Roberto Martinez: Making ‘Team Belgium’, handling World Cup pressure and Thierry Henry’s value

With a squad bursting with talent, Belgium are expected to compete for the World Cup this summer. But how will the players deal with that expectation, and how will Roberto Martinez – managing at his first major tournament – get the best from his team? We spoke to the Belgium boss to find out…

Belgium have made the quarter-finals at the last two major tournaments, but how do they go a step further this summer?

They have the squad to suggest they could win the World Cup, they had an almost flawless qualifying campaign, and they have players capable of moments of individual brilliance, such as Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne.

So what’s missing?

Manager Roberto Martinez, who recently signed a new two-year deal after taking over in 2016, says it’s about bringing it all together and becoming “Team Belgium”.

“When I started the job I was not looking to change anything, but what I was very excited about were the players that this generation brings together and being able to bring them into a team,” he tells Sky Sports ahead of an appearance on Goals on Sunday earlier this year.

“The last thing you want at international football is to see a group of individuals hoping to get a result. That’s been the challenge over the last two years with the staff. We have been working and looking at the opportunities to see the best partnerships, best combinations on the pitch and developing a mentality that would allow us to go to a major tournament and become “Team Belgium” for that tournament.

“That has been the challenge. That’s the challenge that you have at international football for every nation.”

Perhaps for Belgium more than most though. At least that is the way it has seemed in the past when they have been criticised for not being the sum of their excellent individual parts.

But is that changing?

There have been encouraging signs in qualifying as Belgium breezed through with nine wins from 10 games and a joint-high 43 goals scored. However, there have also been setbacks, such as 3-3 friendly draws with Russia and Mexico, the latter of which prompted De Bruyne to air some frank reservations about Belgium’s approach. “We are still living too much on talent,” he said. “As long as there is no good system tactically we will continue to have problems against countries like Mexico.”

Martinez said De Bruyne’s comments were “understandable”, and speaks now about using the qualifying campaign and friendlies to find the right balance in the team.

“You need to have a good balance and that is where the work is. At international football, you get very close to players who grab the headlines at club level and maybe you end up with too many attacking players and you haven’t got enough balance in the team. Sometimes you can only see the results on the pitch and need to go through the experience to see what partnerships work better than others.

“But that has probably been the most exciting aspect because this generation is a really talented one.

“I have been very impressed how much these players want to be part of the national team and how much they enjoy being with each other and how much they embrace the opportunity of becoming a strong team on the pitch with the talent that individuals bring.”

Midfielder Axel Witsel said last year that Belgium “play more like a team” under Martinez than they did under his predecessor Marc Wilmots. That teamwork could be crucial to the World Cup chances of a crop of players that have been labeled as Belgium’s “Golden Generation”.

It is a tag that appeared to weigh down England players in the early 2000’s, but Martinez downplays it – “it doesn’t exist, it’s a term that has been made up in the media and is a nice story on the outside” – and says for the players, it is more about breaking new ground.

2:26 Belgium manager Roberto Martinez told Monday Night Football how he tries to get the best out of Kevin De Bruyne

“Belgium has never won the World Cup or Euros, so there is no reference in the past for these players, they are breaking new ground, they are almost taking the nation into the unknown.

“Expectations in Belgium are really high, and rightly so, but we shouldn’t allow that to be an added pressure, it’s an excitement of being able to achieve something that has never been achieved before. But we need to be open-minded at the same time and very aware of the difficulties of going into a competition with a lot of expectations when we haven’t found a way of how to win a major tournament.”

It does appear that the Belgium players are not shying away from the expectations. Hazard has said they have “one target, which is to reach the final” while Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen says the “semi-finals are a realistic goal” with a team that is entering its peak.

“I am one of the youngest,” he said in March. “We have players like [Vincent] Kompany, [Thomas] Vermaelen, myself and Toby Alderweireld who are around our 30s, when you should be at your best. I think we are now. This could be the year where we need to reward ourselves.”

Belgium’s best performance at a World Cup was in 2014 when they were beaten 1-0 by Argentina in the quarter-finals. That was followed by a quarter-final exit at Euro 2016 after a 3-1 loss to Wales.

Martinez expects his players to have learnt from both experiences, and go to Russia as a more mature team.

“I think you always develop and take experiences of the big tournaments. This generation has had two major tournaments, the Euros in France and the Brazil World Cup, so you are not the same player when you go into a tournament when you have been through two experiences.

“This is a more mature moment for the players and you have new additions. It’s always important to have fresh blood and young players with the bravery and naivety that is always important in any group. Every group is different so I don’t expect the same type of performances but we are looking to use previous experiences in a good way. Any experience will be very helpful in that respect.”

For Martinez, this will be his first experience of a major tournament, having never managed at international level before. He will, though, have a World Cup winner beside him in the dugout in the shape of his assistant, Thierry Henry.

Henry won the World Cup with France in 1998, reached the final in 2006 and also won the Euros in 2000.

“He has been a huge addition,” says Martinez. “First and foremost he has won the World Cup so that brings clarity on what you want to achieve. What journey you go through emotionally, especially for a player, a player with expectations of a nation hoping that a big talented group can reach the height of winning something so special. He has done it so he understands first-hand how the players feel.

2:26 Belgium manager Roberto Martinez told Monday Night Football how he tries to get the best out of Kevin De Bruyne

“Then on the coaching side, he is meticulous with his thinking and brings his own experience into a coaching level which is really important for us. Then the connection with the rest of the squad he has been a very intelligent person with a lot to offer. I have been delighted with his contributions so far and I think he is going to play an even bigger role while we are at the tournament.”

And how has Martinez found international football, where he only gets to work with his players for a few weeks of the year, rather than on a daily basis as he did at Swansea, Wigan and Everton?

“It’s very different,” he admits.

“You need to accept that there are opportunities because you are working with players five times a year and 24 hours a day during that time, so it’s a real advantage to get to know the human side behind the player. The contact with the player is a lot less than at club level, but that’s when you need to learn to work in those periods and you have the full nation behind the team.

“It’s a very different way of taking a team at club and national level, but you need to look at the opportunities and advantages that brings you and then try to become better at having less contact time with the players so you can make sessions more concise and look at specific aspects that you can use in the games and almost develop a team culture in the space of two years really.

“Also, at club level you play 60 games in a season which you cannot repeat with only one game when you get together at international level. But the opposition is the same, so it’s not that it’s a disadvantage.

“We have been quite flexible and playing different systems. It depends on the players and our players are very aware of how to play different systems in different ways, we have played 3-4-3, with a back four, we have options of playing different systems and that is an important way of working internationally and in the modern game.

“I think that’s important internationally because you shouldn’t be trying to be very good at one system because I don’t think you have the time to be outstanding at one system, it’s more the flexibility of using different ways of playing in different games.”