“I think our chance was 2018. We have a good team, but it is ageing. (Belgium) We lost some key players. We have some good new players coming, but they are not at the level other players were in 2018. I see us more as outsiders.”
This was Kevin De Bruyne on Belgium’s chances for this World Cup. Many believe that his comments best express the nation’s faith in achieving triumph on the international stage, and for a generation that included footballing stars representing the top clubs in Europe, Belgium has underperformed during Roberto Martinez’s six-year reign. The former Everton manager was given the keys to a Ferrari, and despite having a good run around, he has used it more like a Ford for most of the race.
Well, they had their moments with the team ranking first in the world for over two years, but their hunt to achieve silverware that could capture their name in the football folklore seems in vain. A poor performance against Canada was followed by a horrific defeat at the hands of Morocco. Anything other than a victory against Croatia could see them pack their bags early. They were not termed favourites to win the tournament, but no one expected a world number two side to perform this poorly during the World Cup. So, what has gone wrong with the Golden Generation this time around?
Lack of ideas in possession
Belgium’s main issues in their two games have been the lack of progression from the back. They faced two teams with different approaches – Canada and their vibrant high pressing and Morocco with their assertive mid-block. Against both teams, the centre-backs and the midfielders did not get the ball to their creative players, aka Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, quickly.
This is also down to Martinez’s poor in-game strategy and management, as his team had no answers to the problems possessed. He has stuck to his 3-4-3 formation with certain rotations in midfield, but the Spanish manager has hardly changed his system in six years.
Canada started in a 5-2-3 shape, therefore matching Belgium. Their front three were excellent out of possession as they blocked the passing lane to Witsel in midfield, while also pressuring the three centre-backs. The double pivot behind them, meanwhile, tightly marked De Bruyne out of the game. The video below in the tweet explains how they achieved to do it. This kind of hybrid pressing meant that Belgium did not get the ball to De Bruyne and Hazard and struggled to create chances as a result.
They ultimately won the game by a goal to nil thanks to Batshuayi’s strike, but Canada missed several clear-cut opportunities, including a penalty. This was undoubtedly a warning sign, but the pattern continued in their next game against Walid Regragui’s solid Morrocan outfit. Belgium lined up in a 4-2-3-1, but their principles in possession remained the same. A back three and a double pivot in front of them, with two wing-backs high up the pitch. De Bruyne and Hazard were between the lines, whilst Batshuayi was the lone striker.
Morocco, meanwhile, played in a 4-3-3 formation, largely in a mid-block to restrict Belgium’s centrally. Once again, the Red Devils looked suspect in possession and struggled to penetrate Morocco’s defence. Regragui instructed his ball-sided central midfielder to press the centre-back in possession by using his cover shadow to block the passing lane to Belgium’s midfielder (Witsel or Onana).
This also made it a 3v3 in the first line, therefore restricting the time on the ball. The near-sided winger then jumped onto the winger when Belgium’s wing-back received the ball. In this way, the Atlas Lions forced Belgium side to side with De Bruyne and Hazard once against struggling to receive possession. Morocco’s pressing structure is explained in the tweet below.
– Front three 3v3 v. CBs
– CMs covering/screening double pivot with support of first line
– Positioning/height of wingers dependent on WB (to protect FB from covering distances)
– CMs free to jump near-side CB, En-Nesyri cuts off switches of play back across https://t.co/H8EAjVtsNn pic.twitter.com/qNTO8a80h3
— Carl Carpenter (@CarlonCarpenter) November 27, 2022
Unlike Canada, Morocco punished Belgium in the second half with goals from Sabiri and Zakaria Aboukhlal scoring in the last quarter of the game. It could be said that Belgium missed Romelu Lukaku, as Martinez has built the system around him. If the Inter striker had played, they could have been direct and used his hold-up play to bring their creative outlets into play. Of course, credit has to be given to Canada and Morocco for their approach, but with the players Belgium had on the pitch, the performance did not do any justice.
Time for youth?
Much of the blame has been on Martinez’s lack of youth integration into the side. Belgium have the oldest squad in the World Cup and despite the likes of Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Hazard, Witsel, and several others past their prime and lacking match fitness, the manager continues to start them ahead of promising youngsters in the squad. The transition to the next set of players has not been handled well so far and is one of the reasons for their struggles in the Euro 2020 and this World Cup.
The major example is Leandro Trossard’s exclusion from the starting eleven. The 27-year-old has been in brilliant form for over a year and a half and has hardly got regular starts for this declining Belgium side. Hazard, on the other hand, is clearly a game-changer, but his best days are past him as he is battling with injuries and a lack of playing time at Real Madrid. Trossard has scored seven goals this season and is yet to start a game this World Cup.
Amadou Onana, Lois Openda, Charles de Ketelaere, Jeremy Doku, and Wout Faes are the next set of promising players in line but they have together made less than 30 appearances for their country. Perhaps these players are relatively young to start high-pressure games, but Martinez has rarely used them ahead of their preparation for the Qatar World Cup. So, the transition hasn’t been smooth.
The game against Croatia is a make or break for Belgium, but in all fairness, the poor harmony in the squad, combined with Martinez’s lack of ideas to improve his team, could mean they might not go any farther than the round of sixteen as they will face one of Spain or Germany (provided they qualify). But if the Golden Generation’s last dance is a group stage exit, there will unquestionably be questions asked and actions taken beyond the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.