From the moment the World Cup draw was made, we knew we’d get Brazil in the quarter finals. As early as January, Roberto told me: “I know how we’re going to play against them. I know their style. They’ve kept the same manager.”
Ahead of the England game during the group stage, there was never any thought given to taking an easier route to the final. We’d instilled a winning culture. To be a winning team, you have to win no matter who you play against. You have to build that bond and do everything you can to make sure you become the best team in the world.
Moulding players into Belgium’s way of playing has to be concentrated into short periods of time. We both moved to Waterloo in Belgium and spent much of our time watching Belgian players all around Europe. How do they fare against a deep block? Can they handle transitions? Do they need the stimulation of a big game to reach their full potential? At international level, you need so much detail.
You see your players five times a season. We went from the middle of November to the end of March without seeing them. In those valuable moments when you do work together, it’s a case of finding a middle ground that suits all their styles. Pep Guardiola works differently to Jurgen Klopp, who works differently to José Mourinho, who works differently to Antonio Conte. How could we find a system that suits all of our players? Old habits die hard, especially if you don’t have a clear set of tactics in place.
“If everyone contributes and is satisfied with their contribution, then you know that you’re going places”
In Russia, we won our group, then managed to hold our momentum in the round of 16 against Japan thanks to a couple of effective substitutions. We were into the quarter finals against Brazil, just as Roberto had predicted.
The day after the Japan game was a write-off. Our players needed to rest and recover. The following day was another recovery day. Then it was the day before one of the biggest games of our lives, and all of a sudden we had 20 minutes to prepare our players. We couldn’t push them too hard and take too much out of them physically.
Twenty minutes of work on shape and style of play. A culmination of everything we’d learned over an 11-year period, followed by so many questions from our players.
The next day we faced the greatest football nation of all time. I walked out into the stadium and couldn’t believe my reality. But I knew that I’d earned the right to be there. That I was good enough. That I could contribute. At the end of the day, that’s all a manager looks for from their players and staff. If everyone contributes and is satisfied with their contribution, then you know that you’re going places.
It was no fluke that we won the game.
From non-league to a World Cup bronze medal. My grounding has allowed me to always remain true to myself. To remain real. I’ve been fortunate to have coached some big stars, to have worked alongside a top manager, but I’ve never let the experiences affect me.
That’s the beauty of the journey. I wouldn’t have got this far without having to fight my way through the leagues. I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done as an assistant and what I’m going to do as a manager without remaining real.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.