Is Belgium Finally Ready To Win A Major Tournament?
It’s the million-dollar question which has been on everyone’s lips for the best part of seven years.
"When will Belgium win a major tournament?"
Since their return to the world stage at the 2014 World Cup, the promise has always been there, possessing a once youthful core that’s become the nucleus of the squad going forward, and helped maintain their position among the world’s best.
However, the results have never quite come, falling short of the mark in three-straight major tournaments despite hosting what some have labelled ‘a golden generation’.
Quality has never been an issue for the ‘Red Devils’ but it’s just now a matter of finally living up to their potential of being the number one ranked team in the world and taking home their first piece of European silverware.
It’s arguably now or never for the Belgians as much of that generation of talent begin to reach the latter stages of their careers.
Having dispatched Russia with relative ease in their opening group game 3-0 – the early signs of a deep run are promising and were among the more impressive sides in matchday one.
Is this the tournament where they finally go all the way? Well, let’s have a look.
If it isn’t clear enough, Belgium ooze talent and experience all over the park.
Roberto Martinez’ squad is still built around the same core that’s seen them through for the best part of a decade with a sprinkle of fresh new faces.
There is still a heavy reliance on their experienced bodies who make up not only much of the 26-man squad, but also their ‘best XI’.
Among that core include Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne who were superb in clubland this season.
Lukaku is coming off a career-best season at Inter where he scored 24 goals, provided 11 assists and won the Serie A’s MVP, while De Bruyne enjoyed a title-winning season at Manchester City, and came away with the PFA Premier League Player of the Year.
Nine players in the Belgian squad have more than 80 caps and seven of those all saw minutes against Russia
Among the nine, only De Bruyne and Axel Witsel missed due to injury and with the duo set to return, it’s expected they will all slot back into the side for their upcoming games.
Although the luxuries of their enormous squad depth meant they were able to turn to Wolves enforcer Leander Dendoncker and Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Carrasco who are more than adequate replacements.
You mentioned squad depth? Arguably the greatest Belgian player of the past decade in Eden Hazard even couldn’t find a spot in the XI after a disappointing season at Real Madrid.
HOW THEY PLAY
Belgium’s ethos is quite simple – width, fluidity and mismatches.
Roberto Martinez, ever since his days at Wigan Athletic has preferred to use a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1 – with both wingers coming in more centrally to play just in behind Lukaku.
The crux of what Martinez looks to achieve is getting numbers forward by drawing the defence to one side and allowing for the ball to be sprayed out to the opposite wing in order to create openings for their wingers/forwards.
Belgium will look to attack with all seven players and create triangles in wide areas, in particular on the right where De Bruyne is primarily utilised to get balls either into Lukaku or out to the open-side where Thorgan Hazard or Dries Mertens are looking to exploit.
Martinez’ sides usually have high-volumes of possession, relying on Youri Tielemens and Witsel to keep the ball moving from side to side.
Despite their obvious brilliance in attack, defensively the Belgians can be suspect against sides who can break quickly in transition.
The Belgians only conceded three times in qualifying and may have lost twice in 28 games but over the past year have seen their once sturdy defence start to be opened up.
In 14 matches in the past year, the Red Devils have only kept five clean-sheets and have conceded 11 times during this run.
Belgium will look to have their wingbacks drop in to create a back five, while the forwards will then slot out wide just ahead of them to create a 5-4-1.
However, due to the attacking overload and their high defensive-line, sides have been able to pick their way through on the counter – exploiting the wing-backs who are usually high up the pitch.
Sides who play with pace may also be able to exploit their ageing defence with both Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderwiereld lacking the speed they once had.
If Belgium are to go deep, they’ll need to protect their back-three more than ever and will be heavily reliant on their wing-backs to do just that through heavy two-way running in order to ensure they aren’t picked apart on the break.
ROAD TO FINAL
The Red Devils are in pole position for an easy run out of the group stage.
A convincing win over Russia has not only put them top of the group, but has given them a healthy goal difference heading into the final two games.
According to our Stats Insider model, Belgium is equal-second favourite to win the entire tournament with a 14.5% chance of taking home some silverware.
The job won’t be easy and will need to take care of business against a dangerous Denmark side who will be looking to bounce back after an opening round loss before what should be a straight-forward win over Finland.
From there, things will start to get interesting once they reach the knockout phase.
A potential blockbuster quarter final against Italy looms before a semi-final against reigning world champions France should they advance.
Despite the Belgians being unable to jump over the final hurdle time and time again, they appear more than ready to get it done, especially with their weapons going forward.
However, despite their ability to get forward and attack with ferocity, certain defensive questions remain, the likes of which may come back to haunt them against better sides.
Can they hold their own when the whips start cracking? We shall see, but it truly is now or never for their Golden Generation.
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