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Rahul Warrier has a close look at the various defensive options at Marc Wilmots’ disposal ahead of Belgium’s Euro 2016 sojourn.
The Red Devils have never been a powerhouse on the international front. Despite their close links to France and the Netherlands, they have never won footballing honours as a country at the Euros, coming close in 1980, losing the final to a Rummenigge-led West Germany and 1972, finishing 3rd, bested by the prolific Gerd Muller of West Germany again. This time round in 2016 though, expectations are no longer middling. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ created buzz leading up to the 2014 World Cup where they enjoyed their 2nd best position in a World Cup, reaching the quarter-finals. However they fell short of expectations of free-flowing football as they topped their group with 3 wins but with minimal goals scored, and struggled to squeeze past a Tim-Howard inspired USA.
With a fairly dominant qualification campaign that saw only 1 loss to Gareth Bale’s Wales and 24 goals, expectations are fairly high once again. Marc Wilmots now has a more-experienced side than what he had in Brazil. The ‘Golden Generation’ are now more equipped than ever to deal with the pressure of expectations. It also aids his cause that the core of both squads remain the same, and that consistency should ideally help the coach on paper, but it is not that simple in reality.
While Belgium possess a diverse and supremely talented midfield and attack, it is their defence which will be under the microscope going into the tournament. The loss of Vincent Kompany is a blow to Belgium in that sense. The captain and leader of the side, Kompany has suffered numerous injuries over the past few years, fading in prominence at Manchester City. On a personal level, his absence will do his physical health a world of good as one wrong decision could jeopardise the rest of his career at the top level. As part of a youthful squad though Kompany brings leadership to the table, something which is also valued at an international tournament. His injury track record and his increasingly brittle body however poses the question whether he could stand the rigours of an intense tournament? The answer is probably no, and so the absence of Kompany allows Wilmots the option of shuffling about his defence without the compulsion to select Kompany.
The dearth of quality full-backs has been a pressing issue for Belgium for years; this has forced Wilmots to play Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen at their secondary positions, right-back and left-back respectively, for their country. This was not the ideal solution but one that provided the least selection dilemma. Over the last season though there has been a shift in dynamics, of which the most importance lies in the partnership of Alderweireld and Vertonghen at the club level. Tottenham in hindsight did a great favour to Belgium by signing Alderweireld from Atletico Madrid, this decision has allowed the two Belgians to form a solid defense at club level. Both defenders had a strong partnership at Ajax, where in 118 games they only conceded an average of 0.9 goals per game as a centre-back pairing. The second birth of this partnership provided the defensive solidity the team needed and the bedrock for an unlikely title challenge, a 3rd place finish in the league and part of the best defence in the league. Both complement each other well and have an understanding of each other that transcends most centre-back pairings. It would be a real waste of Vertonghen’s chemistry with Alderweireld to have him play at left-back, a position where he has been on record as saying he doesn’t enjoy playing in. He is naturally diminished playing at left-back, and if Vermaelen is selected to play alongside Alderweireld, this weakens the team further. This is not to say that he is a weakness at left-back, but he is only a competent option, capable of filling in rather than being the main option. Alderweireld is more adept to playing on either flank as his versatility and lack of glaring weaknesses lessens the effect of deploying him there, but the best centre-back pairing Belgium have in the absence of Kompany are the Spurs pair, and Wilmots may regret if he chooses to play them on the flanks on the basis of consistency.
It is not for the lack of alternatives though. Injuries have dictated the drafting in of two natural full-backs, Jordan Lukaku and Thomas Meunier. As you might have guessed, Jordan is the younger brother of Romelu Lukaku, also in the squad. Both full-backs have shown their attacking capabilities regularly, bombing forward to put crosses in the box. Indeed, Jordan already has a couple of assists under his belt. He is slightly weak defensively and thus a risk to start him at the Euros, however he surely is a better option to the likes of Vermaelen and Vertonghen there. Meunier has played as a winger in his early days and thus can move up and down his flank throughout the 90 minutes. The centre-back pairing of the two Spurs defenders along with these two attacking full-backs could prove for a fruitful partnership, if it comes to fruition. Axel Witsel is another option at right-back, a more left-field one, but he surely is an inferior option to Meunier and Alderweireld, his talents are better served in the attacking half. The loss of Lombaerts as a left-back option may prove to be Vertonghen’s loss in that aspect.
A glimpse of the short-term future defensively was seen in the friendly win against Switzerland on 28th May. Wilmots as expected played Vertonghen at left-back, Vermaelen and Alderweireld in the middle and Witsel on the right-flank. The struggles of Vertonghen at left-back through the game was evident and the defensive solidity was improved when Jordan Lukaku came on for Vermaelen and moved onto the left flank. He also bagged an assist, passing the ball to de Bruyne who banged in a stunner.
Wilmots announced his back 4 to be Alderweireld, Denayer, Vermaelen and Vertonghen. This goes with his usual selection pattern, and while not disastrous, we can see his lack of trust in his two natural full-backs, Lukaku and Meunier. The selection of Denayer could prove to be a good one given his similar style to Kompany. While the loan move to Galatasaray saw him play considerably lesser than he did at Celtic, a strong show at France could impress his new City manager Guardiola, and thus give him a chance at City like he did with Kimmich at Bayern. Vermaelen on the other hand has had a nightmare, injury-ravaged two years at Barcelona, and the lack of game time could prove costly. His experience is a valuable asset, offset by his lack of match fitness. It is clear that Wilmots is basing his selection on past performances, which thus sees Alderweireld and Vertonghen on the flanks rather than in the middle of defence.
It is clear that Wilmots has a choice between sticking to how he has played all along, or being more daring with his defensive choices. It is a coin’s toss as to what he will do, a decision which will impact his Golden Generation’s chances of success. He has a plethora of midfield and attacking options including but not limited to Kevin de Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Carrasco, Nainggolan and Dembele. The right mixture of playing styles to include combativeness, skill, pace and power could see Belgium shine even if in a tricky group including the defensively strong Italians and the qualities of one Ibrahimovic. Yet their success will be determined by the 4 men in front of Thibaut Courtois. The right choices from those in front of Wilmots could see the Red Devils go deep in the tournament and dare I say it, go close to winning it. The tag of being the ‘Golden Generation’ will then be lived up to.
Written by Rahul Warrier