After going down 2-0 to Japan, Roberto Martinez finally changed his tactics. That ultimately led to Belgium winning the match in the 94th minute after a perfectly executed counter attack. Martinez brought in Chadli and Fellaini after going down 2-0 but the most important change that happened was moving Kevin de Bruyne up.
Martinez has insisted on playing a 3-4-3 system. While that’s a perfectly viable formation for a World Cup squad, he has one of the best playmakers in the world, Kevin De Bruyne, in a more disciplined position in a double pivot with Witsel. For Manchester City, Pep has Kevin de Bruyne playing a free eight role which allows him to be all over the pitch. Rather than changing the system to fit his players, Martinez has shoehorned players into unnatural positions in order to keep the system the same. That stubbornness almost proved costly against Japan and while Belgium won, that system can’t continue against Brazil.
Martinez’s mismanagement of Kevin De Bruyne will ultimately determine Belgium’s fate in the World Cup.
Kevin De Bruyne is an attacking visionary and excels in a position where he is given freedom to roam around the pitch and doesn’t have to worry about his defensive duties. Martinez’s system forces De Bruyne to stay with Witsel in front of the defense in a deep role. Unfortunately for Belgium, De Bruyne, because of his tendency to play more of an attacking role, moves up a lot and leaves Witsel behind to cover 2 positions. In trying to influence Belgium’s attacking play, De Bruyne harmed his team defensively. Martinez’s system lets him down by asking him to perform two roles, one of which is a far cry from his usual role in Pep’s system. Despite that, Kevin De Bruyne has excelled in that position by creating the most big chances at the World Cup as well as having two assists. People won’t talk about Kevin De Bruyne’s great World Cup because it hasn’t been flashy but he has succeeded in spite of Martinez
Not only is Kevin De Bruyne’s positioning a problem but his partner in the pivot is a problem as well. Roberto Martinez seems unwilling to change his formation in this World Cup so he must change who De Bruyne is partnered with. Witsel is not a bad defensive midfielder when paired with a great defensive midfielder but De Bruyne is not that.
De Bruyne vs. Japan pushed up very often and as seen in the above screenshot, he was dragged out of position thanks to Martinez’s instructions to push high up the pitch.
De Bruyne pushing up to help the offense, vacates the space near Witsel and leads to Japan’s second goal. Witsel can cover his own space but when asked to cover De Bruyne’s space as well is too much for him. Kevin de Bruyne playing as a deep lying midfielder might be OK if his partner at the heart of the team was an N’Golo Kante, someone who can cover every blade of grass in front of a defence and would still liberate De Bruyne to move forwards as and when the game dictates and he sees fit. Unfortunately Witsel isn’t that but Martinez does have an option off the bench in Moussa Dembele. If Martinez were to play Dembele next to De Bruyne, Belgium would be able to use De Bruyne to almost his full potential.
For Belgium to beat Brazil, Roberto Martinez has two options, both revolving around Kevin De Bruyne. The first would be to change into a 3-5-1-1, like they did after 65 minutes vs. Japan or a 4-2-3-1. The 4-2-3-1 would allow Martinez to keep Mertens up high while also giving De Bruyne a more free role.
The second option is more likely because of Martinez’s stubbornness but it would be simply replacing Witsel with Dembele. With this switch, De Bruyne could push up and Dembele would be more than capable of covering the back line.
While Belgium have the players to compete with Brazil, their fate will ultimately depend on Roberto Martinez’s handling of Kevin De Bruyne.