After flopping at Everton, Roberto Martinez was hardly hailed as a conquering hero when he took over the Belgium national team. His appointment probably had as much to do with the Belgium FA’s limited financial resources as it did his footballing excellence.
But after seven wins and one draw, against no losses, in their World Cup qualifying campaign (making them the first team to play their way to Russia), and after a rousing two-win, eight-goal start to football’s biggest competition... well, nobody’s complaining now. Yes, Belgium are blessed with a Golden Generation, including Chelsea men Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi and Thibaut Courtois. But Martinez is doing what Marc Wilmots could not — he’s found a way to harness them into a team.
And his secret probably isn’t tactics, although he’s made a few decisive decisions, such as playing De Bruyne as a deep-lying playmaker. Much like his opponent on Thursday, England’s Gareth Southgate, he’s found a way to drain the tension out of the squad and unify a bunch of outspoken players given to going their own way.
If you want proof beyond their scintillating play, how about this loosey-goosey team unity exercise in training on the eve of the group-deciding showdown against the Three Lions? (One that may not matter too much but they all want to win for personal reasons and bragging rights since many of them know each other through the Premier League.)
We’re often guilty of focusing exclusively on tactics and player buys when we evaluate a manager. It’s easy to overlook how important man management is. Belgium (and England) are evidence of its value.
Back in training after the recovery day. Rested, relaxed and Header Challenge in the bag! Now ready for a big game on Thursday— Eden hazard (@hazardeden10) June 26, 2018
De retour à l'entraînement après un jour de récupération. Bien reposé, et un Header Challenge gagné Prêt pour le grand match de jeudi! #REDTOGETHER pic.twitter.com/NdxN9UW8Po