Roberto Martinez believes Kevin De Bruyne's role in his Belgium team has been "underrated" after he was criticised for playing the Manchester City star in a deeper role.
Playmaker De Bruyne usually features higher up the pitch for the Premier League champions under Pep Guardiola, and his change of position at the World Cup has led to plenty of questions regarding his position for the national team, where he plays in a two alongside Axel Witsel.
Despite the fact the 27-year-old might be getting fewer goals and assists, Martinez says he still has a massive influence on the way the Red Devils are looking to play.
“His role in our team has been underrated,” Martinez told Goal in an exclusive interview ahead of Friday's quarter-final clash with Brazil.
“Maybe because at club level he’s always at the end of an assist or at the end of a goal and then it’s easy to bring a highlight out of Kevin De Bruyne.
“I think Kevin De Bruyne’s influence in our team has been a lot deeper; a little bit earlier, allowing his team to have the influence that we have in the final third and being a real playmaker for us."
The Catalan has also been impressed by De Bruyne’s maturity in the Belgian midfield, where he has taken on a leadership role. He says that the second-round 3-2 victory over Japan - in which De Bruyne played a vital role in the crucial third goal – brought out a new side to his character.
“He’s become a leader,” Martinez said. “I think it’s the first time that I’ve seen Kevin growing into a very important player of this group on the pitch in the most important moments.
De Bruyne essential for Belgium in deeper role - Martinez
"De Bruyne has been a real playmaker for us" Roberto Martinez talks to Peter Staunton about Belgium's key man #BEL Posted by Goal.com on Thursday, 5 July 2018
“I will always remember there was a moment at 0-2 down against Japan that he’s the one that is giving a bit of composure, a bit of belief to the group and he’s getting everyone to know that we’ve still got time to get back into the game. And I think that’s a role that allows us to be a team.
“You see the third goal and only Kevin De Bruyne can do what he did. Not just the way that he gets that transition so quick from box to box, it’s the quality of the pass, having to play it into Thomas Meunier’s path so he doesn’t need to break his stride to assist into Nacer Chadli."
Brazil lie in store for Belgium in Friday’s quarter-final and Martinez says the ex-Chelsea man is central to what he is asking his players to do, despite calls from the outside to play him futher forward.
“I’ve been delighted with Kevin De Bruyne’s role,” he said. “With his understanding of his importance in his group and the way we want to play, he’s essential for us.”