Is Willy the man for World Cup 2014?

The Belgian FA (KBVB/URBSFA) have acted quickly in appointing interim national team coach Marc Wilmots to the job on a permanent basis.  He succeeds Georges Leekens, whose far from universal popularity took a further dive when he put an end to his second spell with the Rode Duivels to return to Club Brugge, the only club with which he has won a championship. However, at such a pivotal moment for Belgian football as they embark upon the road to Brazil in 2014 this coming September with the opening game away to an improving Wales side, is he the right choice?

He is most certainly the easy choice. Already in place, having been number two to Dick Advocaat and then Leekens since 2009, the ex-Standard Liège star was a hugely popular figure with the squad. And with the Belgian FA having had their fingers burned, most notably by Advocaat (who even today was taking shots at his former employers in the Dutch media), there was always going to be a great deal of reluctance to push the boat out for a coach, who financially would bleed them dry.

That Wilmots was prepared to take risks during his two friendlies in charge is impressive and for this reason, too much should not be read into the record of one draw (at home to Montenegro) and one defeat (away to England). He moved Belgium’s most precocious attacking talent, the much talked about Eden Hazard, from a wide position to his favoured playmaker role against the Montenegrins.  It was a disappointing 2-2 draw with the usual failings there for all to see – defensive errors and failing to hold a lead late on in the game – though such deficiencies cannot be ironed out at a stroke.

Against England on the mystical (to borrow a word from Kevin Mirallas) Wembley turf, he was more radical still, leaving out Igor De Camargo and moving Eden Hazard forward as a nominal striker. Fulham’s Moussa Dembélé joined Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini in midfield with Dries Mertens and Mirallas flanking the new Chelsea man. Despite the loss of captain Vincent Kompany in the warm-up and a lack of a cutting edge upfront, Belgium nevertheless gave a creditable performance. There was some excellent movement in the midfield, they moved the ball around well and the makeshift defence did not get pulled apart even if the limitations of Guillaume Gillet and Timmy Simons were evident.

It did not take long after the final whistle for the players to come out en bloc (quite appropriate given the emphasis is placed on the shape by Wilmots) and state their support for the caretaker to be handed the reins full-time. Marouane Fellaini summed up the general mood when he told RTBF that “the coach has shown that he has the head to be the head coach. I would not understand anyone else coming. All the players want him to stay. I hope that the federation will understand that he is important for the team.”

It is however dangerous for the players’ opinion to form the sole basis of any managerial appointment as ultimately they will place their own interests first. Indeed, it is tempting to say that the reason the players were so tight with Wilmots was because he was the assistant – a go-between, a soundboard for both Leekens and the squad and someone who ultimately did not have his head on the chopping block should things go disastrously wrong.  Now, he is the top man and he will have to not only distance himself a little more from the players but ensure results in what he described as “ten cup finals”.

Unfortunately, Wilmots’ track record in club management is far from stellar.  His first job was in 2003 with Schalke 04, a club he had served with distinction including being an integral member of Huub Stevens’ Eurofighters who won the 1997 UEFA Cup. Taking over from Frank Neubarth with die Königsblauen in a disappointing sixth spot, they finished the season in seventh with Wilmots only managing a mediocre ten points from his short stint in charge. He would be succeeded by Jupp Heynckes.  In 2004-05 he became head coach at another of his former clubs, Sint-Truiden and was sacked on his 36th birthday the next February following a 1-0 defeat to relegation rivals Ostende, which left De Kanaries in a lowly fifteenth spot in the table and just two points above the drop zone.

However, what rankles more than Wilmots’ inexperience and shortage of success to date is the way in which the Belgian FA have gone about making the appointment. One can understand the reasoning of advancing the process quickly in that it removes doubt, uncertainty and sends out a message of confidence in the chosen man. Yet, another week, even two of reflection would have done no harm. Much as we might grumble about it, Belgium are not in Euro 2012 and are therefore not facing a situation similar to the uncertainty surrounding Laurent Blanc and France.

Eric Gerets, whose name had been doing the rounds, was reportedly on the verge of being sacked by Morocco this weekend were things not to go well against the Ivory Coast. He would have been an outstanding choice – a Belgian international who not only excelled as a player but delivered league titles with Lierse (one of the most incredible title wins in Europe in living memory), Club Brugge, PSV, Galatasaray and Al-Hilal, as well as turning around a faltering Marseille outfit. It would have been no real slight on Wilmots had the board taken a little more time to think. Such a major decision cannot be rushed and nor should it be simply to give out the right signals to the media and supporters. It is much more important to ensure the right man is in place without unduly delaying the appointment.

Another former Schalke man, Ralf Rangnick had been mentioned in dispatches as had Michel Preud’homme, who was a long shot given his contractual situation with Al-Shabab. And to throw one more name into the ring, academic though it is now, Louis van Gaal is out of work and has in the past made no secret of his desire to return to international management to atone for the Netherlands’ failure to reach the 2002 World Cup. A discreet phone-call, to merely sound out this quartet of hugely capable tacticians, would surely only amount to the Belgian FA taking responsibility and not undermine Wilmots.

All this is not to say that Wilmots’ appointment is a disaster. His willingness to innovate should be welcomed, for the two friendlies he took charge of were an audition. Philippe Collin, chairman of the Belgian FA’s Technical Commission and charged with finding Leekens’ successor, stated that the likeable and popular Wilmots was always the first choice, having impressed over the past fortnight. Much has been made recently of the Dutch invasion from the north into Belgian football ; Anderlecht and Standard Liège – Belgium’s two biggest clubs – appointed Dutchmen in John van den Brom and Ron Jans respectively. The Belgian FA have adopted the Dutch model, in their own way, with the choice of Wilmots echoing that of Frank Rijkaard as Netherlands coach in 1998 and Marco van Basten in 2004.

Wilmots is only too aware of the challenge, stating upon his appointment that “in 1994 I was the most despised in the country. In 2002, I was the king. There was nothing in between. That is the problem. There is no long-term vision.” Let’s hope that qualification for World Cup 2014 under “Willy” is the catalyst for just that.

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