Roberto Martínez isn’t afraid to tell you how brilliant he believes he is. After Belgium got past Brazil last week, this is what he told ESPN’s Alex Shaw:
“I’ve never lost a game on the tactics board. It’s about the execution of the tactics.”
With that logic, you’re never going to be wrong. Squeak out a 2-1 win against Brazil despite being thoroughly outplayed? Genius! Lose by a couple of goals somewhere down the line? Well, you see, it’s on the players; the execution. Therefore we can just pin Belgium’s 1-0 semi-final loss to France yesterday on execution, right?
Yesterday, Martínez told Yahoo’s Yann Bernal that Belgium’s defeat “…came down to very small margins.” And he’s not wrong. France didn’t blow the game wide open. They did have better chances more often than Belgium, though. Despite conceding 60 percent of the possession to their opponent, France fired off 19 shots to Belgium’s nine. They only put five on target, though still more than Belgium’s three.
Yet forgetting the final 20 minutes, where France’s play devolved into masterful sh*thousery, Martínez had put his Belgium side at a disadvantage from the beginning. Today we’re not here to talk about the official missing one of the most obvious fouls of the tournament (this one). We’re not here to talk about the official letting time-wasting go until he absolutely had to start punishing it.
We are here to talk about Martínez starting Mousa Dembélé, a decision that put Belgium at a disadvantage for 60 minutes.
When Belgium went 2-0 down to Japan in the Round of 16, Martínez chose to bring on Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli. We all laughed, but it worked out. Fellaini headed home the equalizer while Chadli tapped in the winner. In the quarterfinals against Brazil, Martínez called upon both Fellaini and Chadli to start. We all laughed, but it worked out. Belgium found two first-half goals and held out just long enough. It’s no surprise then that we saw both Fellaini and Chadli in the starting lineup against France.
But what made Martínez go with Dembélé? How did Martínez think playing him alongside both Fellaini and Axel Witsel would work? By selecting this midfield three, he chose to sacrifice Kevin De Bruyne’s creative ability by placing him out wide. Though, N’Golo Kanté made sure KDB wasn’t doing anything regardless. The Tottenham Hotspur midfielder, however, was a liability every moment he was on the field.
Dembélé made 29 passes on Tuesday, completing 26 of them (90 percent). Completing 90 percent of your passes looks good on paper, but none of them led to anything. In fact, most of them went sideways or backwards. Dembélé didn’t make any key passes on Tuesday. He lost eight of 10 duels. He was dispossessed with the ball at his feet just once, but passed it away on multiple occasions in the middle of the field. And because Martínez chose to also play Fellaini and Witsel in this midfield, Belgium were a step behind on every France counter.
And we’re not even mentioning the fact that Paul Pogba made him look like a child whenever they clashed in midfield.
More than anything, the 30-year-old simply looked too slow to keep up. So slow, in fact, that he committed four separate fouls with at least two resulting in dangerous free kick opportunities. Whenever France broke, Dembélé was a step behind. He was either out of position or too slow to recover at every turn.
When he’s at his best, the Tottenham midfielder is able to hold off opponents with his strength. He’s able to dribble around two or three opponents with ease before dumping the ball off. France didn’t let him do that on Tuesday. They didn’t let him breathe. It was a mismatch from the beginning. But it all comes back to Martínez. We don’t understand why he chose to start him in this, the biggest game Belgium have ever faced.
Before the semi-final, Dembélé had just 110 minutes under his belt in Russia. It came between being a sub with his side 3-0 up against Panama and playing all 90 in a semi-meaningless group finale against England. So he plays 20 minutes in the opener, 90 minutes in a match against neither side tried to win, doesn’t play for the next two knockout matches and then you throw him in against France? Martínez should have to answer for that.
Had Martínez not played Dembélé, like he chose to do for most of the tournament, maybe this goes differently. While it was Fellaini that didn’t get to Samuel Umtiti’s header in the 51st minute, it’s Dembélé’s presence that hindered Belgium for an hour on Tuesday. That’s on Martínez.
And now Belgium are going home.