This may be a golden generation of Belgian players, but increasingly its coach seems to be made of lead.
The Royal Belgian Football Federation mounted a PR campaign around the World Cup that was largely successful in deflecting blame away from Marc Wilmots – and for many a quarter-final place represented a decent outcome despite a string of indifferent performances – but increasingly the pressure is mounting on the Belgium manager.
Italy, perhaps, were the worst possible team for Belgium to start against, their opposite in many respects. Belgium are a team packed with star names, with more star names on the bench; it is arguable that no Italy side at any previous tournament has had so few household names. Italy have in Antonio Conte an extremely intelligent, driven, hard-working coach who puts his side through rigorous tactical drills. Wilmots’ approach, it is fair to say, is rather different.
Last Friday Wilmots had his first XI take on the other squad members, whom he arranged in a 3-5-2 formation in a rough approximation of the shape Italy took up on Monday. His first team lost 4-0. That is not a particularly unusual occurrence in training matches – reserve players are often more committed, even if that is only subconscious – but it did suggest work needed to be done. The next day, there was another training game but this time the reserves were given no specific tactical instructions. That now looks like the grossest negligence.
Injuries, it’s true, have made Wilmots’ job harder, but he hasn’t helped himself. When Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts were ruled out through injury, Wilmots announced that Jason Denayer would take over as his first-choice centre-back. One poor game against Norway, though, was all it took for him to be jettisoned. So now Toby Alderweireld has been moved inside from full-back and described as the leader of the defence. In itself, that is not a bad idea, but it is hard to see how anybody can really lead the defence from the middle when they played at full-back up to the start of the tournament.
Quite apart from betraying the confused thinking behind the squad, such statements can also psychologically unsettle the players, something the HLN columnist and former Belgium striker Marc Degryse, once of Sheffield Wednesday, has been at pains to point out. Wilmots, for his part, accuses HLN, a Flemish-language paper, of mounting a campaign against him because he is Walloon. But Degryse’s point about Wilmots never admitting errors was surely demonstrated by his comments after the defeat to Italy, when he blamed Romelu Lukaku for missing a chance and Alderweireld for the opening goal.
“Wilmots is playing with fire,” Degryse said. “Players do not like a coach who blames others after a defeat. Wilmots has refused to discuss his responsibility. This is the first time he has been under pressure with Belgium and it must hurt him to hear from all sides that he has been tactically outclassed by Conte. No coach appreciates this sort of remark. But when you respond by not accepting blame and point only at your players, it is a risk. The group could split into those who are for him and those who are against.”
Wilmots, whose side take on the Republic of Ireland in Bordeaux on Saturday, is perhaps also disadvantaged by the fact that so many of his players have developed under Diego Simeone, José Mourinho and Mauricio Pochettino, even to an extent Jürgen Klopp, coaches who give their players a very clear roadmap. The likes of Jan Vertonghen, Alderweireld, Eden Hazard and Yannick Carrasco are all used to managers who offer very detailed instructions. They are not used to improvising on a vague theme.
That perhaps explains why Kevin De Bruyne has so consistently been Belgium’s most effective player since the World Cup. Even then, though, there are doubts as to whether he and Hazard can thrive at the same time, an issue Wilmots has not even come close to resolving.
Perhaps with a tactically smart assistant, Wilmots could have got away with it, but his coaching staff have a reputation of being yes-men. His No2, Vital Borkelmans, gets on well with the players and is widely popular but a master strategist he is not. And that is another reason why the absence of Kompany is so vital. He was somebody who provided a bridge between players and management, a role that included making tactical suggestions.
As it is, Belgium are left with a coach who rarely practises attacking movement, who is widely perceived as old-fashioned and who is seemingly too in thrall to the celebrities in his squad to ever consider dropping one of them for the sake of greater cohesion. Belgium would not be the first golden generation to be let down by a coach incapable of making hard tactical decisions, but their lack of incisiveness in that opening game was still an indictment of the lack of leadership offered by Wilmots.
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