The FIFA World Cup continues to enthral the football fraternity with drama, surprises and heartbreaks. Amidst all the chaos and departures of the big boys, Belgium qualified for the quarterfinals by claiming a narrow victory over a spirited Japan side.
Seeded in Group G, Eden Hazard and co. began their campaign with a 3-0 victory over newcomers Panama, courtesy of an authoritative and assertive second-half performance. They made light work of Tunisia by netting five past them and thus, sealing a spot for the knockout stages with two wins out of two.
Going into the next game against an energetic English outfit, Roberto Martinez made 9 alterations to his team that beat Tunisia. A screamer from Adnan Januzaj ensured a meeting with Japan in a pre-quarterfinal fixture. They won the game 1-0, which meant England would lock horns with Columbia in the Round of 16.
Fingers have been raised against a few of Roberto Martinez’s decisions, tactics and formations. Ranging from the shape of the starting XI, to the position of Kevin De Bruyne in midfield, the former Everton boss has been criticised to a notable extent for not making the best use of a world-class bunch of players.
This is because – despite being the highest scoring team in the group stages, Belgium haven’t looked all that convincing always. The defence has been opened up quite a few times now, which was clearly visible in their outings against Tunisia and Japan. Also to mention, they were very slow in moving the ball against Panama in the first-half.
Thomas Meunier’s free role, unlike the one he has at PSG, means that he is left with more kilometres to cover – as he needs to track back for defensive duties. This has often led to large empty spaces down his channel. While running back in a do-or-die situation, he places himself in a narrow position due to the lack of time. By the time he would arrive in the defensive third, the wider area would have already been occupied by opponents.
This problem was highlighted in the match against Japan, where Takashi Inui had lots of space to run at the centre-backs and play early crosses into the box. The story on the other side of the pitch is worse. Carrasco makes the same mistakes as Meunier and in addition to that, lacks the sharpness and cleanliness in the defensive aspect of his game.
Hence, a flat back four with the solidity and versatility of Jan Vertonghen at left-back would be a better option. In the same structure, Meunier will stick to his position more often too. The Tottenham Hotspur defender is physical, can skip away from a full-back and deliver the best of crosses into the box. He also casts a keen eye on goal. Speaking of his defensive expertise, the 104-capped Belgian can win aerial duels and win more challenges, unlike Carrasco.
No disrespect to the former Atletico Madrid winger, but this left wing-back role just doesn’t suit his style of play.
In the three-man midfield, both Witsel and Mousa Dembele must feature. The former hasn’t been at his best this World Cup. Although the 29-year-old is a safe passer, he doesn’t quite have the drive and a dribbling edge in his game. With the inclusion of Dembele, Witsel can shield the back four, act as a foil and direct the play from a deeper role. This will ensure a more solid-looking defence.
In the same situation, Dembele can be licensed to roam freely, wriggle past opposition midfielders and create openings. Apart from his dribbling abilities, the Spurs midfielder will block passing lanes and tackle with conviction. For his work rate, sharpness and Premier League experience, Roberto Martinez should have given him an edge over Witsel. Nonetheless, both of them will complement each other’s approach in this shape.
The person who benefits the most from this is Kevin De Bruyne. We all know what he did to oppositions in the 2017-18 season for Manchester City, when he was given the opportunity to play in an advanced role. He is at his supreme best when he runs down wider channels or occupies the central part of the final third.
The same hasn’t happened with Belgium this time around, as he tasked with more defensive work and forced to play out passes from deeper positions in midfield.
Next, the genius of Eden Hazard will be unleashed if he plays as an attacking midfielder. In this dynamic role, he will intelligently switch between wings, pick up the ball in midfield with ease and have a better shooting chance. His craft combined with change of pace in this position will prove to be a nightmare for the Brazilian defence.
Dries Mertens hasn’t convinced in this World Cup apart from a couple of instances. The best of him comes out when he gets into the box and cuts loose, thereby displaying his finishing skills. His composure and combination play with Lukaku in the box might come in handy when he plays as a false number 9. For Napoli too, he plays in this very position, which helps him contribute with both goals and assists.