How much has new selector Roberto Martinez modified Marc Wilmots’ squad that failed to make it past the quarter finals of Euro-2016? And who is the man taken on as assistant to the Spaniard, who initialed his contract on the night of Wednesday to Thursday? These were the questions in most minds as Martinez arrived on Thursday at the headquarters of the Belgian Union.
It is doubtless the response to the second question that created the biggest surprise, with everyone wondering if the new assistant coach was in fact the “real” Thierry Henry, formerly of Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona, Arsenal and New York Red Bulls, world champion in 1998 and European champion two years later.
“He was a first-class striker, a top-notch goal scorer, a winner,” Martino said of the man who scored 51 goals in 123 matches with the French national team. “And he knew the Premier League, where precisely many of the Devils play, like the palm of his hands,” he added, recalling discreetly that the Belgian forwards were not very effective at the European Championship. “He is going to be a very important, even decisive, member of our staff,” Martinez said further. “Now he’s not going to be the one scoring our goals.”
Where the players are concerned, the former Everton manager is clearly banking on continuity. “These players took Belgium to the top of the FIFA global ranking,” he said. “I am expected to allow this team to take off again (after the shock defeat to Wales at Euro 2016 – editor’s note), I’m not expected to start a revolution.”
The Belgian squad’s first test under its new coach and assistant coach will be on the 1st of September, when it comes up against Span in a friendly match at the King Baudouin stadium, followed on the 6th of September by a 2018 World Cup elimination match against Cyprus in Nicosia.
“I’ve chosen Matz Sels, as the third goalkeeper, for the next two matches,” Martinez said, “but that’s not yet his definitive status. There are two or three other candidates. However, he played the most matches at Newcastle this season, so it seemed logical to seize this opportunity to allow him to show us what he can bring”.
Turning to the rest of the squad, Martinez added: “I saw Steven Defour at work in a tough game against Liverpool in Burnley and he had a fantastic match. I selected him for his qualities, but also for his mentality, which is exactly the mentality I want to see all my players show. Let them take him as an example.
“Evidently, I also greatly appreciate the fighting spirit of Marouane Fellaini who, moreover, can play in almost any position. People were saying that I wasn’t on good terms with Kevin Mirallas at Everton, but no player of that caliber finds it easy to be left on the bench. He didn’t have the form I required, or no longer had it, so that’s what happened to him. But now, since the start of the season, he has it and so he’s taken off afresh, like all the others.”
Right now, the team’s focus is the future, not the past. “I’m not saying I don’t want to know what happened at the Euro Cup, but now we’re moving on to something else without looking back.’ Martinez said. “A 22-month adventure is ahead of us and all means will be deployed to make sure it ends as we hope, but once again it’s the players who take to the field, not the technical staff, who will do the maximum to put them in the best possible conditions.
“Spain is a very good test that we are waiting impatiently for. But know that, while it’s my country, it’s not my team. That’s how it is with football today…”