A failed Everton manager isn’t who most would have picked to take charge of one of the most talented squads in international football. Indeed, Roberto Martinez’s appointment as Belgium boss in 2016, just three months after his dismissal at Goodison Park, caught many by surprise. He appeared to lack the qualifications for such a big job.
In the five years since then, though, Martinez has proved himself. While Belgium have yet to lift the silverware to distinguish their ‘golden generation,’ they are edging closer to realising their undeniable potential as a football nation, as demonstrated by their 1-0 win over Portugal.
Belgium have played better, much better, at Euro 2020 than they did in their round of 16 tie on Sunday, but the fact they were able to squeeze past such a high calibre opponent while playing within themselves was a mark of their quality, and of the strength of Martinez’s structure.
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Back threes have been a common sight at this tournament, but few managers have as firm a grasp as Martinez on how the system can be used in a number of different ways to achieve a variety of different outcomes. It’s not always about finding width, but is sometimes designed to gain control.
This is why Martinez deployed Thorgan Hazard over Yannick Carrasco in a somewhat unfamiliar left wing back role for the Borussia Dortmund man. He recognised the need for Hazard to cut inside and form passing triangles with Youri Tielemens and Axel Witsel to overwhelm Portugal in the centre of the pitch.
“It wasn't just about how good we could be, it was about how we could adapt to what Portugal do the best, which is do exactly what they need to do to win,” Martinez explained afterwards, highlighting the adaptations he made. “This is what a winning team needs. We know the talent we have but all the other elements you need were shown today. For us it was the biggest test there is.”
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More tactically aware than most in international management, Martinez isn’t afraid to change things up from game-to-game. He can do this because of the deep understanding he has of each of his players’ individual strengths and weaknesses. Martinez was, after all, one of the first to truly see Romelu Lukaku for more than the frontman he’d been typecast as.
Martinez doesn’t try to change his players too much. There is only so much time an international coach has on the training pitch with his squad to do that. Instead, Martinez focuses on finding systems to get the best out of what he already has. That makes him perfect for international football.
Thorgan Hazard, Belgium v Portugal - UEFA Euro 2020
Image credit: Getty Images
What’s more, Martinez’s relentless positivity also works well in the international arena. He builds his players up to believe in themselves - see Romelu Lukaku’s goalscoring record as proof. Of course, there’s value to this in club football, but the feel-good factor within a squad is an even greater driving force at international tournaments like this one.
Faced with a number of injuries, Martinez has plenty to ponder before Friday night’s quarter final clash with Italy. Most notably, the Spaniard will be without two of his best players, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, who are expected to be sidelined having been withdrawn before the end of the win over Portugal.
There isn’t, however, a team left in Euro 2020 capable of absorbing such absences like Belgium. Not only do the Red Devils have the squad depth, particularly in the attacking areas of the pitch, to cope, they seemingly have the right manager to keep moving forward at this tournament.
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