Belgium’s squad for Euro 2016 is replete with stellar names from the Premier League, but can they win the European Championship? Michel Sablon believes so, and with good reason. 

“At a young age Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard possessed so much talent that they were scarcely team players,” says Sablon, now technical director of the Football Association of Singapore. “They are icons who need to find a balance between team service [and individual play]. You don’t have to ask Hazard to defend. He defended positionally under [José] Mourinho and did so reasonably well, but he is most important 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. You have to give these players more leeway, because they are conflict-players.”

The idiosyncratic technical director recapitulates the footballing renaissance he instigated in the late nineties and the early 2000s: based on a 4-3-3 formation, individual player development and institutional change, Sablon reinvented and reshaped Belgian football. 

In the stands of the King Baudouin Stadium Michel Sablon was fretting: Belgium had begun their Euro 2000 group decider against Turkey with a ferocious and strangling velocity, but up front both Luc Nilis and Émile Mpenza lacked an incisive edge. Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s midfield cog, who had been so outstanding in the previous group games against Sweden and Italy respectively, became isolated. Wilmots slowly got aggravated. 

For much of the 90 minutes, Belgium had been playing to their own limitations: a contemporary 4-4-2 formation with rigid organisation, but thoroughly unimaginative, without any lustre. They lacked skills, brainpower and composure. Their game was reactive. Filip De Wilde’s vaudeville act and Hakan Şükür’s eye for goal spoiled Belgium’s own party as Turkey won 2-0 to go through in their place.

Sablon sighed. He had just witnessed the archetypical Belgian malaise, a repeat performance of the 1998 World Cup: Belgian players were, at best, blue-collar. They exuded realism, collectivism and, at times, efficiency, but, ultimately, they were limited. 

Sablon, a modest player himself with Merchtem in the seventies, became Belgium’s assistant coach at the World Cups of 1986, 1990 and 1994. In the late nineties Belgian football had been muddling along, drained by partisan interests and the lack of an overarching vision. Michel D’Hooghe, the long-standing Fifa Executive Committee member and then president of the Belgian football association, the KBVB, felt exasperated. His Herculean achievement of hosting the European Championship had backfired: Euro 2000 was nothing but a painful indictment. 

D’Hooghe asked, almost pleaded, his namesake to reengineer the future. Sablon immediately set to work: he solicited the universities of Ghent and Louvain-La-Neuve to research physical education for both boys and girls in different age categories. In Leuven, he challenged Professor Werner Helsen to define the best form of play. Finally, the University of Liège would pinpoint the optimised game conditions to act on Helsen’s conclusions.  

‘‘Numbers tell the tale,” Sablon frequently repeats. “With six Leuven students, we analysed 1500 hours of football – long balls, short passes, the number of touches of every player, the way of build-up.” If ratio and science guided Sablon, the facts and findings still required a ‘footballistic’ interpretation.

Sablon’s jumble of task forces and committees, made up of club representatives and coaches, decided, after much deliberation, on a 4-3-3 formation as the bedrock for Belgian football. In the new school of thought the player remained front and centre in a triangulated structure of clubs, top sport schools and national youth teams. Sablon and a core group of loyalists, including Bob Browaeys, Eric Abrams, Marc van Geersom and Kris van der Haegen, became crusaders. To see through their revolution, they carried their dogma to the clubs and interested parties in the Flemish and Walloon hinterlands, which had so often been undermined by parochialism and incompetence.

Their maxim was simple: players have individual traits and positions, but they must be dynamic within the system, interchangeability must inform everything – defenders attack and attackers defend. While they were inspired by Ajax, the Netherlands, Spain and other Cruyffian influences, the adoption of 4-3-3 was not a veiled attempt at an updated version of Total Football, but simply a considered decision in favour of what they saw as the best formation, for the purposes of both player development and on-field success. They abandoned 4-4-2 and mainstream Belgian football tactics. 

“4-3-3 is the most efficient system of play,” Sablon says, “because you play with a flat four at the back, a reversible defensive or offensive triangle in midfield, a striker and two wingers, for whom dribbling at the opponent is of pivotal importance.” 

“With a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2 you predominatantly produce workers and runners,” Browaeys agrees. He played as a goalkeeper for KSV Waregem in the eighties. Browaeys coached Belgium to a bronze medal at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup. 

“It’s about 4-3-3 and zonal football,” says Browaeys. “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.”

“Until the age of 17, this formation is the best learning environment,” explains Browaeys. “Within 4-3-3, everything is possible: an offensive triangle with one of the attacking midfielders turning into a support striker, the number 7 and 11 can infiltrate the centre, your number 6 can play in between your number 3 and 4. You barely see that it’s a 4-3-3. You can rotate your midfield triangle.” 

Backed by scientific data, Sablon and his allies sought to introduce their preferred formation with small-sided games at clubs and the national youth teams. Hans Galjé at Club Brugge, Roland Breugelmans at Genk, the late Dominique D’Onofrio at Standard de Liège and Jean Kindermans at Anderlecht facilitated the implementation: 5 v 5 with a single diamond, 8 v 8 with a double diamond and eventually 11 v 11 with fixed numbers. The players had to acquire the technical and tactical basics as well as team tactics from the national curriculum. Ball circulation was key: goal-kicks, direct free-kicks and throw-ins (replaced by a kick-in) were prohibited to stimulate build-up play. 

To source and recruit young talents, Sablon developed a straightforward six-point competence model – winning mentality, emotional stability, personality, explosiveness, insight into the game and ball and body control. 

“The winning mentality is the paramount criterion – does the player have the attitude to improve?” says the technical director of Football Australia Eric Abrams, who coached Belgium’s U-17 national team for much of the last decade. “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 the long term, not the match performance.” 

“We had to prepare that wealth of players for the senior national team,” says Sablon. “We chewed it over on a daily basis. I was one of the first to consider De Bruyne a fantastic player. At the age of 16, he read the game three times faster than the rest. [Vincent] Kompany, obviously, was a super talent. 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.”

Sablon’s new recruits combined a holistic aptitude with an individualistic attitude – a moderate dereliction of the collective wasn’t uncommon. 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,” emphasises Browaeys. 

“You have to let the prodigies [De Bruyne and Hazard] play, but that tension between the individual player and the team is conflicting,” says Sablon. “Few talented players are easy-going: Messi, Neymar and Ibrahimović aren’t easy to handle – neither is Hazard. Those players understand their own value and they need to state: ‘I am going to pull it together and do it.’ You need that bit of anger, it’s part of the talent.”

In 2007, Hazard and Christian Benteke debuted with the Diablotins [the Imps] at the U-17 European Championship. They reached the semis, where Spain prevailed 7-6 on penalties. A year later, Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Marouane Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembélé finished fourth at the Beijing Olympic Games. 

Here was a group of eclectic players, their roots in DR Congo, Congo, Mali Morocco and Belgium with a dashing sense of self-assurance and aplomb: a generation sui generis, sculpted and fine-tuned by Sablon – and the complete antithesis of their predecessors. They demonstrated a virtuosity that had previously not been seen in Belgium: a swiftness in their skills, a daring swagger in their understanding of the game, but all executed with a cool intelligence, encompassing the main characteristic of Belgian national youth teams – ball possession, if possible up to a utopian 100%. 

At youth level, that attempted dominance has recently resulted in a more Germanic style of play: high pressure when out of possession, more verticality when in possession. To argue that the senior team appertains to a Germanic school of football would be inaccurate. The Red Devils embody a singular style, neither Germanic nor Southern, but marked by the functionality of the midfield architect and sensible ball artist De Bruyne and by the many intricacies and infiltrations of Hazard. 

“I often exchanged thoughts with Matthias Sammer,” explains Sablon. “Germany also reconfigured their game. Our style does tilt towards German football, but with Origi and Hazard Belgium produced a distinct kind of player.” 

At the last World Cup, the much-heralded Belgians – “boys had become men” – failed to enthuse, except for a topsy-turvy 120 minutes against the United States. The 1-0 quarter-final disappointment against Argentina was an apposite example.

The game turned around the Belgian midfielders containing Lionel Messi. Belgium took a liberal approach with Axel Witsel as the deepest midfielder, but both Fellaini and De Bruyne had plenty of licence to roam. The central defenders Kompany and Daniel Van Buyten pushed high up as well. The risky approach backfired as Messi orchestrated Argentina to the semi-finals, exploiting the space around him and neatly adjusting the pace of the game whenever required. 

Towards the end of the game, Belgium dominated again courtesy of their deep squad and high-quality substitutes Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli. On the whole, though, Belgium were a cast of fragmented individuals, lacking shape and strategy, with coach Wilmots facing a big question. He addressed that during the Euro 2016 qualifiers: De Bruyne became the undisputed playmaker in place of Hazard. 

The Belgians amassed 23 points out of 30, suffering a single defeat away to Wales. If their displays were often prosaic, the overall campaign was merely satisfactory. In France, their post-World Cup improvement may count for little: a snap and, once again, they may be on their way out. 

This summer Sablon and Browaeys will long for success – a place in the semi-finals, possibly something more? Systems and players are transient after all, but a methodology based on constant innovation is not. 

“We unearth tendencies and integrate them – the Villa-run [the creation and exploitation of space], the Shevchenko-run [efficiency in the final third],” says Browaeys. “A substandard result – elimination in the first round, because of injuries or fate – shouldn’t lead to self-doubt. This is a wonderfully talented first team.”