes, getting forward when possible and unleashing his ferocious long-range shots.
Had Martinez found the balance needed to turn his world-class squad into a world-class team? Will the hordes of often-critical Belgian fans finally succumb to the Spaniard’s charms? In truth it’s too early to tell, mainly because, even if it turns out he has managed to solve his own Lampard-Gerrard equation, there are other pressing issues.
Will Toby Alderweireld, who has started just three Premier League matches for Spurs since November, be sharp enough when their World Cup campaign kicks off? Then there’s Carrasco, who failed to impress Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone and surprisingly joined China’s Dalian Yifang in January. Has the standard of that league stood him in good stead when it comes to facing the world’s best sides?
And what of Mousa Dembele? The midfield general with the silky smooth touch, hailed by supporters, managers and pundits in England, has somehow never been a Red Devils regular and that appears unlikely to change.
Like Wilmots before him, Martinez has often handed a start to Axel Witsel, who also plays his club football in the Far East these days after choosing Tianjin Quanjian over Juventus. And with either De Bruyne or, in times of war, the elbow-wielding Marouane Fellaini alongside him in the middle of the park, the competition is pretty fierce.
While Dembele may be too mild-mannered to openly state his case, the same couldn’t be said of Roma warrior Radja Nainggolan (left). The 30-year-old’s off-the-pitch antics (he has been known to enjoy the occasional cigarette and was charged with drink-driving last term, but always maintained his innocence) haven’t gone down particularly well with strait-laced teetotaller Martinez.
His decision to omit the immensely popular ‘Ninja’ from his final squad certainly didn’t go down well with fans, although he’d previously stressed that he viewed Nainggolan as a No.10 rather than a box-to-box player, and we know the issues Belgium have had in that position... L’embarras du choix, indeed. ■