The Hazard-de Bruyne rid­dle

Hav­ing a Golden Gen­er­a­tion at your dis­posal doesn’t mean you’re on Easy Street – just ask Bel­gium boss Roberto Martinez, who’s got a big se­lec­tion headache ahead of his first World Cup

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The phrase ‘l’em­bar­ras du choix’ is of­ten used in French-speak­ing parts of Bel­gium about their na­tional team. Lit­er­ally trans­lated, the English equiv­a­lent is sim­i­lar to ‘an em­bar­rass­ment of riches’, par­tic­u­larly when ut­tered in ref­er­ence to the se­lec­tion dilem­mas Roberto Martinez faces as coach of the coun­try’s much-lauded Golden Gen­er­a­tion. When the for­mer Wi­gan Ath­letic and Ever­ton boss was un­veiled as the new man­ager of the Red Devils, fol­low­ing the dis­ap­point­ingly early exit from Euro 2016 against Wales, it’s safe to say the re­ac­tion from fans and me­dia was one of sur­prise.

His dis­as­trous fi­nal cam­paign at Good­i­son Park didn’t ex­actly etch his name into the his­tory books as one the game’s iconic gaffers, which was the level of ap­pli­cant the Bel­gian FA were hop­ing for af­ter sack­ing Marc Wil­mots. For­mer Barcelona, Manch­ester United and Nether­lands coach Louis van Gaal re­vealed he’d been ap­proached in the sum­mer of 2016, but had de­cided “out of spite” not to give up his sev­er­ance pay­ment by tak­ing a new job so soon af­ter leav­ing Old Traf­ford.

Other big names cropped up, but one by one they were ruled out and it was ul­ti­mately Martinez who got the gig. If the scep­ti­cal Bel­gian press and sup­port­ers – still weary af­ter the Wales de­feat – were im­pressed by one thing, it was the fact the Spa­niard had brought in Thierry Henry as his as­sis­tant. There would be a big name in the dugout af­ter all.

There has long been a the­ory that the abun­dance of tal­ent in Bel­gium could mean it’s not en­tirely nec­es­sary for the na­tional coach to boast vast ex­pe­ri­ence. As long as the gaffer had some tac­ti­cal acu­men – the one thing Wil­mots seem­ingly lacked in Brazil four years ago and at the fol­low­ing Euros – he should be able to mould these world-class play­ers into a team ca­pa­ble of beat­ing the very best.

Af­ter all, with gifted in­di­vid­u­als like Thibaut Cour­tois, Jan Ver­tonghen, Toby Alder­weireld, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku in his start­ing XI, Martinez had l’em­bar­ras du choix. And it didn’t take him too long to use this to his ad­van­tage. “To have all this wealth of tal­ent in one team is unique,” he said dur­ing his first press con­fer­ence, hop­ing to re­vive na­tional pride. “Of course we can be­come world cham­pi­ons.”

Not that it made much dif­fer­ence. In Martinez’s first match in charge – a home friendly against an un­der-strength Spain in Septem­ber 2016 – the coun­try pay­ing his wage were roundly beaten by the coun­try of his birth. David Silva scored twice in a 2-0 de­feat that didn’t do jus­tice to the one-sided na­ture of the con­test. The Brus­sels crowd re­acted with boos and whis­tles. It was not the start any­one had hoped for.

For­tu­nately for Martinez and Bel­gium, this proved to be no more than a false start. The Red Devils strolled through their World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion group, drop­ping just two points from 30 across the cam­paign. But while that record might sug­gest Martinez had suc­ceeded in turn­ing this gag­gle of stars into a fully-func­tion­ing foot­ball unit, the gen­eral air of scep­ti­cism never re­ally faded. Bel­gium’s qual­i­fy­ing group was weak (Greece, Bos­nia, Es­to­nia, Cyprus and Gi­bral­tar) but more im­por­tantly, Martinez still hadn’t set­tled on a sys­tem that could squeeze ev­ery last drop of qual­ity from the tal­ent at his dis­posal.

So far, just like his pre­de­ces­sor, Martinez has found l’em­bar­ras du choix more of a bur­den than a bless­ing. This is par­tic­u­larly true in his mid­field, where he has been search­ing for the right for­mula to un­shackle Hazard and De Bruyne in a way that al­lows them to de­ploy their ge­nius as they do for Chelsea and Manch­ester City re­spec­tively.

Early in his reign, Martinez adopted a 3-4-2-1 sys­tem with room for two free-roam­ing play­mak­ers be­hind lone front­man Romelu Lukaku. It looked great on pa­per – Hazard and De Bruyne, two of the most ruth­lessly ef­fi­cient play­mak­ers, op­er­at­ing be­hind a line-lead­ing striker. But the mid­field pair would ul­ti­mately hin­der more than help, get­ting in each other’s way so of­ten that even­tu­ally one of them would be forced to drift to the wing to find breath­ing space. This, in turn, oc­cu­pied the space that wide play­ers Yan­nick Car­rasco and Thomas Me­u­nier should have been bomb­ing into.

In other words, two mas­ter chefs in the kitchen just would not work. Com­par­isons with Eng­land’s Lam­pard and Ger­rard quandary won’t be lost on Martinez, given his 21-year as­so­ci­a­tion with the Bri­tish game. Now he had to find a way to suc­ceed where Sven-go­ran Eriks­son, Steve Mcclaren and Fabio Capello all failed.

In a Novem­ber friendly against Mex­ico, Martinez pulled De Bruyne deeper into cen­tral mid­field, al­low­ing Hazard to play off the striker. The game ended in a 3-3 draw. Hazard seemed to en­joy his new-found free­dom, ex­ploit­ing small pock­ets of space cre­ated by Lukaku’s move­ment and caus­ing no end of prob­lems with his trade­mark drib­bling and through-balls on the edge of the penalty area. De Bruyne, on the other hand, wasn’t sat­is­fied as swiftly. “Mex­ico were just tac­ti­cally bet­ter,” the 26-year-old schemer ad­mit­ted to Bel­gian news­pa­per Het Laat­ste Nieuws. “Their sys­tem made our five de­fend­ers sit deep and we were swim­ming in mid­field – it was five vs seven. “As long as we do not have a good tac­ti­cal sys­tem, we will have some dif­fi­cul­ties against coun­tries like Mex­ico. It’s a pity that we have not yet found a solution. “Of course we are play­ing with a sys­tem that is in prin­ci­ple very de­fen­sive, but it’s filled with at­tack­ing play­ers who want the ball. Then you have a bit of a prob­lem. “It was a match in which we had very lit­tle pos­ses­sion and every­one play­ing in a sys­tem that doesn’t re­ally fit. But even­tu­ally Martinez de­cides. I think the trainer must come up with a solution so that we can avoid such sit­u­a­tions hap­pen­ing in the fu­ture.” De­spite what some read as a dig at his boss from the City man, De Bruyne was de­ployed in a sim­i­lar role in a friendly against Ja­pan later the same week, this time with Napoli star Dries Mertens tak­ing a more at­tack­ing role along­side Hazard. Bel­gium won 1-0, and Martinez made few changes to the sys­tem ahead of the next friendly – at home to Saudi Ara­bia in March. Ev­ery­thing ap­peared to click into place dur­ing a 4-0 Brus­sels romp, with De Bruyne set­ting up the opener for Lukaku and Hazard as­sist­ing the sec­ond. De Bruyne was re­vi­talised and fi­nally be­gan de­liv­er­ing for his coun­try in the way he has done for English foot­ball’s top side; cre­at­ing danger with his sub­lime passes, get­ting for­ward when pos­si­ble and un­leash­ing his fe­ro­cious long-range shots.

Had Martinez found the bal­ance needed to turn his world-class squad into a world-class team? Will the hordes of of­ten-crit­i­cal Bel­gian fans fi­nally suc­cumb to the Spa­niard’s charms? In truth it’s too early to tell, mainly be­cause, even if it turns out he has man­aged to solve his own Lam­pard-ger­rard equa­tion, there are other press­ing is­sues.

Will Toby Alder­weireld, who has started just three Premier League matches for Spurs since Novem­ber, be sharp enough when their World Cup cam­paign kicks off? Then there’s Car­rasco, who failed to im­press Atletico Madrid man­ager Diego Sime­one and sur­pris­ingly joined China’s Dalian Yi­fang in Jan­uary. Has the stan­dard of that league stood him in good stead when it comes to fac­ing the world’s best sides?

And what of Mousa Dem­bele? The mid­field gen­eral with the silky smooth touch, hailed by sup­port­ers, man­agers and pun­dits in Eng­land, has some­how never been a Red Devils reg­u­lar and that ap­pears un­likely to change.

Like Wil­mots be­fore him, Martinez has of­ten handed a start to Axel Wit­sel, who also plays his club foot­ball in the Far East these days af­ter choos­ing Tian­jin Quan­jian over Ju­ven­tus. And with ei­ther De Bruyne or, in times of war, the el­bow-wield­ing Marouane Fel­laini along­side him in the mid­dle of the park, the com­pe­ti­tion is pretty fierce.

While Dem­bele may be too mild-man­nered to openly state his case, the same couldn’t be said of Roma war­rior Radja Naing­golan (left). The 30-year-old’s off-the-pitch an­tics (he has been known to en­joy the oc­ca­sional cigarette and was charged with drink-driv­ing last term, but al­ways main­tained his in­no­cence) haven’t gone down par­tic­u­larly well with strait-laced tee­to­taller Martinez.

His de­ci­sion to omit the im­mensely pop­u­lar ‘Ninja’ from his fi­nal squad cer­tainly didn’t go down well with fans, al­though he’d pre­vi­ously stressed that he viewed Naing­golan as a No.10 rather than a box-to-box player, and we know the is­sues Bel­gium have had in that po­si­tion... L’em­bar­ras du choix, in­deed.


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