Belgian TV had a camera on Roberto Martínez during the
quarter-final epic against Brazil and it showed a manager at
fever pitch. The adrenaline coursed his system as he tried to
coach his players through the game, having made radical
tactical changes. “Hopefully, I will be calmer against France,”
Martínez had said with a smile on Monday.
The Spaniard was calmer but this was not what he had in
mind. On the biggest night of his managerial career and in
what was only Belgium’s second World Cup semi-final, there
was a strange absence of tempo; a lack of the cut and thrust
that has marked his team out as the great entertainers of the
Martínez’s switch to 4-3-3 and a false 9 had thrown Brazil,
paving the way for a glorious triumph, but little came off for
him here, although it was not for the want of trying. Martínez
tried everything, interchanging from one system to another
and throwing on attacking substitutes. The attempt to
categorise his formations was a prominent subplot. After an
encouraging start, his team faded. He could not get the
traction. The final action was not there.
This was Belgium’s big opportunity; the moment to make
history by reaching a first World Cup final. For many years the
squad have been tracked by talk of a golden generation and
several members of Martínez’s squad had made it plain that
they were here to lift the trophy. Nothing else. But in the
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end, they were stifled and
the manager did not have the answers.
The overall impression was of a defeat against more
streetwise opposition. Belgium had lost meekly against
Argentina at the last World Cup then blew up against Wales at
Euro 2016. This exit hurt more because they were older and
wiser. For the first time in 25 matches, they had tasted defeat.
It will take some time to get over.
It has been easy to portray Martínez as a gambler, a manager
who raises the stakes through moves at one end of the field
and one end only, and a single detail summed it up. In his 23-
man squad he had only one specialist full-back – Thomas
Meunier, and the Paris Saint‑Germain player was suspended
here. The loss of one player, albeit a key one, was sufficient to
prompt a case of square pegs and round holes.
Until kick-off, nobody could say for sure how Belgium would line
up, with the Fifa feed saying that Kevin De Bruyne would start
at left wing-back. That was never going to happen. What
Martínez did do was play Nacer Chadli at right-back and Jan
Vertonghen at left-back – in other words, away from their
with a back four as he had done against Brazil, which
was a diversion from type. Before Brazil, he had placed his
faith in a three‑man defence. France were settled and
consistent whereas Belgium seemed edgy, unpredictable.
Martínez’s approach was incredibly fluid. Who would have seen
Marouane Fellaini as the No 10? That was where he started,
although he worked to the left of centre and dropped back
when France had the ball. When Chadli pushed forward, it
looked as though Belgium had a back three. De
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starting off the right – his third different role in three games –
had the licence to drift inside; all the way over to the other
flank at times. It was total Martínez.
M artínez and Belgium sought to make the game; to press on
to the front foot whereas France sat deep, looking to exploit
the electric pace and movement of Kylian Mbappé. It was
strange to note the sluggishness of the tempo for long spells –
and the flatness of the atmosphere. It was not how Martínez
De Bruyne whipped in some nice balls and Belgium did
advertise an opening goal. Eden Hazard flickered. The tie
would have taken on a different complexion had Hugo Lloris
not stretched to tip
away Toby Alderweireld’s shot. But
against such canny opposition, balance was key. Belgium had
to keep the back door shut and it was a bad sign that, despite
their first‑half ascendancy, it was France who created
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the biggest chance before the
interval when Thibaut Courtois saved from Benjamin Pavard.