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How I learned to stop worrying and love Roberto Martinez

The Belgium coach broke me at the 2018 World Cup.

Brazil v Belgium: Quarter Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Roberto Martinez has broken me.

The Belgium manager did it again on Friday, beating giants Brazil 2-1 in their World Cup quarterfinal matchup. He did it playing a never-before-used lineup, featuring multiple people playing out of position, yet another hard-to-understand decision that ended up working out brilliantly for the manager.

He benched great players and was slow to react when Brazil rallied in the second half and made inexplicable substitutions and he won, because of course he did.

I have been criticizing Martinez’s decisions since before the World Cup, as have a lot of soccer writers on this here internet. And as the team has advanced now to a semifinal, plenty of people have asked us: Why? Why so much derision for a guy who’s clearly getting results?

For me, at least, it’s twofold.

One, Belgium was gifted a generation of players a country their size may never see again. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne, Moussa Dembele, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Thibaut Courtois ... all generational talents, all around the same age, playing on the same World Cup team. It just so rarely happens.

And for a team that special to be paired with a manager with such a, well, middling track record, it made me nervous. I’ve been following these Belgian players for a decade plus, tracking them from their youth days to now, always wondering if they could put it together for an international tournament. Here they are, in their primes, and they’ve got a coach who is trying to play a crazy attacking formation with Kevin De Bruyne in holding midfield. So, it’s sort of personal. I can’t have Martinez ruin my beautiful Belgian boys for me.

Two, and this is the big one, a lot of the shit Martinez does just doesn’t make a ton of sense. Belgium, looking at their team on paper, and knowing their players having watched them play for top clubs, made sense as a team. They had a pretty-easy-to-see lineup that made sense and would utilize all their strengths, and get their best 11 players on the field. (This isn’t true of many World Cup teams.)

Martinez didn’t use that pretty-easy-to-see lineup. He didn’t just take the pretty-easy-to-see lineup and make a tweak or two. He folded up the pretty-easy-to-see lineup into an origami goose and then lit the goose on fire.

All tournament we had Belgium in a 3-4-3 with De Bruyne in a deep midfield role and Yannick Carrasco, who is not a wingback, as a wingback. Moussa Dembele, a star for Tottenham, was on the bench. The lineup worked against bad teams, and nearly got Belgium killed against Japan, when they had to fight back from 2-0 down.

Against Brazil, he went with a 4-3-3 defensively, with the oft-ridiculed Nacer Chadli as a center midfielder, which then morphed into a 3-4-3 offensively with Chadli bombing out wide and the right back, Meunier, joining the midfield. Kevin De Bruyne, an attacking midfielder who’d been playing out of position as a holding midfielder all World Cup, was now a center forward. Romelu Lukaku was now suddenly a right winger, because whatever. If you don’t follow soccer and this all sounds confusing to you, don’t worry, I’ve followed soccer my entire life and it was all just as confusing for me.

It was at this point, with this batshit lineup, and Belgium taking a 2-0 lead against Brazil, that I threw my hands up. Nothing Martinez was doing made any sense to anyone with a soccer brain, and it was working. This was Inspector Clouseau-type stuff. The Man Who Knew Too Little. MR. EFFING BEAN.

Moussa Dembele on the bench, with Marouane Fellaini starting over him? Sure. Years of watching those two play soccer has shown me pretty demonstrably that Dembele is twice the player that Fellaini is, but who am I to question Mr. Martinez.

Fellaini played the game of his life on Friday. Of course he did. Nacer Chadli, someone who I didn’t fully understand why he was even on the roster, started over Yannick Carrasco and Dembele and Mertens ... and played out of his mind.

Fellaini and Chadli did this one game after both scoring in Belgium’s 3-2 comeback win over Japan, a game they had no business winning, but won anyway. Then they came out as part of some wild hybrid lineup with four guys playing out of position and they beat probably the most talented team in the tournament.

Roberto Martinez, I apologize. I am but a mere soccer observer, and you are Galaxy Brain. Some might say you got bailed out by a generational group of players, but I will not. You are the genius. You are crafty like a fox. You have tricked me, and tricked Brazil’s manager Tite, and tricked the Brazilian players, and you might have even tricked your own players, who were then so tricked they became untricked, and thus tricked their opponents. Right?

RIGHT?

I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT ANYMORE, BOBBY. YOU’VE BROKEN ME. MAYBE I DON’T KNOW SOCCER. MAYBE MY WHOLE LIFE IS A LIE. MAYBE I SHOULD START WATCHING CURLING. A CURLING WRITER, YEAH. I CAN OWN THAT BEAT. THAT’S A SPORT I CAN UNDERSTAND. IT’S JUST ICE AND ROCKS, RIGHT? HOW HARD CAN IT BE? IN THAT SPORT AT LEAST YOU CAN’T TAKE NACER FREAKING CHADLI AND CONVERT HIM INTO A HYBRID CM/WINGBACK AND HAVE IT WORK AGAINST BRAZIL. IT’S JUST STONES AND ICE. STONES. AND. ICE.

Ahem. Anyway, Belgium are going to win the World Cup. I am convinced of this now. They are going to play a W-M formation with Thorgan Hazard and not his brother Eden starting. The starting left fullback will be a DVD copy of the film In Bruges. I, Nate Scott, will be starting in goal, because Roberto Martinez will be tickled by the thought of it. This is happening, everyone. Get on board.