It could have been six or seven. As Everton swept aside a horribly lacklustre Manchester United at Goodison Park in late April 2014 that was perhaps the only complaint Roberto Martinez could have had. The 2-0 victory, coming just a fortnight after a 3-0 home win over Arsenal, kept Everton one point outside the top four with three games to go. Everton were flying and Martinez, 12 months after lifting the FA Cup with Wigan, was becoming one of the most respected young managers in Europe.
Nothing has quite gone right since that day. Defeats to Southampton and Manchester City ended their Champions League dream and the next two seasons brought consecutive 11th placed finishes. Martinez was sacked and, rightly or wrongly, labelled as a naive idealist too fervently pursuing elegant football to notice the chaos in defence. Football is a fickle, ruthless business.
And so news of Belgium’s appointment is viewed by some as another farcical mishandling of the golden generation, and another example of that peculiar Belgian paradox; they can cultivate tactically astute footballers to a world-class standard, but somehow have no idea how to fit the pieces together. A Gary Lineker tweet perhaps best captures the general mood:
Fast-tracking a senior youth coach might have redressed this conundrum, although Martinez – for all his faults over the past two years on Merseyside – is a surprisingly astute choice. The Belgium squad is well equipped to accentuate the ex-Everton manager’s key strengths and limit the impact of his weaknesses, whilst Martinez’s cup record and man-management skills make him ideal for international football.
Marc Wilmot’s team – clumsy; passive; uncontrolled - may have smudged the blueprints for Belgium’s tactical identity but a cohesive vision does exist. In Martinez, the Belgian FA have sought out a candidate that can more ruthlessly impose a system of patient-but-penetrative possession football. The aesthetic should be one of grace and composure, with an emphasis on control at the heart of their ideology.
In their prime Everton were scintillating to watch. Their criss-crossing diagonal runs were honed from hours of work on the training ground, their complex interplay a muscle-memory action mascaraing as telepathy. The reverse passes, the decoy runs, the three-point incision; Romelu Lukaku, Gerard Deulofeu and Steven Naismith were not acting randomly or even instinctively. Martinez brings to Belgium an attack-coaching expertise that should see Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi and Lukaku flourish together.
But it was Belgium’s defending that cost them dearly in France. De Bruyne and Hazard, both famously chastised by Jose Mourinho for their work ethic, failed to support the back four and, more often than not, Wilmot’s side played in two distinct halves. Four hang up top, six stay back. Forget the stuttering fluency caused by this chasm; Belgium simply didn’t have enough bodies to defend.
Martinez, considerably more tactically astute than his predecessor, will not allow this theme to continue. His particular weakness is organising a back four and to a certain extent the Belgian defenders can organise themselves. In the absence of managerial leadership, John Stones and Phil Jagielka - one too old and one too young - were unable to micro-manage Everton’s defensive shape. But Belgium possess a born leader that does this week in week out.
Man City look lost without Vincent Kompany and yet the chaos completely evaporates once their captain is restored; under Manuel Pellegrini, it became clear that he was the chief organiser of City’s defence. Kompany can fulfil a similar role with Belgium, hiding his new manager’s flaws in the process.
Martinez’s strengths far outweigh his main weakness (which was emphasised by personnel deficiencies Belgium do not have). Everton’s run to the FA Cup semi-final last season demonstrated, once again, Martinez’s cup success, which is usually a good indicator of international suitability. His motivational and man-management skills – so crucial in tournament football – are proved by the numerous young players he nurtured successfully at Goodison Park.
And Belgium’s squad is full of young players. When Belgium crashed out of Euro 2016 pundits lamented the wasting of their golden generation, but this is a crucial misunderstanding of what is happening in Belgian football. This is not an anomalous batch. This is the first shipment from a new production line; for evidence, take a look at Yannick Carrasco, Michy Batshuayi, Divock Origi and Youri Tielemans.
At Swansea City, Martinez was praised for installing a tactical aesthetic that remained the hallmark of the club long after his departure. If he can deliver something similar for Belgium – a newly elite nation in unfamiliar territory – then he will have succeeded. At which point his final two years on Merseyside will be viewed as a minor blip on an otherwise outstanding CV.