Belgium certainly showed fight and spirit in their comeback against Japan. Russ Cowper argues that neither should have been needed in the first place.
Against Japan, Belgium’s golden generation proved one thing: they don’t lack fight. They became only the second side in World Cup knockout history to come back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 joining Germany who defeated England in 1970. Portugal did come back from 3-0 down in 1966 to beat North Korea 5-3 but they had Eusebio.
As I watched from the comfort of my armchair on a swelteringly warm Mancunian day I was amazed to hear the pundits proclaim that Martinez had got the substitutions spot on, his decisions had saved the day and he was the hero of the hour. He was the magician. Of course he brought Fellaini and Chadli on who went on to score as the added height caused havoc in the Japanese defence. He deserves plaudits for that but how did it come to the point that the only way a team with the ability of Belgium could beat Japan was by throwing high balls at them in a desperate English FA cup tie style?
Japan to their credit were superb: they kept the ball well, they were inventive, relentless in pressing and scored two well deserved goals, the second of which was good enough to grace any game. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Japan play yet in the back of my mind was this nagging question as to why were a team as good as Belgium allowing Japan to play that way. The Belgian press was incredibly poor, they looked totally disjointed at times, Mertens and Hazard didn’t make much attempt to track back, and Lukaku was static up front. Witsel now playing in China was preferred to Dembele who has had a wonderful season for Spurs. The three Belgian centre backs were too similar, all very good players of course but why did they need all three? Meunier and Carrasco were poor, often looking unsure whether to stay or go and worse yet Carrasco was given the runaround with no support from Hazard. The most mysterious thing to me though is why did they play one of the best attacking midfielders in the world as a holding midfielder? Japan swarmed around him, denied him space and he was anonymous given his rigid role in the side. As a fan who has watched De Bruyne I know he is one of those players who you don’t give a position to: you let him find space and if you restrict his space you lose half his game. He will still do the holding role of course, but he is so deep his speed of thought and passing ability is negated. It’s no wonder those further forward were repelled so easily by the Japanese defence. Hazard thrives on quick balls inside full backs – the type of ball De Bruyne does week in week out to put in the likes of Sane and Sterling. Mertens also looks for the quick ball, the threaded pass to use his pace but with De Bruyne so deep the passes were easily cut out. Hazard and Mertens looked frustrated figures, De Bryune who always appears to play with such joy looked unhappy with the strictures placed upon him. I was watching and thinking would France play Mbappe at right back, would England play Kane in central defence, would Brazil play Neymar in goals. It was the madness of Martinez clouding my brain.
The longer I watched the more flummoxed I became. Belgium have a big centre forward who can finish and who would thrive on crosses and loves to get beyond the centre halves. Was Martinez expecting De Bruyne to pick the pass from 60 yards away? Japan countered the Belgians easily and unsettled them. Kagawa was superb, he was given licence to get into the areas you would expect to see De Bruyne and he caused havoc.
Then according to the studio pundits came the magic of Martinez yet he made his substitutions, more out of desperation than design in my opinion. He replaced the ineffectual Mertens with Fellaini and the confused and dazed Carrasco with Chadli. Straight away this allowed De Bruyne more freedom, Fellaini slotted into a midfield role, Chadli brought more energy and purpose down the left and all of a sudden Hazard came alive. The prospect of De Bruyne being 30 yards further forward energised Hazard and the peripheral player began to make an impact. De Bruyne was now getting on the ball in between the defence and midfield rather than in between the midfield and attack. This is where De Bruyne is world class not sat as a Xabi Alonso/Pirlo conductor. Belgians first goal was a fluke, he will never do that again I’m sure but it came about because Belgium were now pressurising Japan for the first time. Hazard rattled the posts, he looked purposeful at last. Corners would be inevitable given the pressure and Fellaini showed why he is such a danger. The final goal was beautiful, it was De Bruyne unleashed in his pomp, driving forward not sitting deep and his choice of pass in those situations is quite brilliant, a superb ball to Meunier – who now had reason to get forward – was delivered , a lovely cross, fabulous dummy by Lukaku and Chadli swept it home. That is the Belgium we should be seeing, not the cautious timid Belgium of the first half.
They have all the talent required to win the World Cup, they are physically strong and resilient. They have a quality goalkeeper, and great options of the bench. My feeling is though if they are to go further in this tournament it will be despite Martinez not because of Martinez. He is not a magician, he is a madman.
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