Tactical Analysis: What makes Belgium so special?
Belgium have won opening three games in the group stage, maintaining a fine run in Group G with nine points. They also won the Round of 16 game versus Japan, which had everyone on the edge of their seats as they made a miraculous comeback after going down 2-0 and then winning it 3-2.
Both Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku have scored a significant amount of goals for the Red Devils with Kevin de Bruyne being the creator in chief and Thibaut Courtois keeping two clean sheets and having an absolute party between the sticks.
Roberto Martinez is one of the most underrated managers in this World Cup. He has managed three English sides so far- Swansea City, Wigan Athletic, and Everton. He brought massive changes in all the three clubs he managed helping Swansea top the league table of Football League 1 and winning the FA Cup with Wigan.
His spell at Everton was game-changing for the Merseyside club but didn't find major success with either of the other clubs. He always preferred a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with the clubs he has managed hinting a hidden love for 3-4-3 before Antonio Conte arrived at Chelsea but due to insufficient quality in the squad, he was limited to follow the trend.
Martinez succeeded Marc Wilmots in the August of 2016 as the Belgium national team manager after the UEFA Euros. He received a star-studded squad with world-class players in each corner of the park which was quite unusual for him.
Belgium played with a modern-day 4-2-3-1 under Wilmots. Martinez continued with the same formation until he realized how good the players are suited for a three-at-back and experimented with his team against Cyprus in October 2017. It was hybrid of 3-4-2-1 and 3-4-3. After getting the desired result, there were no more boring 4-3-3s or 4-2-31s.
Before the World Cup, the media criticized Martinez for dropping Rajda Naingollan from the team, but as we are in the quarter-finals of the World Cup, it looks like a good decision. Naingollan didn't fit the team's formation.
To make use of Kevin de Bruyne's world-class passing abilities, one midfielder needs to assure of the defensive duties which Naingollan simply couldn't. Both De Bruyne and Naingollan likes to get involved in the attack when going forward.
This leaves the defence vulnerable and with slow centre-backs like Vertonghen and Alderweireld, it becomes easier for opposition to hit on counters. Axel Witsel is a replacement to Naingollan and has done what the former Roma man couldn't- get less involved in the attack.
Let's see how Martinez has imposed an interesting formation and tactics for Belgium's golden generation.
Martinez has always been criticized for setting up a good defence from his early managerial days in England. There were questions raised that how can he stop teams like Brazil and Germany from putting the ball inside of the net. Until now, they have only conceded four goals- two against Tunisia and other two against Japan.
Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, and Dedryk Boyata have been starters for the team, with Vincent Kompany, Leander Dendoncker, and Thomas Vermaelen being the backup options.
Defensively, they shape up in a 5-4-1 or a 5-3-2 with wing-backs, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier dropping back to the backline. The Tottenham Hotspur pair of Vertonghen and Alderweireld is useful when driving forward providing a dynamic passing range which helps De Bruyne to create sitting in a deeper position. Their main aim to maintain the defensive shape and deny spaces between the lines.
There is basically three attacking system any football team faces.
- a trio of two wide wingers and a striker
- a duo of strikers
- a lone striker ahead of midfielders
Against the first, all the three defenders can go for each of the attackers leaving the wing-backs for covering space for a pass to another teammate or wither of the wing-backs freeing up a centre-back for having an extra man in defence.
Against the second, there will always be a spare man left in the backline to ensure any leaky passes going forward with wing-backs controlling the midfielders. Against the final possible set-up, full-backs can cover the wide midfielders with two defenders being free who can start a counter-attack.
This three at-back formation also helps in putting a cloak on Belgium's poor coordination and discipline while pressing. Boyata (or Vincent Kompany, when fit) plays an important role in defence holding to the backline and maintaining the vertical compactness with the frontline to avoid any indiscipline when not in possession.
Martinez has got fantastic midfielders at his disposal. Axel Witsel and de Bryune are starters with Youri Tielemans, Moussa Dembele, Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini as other options.
Thomas Meunier, who plays as a right-back in a 4-3-3 with PSG and Yannick Carrasco who is traditionally a left-winger play as wing-backs due to lack of decent wing-backs in the team but Martinez have helped them look like very satisfactory.
The Dalian Yifang starlet is a huge gamble for the manager as he chose no left-back in the 23-man squad. But, Carrasco has looked fine. Most of his defensive duties are covered by Jan Vertonghen and Witsel but his tackling is very clean which allows him to start attacks from the left flank.
Meunier enjoys the game when he gets forward and allows Dries Merten to take a central role behind Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku. Compared to his full-back partner, his defensive contribution is massive and his long balls and grounded crosses are always a huge benefit for the team.
De Bruyne plays in a deeper position than he plays for Man City in the Premier League which allows him to pick passes from one of the defenders and create from there. Like any other creator, he doesn't want to stay with the ball for too long and always looks for teammates in a dangerous area.
The former Chelsea man is very comfortable playing vertical long balls to the frontline or play a one-two with Witsel. His defensive contribution is not something to bang on about but he does the needful just right. He also allows himself to be in a shooting space outside of the box when the ball stays wide.
Witsel is deployed slightly forward in the midfield to de Bruyne's acting as the link between the two wing-backs. He is also a neat ball winner in the middle of the park which helps the team to break opposition's attack and initiate a counter by producing a simple through ball. He also protects the backline by staying back during attacks and helps in transitioning.
Dembele, the heart of Spurs' midfield is an interesting player. He can dribble past opponents, set the pace of the game and is an excellent winner of the ball. Fellaini too possesses unique strengths and can help the team in a different manner but it is highly unlikely that both of them will get a chance to start in the knockout stages, considering no injuries (God forbid) takes place.
Whilst Martinez's defence has always attracted the criticism, his attacking play has always received praise. The Red Devils have got incredible attacking options. Romelu Lukaku, Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard are the starters in the 3-4-3 having Michy Batshuayi, Adnan Janujaz, and Thorgan Hazard as other options.
The attacking trio of Lukaku, Mertens, and Hazard have got everything they need- speed, positioning, physicality, and movement. Mertens and Hazard are supported by Meunier and Carrasco respectively on the wings to drive forward and Lukaku being the target man. The three of them link up pretty well and play close to each other all the time. Not every squad in this tournament have such unpredictability and uniqueness in their front three.
YouTube compilations are short to describe what Hazard has. He has been given a free role to roam behind Lukaku. Carrasco and Vertonghen take responsibilities of defensive duties on the left flank which allows him to move into a central role dribbling past opponents in the final third.
The captain helps Lukaku running down the channels and mutual thinking with Mertens helps him to avoid any mistakes during transitions. Both he and Mertens take up central roles in the final third. The reported Real Madrid target also attracts defenders to commit a foul ultimately winning a free-kick or a penalty.
The first choice for taking penalties, Hazard has scored two goals in the competition. Hazard struggled to perform last World Cup, but this will surely be his tournament.
On the other hand, Mertens is in a red-hot form scoring 18 goals for his club the league last season. Mertens usually is an extra man when going forward. He is quick, mobile, agile and is great when it comes to decision-making.
His passes are exquisite and often create a lot of chances for his team. For example, his assist versus Tunisia came off his quick movement and picking up the right person.
Lukaku is the greatest asset Belgium has, yet an underappreciated one. He is very pacy considering his athleticism and physicality and is a goalscoring machine. He has scored four goals in two matches in this tournament.
The former Everton man is also an aerial threat and you can always find him in the far post when the ball has gone wide looking for a cross. His connection with the assistant coach, Thierry Henry is fantastic which helps him develop personally. Who doesn't want to be trained with one of the best strikers of his generation?
With excellent ball-playing centre-backs and a sweeper keeper like Courtois, Lukaku adds more value to this team with his aesthetics. Meunier's crossing ability has really heralded for Lukaku and is Belgium's go-to plan and will be beneficial against opponents who sit deep.
Long story short, Belgium have all chances of winning the World Cup or at least reaching the semi-finals if all the darts hit the right places. This will be a massive success for Martinez and the world will surely know how great he is.
They face Brazil in the quarter-finals and is believed to be their biggest challenge in this tournament. The mountain is steep but Martinez and co. can surely do it.