When Belgium beat Portugal 1-0 to knock out the holders and make it to the quarter-finals of the European Championship, there’s no doubt they were popping open the champagne corks in Brussels. And rightly so: this is in many ways an excellent side who have the quality to go all the way in the tournament. But there are certainly reasons Roberto Martinez and his coaching staff should be less than pleased with that performance in Seville. To win in Munich against a fine Italy side, they’re going to need to get better.
The first half was a solid one for Belgium. Thorgan Hazard scored a screamer, yes, but you can’t bank on him doing that every game. Ultimately neither side really got into their rhythm, and while Belgium could produce quality, it tended to come from individuals doing good things rather than any collective plan. It was enough thanks to a sensational bit of magic, but that’s it.
In the second half, things really got dicey. Particularly after 55 minutes, when Portugal subbed on Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix. It’s never easy to deal with the opponent bringing on such gifted attackers, but that’s the level Belgium are competing at. Fernando Santos’ tactical plan wasn’t complicated at this point. It wasn’t as though he found some secret way of unlocking Belgium. He just threw the kitchen sink at it. And it undeniably worked.
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From the 55th minute onwards, Portugal took 13 shots to Belgium’s two. That’s as many shots as Portugal took in 90 minutes against Germany, and more than they took against either France or Hungary. It was the sort of Portuguese performance that would be associated with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. They lacked the maturity of the Scot’s sides, losing their heads a little and taking potshots from range instead of really sustaining the pressure and forcing the issue. But it had that feel to it. If one of those late chances had gone in, it would not have been a surprise in the slightest.
It’s hard to forgive Belgium’s naivety to let Portugal get back into the game like this. Martinez didn’t seem to have any sort of plan for seeing out the game. There was no attempt to just keep possession for a while and take the sting out of the game. There wasn’t a way to get into a solid deep block and defend the more traditional way. There just wasn’t any other way of playing. They weren’t punished in Seville, but they could absolutely pay the price in Munich.
The problem has become more acute with injuries. Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard, two of Belgium’s three star attackers, are both doubts to start against Italy. This would probably mean Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco joining Romelu Lukaku in the forward line. Both are useful players. Carrasco is a hard working winger who can drive at defences, while Mertens was a world class attacker in his prime who still has a fair bit to offer at age 34. What they are not, though, is much better than Italy’s likely starting attackers Lorenzo Insigne, Ciro Immobile and either Domenico Berardi or Federico Chiesa. Just having quality players allowed to do their thing won’t be enough when they’re not actually at an advantage here.

Kevin De Bruyne of Belgium looks on from the bench after leaving the pitch

Image credit: Getty Images

Italy have a comparable level of talent and a better structural way of playing. If they go 1-0 up, they can turn the heat down and start using their technical quality in midfield to just keep hold of the ball for as long as they want. If they’d rather batten down the hatches and do what Italian sides have always done, they have the experienced centre-backs to make that possible. Italy have played some nice football, but they’re sure to be a streetwise team when needs be.
What can Belgium do? The most obvious thing is to be more proactive in changing the approach. It took until the 87th minute for Martinez to make a sub against Portugal that wasn’t due to injury. Belgium were clearly tired and the game was taking place almost entirely in their own half. They needed fresh legs to get up the pitch and Martinez refused to do it. That’s fairly easy to fix. You have five substitutes, so just use them.
The broader issue might speak more deeply to Martinez as a manager. Everyone knows he likes to play attacking football. Everyone knows he’s an advocate of a technical possession-based style. Even at struggling Wigan Athletic, he still wanted to play the “right way”, which is always admirable. But his teams have never had the necessary control to really do this with the best sides. How many times has a Pep Guardiola team gone 2-0 up and then refused to concede any serious chances through an ability to just keep hold of the ball in midfield? How often did the great World Cup and European Championship-winning Spain side just kill games dead with defensive tiki-taka? Martinez has never been able to do that.
He hails from Catalonia, but spent the better part of his playing and managing career in England and Wales. Despite managing Belgium, he still lives in the North West of England, where he spent the previous seven years to his current job managing Wigan and Everton. It often feels like his football is half-Catalan and half-British. Yes, he has the technical flair and fluid passing rhythms you’d expect from the home of juego de posicion. But his teams have an up and at ‘em, let’s-have-a-go Britishness we might associate with a nation that never quite trusted tactics as much as desire and “getting stuck in”.
This can lead to some thrilling football, but also a lack of sophistication at the worst possible time. At its best, Martinez has the blend of technique and passion that match both cultures. At his worst, he has neither British strength and physicality nor Catalan control to see out games. It’s all a bit fair weather.
If that’s going to remain the case, then Belgium might not have enough for the title. Martinez needs to find another gear to go into. Perhaps he can bring in Dennis Praet at times simply to add an extra body in midfield. Perhaps he could bring on Christian Benteke late, and have two target men to get the ball up the pitch while they’re sitting deep and defending. There is no doubt that the solutions are there in this squad. It’s just a question of whether Martinez can rein in his own principles at the right moments when Belgium just need to get over the line.
International management is about dealing with the hand you’re dealt, not the one you want. If Martinez can get this, there’s not much stopping Belgium from winning the whole thing.
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