It began two decades ago. Michel Sablon, a member of‘s coaching staff in 1990, and Bob Browaeys, a long-time part of the furniture in the country’s youth programme, set out to revolutionise an approach to football that had placed too much emphasis on winning, rather than developing the skills of youngsters.
In addition to erecting Topsport schools across the country between 1998 and 2002 – allowing Belgium’s most talented girls and boys to commute to the talent incubators from all corners of the small nation – and looking to improve ball control in small-sided games, the decision was made for the youth teams to adopt a 4-3-3 formation. Based on studying the traditionally successful approaches in the Netherlands, Germany, and Spain, it was decided that was the best schematic to take advantage of the dribbling wizards whom Sablon and Browaeys hoped to foster.
For the most part, Roberto Martinez’s version of Belgium – awash with players who benefitted from the national overhaul, such as, , and – didn’t use a 4-3-3 in Russia, and Tuesday’s exit to in the World Cup semi-finals may have confirmed the waste of a “golden generation.”
The criticism of Martinez’s approach was rampant before the tournament even began. De Bruyneof seeing “no good tactical system” for a team that was “swimming” in midfield during a 3-3 friendly draw with in November. Steven Caldwell, who played under Martinez at , described to theScore a manager who had a distinct, commendable philosophy, but one who obsessively adhered to his approach – to the extent that it could be ruinous. And just like his predecessor, Marc Wilmots, Martinez’s man-management skills have been questioned.
Back when Wilmots was in charge, Belgium was establishing itself as everyone’s favourite dark horse. Only one player – veteran defender Daniel Van Buyten – was in his 30s at the 2014 World Cup, as an exciting contingent of young and technically proficient Belgian players was officially introduced to the world. Those were the children of Sablon and Browaeys.
Except it wasn’t that exciting. A quarter-final finish at the World Cup seems like a decent return from a relatively inexperienced squad, but it wasn’t the result of the free-flowing stuff that was desired. Instead, it was more like the turgid, defensive showings of old.was phenomenal between the sticks for the in the round of 16, but Belgium was far less than the sum of its parts while needing to glean a 2-1 win from the North American side in extra time.
Two years later, and Belgium was soundly beaten 2-0 by Antonio Conte’s largely unfancied Italians to begin Euro 2016.claimed that Belgium’s training for that match involved the second string set up in Italy’s 3-5-2 formation and thumping the first team 4-0. Yet, no tactical instructions were given to the reserves for another training game the next day. Wilmots’ preparation for Italy was derisory, and his instructions vague. Little attacking movement was covered on the practice pitch, and he also made a habit of criticising his players for results, rather than shouldering the blame himself.
Wilmots also apparently irritated his squad by droning on about experiences from his playing days, during which he won 70 Belgium caps and represented, , and others. Belgium was shamed with a 3-1 loss to in the quarter-finals, and Wilmots’ firing after the tournament was long overdue.
His replacement? Martinez, whose biggest managerial successes were withand Wigan, where he handled mostly bargain-basement players and improved them with a ball-on-the-ground philosophy. Still, he relegated the latter into the second tier, and then signed off a miserable tenure with a 3-0 defeat to relegation-threatened .
The doubts De Bruyne aired following the friendly with Mexico – and the widespread confusion whencontinued to be deployed as a defensively vulnerable wing-back – were only exacerbated in Russia. The 4-3-3 formation that many of his players were indoctrinated into was set aside for an unbalanced, top-heavy formula that often wobbled precariously on a back-three foundation. The quarter-final against was a triumph in attacking tactics for Martinez – setting Lukaku and Hazard wide confused Brazil’s backline and eked out space for De Bruyne – but the Red Devils gifted gilt-edged chances to the Canarinho in the closing stages and were lucky to come away with the win.
Then, in Tuesday’s semi-final with France, Martinez couldn’t resist a tinker., with the exception of an extraordinary saving tackle on in the second stanza, struggled in his second start of the tournament (he was included from the first whistle in Belgium’s forgettable meeting with ). Lukaku, Hazard, and De Bruyne switched positions well in the opening stages, but when the goal didn’t come, they appeared short of a contingency plan. France looked likelier to double its lead than Belgium did to equalise in the dying moments.
Four years on from the youthful 2014 World Cup squad, this group was supposed to be at its peak., , , , , , Dembele, and are all aged 29 or older. , 30, retired from the international game after being cluelessly left at home.
The two youngest players in the roster saw limited action in Russia., 21, played just 97 minutes following a disappointing debut term with . , 23, is still plying his trade in Belgium, and only mustered an ineffectual performance against England’s reserves at the World Cup.
There’s also not much to shout about in the Under-21 squad.
Due to ill-advised appointments who ignored the very hallmarks of Sablon and Browaeys’ 4-3-3 revolution, and through mismanagement of the programme’s products, Belgium’s football hierarchy may have just wasted its so-called golden generation.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)
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