Belgium will need to emulate Martinez's Wigan in World Cup quarter-final against Brazil
The great escape against Japan resembled plenty of occasions when Martinez pulled off similar victories while a club manager in England
Marouane Fellaini had just pulled Belgium level when David Sharpe drew a comparison with 2011. “Roberto special this,” he tweeted. “West Ham at home. Conor Sammon and N’Zogbia. Now for a last minute winner!!” It proved eerily prophetic. Nacer Chadli popped up in injury time to realise his prediction.
Sharpe, for the uninitiated, is Wigan Athletic’s chairman. "Roberto" is Roberto Martinez. Seven years ago, Wigan were losing 2-0 at half-time in their penultimate fixture. Relegation would be ratified. Martinez made a double substitution. A purist sent on a big lump. For Sammon, read Fellaini. For Wigan, read Belgium. For West Ham United, read Japan.
Belgium’s astonishing comeback might not have been Martinez’s most remarkable act of escapology. Nor, even was the fightback against West Ham when a subsequent win against Stoke City kept Wigan up. The following year, Wigan took 21 points from their first 29 games and then, with ludicrous brilliance, 22 from the last nine.
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Perhaps no other manager does both 3-2 wins and 3-2 defeats quite like the Spaniard, just as there is something Martinez-esque in the reality his last two losses have been to Sunderland and Spain.
A footballing life less ordinary took an extraordinary turn in Rostov. Belgium assumed their expected place in the World Cup quarter-finals, but in unexpected style. They overloaded in attack, using an inspired form of chaos theory, after Martinez discarded his Johan Cruyff influences and borrowed a tactic from Jose Mourinho’s handbook by summoning Fellaini and going direct.
There was a point when he had stood passively on the touchline, as though shocked by Japan’s quickfire double. Appearances can be deceptive. On came Fellaini and Chadli, the eventual match-winner and such an attack-minded player that he was an unlikely choice to be a left wing-back, even for Martinez.
It revived memories of his debut season at Everton, when he made a series of catalytic substitutions, and 1970, the last time a team came from 2-0 down to win a World Cup knockout game. Helmut Schon, the great German manager, now has Martinez for company.
And so to just Belgium’s third World Cup quarter-final, to Brazil. “You need to understand they are the best team in the World Cup,” Martinez said.
There has long been a theory that he would have to either rein in his attacking instincts or lose. “We have to have a real understanding of how to play against a team like that,” added the manager. “We have to have real clarity to play against players like Neymar and Philippe Coutinho."
The presence of winger Yannick Carrasco – let alone Chadli – at left wing-back would be a risk. Martinez perhaps ought to revert to 4-3-3 to give Belgium a numerical advantage against Brazil’s front three. His side have conceded two each to Tunisia and Japan, whereas Brazil’s defence have only been breached once in the competition.
Quite apart from the tactical element – and some want to see Kevin de Bruyne unleashed further forward, which could entail bringing in Mousa Dembele and dropping Dries Mertens – there is the question of psychology.
Martinez talked about a “winning mentality” and a “test of character” against Japan. That mentality will be required. Belgium’s golden generation looked timid in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. They lost their nerve altogether in the last eight of Euro 2016 against Wales.
Facing Brazil is a psychological as well as a footballing test. Martinez’s Belgium are unbeaten in 23 games, though none against a team of Brazil’s stature.
So instead they may hark back to his Wigan days. Martinez had a habit of recording shock wins against the favourites. Once again, Belgium need Martinez to bring something of Wigan to the World Cup.
Updated: July 3, 2018 12:19 PM