Robert Martinez got his game plan right vs. Brazil. Getty
Nick Ames, ESPN.com writer
Kazan, Russia — Roberto Martinez wore a beaming smile as he walked out of Kazan Arena, shook whichever hands were offered and boarded the team bus. Somebody was playing the unofficial Euro 2016 anthem “Freed from Desire” at full volume on the stereo; if the Belgium manager wanted a moment to gather his thoughts then, for the length of the journey back to their hotel, he was probably better off giving himself up to the party.
The festivities were well earned. Belgium had ridden their luck in the latter stages of their 2-1 win vs. Brazil but eventually prevailed and, on an historic night, Martinez had to take much of the praise.
For much of his managerial career, he has been depicted as an idealist, quixotically pursuing a brand of technical, attacking football while falling short on the finer tactical details. That charge will seem dated with more demonstrations like this: Martinez comprehensively outwitted Brazil’s Tite, who had won plenty of plaudits, and was rewarded for a bold selection that blew Belgium’s opponents away at times.
“When you say you play a certain way, as a player you need to be brave to accept it,” Martinez said in his postmatch news conference. “And these boys changed their tactical disposition in two days. They approached it. That’s nothing to do with tactics, but all with desire. Everyone wanted this to make it happen. I couldn’t be more proud as a coach. The players executed it to perfection.”
That could be read as a ringing endorsement faith in his judgement. Martinez knew Brazil set great stock in the forward maraudings of Marcelo, who might not have been fully fit after missing most of the 180 minutes against Serbia and Mexico because of a back injury, and deployed Romelu Lukaku to pin him back on the Belgium right.
Lukaku ended up wreaking havoc, having particular fun against left-sided centre-back Miranda, and Kevin De Bruyne excelled in the “false nine” position. With Eden Hazard also to the fore, in the opening period, Brazil simply could not cope with the speed and movement they faced.
“We switched things up tactically speaking,” man-of-the-match De Bruyne said. “They tried to create many opportunities with Marcelo on the flank; in the first half we played well, generated a lot of opportunities and they didn’t know what to do.”
The plan worked perfectly and, although the second half became increasingly frayed, Belgium did enough to see off a fierce Brazil rally. Martinez had achieved something none of the Selecao‘s previous opponents had really looked like doing: He had managed to undo Brazil’s defence on a consistent basis.
Belgium bewildered a unit that had barely given up a chance since conceding to Switzerland in their opening game. Brazil had kept a busy Mexico side at arm’s length and the suspicion was they might do the same here; instead Martinez went toe to toe and came out the winner.
“Sometimes you are imbalanced and the opponent has quality,” Tite said, making clear in his next statement that he felt goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, whose late save from Neymar was breathtaking, had made been the difference between the two teams.
Tite was correct to mention balance: Belgium’s was better. Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel patrolled midfield expertly, laying the groundwork for those in front to shine, and you wondered just how much the suspension of Casemiro had upset Brazil.
Tite downplayed the Real Madrid man’s absence in the build-up and was keen to defend Fernandinho afterward, but there was little protection for that beleaguered back four as Belgium countered repeatedly; rarely in the game did Brazil, for all their near misses, really appear in control.
They will have to go away and rebuild, perhaps under a new manager, although this was hardly a disastrous performance and there is some merit in the argument that, in this one-off clash, the fine margins simply failed to go their way.
But this was a game ultimately won in the dugout, and Martinez will need his team to be similarly receptive to instructions in Tuesday’s semifinal against a France side that appears to be growing by the match.
“They’ve done something special tonight and I hope everyone in Belgium is very, very proud,” Martinez said. “It has created a nice memory and we should treasure it.”
Martinez certainly will; in some ways this was a vindication of his ability as a coach, and if his current momentum persists then his stock will only rise.
“We made the dream true,” Belgium right-back Thomas Meunier said just before getting on that pulsating team bus. He and Martinez may not have been able to congratulate each other above the din but, by virtue of this win, they are closer to the biggest celebration in football.