Why the 3-4-2-1 trend has come at the right time for Belgium's Golden Generation
Over the past 2-3 major tournaments, the second 'Golden Generation' of Belgian football, has seen a gradual rise. A quarter-final exit to eventual finalists Argentina in a well-contested 1-0 defeat in 2014 was followed by another quarter-final exit to a Wales team on a fairytale run that exceeded all expectations, most significantly their own.
Between these disappointments, however, Belgium rose to the top of the FIFA rankings, staying there for five months, before losing the top spot to Argentina. While this short reign came about thanks to strong performances in the qualifying stages for Euro 2016, and not winning a major tournament, it was significant nonetheless for an emerging football power.
It must also be said that for a small country with a long, but fruitless football history, this ranking stands as a major accomplishment. From not qualifying for a major tournament from Euro 2004 through to Euro 2012, reaching the top in 2015 might well be a sign of things to come.
However, Belgium have been plagued by issues in the recent past, which I believe a 3-4-2-1 might be the perfect solution to.
After the disappointment at Euro 2016, the RBFA replaced Marc Wilmots with Roberto Martinez, a manager with a well-documented history of attacking football. A common perception is that Wilmots could not take advantage of the attacking talent he had at his disposal in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku among others. While this might be true, a bigger factor might be an issue that has long plagued Belgian football: the lack of quality full-backs.
Throughout Euro 2016, Jan Vertonghen was the first choice left-back. This had three significant effects on the rest of the team - (a) The break-up of his excellent centre-back partnership with Toby Alderweireld, (b) The positioning of Vermaelen, a player coming off three injury-ridden years, at left centre-back, and (c) the lack of overlapping assistance provided for Hazard to cut in as he likes on the left flank.
On the right, Laurent Ciman, another converted centre-back started the first game against Italy. Thomas Meunier replaced Ciman for the rest of the tournament, becoming Belgium's most consistent performer, but not before this weakness was shrewdly exploited by Conte's Italy on the way to a 2-0 win.
While this shift helped Belgium sweep Ireland aside, and overcome a Sweden side led by an ageing Ibrahimovic, the weakness at left-back was obvious throughout. An argument is that Kompany's absence was costly, but had he been fit, a centre-back would still have started at left-back - Vertonghen or Vermaelen.
These deficiencies are yet to be fully addressed, but the emergence of Jordan Lukaku should help resolve them. A powerfully built, defensively aware player, he offers a natural option at left-back and frees Vertonghen to play in the central role he is most comfortable in. Martinez has shown a preference for Lukaku-Meunier until now, however, much depends on the game-time afforded to Lukaku at Lazio.
The three-man defence addresses these flaws quite well, as it would give Lukaku and Meunier license to attack from wing-back positions, which both of them excel at. Kompany, Alderweireld and Vertonghen all play in a three-man defence for their club sides, and would not need much adjustment to the system. While Kompany's fitness might be an issue, experienced backups like Ciman or Vermaelen could step in to do a job.
Another reason for Belgium's failure at Euro 2016 was Wilmots' muddled selections in midfield. Against Italy, shunting De Bruyne to the right to play Fellaini in the middle, ahead of Witsel and Naingollan, starved the midfield of creativity and pace-setting through the centre. While Fellaini did a good job of marking De Rossi, Belgium could not take advantage of the spaces that opened up between Italy's lines surprisingly frequently.
The omission of Moussa Dembele was puzzling, as he would have been the perfect foil for either Witsel or Nainggolan, as proven when he was restored to the lineup in subsequent games. Dembele is a unique player, the heartbeat of a Tottenham side that has challenged for the Premier League title for the last two seasons. His ability to drive at the opposition, set the pace, and well-timed tackling make him a midfielder for all weathers.
Witsel might no longer be the force he once was, and playing in China might lead to a further dulling of his skills, especially in his position. Martinez has continued to select him, however, and his pairing with Dembele seems the way forward. The omission of Nainggolan is curious, given the league in which Witsel now operates, and the lack of quality among the alternatives.
Just the absence of the Nainggolan tackle will be sad, one of those trademarks like the Cruyff turn or Ronaldinho's elastico. Coming from behind to form a hook-like movement to swipe the ball away from a running opponent and spring up to start a counter-attack, it is a darkly beautiful move. Nainggolan's absence will be felt, especially as the alternatives do not look promising. Youri Tielemans still has to establish himself at Monaco, Fellaini is enjoying yet another mini-resurgence under Mourinho, but remains a player of limited skill, Steven Defour even more so.
Again, this problem might best be solved by the 3-4-2-1, which affords it's central midfielders greater protection than a 4-2-3-1 does, suiting a Dembele-Witsel midfield. It would result in greater freedom for Dembele, and would also allow the left and right centrebacks to step into midfield when needed. In easier games, Martinez has even played De Bruyne in a deeper midfield role in this formation, illustrating how this formation forms a platform for Martinez's all-out attack philosophy.
Freedom in Attack
Belgium are blessed with a variety of riches across the squad, but most notably in attack. Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne are among the best players in Europe at the moment, all offering different strengths that complement each other, at least on paper. The attack has failed to convince in the past, but perhaps this is one area where Martinez's management will not be found lacking.
Reams of articles and hours of YouTube footage are a testament to Hazard's dribbling ability, which has won Chelsea two of the last three Premier League titles, and has reportedly brought attention from Real Madrid. Most notable has been his unshackling under Antonio Conte, which has had a notable effect on the consistency of his performances.
Kevin De Bruyne's transformation from a no.10 to a slightly deeper, playmaking role over the past year and a half, provides balance to what Hazard brings, along with his crossing and setpiece delivery, areas that are lacking in Hazard's game. The tutelage of Pep Guardiola can only serve to enhance these characteristics over the two seasons he will have spent before Russia 2018.
Lukaku, who was always a prolific goalscorer, has this season dispelled any doubts about his ability to perform against deep defences. Under a second-season Mourinho, he might well end up with a ruthless scoring habit, and perhaps a Premier League medal as well. His movement and physicality make him a complete no.9 in the classic sense.
Adding to this are: Dries Mertens, whose astonishing transformation into a diminutive, yet viperous no.9 at Napoli has continued this season; Yannick Carrasco, who has quietly impressed for Atletico on the right flank for a couple of seasons now; Marouane Fellaini, an impact sub for last-minute long-ball attacks; Thorgan Hazard, a dribbler who is not quite at his brother's level yet, but has potential; Christian Benteke, who has lost his way over the past two years, yet provides a different skill set to that of Lukaku and Mertens.
Arguably, the greatest benefactor of the 3-4-2-1 has been Hazard, with the formation freeing him from his defensive abilities in Mourinho's 4-2-3-1, and the overlaps of Alonso allowing him to play a central role. A greater factor though, might be the effect this formation will have on De Bruyne.
De Bruyne's effectiveness in a central role continues to be illustrated at City, where he is the chief orchestrator in a role deeper than that played by David Silva, where he is evolving into more of a complete midfielder than a no.10. One only has to look to his marginalisation on the right against Italy in 2016 to understand the cruciality of his playing centrally. His comfort in dropping deeper would prove invaluable too, enabling a flexibility to shift to a 3-5-1-1 while facing packed midfields.
While Martinez's teams are known for their focus on attack, equally are they known for defensive frailties. The major criticisms levelled against him during his final season at Everton were due to his notorious ignorance of defensive drilling. This remains a risk with Belgium, as Martinez's coaching team is heavily skewed towards attack as well.
In the past two years, Martinez has alternated between a 4-man and 3-man defence. It is notable that the Vertonghen-Alderweireld partnership, while so solid at Tottenham, has been exposed while covering for Jordan Lukaku in particular. Hence, the weaknesses in Martinez's use of a 3-4-2-1, such as the space behind the wing-backs, could be exposed by cannier teams, especially as Martinez is likely to play a high defensive line.
Also notable is that for all his flaws, Martinez remains an innovative coach. In 2012, while managing at Wigan, he correctly predicted that a 3-4-3 trend would emerge in the coming years. While tactical trends have always been cyclical, the widespread use of a 4-man defence made it unbelievable at the time. With Belgium, the use of drones to perfect positioning might seem visionary but is yet to proven effective.
Martinez still has the better part of a year to perfect his approach before the World Cup, and also has room to experiment, with Belgium already qualifying in some comfort. Another encouraging sign is his final season with Wigan, which ended in relegation, but also an FA Cup victory.
The season prior featured victories against Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United. His first season at Everton featured similar giant-killing, Everton doing the double over Manchester United, resulting in David Moyes' sack at United and a memorable 3-0 victory against Arsenal. These signs could indicate Martinez's comfort as a knockout tournament coach, boding well for the World Cup.