Roberto Martinez proving tactical flexibility in Russia
Whether or not Belgium crash to France in Tuesday's World Cup semifinal, Roberto Martinez has achieved a personal mission. Criticised for being tactically naive, the Spaniard has shown guts and bravery with his strategies.
For much of his managerial career, Martinez has been depicted as an idealist, quixotically pursuing a brand of technical, attacking football while falling short on the finer defensive details. His teams always played with flair. However, against supposedly superior managers, read as those at bigger clubs with better resources, he came second virtually all the time.
Martinez is viewed differently in some places. With Swansea in South Wales, his easy-on-the-eye style endeared him to the club faithful. They still adore him. He gained more fans with an FA Cup victory at Wigan despite sinking their club to the Championship. On the other hand, there isn't much love for the Spaniard Merseyside.
At Everton, Martinez was no David Moyes. Although he brought free-flowing football to Goodison Park, tactical inflexibility and mental debility weighed him down. Following Moyes was nearly as bad for him as the Scot coming into Old Trafford behind Sir Alex Ferguson. The club showed more patience than the fans. He was booted out of the job after three years.
There was no sanctuary in Belgium. Martinez's reign began on the wrong foot with defeat to Spain. Immediately, the critics gathered. He was ripped apart and labelled “tactically naive”. His Merseyside ghosts had followed him to the Low Country but the 44-year-old held firm.
When it came time to kick a ball in anger, the ever courteous Iberian guided his team through the entire UEFA qualifying process unbeaten. Belgium were first from Europe to reach Russia.
Even so, Martinez was unpopular among the natives. His methods weren’t widely accepted. The player themselves were unhappy, Kevin De Bryune in particular. With their ticket sealed, Martinez wanted to explore his system, to try out new things against Mexico in Brussels. It was the visitors who showed intent. The home side was fortunate to steal a draw. De Bryune expressed his displeasure.
Of course we play with a system that is in principle very defensive, but it is filled with many attacking players who want the ball. As long as we don't have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties with countries like Mexico.
De Bruyne’s sermon fell on deaf ears. Martinez held firm to his system. He didn’t seem to bother whether or not they pulled in the same direction, as a functioning unit. There was no Arcadia. The 44-year-old then lost more loyal friends by dropping Radja Nainggolan.
Martinez's odd system was justified in the group stage. Belgium eased pass Tunisia, Panama, then a second-string England team. Had the Red Devils continued that run against Japan, perhaps the Spaniard wouldn’t have bothered trying something new. A sudden two-goal deficit to start the second half refined his tactical chops. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli were introduced. Things changed.
No one foresaw the 44-year-old’s approach to Brazil. Martinez abandoned his favoured possession game for a counter-attacking style. He handed the ball to Tite's team. as his familiar 3-4-3 morphed into a 4-3-3
Martinez redeployed his players to cut out Brazilian threats. Romelu Lukaku was stationed somewhere on the right, Hazard on the left. De Bryune slotted between in attack with Fellaini and Chadli doing the dirty work. Tite had no answer.
Belgium tarried two years before Martinez found his charm, giving them some tactical madness. The question is whether he will be so bold as to shake things up again when matching wits with Didier Deschamps and France?