Belgian football is thriving and has lifted the mood of a nation. A small country with a population of only 11.2 million heads into Sunday's Euro 2016 round-of-16 match with Hungary as fourth favourites to win the tournament.
The Red Devils have unified and helped a new word come into vogue: "Belgitude" is a confluence between Belgium and attitude, exemplifying the surrealistic desire for a homogeneous country.
Michel Sablon is responsible for much of the renewed 90-minute patriotism: In the early 2000s, the clairvoyant technical director uprooted Belgian football's prolonged state of indolence and inertia with a revolution based on a 4-3-3 formation, individual player development and institutional change.
Sablon re-engineered the Belgian game.
Sablon shivered despite the tropical temperatures in the stands of the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels. Sweat trickled down his face.
Belgium were playing Turkey in their Euro 2000 group-phase decider. They had to win and imposed a game of audacious velocity in the opening exchanges in order to strangle their opponents. Both strikers, Luc Nilis and Emile Mpenza, probed and poked but lacked a cutting edge. The Turks sequestered Marc Wilmots, who had so excelled in the previous group games against both Sweden and Italy, in midfield.
For the better part of the 90 minutes, Belgium's game was an ungainly lateral stasis: a rigid organization in a 4-4-2 formation, but without any resourcefulness in the final third. They lacked skill, intelligence and cohesion. Goalkeeper Filip de Wilde's howler and Hakan Sukur's goalscoring nous wrecked Belgium's party.
Sablon cringed. Belgium's textbook capitulation was a repeat performance of the 1998 World Cup: The team had played to its limitations in a gritty demonstration of pragmatism and toil, but ultimately its players were, at best, blue collar. They didn't belong in elite football.
"The match [against Turkey] was a complete flop," Sablon told Bleacher Report. "The way Belgium had been eliminated was simply not acceptable. The team hit rock bottom. There was a quality vacuum, and something needed to be done."
Michel D'Hooghe, then president of the Belgian FA and long-standing FIFA executive committee member, agreed. His achievement of bringing the European Championship to Belgium as co-hosts had rebounded: Euro 2000 had magnified Belgium's failing football culture, shackled by partisan interests and thwarted by the lack of an overarching vision.
He asked Sablon to tailor the future.
Sablon was a modest player in the 1970s with Brussels-based club Merchtem and had been Belgium’s assistant coach at the World Cups in Mexico in 1986, Italy in 1990 and the United States in 1994. He set out to meticulously deconstruct the domestic game and tasked the universities of Leuven, Ghent, Louvain-la-Neuve and Liege to screen and map out football's landscape with particular regard to youth development.
"Numbers tell the tale," says Sablon.
He challenged professor Werner Helsen of KU Leuven's department of Movement Control and Neuroplasticity to define the best form of play. Helsen and six students analysed 1,500 hours of game footage, focusing on the joints of the game—short passes, the number of touches of every player, buildup and the long ball.
"The minimum trajectory for an aspiring top player is 10,000 hours," says Helsen. "We looked at multiple game actions. The players wore heart-rate monitors to check the intensity levels of different game forms. At the time, those forms had not been adjusted to the motor and physical movements of children."
Helsen's facts and findings required further exegesis. After much rumination, a group of task forces and committees of club representatives and coaches, chaired by Sablon, rubber-stamped the 4-3-3 formation as the new way forward.
In the tapestry of clubs, top sport schools and national youth teams, Sablon stressed the importance of the individual player. The technical director and a small group of loyal zealots, including Bob Browaeys, Eric Abrams, Marc Van Geersom and Kris Van Der Haegen, became flag-bearers. They carried their dogma to the clubs and interested parties in the Flemish and Walloon constituency, so often an unfettered quagmire of provincialism and ineptitude.
Their truism was straightforward: Players have individual positions and characteristics but need empowerment within the playing system. A team must be informed by the interchangeability of things; attackers defend and defenders attack. Players need to seek out spatial freedom to roam in and dictate the play from within that bubble.
In a way, Sablon and his inner circle, inspired by Ajax, the Netherlands and Spain, were disciples of the late Johan Cruyff. Yet the adoption of 4-3-3 was not a veiled venture to modernize the basic tenets of Total Football, but merely a contemplated resolution to employ the best modern formation, both for purposes of player development and results-oriented progress.
They renounced 4-4-2 and, with it, much of mainstream Belgian football tactics.
"4-3-3 was paramount in honing the player of the future," highlights Sablon. "Assess the different playing systems and 4-3-3 will turn out to be most efficient, because you have a flat four at the back, defensive and offensive triangles in the midfield, a striker and two wingers, for whom dribbling past the opponent is of pivotal importance."
"Belgium was playing outdated and outmoded football," says Browaeys, a goalkeeper for KSV Waregem in the 1980s and Belgium's bronze medal-winning coach at the 2015 FIFA U17 World Cup. "With a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 you predominantly produce workers and runners."
In their vision 4-3-3 was inextricably intertwined with zonal football—a game concept in and out of ball possession to dominate the opponent in the zone between the goal and the ball, and in the final third, according to the KBVB's training manual.
Apart from unbridled triangulation, the advantages of 4-3-3 in zone are manifold: quick transition, shared collective responsibility and a fair distribution of physical exertions.
"We were a bit visionary," says Browaeys. "4-3-3 meets all requirements to develop players who excel in ball circulation and individual actions. If youth players adopt a libero and man-marking, what does it imply tactically? You just follow your direct opponent the whole game; whereas, if you play in zones, you have to think, you have to position yourself in relation to your opponent and the situation of the game."
Backed by a big set of scientific data, Sablon sought to align visions to implement his preferred formation with small-sided games at both the clubs and the national youth teams.
"In games of 11 vs. 11, young players would touch the ball twice in 90 minutes," explains Sablon. Hans Galje at Club Brugge, Roland Breugelmans at KRC Genk, the late Dominique D'Onofrio at Standard Liege and Jean Kindermans at RSC Anderlecht helped at club level: five vs. five with a single diamond, eight vs. eight with a double diamond and eventually 11 vs. 11 with fixed numbers.
In the national curriculum, players were to obtain the technical and tactical basics as well as team tactics. Ball circulation was crucial: goal-kicks, direct free-kicks and throw-ins (replaced by a kick-in) were dispensed with to stimulate buildup play.
To canvass and recruit new talent, Sablon devised a straightforward six-point competence model.
"When I scout there are six characteristics that matter: winning mentality, emotional stability, personality, explosiveness, insight in the game and ball and body control," explains Abrams, who coached Belgium's U17 national team for much of the last decade. He is now the technical director of Football Australia.
"The winning mentality is the paramount criterion—does the player have the attitude to improve?" says Abrams. "A player can be outrageously talented, but he won't make it to the elite without that characteristic. He may not even be the best player of the team. It's all about the potential and long term, not the match performance."
"I was one of the first to consider [Kevin] De Bruyne a fantastic player," recalls Sablon. “At the age of 16, he read the game three times faster than the rest. [Eden] Hazard moved from Tubize to Lille. His flashes of brilliance were not yet supported by a strong physical condition and mental resilience, but if he stuck at it, he was predestined."
Both De Bruyne and Hazard are "conflict players," according to Sablon, because they wriggle with a balance between team play and individual play. He wanted his new recruits to combine a holistic approach with an individualistic attitude. Cognitive understanding of the game and decision-making under pressure were part of their DNA.
"A player has to function in a team, but always from an individualistic point of view," emphasizes Browaeys.
"You have to give De Bruyne and Hazard more leeway, because they are icons who need to find a balance between team service [and individual play]," says Sablon. "You don't have to ask Hazard to defend. He defended positionally under [Jose] Mourinho and did so reasonably, but he matters mostly when in possession.
"Kevin De Bruyne is completely different: His vision is simply unbelievable. He can pass left and right, while deceiving everyone, except the intended recipient, who'll receive the ball at the right moment, at the right height and with the right speed."
In 2007, Hazard and Christian Benteke played with the Diablotins at the U17 European Championship. They progressed to the semi-finals and suffered a heart-breaking 7-6 defeat on penalties against Spain.
A year later, Belgium U23 fielded Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele and reached the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympic Games.
Here was a group of eclectic players, with roots all over Africa, with a sense of self-confidence and poise: a newfound generation, moulded and fine-tuned by Sablon—and the complete antipode of their predecessors. They showed an aptitude hitherto unseen in Belgium: swiftness and swagger in both skills and execution, but with an overarching sangfroid. They encompassed the main characteristic of Belgian national youth teams—ball possession, if possible up to a quixotic 100 per cent.
At youth level, Belgium's imposing style slants toward the Germanic school of play: high pressure when out of possession, more vertigo when in possession. At senior level, the Red Devils do embody their own school, neither Germanic nor Southern, but marked by the functionality of midfield cog and ball artist De Bruyne and by the many intricacies and infiltrations of Hazard.
Sablon often exchanged ideas with Matthias Sammer. "Germany also reconfigured their game, and so did Switzerland," says Sablon. "Our style does tilt towards German football, but with [Divock] Origi and Hazard, Belgium produced a distinct kind of player."
Belgium's golden generation must deliver in France—in the past the Red Devils have been accused of personifying a "Louis Vuitton" generation of spoilt brats in a gilt-edged bubble of inflated salaries and PlayStation intellectualism.
They woefully underperformed by not qualifying for both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. At the last World Cup, the much-heralded Red Devils progressed to the quarter-finals but failed to enchant, with the exception of 120 minutes of high-charged football against the United States.
"Everyone is talking about a golden generation, but until today we haven't won anything," cautions Axel Witsel, who plays for Zenit St Petersburg in Russia.
Witsel was a protagonist in Belgium's meek quarter-final defeat against Argentina in Brazil. He dropped deep, allowing both Fellaini and De Bruyne to exploit the space in front of him. The defensive duo of Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten also charged forward. The liberal approach backfired: Gonzalo Higuain scored after eight minutes, and Argentina thereafter never looked like relinquishing the lead. Lionel Messi roamed around freely and dictated the pace.
In the last quarter of the game, Belgium retained possession again, courtesy of their talented bench with Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli as substitutes, but they didn't deliver an end product.
That's a conundrum coach Wilmots has not been always able to address. Belgium suffered just a single defeat away to Wales in the qualifiers, but the displays were often mundane. They still struggle against opponents who sit deep in block, as highlighted by Italy in their opening match of the Euro 2016 finals.
Wilmots reacted by making De Bruyne the undisputed pivot of the team—not Hazard—but that tactical alteration may count for little. Knockout football is capricious—one poor game, and once again, Belgium will be on their way out.
Sablon has travelled to France to observe, and keenly support, Belgium. Like Browaeys and Abrams, he timidly yearns for success—a long run into July, possibly an improvement of Belgium's Euro 1980 achievement.
A disappointing result would not be catastrophic: Systems and players are evanescent, but a methodology is not, more so when constantly in search of the next great prodigy, a Kevin De Bruyne 2.0.
"Which qualities does a 15-year-old player need to possess today to play the game in a decade's time?" asks Abrams. "Every player will have to be a decision-maker. A central defender must not only defend and recover possession, but also pass and attack. Today, at top clubs, strikers are the first defenders. You always need to define the player profile of the future."
"You have to innovate or you will regress like the Netherlands," says Sablon. "But this generation is simply exceptional. They are among the favorites to win Euro 2016. It's now or never and they know it."
All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated.