Martinez: We’ve got an exciting challenge ahead

  • Roberto Martinez making a success of first national team job with Belgium

  • Red Devils were first European side to reach Russia 2018

  • Martinez on assistant Thierry Henry: "The quality of his work is amazing"

Less than 18 months after Roberto Martinez took over as coach, Belgium had the honour of becoming the first European side to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, an achievement that has gone some way to making up for a disappointing UEFA EURO 2016. It has also raised hopes that when the Red Devils return to the big stage next summer they might improve on their run to the last eight at Brazil 2014.

The Spanish coach spoke to about his experience of managing a national side for the first time, his preparations for his first major tournament and the role played by his assistant coach Thierry Henry. How did you feel when Belgium confirmed their place at Russia 2018? Roberto Martinez: I like the way in which we qualified. Going to Greece and winning is never easy, and it felt very special to qualify with a win there. Generally speaking, the whole campaign was good. The level of concentration and motivation was very high, even when we went to Bosnia and Herzegovina afterwards and won a game in which they needed the points.

How are you preparing for the months ahead?  The next step for us will be the draw, and we can then start our mental preparations for the World Cup. The hardest job for me will be to cut the 28 players we used during the campaign down to 23.

Do you feel you can deal with the pressure, which is sure to grow as the World Cup approaches? The squad is getting pretty experienced now. We’re lucky in that we can draw on our recent experiences. EURO 2016 was tough but we learned a lot from it, and Brazil 2014 was a fantastic adventure. We have players who’ve now played in big matches against the biggest countries. We’ve got an exciting challenge ahead of us and we’re really raising expectations among our fans. Our job is not to let them down. My players all play for big clubs where expectations are high and they can handle the pressure when it comes to international football.

It’s important to have balance when you’re preparing a side for a big tournament. You need new blood, young players who are bold, full of enthusiasm and a little wide-eyed at it all. And you also need experienced players who can offer that sense of security and know-how when there’s a big match coming up and the whole nation expects.

Where have you made the most progress since taking over in August 2016?  I’ve tried to make sure there’s competition for places in the squad, that any player can come in and that no one has their place set in stone. It’s important to have that kind of competition in a team. On a personal level, I’ve improved in terms of identifying priorities. When you’re coaching a national team you’ve got time to think about different combinations and set-ups. You don’t have the players for that long, so you have to get straight to the point and be as efficient as possible.

Russia 2018 will be your first major international tournament. How are you preparing for it?  The Belgian FA has plenty of World Cup experience and has all the resources needed to prepare the squad for a competition of that scale. For my part, I’ve been watching a number of nations closely at major competitions for the last few years and comparing them with Belgium to find the best mental approach.

Can you talk to us a little about the role played by your assistant, Thierry Henry?  Thierry has a huge role to play. The quality of his work is amazing. He’s just as demanding as he was when he was a player, and it was that quality that made him one of the best players in the world. He has the know-how and the experience that comes with winning the World Cup, which is priceless for us because we have some mental barriers to break down if we’re going to achieve that. In a national team you don’t get to spend much time with the players, and with his quality and expertise Thierry helps us make the most of that time. If you’re a striker, for example, being able to talk to him about your movement in the box is a huge plus point.

***Martinez’s record so far

    • 15 matches in charge of Belgium have yielded 11 wins, three draws and a solitary defeat

    • Has taken the Red Devils’ unbeaten run in World Cup qualifiers to 19, a sequence stretching back to 2009

  • Only Germany scored as many goals as Belgium’s 43 in their ten matches in Group H