The Red Devils have significant issues — including their lack of fluidity and invention in attack — that belie their FIFA world ranking of number 3, and manager Marc Wilmots does not have too long to fix them before the 2016 EURO in France next summer
On paper, Belgium are one of the most exciting football teams in Europe, boasting some of the finest attacking talent in the English Premier League in Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke. Counter-intuitively then, Marc Wilmots’ side have been both boring to watch as well as increasingly predictable for some time now.
The sheer depth of the Red Devils’ midfield would make other national teams green with envy, but Belgium’s attack is not yet close to being the world class unit it could — and perhaps should — be. To put it quite simply, Belgium have been struggling to score goals.
A lot of the discussion regarding Belgium and their weaknesses has focused on the dearth of natural, quality full-backs in the side, with Tottenham duo Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld used by Wilmots at left-back and right-back respectively. However, arguably the biggest issue that needs resolution is the team’s inability to play the sort of flowing, creative, attacking football that could take this golden generation of players a step closer to fighting for a major international honour.
Belgium’s goal-scoring woes a major concern
The first big test Marc Wilmot’s group of players had was the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. While it wasn’t quite the baptism by fire some cynics predicted it would be, a run to the quarter-finals did not quite mask Belgium’s abject attacking displays. Although World Cups games are traditionally low-scoring relative to other tournaments, the fact that Costa Rica were the only quarter-finalists to score fewer goals in the tournament than Belgium is telling.
Consider Belgium’s EURO 2016 qualifying campaign: 17 goals from 8 games gives them an average of just over 2 goals per game, which isn’t shabby by any stretch of the imagination. However, 11 of those came in two games at home against Cyprus and Andorra — by far the weakest teams in the group. Wilmots’ men failed to score in their two games against the team nearest in quality to them in Wales, drawing at home and losing away.
That goal-scoring should be a concern almost beggars belief given the attacking talent at Wilmots’ disposal, but the 46-year-old’s choice of formation and the obvious repetition of certain ‘default’ patterns of play mean that opposition teams have found it increasingly easy to predict and thwart Belgium’s key threats. Eden Hazard, perhaps surprisingly to some, is not one of them. And that is a big problem for Wilmots.
Far too often, the plan seems to be to play the ball out wide and cross it in to the likes of Christian Benteke and Marouane Fellaini, both of whom pose a sizeable aerial threat. Hazard is fundamentally a play-maker whose strengths involve running at defenders, playing incisive passes between defensive lines to the forwards in and around the box, and making runs into the box to receive a pass back.
Not only does the 24-year-old not see enough of the ball to try that on a regular basis, but the continued preference of Benteke up front means that Hazard is forced to put in his share of crosses from the left. It is no co-incidence that the excellent Kevin De Bruyne is the side’s primary play-maker — the Manchester City man has excellent crossing ability both from open play and set-pieces, something that Benteke and Fellaini have taken full advantage of.
Hazard is marginalised to some extent in that sense, and that is not good news for Belgium. De Bruyne is a brilliant footballer in his own right, and capable of turning games on his own, but is unlikely to drive the Red Devils to a major international honour. Eden Hazard just might, and Wilmots must find a way to get the best out of his most gifted player.
Formation change to include more attacking players could help
Wilmots usually sets his team out in a 4-3-3 formation, with the preferred first-choice midfield three at the moment being Axel Witsel, Fellaini and Roma power-house Radja Nainggolan. Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne usually flank Benteke from the left and right respectively. Although the Liverpool FC striker is not a limited footballer by any means, it does not take a football genius to figure out that his key strength is his aerial ability.
Combined with Fellaini’s ability in the air, Belgium usually have two physically imposing figures in the penalty area, awaiting crosses from the likes of De Bruyne as well as the full-backs Vertonghen and Alderweireld making overlapping runs on either flank. Benteke and Fellaini are good footballers playing for some of the biggest clubs in England, but they are not Wilmots’ most talented players, and the Red Devils’ manager must shift focus and play to the strengths of his best players — like Eden Hazard — rather than having his team adapt to the strengths of Benteke or Fellaini.
A shift to a 4-2-3-1 with De Bruyne as the number 10, or a 4-3-3 with De Bruyne at the head of the midfield triangle could perhaps go some way towards bringing some fluidity to the side’s attack. Another issue with the current formation is the distance between Hazard and De Bruyne, two of the most technically gifted players in the side. The two could be much more damaging when playing in concert with one another rather than operating as separate entities, and a 4-2-3-1 formation could make that possible.
Another key advantage of dropping one of Witsel, Nainggolan or Fellaini is that a space in the starting XI opens up for the likes of Nacer Chadli, Dries Mertens, Zakaria Bakkali as well as Kevin Mirallas or Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco when they return to the squad. That adds a little more attacking intent to the starting lineup, as well as gives De Bruyne and Hazard more mobile targets to aim at.
Up front, Lukaku seems to be inching closer to a permanent starting berth, and his time at Everton has undoubtedly helped him improve technically as well as tactically, particularly in terms of his movement. The youngster still has a long way to go, but his pace and mobility perhaps would make him a better fit if Wilmots decided to adopt a change in approach.
Even though the Belgians have such talented strikers, Fellaini is the leading scorer in the current squad with 15 goals, with Mirallas and Hazard second at 9 each. It is clear that even with Wilmots’ protracted attempts at bringing out the best in Benteke, the former Aston Villa man has just not been able to get going. Perhaps it is now time to try something different.
Barring a miracle, Marc Wilmots will lead Belgium into the 2016 European Championships, and he must begin to bring out the best in his attacking players if his team are to perform well in France and beyond.
That Belgium have a ‘golden generation’ of footballers at the moment is beyond question. However, despite their FIFA ranking and the excitement surrounding them, the Red Devils are quite some distance short of beating the bigger European sides in a major tournament.
Belgium’s best players have the responsibility to perform at their highest levels, but it is Wilmots’s job to facilitate that as best as possible. An intriguing few months lie ahead.