One of the mini features of this World Cup – beyond the wonderful talent and the absorbing football – has been the handful of talented sides who have failed to add up the sum of their parts.
Over the weekend, we saw a dreadfully blunt Argentina labour against Iran, we watched Portugal get largely out-played by a spirited USA, and we have Belgium to thank for one of the worst games of the tournament.
All three of those sides share a characteristic: they are all using systems which subdue the talent of their star players.
Belgium are a very interesting case, because obviously prior to their arrival in Brazil they were a consensus ‘dark horse’ in Brazil. Fair enough, too, with the talent pool at Marc Wilmots’ disposal they really should be disappointed with anything less than a semi-final appearance.
But here’s the problem: Belgium really aren’t playing well. They are a lumbering, slow, disjointed side at the moment who look vulnerable any time an opponent approaches their penalty-box. They may have won both of their opening group games and may have advanced to the knockout stages, but all things remaining equal they will be eliminated by the first good team they face.
How’s that possible? Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Thibaut Courtois, Dries Mertens, Axel Witsel…not only do they have a word-class core, they have an all-star cast. Algeria, with all due respect, should never have presented the challenge that they ultimately did, and a cautious, defensively-orientated Russian side should – theoretically – have been the ideal opponent for them.
So what’s the problem?
The most obvious point relates to temperament – Belgium play very, very slowly.
Towards the end of the Russia game – in the last five or so minutes – Wilmots’ team suddenly discovered the value of urgency. Having played the match at a snail’s pace for the first hour-and-twenty-five minutes, the passing suddenly developed some pace and players who had spent the entire game being double-teamed were actually afforded some space. There was some ambition to the play and the side started to take risks in the attacking-third – and ultimately that’s how a team can exploit its pockets of individual ability.
Eden Hazard is the jewel in the Belgian crown and quite obviously he’s a match-winner at all levels of the game. As Chelsea fans know, extracting the value from Hazard is really about getting him in possession in the right areas of the pitch and putting him in isolation with lone defenders. For the first eighty-minutes on Sunday, Belgium didn’t do that.
Here’s a graphic depicting Hazard’s dribbling performance during the game:
That all looks fairly healthy until change the parameters and restrict the graphic to solely what he did between the 80th minute and the end of the game:
That little cluster of successful take-ons is vital, because when Hazard is beating men in that position defenders ultimately have a big problem – when he has the ball in those area and he’s skipping past opponents, the structure used to contain him and his attacking teammates will break-down. It has to. And the proof of that was clear against Russia – it was, after all, Hazard’s elusiveness in the box which created the opportunity for the game’s opening goal. In fact, minutes earlier he’d created the game’s best chance – which was deflected wide – from cutting inside from a very similar position.
And there lies the value in having a balance between team cohesion and an awareness of how to effectively utilise the individual talent. Returning to that Argentina/Portugal/Belgium comparison, all three of those sides seem to employ a ‘just give them the ball anywhere’ mentality with their best players, and that is very efficient way to minimise their effectiveness.
So on the basis that Marc Wilmots obviously knows how to use Hazard – and his other destructive players – effectively, why isn’t he doing it? Because his team’s lack of fluidity in the attacking areas isn’t allowing him to. The link-play at the top of the formation – looking at you, Romelu Lukaku – isn’t good enough, and the speed at which the ball transitions from the midfield into the final-third isn’t quick enough. Remember, the slower the ball moves the easier it is for a defence to remain organised and disciplined, and if a side doesn’t have a centre-forward who is either stretching the pitch vertically or recycling possession effectively, they will create very little during the course of the game.
Belgium had eleven shots during the course of the game, four of which were blocked by defenders and one of which came from a free-kick. For a side with their attacking ability that represents a startlingly low level of chance-creation.
This is theoretically a very good team, but everything they do must be done quicker and more accurately. This overly-cautious, very deliberate style which Belgium have brought with them to the World Cup is clearly having a very reductive effect on their key performers. Look at how they played in that last ten minutes on Sunday, or the style they adopted when chasing the game against Algeria – that needs to become their default self if they are to doing anything memorable in Brazil.