Bengaluru: Belgian coach Roberto Martinez basked in accolades for being a brilliant tactician after a turnaround from 0-2 down against Japan and a 2-1 triumph over five-time champions and World Cup favourites Brazil. Then he gambled again and lost by a solitary goal to the cool Les Bleus who called his bluff in the semi-final.
Such is the fickleness of a low-scoring sport like football that a coach goes from being a mastermind in one game to being human and fallible in the next. The same duo of Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli who came on as substitutes and triggered the comeback against Japan proved Martinez’s undoing in the end.
Fellaini has been a fringe player Manchester United almost let go. Chadli has been mostly absent with injury while his club West Brom got relegated from the Premier League last season. Neither player was in the starting line-up for Belgium at the kickoff of its World Cup campaign.
It all changed when Belgium was staring down the abyss at two goals down with 21 minutes to go against Japan. Martinez sent in the beanpole Fellaini who used his height advantage over the Japanese to head in a goal. The athletic Chadli came on next and made the sprint in the last-minute counter-attack to score the winner.
Martinez doubled his bet against Brazil. Fellaini and Chadli went from being late stage disruptors to starting the game. They played a key role too as defensive midfielders to thwart Neymar and Coutinho while Belgium confused the Brazilian defence by switching to a 4-3-3 formation. Kevin De Bruyne played as a false 9 centre-forward, floating up and down and interchanging places with Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard on the flanks.
Martinez then tore up the game plan that had worked like a dream against Brazil. Perhaps he felt compelled to do so in the absence of his solid right back Thomas Meunier who picked up a second yellow card in the quarter-final and was suspended.
Chadli now played as the right back who also ran up the flank. Mostly he just passed the ball back from there. It was only when Napoli winger Dries Mertens came on as a substitute later that crosses began to flow.
If it was surprising to see Chadli in this new role, it was even more so when he stepped up to take Belgium’s corner kicks. All five were wasted. France earned one corner less than Belgium, but converted a curler from free kick specialist Antoine Griezmann for the only goal of the match. Griezmann’s Belgian counterpart Hazard had the class to produce deliveries of that quality, but he was hanging back in a midfield role.
De Bruyne had also moved back to being a midfield playmaker, with Martinez opting to push Fellaini forward on the left. But he managed only one header of note, which missed the target. His tall Manchester United teammate Paul Pogba had his measure for most of the game. It was also a Fellaini nod-off in corner kick defence that allowed Samuel Umtiti, who is five inches shorter, to rise in front of him and score France’s goal.
Martinez had the best potential forward line of the tournament in Lukaku, Hazard, and De Bruyne, who could have outclassed a French attack where Olivier Giroud has looked sluggish, with not one shot on goal so far in the tournament. But in the end, the Belgian coach got carried away with his Fellaini-Chadli gamble, reduced a well-marked Lukaku into a spectator, and denied neutral fans the joy of seeing three classy Belgians combine in attack like they did against Brazil.
France, in contrast to the hyperactive think-tank of Belgium, remained calm and collected, absorbing the initial flurry from a star-studded opposition, gradually turning the tide, and in the end coolly defending a 1-0 lead for 40 minutes. They had just 39% of the possession and fewer shots at goal, but as this World Cup has shown time and again, it’s what you do with the ball that counts. It was France who controlled the game.
Didier Deschamps is one game away from completing a double by winning the World Cup as captain of France in 1998 and now as the coach. He has an abundance of talent in the lightning speed of Kylian Mbappe, who also showed nifty ball skill in the semi-final, complemented by Griezmann on the forward line. The defence is solid, and the midfield of N’golo Kante and Pogba have shown their mettle. But it’s the French discipline to not go chasing after the game—except when they were 1-2 behind against Argentina—that makes the team formidable.
Belgium thrives on counter-attack, too, but France made it dance to its tune, and ultimately made a super-talented side look ragged. The calculating Deschamps scored over the two-card trick of Martinez.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.