After manager Roberto Martinez left him out of Belgium’s final 23-player World Cup roster, 30-year-old midfielder Radja Nainggolan retired from the national team in a specifically 2018 way: via an Instagram post. He emphasized his loyalty to his former teammates before stating that “being yourself can be bothering." In interviews after, Nainggolan referred to his smoking habit as a reason for why Martinez clashed with him personally. Martinez instead says he left Nainggolan off the side out of tactical consideration. To this, Nainggolan replied that he’s played 300 matches for Roma in the most tactical league in the world. And if he wanted to be a role model, he would have become a “primary school teacher.”
Regardless of the motive, it was an example of Martinez imprinting his ideas on the side, for better or worse. His hiring was a surprise at the time, and there is still skepticism of the Spaniard’s fit despite what is an impressive run as Belgium manager with 14 wins and one defeat in 20 overall matches. And with defending the biggest weakness of the Golden Generation filled with match changing attackers and midfielders, they’ve conceded just 17 goals during that span.
Yet Kevin de Bruyne’s observation after a 3-3 draw against Mexico earlier this year that they rely too much upon individual talent still lingers. He added that his side play too defensively for a side filled with “attacking players who want the ball.” In response to De Bruyne, Martinez set a goal to build a “Team Belgium” focused on partnerships and combinations to fully unlock his side’s potential. They’ve settled on a 343 formation to showcase both his trio of attackers in Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku and veteran center backs Vincent Kompany, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. The style lets de Bruyne dictate play from deep in midfield where he can pick out five attackers with a “long pass” to generate offense. There are still kinks to work out with Yannick Carrasco shoehorned into an unfamiliar wingback role. But de Bruyne’s midfield partner Axel Witsel admitted that this current side play more like a team than under previous manager Marc Wilmots.
As the opening match of the 2018 World Cup approaches, Belgium have gone from dark horse pick to outright favorites (a Google search of “Belgium dark horses” returns some 68,000 hits). England and Belgium are heavy favorites to advance in Group G rounded out by Panama and Tunisia, and each side would like to avoid a difficult matchup against Colombia in the round of 16. Regardless, Belgium are sixth choice as favorites from a betting perspective, the highest on a list for a country that previously hasn’t won the World Cup. Vertonghen set the semifinals as a realistic expectations should they actually come together as a side.
Nainggolan is linked with a summer transfer window move to Inter in the meantime. And Hazard, de Bruyne, Mertens and Lukaku will surely provide moments of brilliance throughout the group stage without their talismanic midfielder. But Martinez warns that in order to reach their goal of the semifinals, they must be willing to suffer through adversity as a group. Belgium’s grassroots development of individual talent is already the subject of study as other countries try to develop their own version of technical, creative players, though how they sacrifice that individual ability for the sake of team balance will determine if they fulfill the potential of the Golden Generation.