So far there has been little criticism of Roberto Martinez. He’s won all the games he had to win and he’s already experimented more than Marc Wilmots ever did. Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say it’s a honeymoon period but with the opposition in his World Cup qualification group, he could avoid serious censure from the media for some time.
Looking back, when Wilmots was promoted to head coach, the players were happy. It was a mutual appreciation society. Wilmots was fiercely loyal to the players who took him to the tournament. He called up Divock Origi when Christian Benteke was injured but both Radja Nainggolan and Michy Batshuayi failed to make the cut.
Once in Brazil, the cracks started to show, a prime example being Vincent Kompany being granted special privileges and being allowed to decide, sometimes at the last minute, if he was fit. Once the campaign had come to a premature end, there was a request for the players to meet the fans on their return to Belgium – where there had been fantastic support – but the team refused. They argued they didn’t deserve a heroes’ welcome but the affair was badly handled and since then, the players have been trying to build bridges.
Post Brazil, despite Wilmots saying things would change, the Euros 2016 brought more of the same. In a relatively easy group, Belgium didn’t dominate opponents and failed to beat – or score – in the two games against Wales. 15 of their 24 goals came against Cyprus and Andorra.
Wilmots had eventually brought Nainggolan into the squad with Yannick Carrasco and Batshuayi also getting a call. The team arrived in France with high hopes – the ‘Golden Generation’ had landed – with Antonio Conte’s Italy the first team on the Euros menu. It was a disaster; Conte played 3-5-2, hit Belgium on the break and gave Wilmots a lesson he hopefully wouldn’t forget. Immediately after the game, Thibaut Courtois talked to the media and stated bluntly that Belgium had been surpassed tactically.
Belgium managed to roll over Ireland, Sweden and Hungary. But it was not all sweetness and light in the Belgian camp. Players frequently texted the Flemish media with complaints, one famously – sent to VRT – described Wilmots’ training sessions as being like those you would expect at an U11 girls’ team.
In the quarter final, injuries and poor selections meant Belgium faced Wales with a weak back four. The Welsh were worthy winners. Courtois chose to make his feelings known in the dressing room, saying Belgium had learnt nothing from the defeat by Italy and that they’d once again been tactically naive.
Wilmots went but there were gasps of amazement from the other side of the Channel when Belgium announced the arrival of Roberto Martinez. When he did turn up, it was not only with his usual sidekick but also with Monsieur Thierry Henry.
Fast forward to November and it’s going well. After being given a lesson by Spain in a friendly, Belgium have played four qualifiers and won them all with an aggregate of 21 against one! The strikers are all happy – especially Romelu Lukaku, the man in pole position – saying when Henry speaks, you listen.
As for the new era, while Courtois was the only one to openly criticise Wilmots, several more have decided to settle scores. Defender Laurent Ciman, lauded by Martinez, has said he reached his lowest point in the run-up to France when even Axel Witsel was played at full-back. He added that he was one of several players who didn’t speak up then for fear of being dropped from the squad.
More recently, Nacer Chadli said Wilmots had shown a lack of respect by not informing him that he wouldn’t be in the squad for the Euros despite playing in Wilmots’ teams for four years.
Martinez is seen in a different light. Chadli said that – unlike with the previous coach – they’ve worked on defending against/taking free kicks. “Now, everyone knows what to do if we lose possession” said Ciman, “with Martinez we’re much more tactically aware.”
Benteke, usually not the type to criticise anyone, felt that the opposition teams had been better prepared in France. He was also full of praise for Martinez, “He’s a technician and a perfectionist. He’s dared to try three at the back which we never did before. He’s already had a big Impact on the squad.”
There is one cloud in the shape of Nainggolan. After missing out in Brazil, the Roma player broke into Wilmots’ squad and became a regular feature. Now it’s not so straightforward. Nainggolan was selected for the game with Bosnia but never turned up due to an injury. He was then spotted playing 90 minutes for Roma against their reserves on the day Belgium played Bosnia. Martinez kept his cool and said there was no problem.
However, when the squad to play Estonia was announced, there was no Nainggolan. After first explaining that he wasn’t fit enough, Martinez backtracked and said that it was his job to decide who he picked and that was what he had done.
It looks like Martinez is making a point and it’s a concern that Nainggolan has been reported has saying that he fancied playing against the Netherlands – a friendly – but not particularly against Estonia. Martinez has said Nainggolan has a future with Belgium and it could be that this ‘dispute’ might just be a step in the right direction. Certainly, no one should be seen to be bigger than the team.
Apart from that, Martinez has problems with the ageing Thomas Vermaelen and Kompany and seems to be focusing on youth more than Wilmots ever did. His call up of Timmy Simons was an exception that pleased many people. Above all, Martinez shouldn’t jettison too many of the older generation too quickly.
It’s also worth saying that Martinez has got Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne looking as if they are enjoying playing for the national team and performing well. That’s also not something that Wilmots ever achieved. Overall, it’s a case of so far so good.