When Nacer Chadli turned home from close range in the 94th minute to seal Belgium’s World Cup quarter-final spot, it was a triumph for Roberto Martinez.
Chadli made just five appearances in the Premier League last season, totalling 214 minutes. Only 38 of those came in 2018, after the 28-year-old’s season had been wrecked by injury.
But Martinez is a big fan of Chadli and had been impressed by the West Brom winger during his early experiments with a 3-4-3 formation, when using the ex-Spurs man in a role at wing-back.
With Jordan Lukaku having failed to convince, partially down to performance and partially down to injury, Martinez elected to take Chadli to the finals.
When he raced from one penalty box to the other and put the finishing move on a quite stunning counter-attack to book a battle with Brazil in the cauldron of Kazan, that decision was completely vindicated.
The counter-attack which broke Japanese hearts, perhaps undeservedly, is one of the goals of the tournament. Arguably, as a collective work of art, it is its best. Chadli applied the finishing touch, but everything that led to him turning past Elji Kawashima was magnificent. From the quick bowl out by Thibaut Courtois, to Thomas Meunier’s cross, and Romelu Lukaku’s outstanding move to drag a defender out of position, and then his dummy for Chadli to have the chance, it was a stunning team move.
And at it’s heart, the driving force who powered 60 yards through the heart of Rostov-on-Don, was Kevin de Bruyne.
In 94 minutes, it was the first time that the Manchester City man had been allowed to rip through the field and produce something like we see him do at the Etihad week in, week out.
There was no questioning when 30 yards from the Japanese goal, with Lukaku dragging the defender one way and Meunier streaking into space, that he would pick the correct pass. It was never in doubt that it would be perfectly-timed or weighted.
The question that remains however, is why did it take him so long?
And for that, we simply have to come back to Martinez.
De Bruyne is a fabulous footballer, capable of filling a variety of roles. What he certainly isn’t is some Jack of all trades who you move around a field to plug a gap; rather, he is the lynchpin around whom you should build, to enable that individual’s light to shine brighter, and thus allow the brightness of others to also be enhanced.
Pep Guardiola has found the ideal role for the Ghent-born star at City, playing in his ‘free No.8 role’ operating in the half spaces and being allowed to go and stamp his authority on games in the final third.
Unfortunately for De Bruyne with his national team, Martinez’s desire to use a 3-4-3 formation and utilise a front trio of Romelu Lukaku, Dries Martens and Eden Hazard means De Bruyne is operating as a deep-lying midfielder too far from the area in which he really excels.
Now that might be OK if his partner at the heart of the team was an N’Golo Kante, someone who can cover every blade of grass in front of a defence and would still liberate De Bruyne to move forwards as and when the game dictates and he sees fit.
In fact Martinez does have a player capable of doing just that, Mousa Dembele. But other than 16 minutes against Panama, and 90 minutes in the England dead rubber – in which the Spurs man was man of the match – he has been left on the bench in Russia.
As such, that has meant De Bruyne being partnered by Axel Witsel, now plying his trade in China. Simply, that does little other than shackle De Bruyne, Witsel’s lack of mobility meaning that he cannot push too far forwards and doing what he does best for fear of leaving space that the ex-Zenit man simply cannot cover.
The current system, as the opening 65 minutes against Japan showed, inhibits De Bruyne. When Belgium meet Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final, they will be delighted if he spends the majority of his time sitting in front of the back three.
Amid the desperation of being 2-0 down however, Martinez may well have lucked out and found a solution.Sometimes it is better to be a lucky manager than a good one.
His decision to swap Mertens with Fellaini, and go to more of a 3-5-1-1 with Fellaini and De Bruyne both alongside Witsel, pushing up as Belgium chased the game and went more direct paid dividends; Jan Vertonghen’s fortunate goal helped certainly helped, allowing Belgium to take back the impetus, with Fellaini scoring shortly after to equalise.
Certainly, if they play 3-4-3 with De Bruyne and Witsel together against a Brazil side that is yet to concede from open play and for whom goalkeeper Alisson has barely made a save worthy of note, then they will be picked apart. Brazil are ominously shifting through the gears and were far too good for a dangerous Mexico in the last 16.
World Cup 2018 second round matches
But drafting in Dembele, with his power and skill on the ball, can both tighten up that midfield area and allow De Bruyne more freedom to attack, to drive past opponents, to do what he does best and bend games to his will.
Martinez’s willingness to wait and his man-management of Chadli should be applauded and he received his reward with the winner that killed off the Blue Samurai
But it will be scandalous mismanagement if De Bruyne is once more shackled when Belgium face their biggest ever match against the tournament favourites on Friday.
World Cup quarter-final: Who wins? Belgium or Brazil
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