The overwhelming sentiment surrounding the Belgian National Team, following their elimination to Wales at Euro 2016, was that the previous six years under coach Marc Wilmots, had been six years wasted.
Having spent that time working with the richest generation of talent the country has ever seen, the performances of his side this summer were a huge disappointment, not just for Belgium fans, but for many neutrals who have followed and expected big things from this group of players for a long time.
Sadly, they showed all of the issues and limitations in France that they have struggled with for years and a change in leadership was obviously needed.
What wasn’t at all obvious, given the nature of those limitations, namely, an overall lack of cohesion, poor game management and very questionable defending at times, was that the man to take the side forward, should have been Roberto Martinez – the man whose Everton side had come in for similar criticisms for the duration of the previous Premier League season.
Things didn’t get off to an especially promising start either. In his first match against Spain, Belgium looked completely out of their depth.
Two fine saves from Thibaut Courtois, and a shot from Kevin De Bruyne which grazed the bar, being the only moments of quality it what was otherwise a complete hammering.
With star players reaching the end of their peak years, the next World Cup in Russia may represent Belgium’s best chance to compete seriously in a major tournament for decades.
Big improvements will need to be made by Martinez in that time if they are to be genuine competitors. And some key decisions will need to be made quickly if those improvements are to be realised. At least four key questions come to mind…
1) Who should be captain?
When Eden Hazard was named captain in the absence of Vincent Kompany, the sense was that it was a decision made with the aim of improving and inspiring the Chelsea player himself, rather than being a decision made with the entire team in mind.
Belgium look utterly devoid of leadership without Kompany, but the City captain’s terrible injury record means he can’t be relied upon to be there to guide his team in Russia, and it seems apparent that Hazard can’t be trusted to take on the responsibility either.
Martinez should consider the appointment of his vice-captain carefully. With Tottenham centre-half duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld perhaps the most obvious candidates.
2) How will he line up the defence?
The one and only problem with this current Belgium squad is its utter dearth of talent in the full-back positions. New PSG signing Thomas Meunier looks a clear level below the majority of his colleagues, while Jordan Lukaku was abysmal against Spain and for now at least, is clearly not a player of international calibre.
Wimots’ most common solution was to use Alderweireld and Vertonghen as make-shift full-backs whilst partnering Kompany with either Thomas Vermaelen or Nico Lombaerts in the centre. This may remain Martinez’s best choice, but either way, he should decide soon to establish some consistency over the next couple of years.
3) How can he get the best out of Hazard?
Just 14 goals for Belgium in his 70 appearances represents an average return for a player of the Chelsea man’s quality.
After the World Cup in Brazil, seemingly tired with his inconsistency, Wilmots moved the emphasis of the team away from serving Hazard and instead looked to build around De Bruyne, whose last 18 months have been exceptional, but who was as equally disappointing at the Euros.
The Manchester City star was booed by home fans last week when he was subbed against Spain, with many feeling he let the side down. Martinez has two of the best attacking players in the world at his disposal and if he is going to be successful, he needs to do what his predecessor never could and find a way to get the best of both of them for Belgium.
4) Who should be first choice striker?
More than any, the position of striker gives Martinez a particularly difficult decision, as he has a plethora of very good, but no truly great options. Romelu Lukaku has a decent scoring record, but has been criticised often for poor hold up and link play.
Christian Benteke is a good target man, but more suited to a direct counter attacking side, and to play long balls for him would be a waste of the technical quality Belgium have in midfield. Michy Batshuayi is a good all-round striker, but is fairly inexperienced and may not get many chances behind Diego Costa at Chelsea this season.
Divock Origi may be his best long-term option, but he may also struggle for game time, as arguably Jurgen Klopp’s fifth choice striker to play in his front three at Liverpool.
Of all the places to try and rebuild his career after failing at Everton, Martinez could have picked a number of easier places to work. Expectations of this side remain extremely high; failure to reach the latter stages of a major tournament with this group would constitute clear underachievement.
However, the Spaniard is a coach who has also overachieved spectacularly in his career and created some exceptionally entertaining and effective attacking sides. It will be fascinating to see what he can do with this team.
Success is far from guaranteed, but his appointment has undoubtedly made one of the most interesting national teams in the world a good deal more interesting, all of a sudden.