Belgium arrived in Russia, boasting of one of the most talented squads at this year’s tournament. After winning both of their first two group games, one can say that they have so far done complete justice to the talent in their ranks.
They opened with a 3-0 victory against Panama despite the Central Americans shutting them out for the first 45 minutes and continued their red-hot scoring form against Tunisia, outclassing the North Africans 5-2.
The Belgians have a host of riches in the attacking third while their midfield is one to be envious of. In addition to this, they have steady, proven defenders in their squad who can seat and relax knowing they have Thibaut Courtois, one of the best goalkeepers in the world, behind them.
However, the first couple of games have also brought to light a few chinks that exist in Roberto Martinez’s team. While they are not major weaknesses to seat and worry about, the Red Devils need to overcome them if they are to go deep into the tournament.
1- Belgium use a zonal marking approach when defending set-pieces. If played to perfection, this method is very effective. However, even a slight miscommunication leads to devastating consequences.
Against minors Panama, Belgium faced problems defending set-pieces. Roman Torres, the Panama captain, got on the end of corners, more often than any Belgian defender.
Despite having the likes of Alderweireld and Vertonghen, Torres was able to get a ‘run’ at the defence and this enabled him to win the first ball on several occassions. The zonal marking is predominantly based on different ‘zones’ being assigned to defenders. This goes away from the practice of ‘man marking, with defenders rather looking at marshaling their ‘zone’. Hence, when the attacking player gets a ‘run’ at the defence, he (defender) is in a much better position to win the ball.
Belgium won’t change their marking approach in the middle of the tournament that is almost a certenity. Therefore, it is important for them to communicate more and patrol their zones more vigilantly especially when playing against ‘Big boys’ who have better headers of the ball than Torres.
When the tournament reaches its climax, a scrappy goal conceded from a corner would have the potential to derail Belgium’s charge. Thus, it is imperative that they take care of this problem before it hurts them.
2- Belgium play the majority of their games on the front foot with less pressure exerted on their back-line. With players like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, they control the game and keep piling pressure on the opposition. While they’ve attacked with a lot of flair in Russia so far, they have shown signs of being susceptible to the counter-attack.
Roberto Martinez has deployed a 3-4-3 system in Belgium’s first two games with Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier functioning as wing backs and the duo of Kevin De Bruyne and Axel Witsel operate as the Central Midfielders. However, they have exhibited a tendency to commit too many players forward and this resulted in Tunisia getting a lot of joy on the counter.
Though De Bruyne is a sensational midfielder going forward, he is not a defensive-minded individual.
A case can be made for Moussa Dembele to start, but that would lead to Belgium changing a system that has worked wonders for them. Belgium can’t play with a back three and three central midfielders and there is also no point in wasting De Bruyne’s talent on the wings.
Hence, the only possible solution is to mix a little caution with aggression and ask Witsel not to commit too far forward which is not easy as he has enjoyed the late runs into the opposition box throughout his career. If he can, Witsel would then provide the ‘screen’ in front of the back three. With Witsel, the three Central Defenders and a wing back in defence, Belgium would have countered the threat of the ‘counter’ especially against sides that posses nearly as good, talented and efficient attackers as Belgium.
3- Belgium have started with a back three of Alderweireld, Boyata, and Vertonghen against Panama and Tunisia. Boyata plays at the centre of the three and is usually the spare man when Belgium building up play from the back.
While Boyata is an established defender, he has shown signs of being erratic, when on the ball. Against Tunisia, he misplaced two passes within the space of a minute and a team better at finishing would surely have capitalized on one or both of these errors.
Hazard and Mertens like to drift inside while attacking. The wing-backs are then tasked with providing the width. When they play out from the back, the wing backs are too wide to make any meaningful contribution to the build-up. This leaves the Central defenders with no option but to pass it ‘between the lines’ to the midfielders which may prove ineffective against teams that are more compact in the middle.
Belgium face a potential Round of 16 tie against Japan, a team that employs an intense press and has enough stamina to ‘press’ for the majority of the match as evident from their 2-2 draw with Senegal in second group game. Against such a team, even a single stray pass can result in Belgium being put under pressure. With the quality that Japan posses, one may disregard them but against seasoned performers say Germany or Brazil, they will hurt Belgium dearly.
If Belgium are able to tide over these difficulties, we might have new World Cup winners, come the 15th of July, another first timer after 20 years like it has become the norm since Sweden 58.