Exclusive extract: Thierry, Technique and Team Belgium

This is an exclusive extract from Football 2.0: How the world’s best play the modern game. Through extensive interviews with one player in every key position on and off the pitch, Grant Wahl (Sports Illustrated) breaks down the technical and tactical revolution that has transformed football. ‘The Manager’ chapter is built around extensive interviews with Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez. Here, he breaks down how he assembled his backroom team, including Thierry Henry

THE opportunity to meet with the Belgian federation technical committee about its vacant coaching job came out of nowhere, Roberto Martínez says, at the start of August 2016. He met with the Belgians during the day, flew back home that night, and a few hours later got a phone call offering him the job. Belgium wanted his decision quickly. “I always base my decisions on feelings,” Martínez says a few months later in Tubize.

“Once I met the technical committee, I knew this was a real good opportunity to get to know Belgian football, to try to pass my experience on to coaches in the development phase of young players in Belgium, and to try to work with a generation that I feel has the talent to become an interesting team. I’m delighted it was the right decision. I felt I needed the experience that I have in order to take on a national team, but I’m young enough and healthy enough to travel a lot, to watch a lot of live games of our players. They’re in Italy and England and Spain. I’m trying to do it as intensely as I can.”

One of Martínez’s first tasks with Belgium was to build his staff. It’s a measure of their success, trust, and loyalty that three of his assistants have worked with Martínez since 2007, following him from Swansea City to Wigan Athletic to Everton and now to Belgium. The Englishman Graeme Jones, his top lieutenant, had a 16-year pro career that included three seasons as a team-mate of Mártinez at Wigan from 1996 to 1999. “It’s probably the biggest contrast you could have,” Martínez says.

“I was a technical player, coming from the Spanish school, and he was this physical player from the British game. It’s like the opposite poles attracted each other. We complement each other really well, and that allows us to cover a lot of ground. It’s very helpful for me to get his view, and we can disagree many times, which allows us to see a bit of a wider picture. And he’s very loyal, someone I would take to the moon or to war.” Knowing someone on a deeply human level, Martínez argues, is especially important on a coaching staff, not least because it allows you to trust that person when things get tough.

Martínez says he has the same level of faith in the two other assistants who have been with him since Swansea – the Spanish goalkeepers coach Iñaki Bergara and the English fitness coach Richard Evans. But as is the case on many national teams, Martínez retained Belgians who had been on the previous staff. Goalkeepers coach Erwin Lemmens stayed on, in part because Martínez likes having four goalkeepers on his roster and thinks it’s better to have two coaches working with them (as he did at Everton). The Belgian medical staff remained in place, too. “It was very important that I had the people I had been working with for 10 seasons,” Martínez says.

“They’ve got terrific experience, and I trust them. When you haven’t got much time at the international level, you can’t spend too much time coaching the coaches or the staff. In the same way, I wanted to have a real good influence from staff members from Belgium, and that’s what we’ve done in many of the departments, including the medical department, which is as good as any I had in the Premier League, if not better in certain areas.”

The last member of Martínez’s staff is an assistant coach who happens to be one of the world’s best strikers of the past three decades: the French World Cup and Champions League winner Thierry Henry. At every club he has managed, Martínez says, he has added a staff member of stature who from “an engagement point of view with the players” has been able to connect with them. He did it at Swansea with Alan Curtis, at Wigan with Graham Barrow, and at Everton with Duncan Ferguson. With Belgium, Martínez wanted an assistant who had played at international level. Henry had been coaching with the Under-18 team at Arsenal, his former club, but he wanted to step up to the senior level while still being able to work in television for Sky Sports in England, where he can keep close tabs on the league in which most of the Belgian national team players compete.

“He’s someone who has been through what the players are going through right now,” Martínez says of Henry. “They’re a great generation that has a lot of expectations, but they have never won a major tournament. He can influence our players a lot from a mental point of view. He’s a young coach with incredible potential and his attention to detail is very impressive. It was the perfect fit for the perfect time. Like anything in life, it needs to be right and it felt right.”