Kevin De Bruyne. Photo: goal.com
Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne was not about to shout the odds in public with Roberto Martínez – not on the eve of Belgium’s World Cup semi-final against France. But everybody knew what he wanted.
The Manchester City midfielder has occupied different roles at the tournament and it feels as though there have been no grey areas in how they should be judged. In the opening two group games against Tunisia and Panama, plus most of the last-16 meeting with Japan, Martínez played him as one of his two deep-lying central midfielders in a 3-4-2-1 formation. De Bruyne looked smooth on the ball, as always, but did he get into positions to hurt the opposition?
With Belgium staring at a 0-2 scoreline against Japan and elimination, Martínez made the change that kept Belgium’s hopes alive. He introduced Marouane Fellaini and pushed De Bruyne further forward. After Fellaini had headed the equaliser, it was De Bruyne’s 60-yard run that led to the last-minute winner from another substitute, Nacer Chadli.
There has been much made of Martínez’s tactical gamble in the quarter-final against Brazil. In what was arguably the biggest game of his career, he moved away from his tried and trusted back three to play what was loosely a 4-3-3, with De Bruyne as a false 9, dropping off from a central attacking role and rampaging in between Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard.
How it worked. Belgium were 2-0 up before Brazil could stop the bleeding and it took them to only the second World Cup semi-final of their history. The first was in 1986 when they were beaten 2-0 by Diego Maradona’s Argentina. Maradona scored twice.
Martínez said here on Monday that he had finessed the tactical plan for Brazil in only one session, which added to the wow factor. But there could be little doubt that De Bruyne was the one who drove its execution. He was electric in the first half, showcasing not just his incisiveness but his intelligence.
Martínez faces selection dilemmas against France, not least how to replace the suspended right wing-back, Thomas Meunier. He is expected to recall Yannick Carrasco on the left and swap Chadli to the right. Kylian Mbappé versus Carrasco is a worry for Belgium fans. But surely the most pressing issue concerns where to play De Bruyne; how to construct the platform from which he can wreak maximum havoc.
“My role changes all the time,” De Bruyne said. “It is to create opportunities and to give passes that my teammates can use to make the difference – like in the last game, when I played a bit more forward. I thought the fact I can play vertically and have a direct style could help. For the semi-final, it can change; I don’t know yet. But I think that’s what it’s going to be.”
Not surprisingly Martínez argued that the judgment of De Bruyne’s performances in the deeper role had been unfair. He suggested the midfielder’s playmaking work was perhaps not as striking but it remained important. Martínez, though, appeared to concede the point when he considered why De Bruyne was so eye-catching.
“He is a modern playmaker,” Martínez said. “Some playmakers stop the tempo but Kevin goes even quicker. His execution is exceptional and so in the final third his performance is very attractive and then he gets bigger recognition.”
Martínez is expected to revert to 3-4-2-1 but with De Bruyne in an attacking role and Fellaini keeping his place in central midfield. Fellaini’s battle with his Manchester United teammate Paul Pogba is among the subplots and a Premier League flavour will underpin the familiarity between these European neighbours. Belgium have 12 players in England’s top division to France’s five.
Didier Deschamps knows that his screening midfielder, N’Golo Kanté, has a vital role to play against his Chelsea club-mate Eden Hazard, together with De Bruyne, but he noted the number that Kanté had done on Argentina’s Lionel Messi in the last 16. “We didn’t see much of Messi when he played us,” the manager said.
Deschamps will surely suspect that Belgium could be vulnerable on the flanks and he is under pressure to target whoever plays on the right – most likely Chadli – with an attacking player such as Thomas Lemar rather than Blaise Matuidi, who is more of a midfield runner. But Matuidi brings balance to the lineup and the feeling, in general, is that France have looked settled and disciplined, and retain the capacity to lash out through Mbappé.
Deschamps did not exactly do that to Martínez but it was possible to detect an undercurrent to one of his comments about his opposite number, who is currently enjoying tactical genius status. “I don’t want to offend Roberto Martínez but, of course, he benefited from [his predecessor] Marc Wilmots’s work,” Deschamps said. “He has put his mark on this team but he had great potential with this group.” This is a tie that could be explosive.