12 Jul Belgium impress but once again fall short
Roberto Martinez managed to steer an infinitely talented Belgian national team to the World Cup semi-final, yet the team fell narrowly short in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday evening, despite impressing throughout the tournament.
There is a growing fear in Belgium that this generation of players will never truly fulfil their potential on an international stage, and you have to feel that the 2018 World Cup was going to be one of their best chances to lift a trophy.
Scraping past Japan in the Round of 16 showed the character of the group, but it wasn’t until their attacking line tore Brazil’s defence apart in the quarterfinals that people finally started to believe.
Having lost in the quarterfinals of the last two international tournaments hasn’t been greeted with positivity in Belgium, hence why Marc Wilmots was dismissed after Euro 2016. Martinez appeared to have found a system that got the best of the players at his disposal, but they were undone by a set-piece by France.
Michel Sablon put a plan in place at the turn of the millennium to ensure that Belgian football restructured their way of developing players. Gone was the focus on 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 which Sablon believed only produced physical players. An emphasis was put on honing technical ability, and players like Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku were the results.
Coaching in Belgium since 2004 has been different with over 1,500 youth matches analysed by Sablon and his team. The decision to make a universal switch to 4-3-3 was taken, and the nation has improved beyond their wildest dreams since that moment.
Unfortunately, success is only determined by glory on the international stage, even if the system as mentioned above has produced a production line of exceptional footballers. Failing to win the World Cup has been greeted with disappointment in Belgium, just because expectations were so high.
There is also the reality that it’s unlikely the defensive trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany will be in place by the time Qatar 2022 rolls around.
Hazard, De Bruyne and co will still be the figureheads of the team, but you feel as though this was the year in which all of the trios were in their prime.
Thibaut Courtois enjoyed a phenomenal tournament and will likely move to Real Madrid this summer, but he spoke of France’s anti-football which showed Belgium was once again unwilling to look to their frailties.
One of the criticisms of the current golden generation of Belgian football is that they play football in too relaxed a manner, they wait for things to happen rather than forcing moments. This manifested itself in the early part of the tournament, but they were sublime against Brazil.
France never lets them play. Les Bleus were sensational in defence with Raphael Varane putting in his best performance in a French shirt. Lukaku was barely in the match, and neither Hazard nor De Bruyne could create many chances on Tuesday as Didier Deschamps’ well-organised team secured a professional victory.
For all Courtois’ unhappiness with France, it was Belgium who couldn’t force the opening, and ultimately they didn’t do enough in their biggest match in Russia to secure a place in the showpiece on July 15th.
Martinez will leave the tournament with a lot of credit, having done better than any Belgian coach since 1986, but the result of the World Cup will still be considered a disappointment by those in the country.
Just like England found between 2002 and 2010, the golden generation tag can weigh heavy on the shoulders of players and not win a tournament is seen as a failure, irrespective of the positives a team’s play produced over the entirety of a competition.
The former Everton coach will now have to begin his preparations for Euro 2020, another tournament that Belgium will be favourites for, but it will be a slightly different squad, and the mental scars on this team will grow and grow with every failure.
Players don’t forget losing to Wales and a stunning Hal Robson-Kanu strike in the Euro 2016 quarter-final, and they won’t remember being unable to truly lay a glove on France on Tuesday evening. There will be regrets within the Belgian national team, and they can’t keep expecting talent alone to carry them to success, it doesn’t work like that at the international level.