Belgium, ostensibly an All-Star squad of Premier League stars who enthrall viewers around the world from week to week, were coming in as the “dark horse” team to win EURO 2016. Those high hopes were quickly dashed by an opening round defeat to Italy. “A coach (Antonio Conte) without a team (Italy, bringing its weakest squad in recent memory) defeated a team (Belgium) without a coach” (Marc Wilmots). Three fairly convincing wins seemed to calm things down and take the Red Devils to the quarterfinals, where they were strong favorites to overcome Wales and progress to the semifinals. But, a 3-1 loss, after going up a goal thanks to a Radja Nainggolan rocket inside the first 15 minutes, has resulted in a lot of finger-pointing. So, let’s play the blame game and list 10 reasons why Belgium failed to live up to expectations after getting a golden chance to make the finals at EURO 2016
- Coach Wilmots is now getting eviscerated by great football journalists such as Jonathan Wilson and Raphael Honigstein after more or less getting the kid glove treatment by the Belgian media for 4 years.Wilson’s Guardian article from June 17th had this wonderful anecdote about Wilmots’ preparation for the Italy game:”Last Friday Wilmots had his first XI take on the other squad members, whom he arranged in a 3-5-2 formation in a rough approximation of the shape Italy took up on Monday. His first team lost 4-0. That is not a particularly unusual occurrence in training matches – reserve players are often more committed, even if that is only subconscious – but it did suggest work needed to be done. The next day, there was another training game but this time the reserves were given no specific tactical instructions. That now looks like the grossest negligence.”The Roy Hodgson corollary of “improvisation and letting players just play” mistaken for lack of tactics also applies heavily to Wilmots, who is by all accounts a very nice guy and is remembered fondly by this author as a vital piece in Schalke’s 96\97 UEFA Cup victory. He also had four years with a squad featuring roughly the same core, yet has struggled to give it an identity. In many ways, Wilmots is like the guy who won a ton on Mega Millions, only to “invest” thousands of dollars on lottery tickets every week.
- Lack of tactics\planning. The excellent Double Pivot Podcast brought up a particularly poignant point about tactics in its latest episode: Tactics does not = playing defensively, and Belgium are a shining example, as Wilmots’ squad seemed to lack any direction and just relied on individual talent. Against inferior opposition (Ireland, Sweden and Hungary were all either tactically, technically and physically worse than Belgium) talent featuring Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne seemed to win out comfortably. Against a stalwart defense, an industrious midfield that pressed endlessly and was capable of fast, dynamic transition play like Italy, or a quick counterpunching team with an elite CM in Ramsey and an elite speedy forward like Bale, Belgium struggled.
- Internal fighting – This was most evident on the corners against Wales, as Nainggolan was rightfully furious with newcomers Jordan Lukaku and Jason Denayer, who seemed to be unfamiliar with the elementary concept of man marking on crosses, which accounted for the first and third goals. There was also Courtois throwing Wilmots under the bus.
- Bad press
Ball recoveries vs Wales
The right side looks bleak, and Dembele (one of the Premiership’s best pressing midfielders) sure could have helped.
5. Tackling CDMs for 200, Alex! The aforementioned Dembele averaged 3.6 tackles per match for Spurs last season, so of course he sat on the bench, while Witsel and Nainggolan combined to do the following:
As a sidenote, Witsel had 2 vs Sweden, Nainggolan had 0, and they used Dembele vs. Ireland
but in the Hungary game, their dominance was clear – and it led to an easy win.
while Parolo had 6 tackles by himself for Italy, as Belgium failed to gain a foothold in the middle.
So, while Nainggolan scored two great long-distance goals and was largely fine, Axel Witsel’s solid passing numbers hid an otherwise weak defensive midfield unit that cost them against better teams.
6. Bad options off the bench
Yannick wasn’t useful due to him losing the ball way too often, Marouane Fellaini as CAM is like Boris Johnson as a politician, and Dries Mertens is incredibly hit or miss. It’s partly the fault of a coach, who perhaps could have achieved more during the qualifiers in finding the best player next to the two CDMs and Hazard\KDB, but the players haven’t exactly made it easy for him.
7. Poor wide play – crosses was another bugaboo, as neither KDB or Hazard is a classic winger, and playing them out there backfired so famously against Italy. Here were the crosses for Belgium:
7 of 35 vs Wales and 9 of 35 vs Italy
more success on much fewer attempts vs Hungary, including the Alderweireld goal
but still, we saw way too much of Hazard, KDB cutting inside into 4-5 defenders, and\or Mertens\Carrasco not doing enough. Romelu Lukaku, while no one could accuse him of having had a great tournament is probably crying for Gerard Deulofeu’s crosses.
Toby Alderweireld was one of the best EPL CBs this year, but has looked exposed in a makeshift defense for Belgium. While for Spurs he barely had to make tackles (1.2 per game), such was the defensive cover provided by his national team teammates Vertonghen (who played LB for Belgium, but CB for Tottenham) and Dembele (who only got one game at the Euros, due to injuries and Marc Wilmots), he is averaging over 2 attempted tackles already.
Dustin Ward made a great point: The hidden side effect of replacement level defenders: Eden Hazard had to come deep, as Jordan Lukaku offered little support.
Turns out Meunier got forward while Lukaku did not. Hazard wound up having to come deeper to get ball pic.twitter.com/oUpCIbKVVp
— Saturdays on Couch (@SaturdayOnCouch) July 1, 2016
Add Kompany, Lombaerts missing the tourney, Vermaelen and Vertonghen missing the Wales game, and poor Alderweireld was feeling like the last of the Mohicans back there.
9. Romelu Lukaku has averaged 30 touches per match and is often given a quick hook by Wilmots when things go wrong. Taking him off 2-1 down to Wales with 10 minutes left was just another weird move in a series of unfortunate events. While the big Belgian often struggles with this first touch, and is not the best with his back to his goal, there is a decent argument that Belgium have woefully misused him.
I mean is that really where you want your center forward? England and Harry Kane could tell you more about that.
10. De Bruyne and Hazard were not good enough.
On the most basic level, these two superstars will have to carry the Red Devils, and they will go as far as they will take them. While Hazard amassed ELEVEN dribbles against Hungary, he had just two against Wales, as he failed to impact the game. De Bruyne added four more shots to take him to 21 on the tourney, but while has found the target TEN times, those shots (many weak and speculative, though Hungary would probably disagree) netted ZERO goals. Last but not least, the most damning stat: the duo had 37 key passes in the first four games, but managed just TWO against Wales!
World Cup 2018 will probably be the last chance for this “Golden Generation” and Belgium fans will hope that it won’t end in the Portuguese (Figo and co.), Argentinean (poor Messi) or English (Gerrard\Lampard\Terry) way.