Before the World Cup two years ago, Belgium were labelled as the archetypal dark horse – so much so that by the time the tournament arrived they had been beckoned well and truly into the light. Despite the elevated expectations that followed Marc Wilmots’ men to Brazil, they only managed to achieve a respectable but nonetheless unspectacular quarter-final showing.
Considering it was their first tournament outing for twelve years, Belgium would have perhaps been content with reaching the quarter-finals in Brazil, but their aims for the European Championships in France are guaranteed to be much more ambitious. In fact, many have tipped the Red Devils and their talented squad to get their hands on a major trophy for the first time.
However, come their opening game against Italy on Monday, Belgium were completely outplayed, outflanked and out-thought, ending a disappointing night 2-0 losers. Taking nothing away from Antonio Conte’s intelligent Italy team; who were excellent, Belgium were at best underwhelming, and could possibly be described as down-right poor.
The defeat highlighted all of the issues with Marc Wilmots’ talented but under-performing side, which is plagued by problems from back to front.
The first issue lies in the defence. Thibaut Courtois may have had an indifferent season with Chelsea, but he has shown over the last three or four campaigns to be one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe. In front of him though, lie problems. Whilst the absence of the fantastic Vincent Kompany cannot be helped, Wilmots has always been guilty of trying to squeeze four centre-backs into positions where they are not wholly comfortable.
Thanks to Kompany’s injury, Toby Alderweireld has been shifted from right-back; the position he traditionally occupies for the Red Devils, into the centre of defence to partner Thomas Vermaelen. Although this initially sounds like a strong pairing, Alderweireld’s centre-back partner at Tottenham Hotspur; Jan Vertonghen, with whom he created arguably the strongest rearguard in the Premier League, has been shunted out to left-back.
With the only other option at left-back for Wilmots being the young Jordan Lukaku, Belgium are certainly suffering by not utilising a world-class defensive pairing that have played together every week for the last season. As much as Vermaelen is a better player than the younger Lukaku, his presence between Alderweireld and Vertonghen hinders the Belgian defence’s ability to operate as a cohesive unit.
However, when looking at Belgium’s options at right-back, it is unsurprising that Wilmots has tried to fit as many of his quality defenders into his side. The man who got the nod against Italy was 12-cap, 30-year-old Montreal Impact defender Pascal Ciman, hardly a sturdy name to call on. This is another massive issue with the Belgian defence.
For all of the star quality of Vermaelen and Spurs duo Vertonghen and Alderweireld, the rest of the defence is made up of players such as Genk’s Christian Kabasele and Club Brugge’s Thomas Meunier, as well as the aforementioned Ciman and Lukaku. There is just too much of a gulf between Belgium’s good and bad defenders, but not enough space to fit the better ones in the team. This will always lead to defensive vulnerabilities for Marc Wilmots.
In front of the defence is probably where Belgium are at their strongest. Radja Nainngolan and Axel Witsel are as tenacious as they are terrifying, mopping up scraps in front of the defence and launching Belgium on the attack. Furthermore, Moussa Dembélé sits on the bench as a more creative midfield option from the bench, but as was shown in Spurs colours during 2015/16, the left-footed former Fulham man can be right up there with the best on his day.
This solid midfield base is crucial to Belgium’s hopes, as it allows their creative talents in front of them to express themselves. With the talents of Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard on each wing, the Red Devils have a plethora of creative talent, cutting inside and causing problems for opposing teams. Better still, they have the dual talents of Dries Mertens and Champions League final ‘Casanova’ Yannick Carrasco to bring off the bench to add more direct pace to their attack.
Despite this talent out wide, Wilmots’ fierce commitment to a 4-2-3-1 system means that; in the opposite problem to defence, the manager is wasting plenty of talent on the bench. Without a genuine number 10 in the squad, Wilmots has turned to Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini to occupy the creative space behind the main striker.
Whilst Fellaini has his qualities; and was actually among the better performers against Italy, he is very out of place among the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne. Having the height and strength of Fellaini in and around the creativity of Belgium’s talented wingers suggests that Wilmots is very confused about the system he is trying to play. Instead of maximising the talents of his creative players, Wilmots has instilled a system which stifles all of them.
Finally, Belgium are also afflicted with many problems up front. Just like in Brazil, Everton’s Romelu Lukaku started the opening game up front and, just like in Brazil, struggled massively. Not only did he miss a great opportunity, he was barely in the game, making just 17 touches and misplacing seven passes.
It was a disastrous performance from Lukaku, who has yet to shrug off the inconsistencies that often plague the careers of promising youngsters. He is clearly talented but suffers through periods of poor play and finishing, but the same can also be said of Belgium’s other strikers.
The out-of-sorts Liverpool forward Christian Benteke is inconsistent, and thrives off the type of crosses that Hazard is unlikely to deliver. Divock Origi is probably a better option to play through the middle, but he has managed just three goals in 20 caps and only had a two-month period towards the end of the season where he secured his place in the Liverpool team. For all of their options, it is difficult to guess which forward is going to deliver from game to game.
So, what does all of this mean? Belgium have plenty of stars, but not enough space to accommodate all of them. They have quality centre-backs playing at full-back, first-class wingers on the bench, but have plenty of holes left in the starting eleven. Italy perfectly highlighted and exploited these weaknesses and pulled Belgium apart, leaving them with a tricky task against Ireland and Sweden to get out of the group.
Should they progress, many will still tip them for glory, but without wholesale changes which limit their weaknesses and allow their talent to shine, Belgium will not win this tournament, leaving another so-called ‘golden generation’ to go to waste.
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