Belgium is a stunning collection of young and talented players who play for some of the big clubs in England, Spain and Germany. They are replete with talent in every part of the field with players that are versatile and most of them are yet to reach the zenith of their careers. With 10 eminent stars from the English Premier League, and dynamic midfielders of the quality of Zenit St Petersburg’s Axel Witsel and Wolfsburg’s Kevin De Bruyne – as well as Atlético Madrid’s on-loan-from-Chelsea shot stopper, Thibaut Courtois, it is palpable that this nation has been blessed with a gifted generational surfeit of young talent.Yet as talent-laden as they are, the Red Devils remain one of the international game’s greatest conundrums. Having failed to qualify for a major tournament in over a decade, the onus now lies upon this vigorous squad to embark on a journey of feat.
Belgium are in the fortunate position of having two top-class keepers in Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet. Both of them have enjoyed great success with their respective clubs over the last couple of seasons.
The lack of full backs in this squad is something that has always come under the spotlight. But Wilmots solved the problem by selecting centre-backs in the full back positions and that’s highly likely to be the way it goes in Brazil. Captain, Vincent Kompany, Vice-captain Thomas Vermaelen and Spurs centre-back & ex-Ajax star Jan Vertonghen who fills in at left back are all first choice defenders. Over on the right, the first choice is another ex-Ajax centre back, Toby Alderweireld.
In the heart of midfield where most of Belgium’s talent lies, Axel Witsel is an assured starter in his usual position in front of the back four. He’s the one who initiates attacks, sets the tone for the team and is “Wilmots’ brain on the pitch” according to Belgian football expert and journalist, John Chapman. Marouane Fellaini and Steven Defour will both play integral roles as they have been doing during the qualifiers.
Moving to the front line, arguably the most talented member of the squad, the Premier League’s ‘Young Player’ of the year Eden Hazard needs no introduction. Many believe he can make the difference in Belgium’s quest for world cup success. Another candidate for a wide position is Kevin De Bruyne. Deemed surplus to requirements by Chelsea, number ‘10’ is his most preferred position but Wilmots has been using De Bruyne’s versatility on the flanks so that more of his favoured central players can be on the pitch.Left Winger, Adnan Januzaj, who chose Belgium over a host of other teams, offers yet another alternative.
The only area of concern is the striking department – Divock Origi, aged 19, has played just one game for the senior team, replaces Benteke in the squad;Kevin Mirallas & Eden Hazard will need to be ready to play up front. Romelu Lukaku has had yet another brilliant season on loan scoring 15 goals and 6 assists for Everton in the Premier League and the striker is a clear favourite to start all games up front in the absence of Christian Benteke who is ruled out for 6 months with an Achilles injury.
Solidity at the back is a big positive for any team – especially one which has so much attacking talent. Only Spain conceded goals at a lower rate than their 0.4 per match. Illustrious wing play and constant threat from set pieces was a key factor in attack all throughout the qualifying stages.Given the amount of attacking perspicacity that they showcased, they could well be genuine contenders for the tournament.
It’s hard to pick out loopholes in a team which seems to be getting everything right at present. What may come as a problem for them is the naivety and lack of experience. Daniel Van Buyten has been in the team for more than a decade while skipper Vincent Kompany has also featured in some of the crucial games. Kompany will have to make sure that he maintains the team morale and complacency does not creep in.
Being drawn in a fairly easy group, the Red Devils do not face an uphill battle in going through to the knockout stage. Wilmots will be more than willing to exploit Algeria’s inability to defend their flanks and Korea’s problems to deal with set pieces.
Wilmots will be adapting a 4-3-3 or an attacking 4-5-1 formation with emphasis on wingers cutting in with neat one touch passing in the midfield.
With 4-5-1,Belgium can utilise their strengths and outnumber the opposition in the midfield area. Hazard and Mirallas, along with Witsel and the back four, retain their positions in the wings and in defence respectively. De Bruyne and Napoli sensation Dries Mertens, sitting just behind the striker will have the creative freedom to work in tandem, linking with wide players while also crowding the box when crosses come in from the flanks. With a focus on attack, the 4-5-1 formation also allows better retention of the ball. Given Belgium’s pacey playmakers, they will pose a constant threat on the counter.With 4-3-3, Hazard on the left and De Bruyne/Mirallas are expected to start on the right as Lukaku leads the front line. Fellaini and Dembele will don the midfield role as they become the key link between attack and defence. Witsel, will be expected to sit back and guard the back four as a holding Defensive Midfielder. Defensive wingers, (who in this case are natural centre backs) will be hugging the touchline and assisting the midfield but their involvement in the attack will be limited. Leading country-men, Vermaelen and Kompany will form the defensive wall for Belgium as they man mark the opposition strikers.
Wilmots wants his team to continuously press for the ball when they are out of possession, which is why the squad relies heavily on man marking. In their match against Scotland in 2013, whenever the Scottish had possession of the ball within their own half, each Belgian player gravitated towards the nearest outlet for a short pass, in order to cut out any chance of Scotland playing out from the back and threatening Belgium on the ground. This tactic worked, to an extent, with 16.3% of Scotland’s passes being sloppy long balls up to the striker. Belgium adopted this tactic in their most recent friendly against Luxembourg after they conceded a goal in the 13th minute after Lukaku’s opener. The game ended in a 5-1 victory for the Red Devils.
Man-to-man marking works best when you have tall players. Going back to the game against Scotland, Wilmots knew that his squad was superior to Scotland in the air, and they dominated in the aerial duels – winning 65% of the battles in the air and 57% on the ground. Belgium’s isolation of Scotland’s passing avenues effectively nullified the Scotland attack.
Having players who can convert defence into attack in no time at all, perform exquisite one-twos, quick passing, step overs and back heels, are a part and parcel of the team’s gameplay giving them an extra bit of attacking thrust. With no natural full backs in the squad, the back four are all centre backs. As a consequence, there are very few overlapping runs made by Vertonghen and Alderweireld on the flanks. Thus, the wingers have more freedom to move forward and less pressure to track back when they lose the ball while the back four sit back and hold a deep defensive line.fluidity to go along with their stability. Eden Hazard on the left wing also happens to be the most fouled player in the Premier League in his two seasons at Chelsea.
It doesn’t take a tactical genius (even though Wilmots is one) to know the importance of counter attacking football in the world cup. While it’s pleasing to see teams play football (attack) and score a lot of goals, it’s equally important for teams to know when to attack and how. Hitting teams on the counter, and when they are most vulnerable is another favourable asset that the Belgian side possesses with just the right players to do so.
Axel Witsel | The dynamic midfielder is a fixture at the base of Belgium’s midfield. Axel Witsel is a midfielder who is technically strong, and physically imposing as well. As mentioned above, he is very important to Wilmots and how he sets his team up. Witsel is the player who protects the back 4 and the team during defensive transitions, and helps launching attacks, by getting the ball to skillful players like Hazard in front of him. He is the man that keeps Belgium ticking over, so watch him.
Eden Hazard | Of course, he needs no introduction. While there are a number of excellent players that Belgium have across the park, Hazard is that special talent that can make a difference for his team. His attacking abilities are beyond exceptional, with pace, power, and precision at the heart of all that he does. Hazard can be the one to break a tight defence, or score an important goal on the counter for his team. His form, offensively, and his work rate defensively, are very important to Belgium.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYERS
Romelu Lukaku | Lukaku, who scored his first hattrick for Belgium against Luxembourg, now holds the record for the most number of goals (65) scored by a player in the league when turning 21 surpassing previous record holder Lionel Messi (57), and others like Michael Owen (55) & Wayne Rooney (44). The stage is set for Lukaku to shine and he is surely one to watch out for. You can read a detailed Scout Report on Romelu Lukaku here. The Belgian also featured in two awards in our inaugural Talent Radar Young Player Awards, being voted by the Readers’ as the Forward of the Season, and coming into the Readers’ Team of the Season as well. Lukaku also was named in the Talent Radar Premier League team of the season.
Adnan Januzaj | Aged 19, Adnan Januzaj is set to feature in Brazil after his breakthrough season with Manchester United. An exciting prospect, and one of the most talented attackers in Europe, Januzaj is expected to start most of the games on the bench given the current form and calibre of fellow team mate Eden Hazard. Januzaj made his bow as a second-half substitute for Kevin Mirallas, giving a glimpse of his ability and trickery down the left wing. Adnan Januzaj was named Talent Radar Debutant of the Season.
Belgium are expected to top the group with Russia, Algeria and South Korea being the challengers. But the journey from there on seems to be a hard one for the Red Devils. If they finish top of the group, they are expected to face Portugal, if they finish second in Group G. If they do come out the other end as winners, they will probably face Messi and Co. from Argentina in the Quarter Finals. Most pundits have predicted that Belgium can reach the QF easily but the journey after that looks to be a gruelling one and could come down to their fate. They have made it pretty clear that they have the potential to go till the very end. Will the young players be able to prove their mettle and live up to the hype or will history retain its course and this will be yet another unsuccessful campaign? We’ll know starting 17th June when they kick off their campaign against Algeria.