Against Panama, Belgium’s flaws were not enough to evaporate the vast gap between themselves and their opponents. Hernán Darío Gómez’s side tired badly in Sochi as Romelu Lukaku made his early case for the World Cup Golden Boot with international goal number 26 and 27 since the start of 2016. It might sound deeply patronising, but Panama really are in Russia for a good time, not a long time.
But just because a side’s deficiencies do not affect the end result, they can still leave lingering doubts in the mind. Elite club management is often sold as an easy job. Massive financial expenditure affords you a collection of brilliant individuals. All you have to do is pick 11 of them and sit back as they perform. Someone should probably have told Roberto Martinez.
This Belgium team, who flattered to deceive under Marc Wilmots at Euro 2016, almost forgot to flatter against Panama, poor until the last 20 minutes when their low-ranking opponents fatigued. At their worst, Belgium look like a control experiment for great management, a wonderful collection of individual talents left out to rust in the wind and rain.
Martinez chose to use three central defenders against a team who barely attempted to attack. Martinez chose Yannick Carrasco as a left wing-back, when he is so obviously weak in that role. Martinez asked Kevin de Bruyne to collect the ball from the defenders during the first half, leaving him 70 yards from goal. Martinez picked Axel Witsel as a screen for a defence that needed no screening.
The three-man defensive shape was particularly odd given that Belgium have suffered injuries to both Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen in the build-up to the tournament. That meant a start for Dedryck Boyata of Celtic, who simultaneously hung around on the periphery of the game and yet played in between Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen in the heart of defence.
Despite the extra cover, Carrasco still managed to leave his team exposed. One of the lasting images of the game was of Vertonghen screaming at his teammate to track back. Carrasco responded with the doe eyes of a man desperately out of his comfort zone.
When playing against a team intent only on defending, only quick passing avoids every player being double-marked. In the first half, Belgium were reliant on Eden Hazard or Mertens beating two or three players just to service Lukaku. When that didn’t work they just hit it long from deep. Lukaku’s seven first-half touches indicate their success in that task.
Belgium did improve after the break, and not just because Mertens scored a spectacular goal to open up the game. De Bruyne moved further forward and there was a slight increase in fluidity between the four most attacking players. His cross with the outside of his boot for Lukaku’s first goal was a flash of his Manchester City self, but the general demeanour is still one of frustration.
Martinez might argue that only the result is king at the World Cup, and that performance does not matter in the group stages. But it does matter when a nation has its doubts. And it will matter, because Belgium will face far sterner tests. This was the team that prompted De Bruyne to criticise Martine’s tactics last year, not the mythical one that has been tipped to win a major international tournament, whatever the scoreline might make you believe.
“Yes, this is a golden generation in terms of the quality of the players because they are fulfilling big roles at club level now and have developed a winning-mentality,” Martinez said in December 2017. “But World Cups don’t understand about ‘golden generations’ or big reputations. They understand about being a team and being able to perform.”
World Cups might understand it, but the manager has still not been able to spread the good word to his players. The best managers make a team greater than the sum of its parts. Given the talent at his disposal Martinez has a harder task of achieving that than most, but nothing changed in Sochi. Every compliment of this Belgium team is still followed by a ‘but’.