When Roberto Martinez succeeded Marc Wilmots as head coach of the Belgian national team in 2016, he was certain that the team could achieve great things.
Two years later, at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Belgium finished third, the team’s best finish at the tournament, one that featured memorable wins over Japan and Brazil.
Belgium take on Canada in its first match on November 23. Al Jazeera caught up with Martinez about the team’s plans and hopes for the upcoming World Cup:
Al Jazeera: What is your assessment of the teams you will face in your group?
Roberto Martinez: An interesting group because it is very diverse. There is a European nation that we all know very well: Croatia. They’ve got this wonderful generation that finished second in the 2018 World Cup. Since then, there has been a lot of consistency with the coaching and the way they play.
Canada have been very impressive. We follow them very closely, a team that is capable of beating the USA and Mexico. And then Morocco. Unless you are Belgian you do not understand the story but there is a strong link. There are up to five or six players who were born in Belgium and that creates an even stronger link. Even staff members have been with both federations.
There is a very strong community of Moroccan people in Belgium. So the links will make it a big football derby.
Al Jazeera: Belgium finished third in 2018. How has your team changed since then?
Martinez: There has been an evolution. I think we have improved in the competitive nature of having three players for every position. It is becoming harder to reduce our list to 26 players, even in goal. Everyone is growing, developing and progressing in their roles.
Even in the last game in our qualification campaign, we were able to make a lot of changes and maintain our level and way of playing. I have been here since 2016 and you can start to see that we are working in a way that every player comes in knowing what is expected.
Al Jazeera: You’ve been known to use the 3-4-3 formation. How has that evolved with the Belgian national team?
Martinez: I think systems are not important. The system is used sometimes to fit your players and get the best relationships out of them. Sometimes it is to fit the opposition.
The way of playing is important. We are quite flexible, and we have showed our 3-4-3, especially in the World Cup, suits our players much better than other systems.
But there will be moments when we have to change the system and that is a big emphasis that we put on our youngsters. We need to develop players that are flexible, that can play using different systems.
Al Jazeera: Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard are instrumental players and have the quality of making football look so easy. What’s it like to coach such talented players?
Martinez: They are two players I prefer enjoying as a fan. We don’t look in Belgium often at two players who are so contrasting in the exceptional talent that they bring. We need to enjoy them. It’s not about assessing them or trying to influence them. It’s more… we need to enjoy what they bring.
They do bring extreme talents. Eden likes to slow down the moment that he is on the ball and then execute in one-on-one situations. Kevin de Bruyne accelerates the tempo of the game by executing incredible actions of the attacking play. But like all the top players, they have a very good connection.
That is the beautiful aspect of what we have in Belgium. We enjoy this generation for what they are. Because we know that this is quite a unique time for our fans to have these kinds of performances in front of them.
Al Jazeera: But Hazard and Romelu Lukaku have struggled with injuries and health issues. Is this a big concern for you?
Martinez: Hazard has found a solution since February. I would say that with the new treatment, he is now pain-free, he is ready to compete and to enjoy his football. The role he has at Real Madrid and in the national team are completely different. I am not concerned at all. Of course, the lack of match fitness can be an issue before a World Cup but we need to adjust those elements.
With Lukaku, it is very similar. In the summer he had the move that he wanted. He is a vital part of a team that is on a huge mission to try to get the Serie A title back in the city. I see him as someone who is enjoying every second of that challenge.
Al Jazeera: There has been a fairly recent explosion of Belgian talent. How did this happen?
Martinez: Well, it was a plan. There is no doubt that this was a conscious decision to sit down and try to identify what could be done to develop Belgian talent in the best possible way. It began in 2000 when the national team was in a very difficult position.
There was a clear direction for all professional teams in Belgium of how to work and how to develop the players from the age of 14 and 15 all the way to the first team.
That’s the initial aspect, but then there was Belgium’s success story in Beijing at the Olympics where this generation started to get a successful feeling.
The clubs in Belgium do a great job at the academy level. There is also the success of each individual player going abroad and becoming very important at the club level and progressing and going to the best clubs in Europe. That prepares players in a manner that you can not plan for. That’s the truth.
Al Jazeera: In 2018, you beat Brazil in the World Cup quarter-final. Does that rank as the most memorable win in your coaching career?
Martinez: It has to be. When you are a little boy and you begin to love the game we all remember a moment on the street re-enacting a World Cup with your friends.
In the World Cup, you have a tournament within a tournament – the knockout phase and the group phase. Playing a knockout game against Brazil, it’s quite unique. For everyone in Belgium, not just to play Brazil but to beat them is always a game that we are going to remember and treasure.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.