Belgium’s opening goal against Mexico in a November friendly both highlighted the attacking talent of their side and exposed what midfielder Kevin de Bruyne perceives to be their biggest problem heading into this summer’s World Cup. After retrieving the ball deep in their own half, Eden Hazard turned a defender and slalomed through the midfield into his opponent’s half, as we’ve grown accustomed to from his time at Chelsea. He played a ball to Romelu Lukaku, who beat a defender with a step over and unleashed a shot that was parried by keeper Guillermo Ochoa back into Hazard’s path. It was a textbook counter attack featuring two of the Premier League’s most ruthless players in open space.
And yet, De Bruyne criticized Martinez after the match that ended in a 3-3 draw. There was much to parse in his pent up frustration but the point was clear: Belgium rely too much on individual talent. And lacking a focus on tactics, they will always have difficulties against organized, technical sides like Mexico. Belgium started in Martinez’s trademark three centerback, two wingback formation, to which the Manchester City midfielder observed that their opponents pushed all five defenders back and left Belgium “swimming in midfield”, outnumbered 5 v 7 in that area. With a side so filled with attacking talents yet playing in a defensive style, he demanded Martinez find a solution.
One could place de Bruyne’s criticism after any international match since the rise of their Golden Generation and it wouldn’t feel out of place. Their 2-0 loss to Italy in their opening match at the 2016 Euros proved symbolic for both sides. The Italians were outmatched in talent but were cohesive and well drilled. Individually speaking, one would expect de Bruyne, Radja Nainggolan and Hazard to overpower and outrun their midfield counter parts of Daniele de Rossi, Marco Parolo and Emanuele Giaccherini. Instead, Thibaut Courtois lamented their side’s lack of organization and tactics. Rio Ferdinand said that match was an example of one side playing like a team, the other side like a “group of individuals”. Antonio Conte said his biggest satisfaction came from how happy his team looked.
Then again, Belgium, under Marc Wilmots at the time, still made the quarterfinals of the tournament despite seemingly any cohesion. And as de Bruyne observes, they are good enough to reach a certain level in tournament play based only on individuals like Hazard or Lukaku creating a moment. Wilmots was fired after the Euros, with the Belgium FA simply stating that their tournament goals had not been met. That was the understated response. In larger terms, the inability for a manager to augment their attacking ability puts their footballing project at risk entirely.
In to replace Wilmots was Martinez, a left field choice for a job that was rumored for the likes of Louis van Gaal and Ralf Rangnick. Martinez’s hire was immediately ridiculed on and offline, with Lukaku’s reaction to the news going viral. The Spaniard, in broad strokes, shifts the balance towards possession and attack in lieu of defending, of entertaining without the requisite hard yards. His time at Everton was criticized for a lack of balance in how his team worked without the ball, and his work with Belgium thus far has yet to disprove those claims. His back three are solid in their European pedigree with Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Meanwhile, the deployment of former Atletico Madrid player Yannick Carrasco at left wing back in a 3-4-3 formation was described as an “accident waiting to happen.” A technical side like Mexico would surely attack and exploit that weakness come the knockout stage, thus revealing the other aspect of de Bruyne’s criticism.
Martinez shook off de Bruyne’s jibes as nothing personal, although that does nothing to alleviate the underlying problem. He did hire Thierry Henry as an assistant to help his side break down the “mental barriers” of succeeding in international tournaments. Yet if Wilmots never advanced the side and as Martinez continues to tinker, what style of manager would have gotten the best out of this Belgium side that is so top-heavy in the first place? In discussing Germany’s own Golden Generation, Thomas Tuchel described how developing young talent had the knock on effect of also developing young managers. So perhaps the much needed tacticians lie somewhere within, and the answer is to wait another generation for the managers to catch up to the players?
Belgium and England are clear favorites to go through in Group G featuring Tunisia and Panama. Similar to this current Belgium era, England’s Golden Generation from last decade was a side filled with individual talent whose tourney results never lived up to that promise. Ferdinand said he and Frank Lampard stopped talking to each other as the rivalry between Manchester United and Chelsea took precedence over the national team.
While de Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku are the focal points of their attack for City, Chelsea and United respectively, there is hardly evidence that the rivalry will spill over into the national side. Usually deployed in an attacking position for City, de Bruyne is happy to sit further back and command tempo, letting his creative teammates “make the difference.” There is also the variable of timing and maturity with the 26-year-old de Bruyne and and 27-year-old Hazard in their physical prime heading into the summer. Dries Mertens is 30. Hazard succinctly states that their goal is to reach the finals. The players are primed; now it’s up to Martinez and Henry to figure out the nuances.
Belgium easily topped their group in 2014 and beat the U.S. in the round of 16 before getting knocked out by Argentina in the quarterfinals from an early Gonzalo Higuain goal. That side featured de Bruyne and Hazard flanked by Divock Origi and Mirallas in attack. With the two players flanked by Mertens, Lukaku and Michy Batshuayi, they have a complete attack with pace, physicality, dribbling, scoring and an eye for the final pass. They will be in the knockout rounds of the World Cup, and from there, the challenge of figuring out a technical, tactical opponent is clear. That’s the thing about potential and the fleeting nature of a Golden Generation. Talks of the future turn into disappointment and what-ifs just as quickly. And with this current Belgium side, we know exactly why they win, why they lose, and can see it unfold in real time.