Sunday 26 May 2019

Martinez proves there is method to madness

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: Reuters
Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: Reuters

Luke Brown

In the opening few moments of this match, Belgium were a mess.

Romelu Lukaku was stationed somewhere out on the right-wing. West Bromwich Albion's Nacer Chadli appeared to be man-marking Willian. And Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini looked as though they were in constant danger of running into one another.

But wait. There was method in the madness. And despite his team taking to the field in a blur of confused colour and abstract positioning, a masterplan began to emerge through the mayhem. Incredibly: it turned out that Roberto Martinez knew what he was doing all along.

It has taken him months to get to this moment. Back in Belgium there have long been doubts over Martinez's tactical chops.

For Brazil, Martinez kept faith with the men who saved Belgium's campaign against Japan. Fellaini and Chadli were picked to start, with Yannick Carrasco, Dries Mertens and Mousa Dembélé left to stew on the bench.

However, any notion that Fellaini would play in a more advanced role alongside Eden Hazard went out the window when it became clear he was not willing to advance past the halfway line, and when Brazil went close to taking the lead from a poorly-cleared corner after just eight minutes, Belgium looked in some trouble.

On the touchline, Martinez watched the game intently, his left hand raised to his chin. And then suddenly it all clicked. Belgium settled - and seized control.

Lukaku's bizarre positioning began to make a lot more sense shortly after the fortuitous opening goal, as Brazil began to flood forward and great green spaces began to open up all over the pitch.

It's not the first time that Martinez has pulled the trick: in 2014 he played Lukaku out wide on the right against Arsenal at Goodison Park, the decision proving a key factor in a dominant 3-0 win.

Four years later and it worked just as well, only this time in a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. Lukaku repeatedly received the ball in the space behind Marcelo when in one-on-one situations with the scrambling Miranda, using his strength to drive past the defender and play in a team-mate.

Until Tite's tactical tweak at half-time, taking off Willian for Roberto Firmino, Brazil did not have an answer to him. But key to the new system was Kevin De Bruyne - another world-class player handed an unfamiliar but vital new role by Martinez.

The Manchester City man was arguably the Premier League's best player this season but so far he has been rather shackled in Russia, deployed too deep to be truly effective. It always seemed obvious then that De Bruyne would start this quarter-final freed from a defensive midfield role - but Martinez took this strategy to dramatic new lengths.

This was a new De Bruyne: one who took as many shots on goal (3) as he played key passes. Here he was not simply used as an advanced playmaker but as a bona fide centre forward, lining up in between Lukaku and Hazard and invited to drive at Brazil's stretched defence at every opportunity.

Which is precisely what he did for Belgium's all-important second. First Fellaini cleared the underwhelming Neymar's corner. Then Lukaku burst into space down the right. And finally De Bruyne received his rolled pass in the final third before unleashing an unstoppable low shot beyond Alisson.

The goal was the ultimate vindication for Martinez. Against Japan, Belgium looked defensively vulnerable and completely lost control of central midfield. But in having the bravery to make changes and completely overhaul the image of that ailing side, he has stumbled upon a system that appears to suit his band of superstar individuals perfectly.

Their match against France will feel like a de facto final. And maybe - just maybe - there was method in the madness all along.

© Independent News Service

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