When Marc Wilmots took on the Belgium job on in June 2012, he was, to all intents and purposes, a managerial novice, having previously spent just a few months in charge at Sint Truiden, the club where he began he began his playing career, and at Schalke, for whom he played his last match.
In the meantime, 'Willy' pursued a career outside football. But when his country came calling, the lure of the dugout proved impossible for him to resist.
One of the finest Belgian footballers to walk the FIFA World Cup™ stage, Wilmots the coach is every bit the inspiring figurehead he was during his playing days. Two years into his reign as national team coach he is flying the flag once more in his favourite tournament, overseeing consecutive hard-fought wins over Algeria and Russia.
Though safely through to the Round of 16 with a game to spare, Wilmots’ charges have yet to produce the kind of flowing football expected of them at Brazil 2014, a fact he acknowledged in conversation with FIFA: “Maybe it hasn’t been very spectacular, but we’ve achieved something big with one of the youngest squads in the tournament.”
Over these last two games, Wilmots has seen his side show the attributes that once marked him out as a player: “I’ve been pleased by the discipline, teamwork and patience of my players.”
The former midfielder, who scored five World Cup goals, was known more for his battling qualities than refined technique, in contrast to Belgium’s bright new generation, who have earned a reputation for playing slick, polished football.
While there are some former footballers-turned-coaches who prefer to leave their playing exploits out of their team talks, Wilmots is not one of them. He is anxious to pass on every lesson he learned on the field of play and shape a side in his image.
The Bull of Dongelberg’s considerable influence could been seen in the way his charges monopolised possession against the Russians and in clawing their way back from the brink against Algeria.
“I know how it feels to have to chase after a ball and I want my opponents to experience that same horrible sensation,” he said. “It’s very tiring on a physical and mental level.”
Wilmots is a coach who leaves little to chance and makes full use of the squad at his disposal, as he explained: “It surprises a lot of people to see me changing players the whole time in training sessions. To my mind that’s one of the keys to making them available for matches and getting the most out of them.”
All three of his side’s goals at Brazil 2014 have been scored by substitutes, a reflection of the faith the coach has in his 23 players and his belief in healthy competition and in making the fringe players feels part of something, another lesson from his four World Cups. Judging by the team’s displays and the comments coming out of the Belgium camp, Wilmots seems to be making all the right decisions.
Wilmots explains Lukaku struggles
His world finals experience also allows him to put himself in his players’ shoes, something he did in assessing the performance of Romelu Lukaku against Russia. After failing to get into the game, the striker was eventually substituted just before the hour.
“He puts too much pressure on himself,” said Wilmots. “I messed up in my first two World Cups because I was obsessed with winning. I was expecting the younger players to handle the occasion less well, simply because they would be thinking about nothing else but the need to win.”
Like any good teacher, Wilmots knows how important confidence is when it comes to upping performance levels, a message he has been keen to get across: “I know Lukaku can do better and he knows that too. He’s still very important for us.”
Belgium’s final group match comes against Korea Republic on Thursday, an occasion on which there will be no need for them to get the calculators out, much to Wilmots’ delight: “We won’t have to do any maths or ask ourselves whether it’s better to defend or attack. We’ll just go out and look for the win.”
Given Belgium’s tendency to execute their coach’s instructions to the letter, the South Koreans can expect a tough test in Sao Paulo.