Belgium boss Roberto Martinez announced his squad for the 2018 World Cup this afternoon, most notably excluding Roma central midfielder Radja Nainggolan, resulting in the 30-year-old’s hasty retirement from the international scene.
The question, therefore, is why.
How could Martinez omit, arguably, Belgium’s most complete midfielder? Especially when Kevin de Bruyne is likely to adopt a deeper role as part of a two-man pivot. It just doesn’t seem logical, does it?
Is it because he has a poor attitude? Is it because he’s admitted to smoking regularly? Or simply because international football is inherently different to club football?
Club and international football: The differences
If a player dominates domestically doesn’t that mean he can transfer his game to the international level?
In actual fact, international football is intrinsically different to the elite game at club level. For example, the biggest difference is that countries tend to err on the side of caution. There’s no ‘hell for leather’ football.
They set their defensive lines deeper than clubs and typically press as a unit when their opponents enter their half, rather than the high-intensity style of pressing employed by managers such as Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino.
Build-up play, barring groups of international players that have played together at different age levels over the course of a decade, like Germany, is, thus, more tentative due to unfamiliar context.
This is because international managers have far less time to coach their squads than club managers do and, consequently, it’s unreasonable to expect the same level of coherency, especially for something so in sync as pressing.
The aim at international level, therefore, is safety first. Keeping it simple.
Then there’s the issue of relations within the squad. Unlike at club level where, more often than not, all players are singing from the same hymn sheet, personal agendas creep into the game internationally. None of this encourages coherency.
Another voice in the choir
Due to the slower, more cautious nature of the international game, there’s a far greater emphasis on coherency and harmony than at club level. Players need to sing from the same hymn sheet and harmonise with the rest of the choir.
There’s a time and place for solos, but players aren’t afforded the same degree of importance as at their clubs.
Perhaps then, this is the reason behind Nainggolan’s exclusion, highlighted by what boss Roberto Martinez had to say on the matter.
We know Radja has a very important role in his club and we cannot give him that role in our squad.
Nainggolan is a key member of the Roma squad, scoring four Serie A goals and assisting nine, the most of any Roma player. The Belgian also created 54 chances, second only to left back Aleksander Kolarov.
Given the differences internationally, there’s little room for one of football’s ‘mavericks.’ Martinez clearly feels that Nainggolan isn’t as much of a team player as the rest of his squad and that his presence could potentially compromise the harmonious atmosphere he’s trying to foster.
The ‘yes men’
Successful countries are comprised of ‘yes men.’ Not simply a headless sheep aimlessly following what he’s been told, but disciplined players capable of falling in and following instructions.
Belgium had a highly successful qualifying campaign, topping their group with 43 goals scored and only six conceded, in large part due to their discipline.
It’s unsurprising to note that Nainggolan only started one of those games; a 1-1 draw with Greece that the Red Devils were on the verge of losing until Romelu Lukaku’s equaliser in the 89th minute.
Nainggolan perhaps was confined to a bit-part role during their qualification campaign because he was reluctant to follow Martinez’s instructions.
By definition, international football is a compromised solution to a problem, making do with what you have. Nainggolan’s omission seemed to be said solution for Martinez’s problem of creating coherency.
Why was Nainggolan excluded?
To quote Martinez on why Nainggolan was excluded:
In the past two years the team has worked in a specific manner. Other players had those roles.
International managers get limited time and resources to work with their squad, so the order of the day is simplicity, caution and coherency. In Martinez’s opinion, Nainggolan provides neither of these three attributes, thus he was duly omitted.
Tactical reasons may be the public reason, but it seems obvious that it was due to a clash of personalities.
Being yourself can be bothering.
Nainggolan’s own words are, perhaps, explanation enough.
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