2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil: Breaking Down the Belgian Red Devils
Oh no, more talk about that overrated team. Call me when they win something.
That seems to be the reaction a lot of people have every time someone mentions the Belgian national team as a potential dark horse candidate for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
You can't really blame them. No one really seems to know that much about the Red Devils. They have a bunch of talented players that have taken the English Premier League by storm in the past three years and apparently, enough talent to leave Eden Hazard on the bench in a World Cup qualifier (The Sun will make a story out of anything), but that's pretty much where the casual fan's knowledge of the Belgian team ends.
As your resident Belgian, I present to you the following article, where we'll lay out Belgium's roster, strengths and weaknesses, look at the coaching and formations used and figure out whether or not this team is the real deal.
Introduction to Belgium and Its Football
Mostly known for its waffles, beer and chocolate, Belgium is a tiny speck on the European map.
Squeezed in between France, Holland and Germany, it's easy to overlook the fairly insignificant state. In fact, the only time the country seems to make the news is when there are riots on the streets of the European capital (Brussels) or when the good sirs running the show can't seem to form a government (proud owners of the world record for the longest period without a government, at 541 days).
With three official languages, the main language spoken on the field is French (I could write you a 400 page essay on how difficult the Dutch language really is, but who cares), and the national anthem actually has three versions.
For such a small country, Belgium has a surprisingly rich tradition when it comes to world football. Prior to 2006, Belgium had been present at six consecutive World Cups, reaching the semifinal during Mexico '86. The highest ever FIFA ranking achieved was 16th, and they currently sit at 20th.
2002 was the last time when the team was able to qualify for a major tournament, losing to Brazil in the second round in a controversial manner (don't mention Peter Prendergast if you're ever in Belgium). The Brazilians went on to win the tournament and later said Belgium was the "toughest game of the entire tournament."
The Coach and His Formation
Marc Wilmots took over the coaching duties from Georges Leekens after he stepped down prior to the start of the current qualifier round.
A former star for the Red Devils, Wilmots was a hardworking, blue-collar type player who always cared more about the results than the way these results were achieved. As a member of a very successful generation for the Belgian NT, he put a premium on team spirit and fighting for your teammates as opposed to showcasing your individual mastery of the ball.
Wilmots has brought this same mentality into the current team. He values hard work and contribution to the defensive side of the ball over pure quality, one of the reasons Eden Hazard didn't start against Scotland. Under Wilmots, every player has to do his defensive duties, and that includes the deep striker.
Nicknamed the Cuddle Coach, Wilmots tries to be as close to his players as possible. He takes time to talk to every player individually and is often seen hugging his players during practise and games.
Since he's not a very experienced coach, the media feared he would be unable to control a locker room with this much star power, but he's done an excellent job so far. He is helped by a number of veteran leaders on the team in this and will call up older players for every single game with the sole intention of mentoring the younger guys and keeping the peace.
The biggest surprise has been his brilliance in making substitutions during games. Wilmots excels at reading the game and bringing in the right players to exploit potential weaknesses, and these substitutes have saved the team valuable points on numerous occasions.
Wilmots has the team playing a 4-3-2-1, with a high emphasis on controlling the ugly battle in midfield and players constantly switching position on the wings in an attempt to confuse defenses. His main trump card is the versatility of his midfielders, who are all capable of splitting out wide.
The key word when talking about the Belgian national team is potential, and it starts with the goalkeepers.
Belgium has a stable of solid, experienced stoppers, but one player sticks out: Thibaut Courtois.
At just 20 years of age, Courtois is one of the most exciting young keepers in world football. Currently on loan at Atlético Madrid, he was bought by Chelsea as insurance should Petr Cech not be able to come back to his old level, but he's been so impressive for the Spanish side that some are saying he could replace Cech in two or three years.
He was instrumental to Madrid's Europa League run and erased memories of David De Gea very quickly.
A former volleyball player, Courtois has very good size and incredible reflexes. He has very good hands, quickness and impressive vision for such a young player and does a good job coaching his defense.
He's good but not great at commanding his area on set pieces, but that is a skill that comes with age. Likewise, his positioning is impressive for his age, but it is not yet elite.
De Gea and Marc-André Ter Stegen are names we often hear when talking about the best young goalkeepers in the world, but Courtois is as good as both of them.
Other keepers include Simon Mignolet (Sunderland) and Jean-François Gillet (Torino), both very experienced and former number ones for the Red Devils. In case of injury, Anderlecht's Silvio Proto is another good option.
Belgium's situation in goal is very solid and could be a major strength by 2014.
In Belgium's four-man back line, there is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the two central spots and some concern on the wing.
When healthy, the central duo consists of Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen. That's two former EPL defenders of the year right there.
While both players have struggled with their clubs so far, they play far better for the national team.
Kompany leads the back line, but he's allowed to freelance and contribute to the attack. His goal against Scotland should give you an idea of what that looks like. He's the vocal leader of this team and one of the most experienced guys on the roster.
Vermaelen is not responsible for the entire defense (unlike at Arsenal) and instead can play unencumbered and do what he does best: use his vision and aerial prowess to stop the attack before it has even started.
The communication between both players is excellent, and the partnership has proven to be very fruitful. One thing that has been troublesome for the defense are quick strikes down the wing, where positional breakdowns on the crosses have happened, allowing too much space for the strikers.
Depth is provided by Nicolas Lombaert (top defender for Zenit St Petersburg), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich) and Toby Alderweireld (Ajax). Overall, this is an incredibly solid group with tons of depth.
The wingback are a different story, however.
The Red Devils lack quality backs, and as a result, Wilmots has decided to go with Vertonghen on the left and Guillaume Gillet (Anderlecht) and Alderweireld on the right.
Vertonghen currently also plays the LB position for Tottenham, but he is at his best in the centre of the defense where he can use his great vision. His pace is good but not great, and while he is capable of contributing to the build up, it is not his best feature. He's a good crosser but not a great one. Defensively, he is very solid.
Gillet is the regular starter on the right, but his natural position is in midfield. He's very good offensively, providing good crosses and finishing quite well with his head and his feet.
Defensively, he's a fighter that will not be intimidated by anyone, but he lacks the quality and experience to match up with world class players (even though he did a very good job against Gareth Bale of Wales).
Alderweireld is a CB like Vertonghen, but he is more limited offensively. He has more potential than Gillet, but the Anderlecht man has executed better so far.
Backup comes in the form of Laurent Ciman (Standard) and Olivier Deschacht (Anderlecht). Deschacht in particular is often not part of the final 23-man roster, to much surprise. He's another solid player, but he can only play on the left side, a position where Vertonghen seems the most logical choice.
Belgium has a strong defense with a lot of size and pace, but the wing backs are somewhat limited in what they can bring to the team. In terms of pure quality, you could make the case for the squad to be ranked top five in the world, but Vertonghen and Gillet need to master their respective position before I can have full confidence in this defense.
The theme continues: incredible down the middle, suspect on the wings.
In Wilmots' 4-3-2-1, the midfield triangle is solely responsible for the middle of the pitch. While that is normal for the formation, it was actually born out of a lack of quality players on the wing.
The standard triangle consists of Steven Defour (Porto), Marouane Fellaini (Everton) and Axel Witsel (Zenit St Petersburg), with Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham) often finding his way into the team in favour of Defour or Fellaini.
Witsel mainly occupies himself with recovering the football as fast as possible and does a great job at that. He is more than able to contribute to the attack, but his biggest weapon is his ability to use his body to stay in possession and occupy two or three players to create room for his teammates.
Dembélé does the same thing, but he plays a little further up the pitch and spends more time penetrating the penalty box. Not the greatest passer, he is very strong with the ball at his feet and difficult to stop when he gets up to speed.
Defour is your classic field general, being a vacuum cleaner in front of the defense and doing a great job in controlling the battle in midfield. He's a good passer, but injuries have slowed down his promising career. When healthy, he's the type of invisible player who is more important to a team than anyone gives him credit for.
If Dembélé tries to be jazz, Defour is more minimalistic, and Witsel has some rap about him, Fellaini is more of a really big hammer.
And I mean that as a compliment.
Fellaini is the kind of player that would excel in any position. He's very physical, provides a lot of goalscoring ability and can play with a surprising touch.
What this midfield brings is a lot of physical power. All players are very adept at using their body to shield a ball and difficult to stop once they start running at the goal. They're surprisingly strong technically, but they're not Spain or Barcelona. They'll try and overpower the other team, and are usually successful.
Their defensive approach fits perfectly with the blue collar mentality that Wilmots brings to the team.
Timmy Simons (Nürnberg) provides the team with some veteran leadership and another strong body in midfield. While many fans wonder why he's still a part of this team, his locker-room presence is an important part of this team.
Wingers (Sort Of)
The wingers get a separate slide because, well, they're not exactly wingers.
While the midfield triangle is very impressive, the team's greatest strength are the guys playing right in front of it:
Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin De Bruyne (Werder Bremen, on loan from Chelsea), Dries Mertens (PSV) and Nacer Chadli (Twente.)
Of those four guys, the only real winger is Chadli. The other three guys swerve all over the field and are at their best cutting inside or playing right behind the striker.
You might not know all of those names, but by 2014 you will.
Hazard takes the headlines, but people in Belgium will tell you De Bruyne is the most talented of the bunch. With a phenomenal touch on the ball, De Bruyne is a threat every time he gets involved. He's fast, strong and very technically adept. An incredible passer, he has tremendous vision and reads the game like a seasoned veteran.
Hazard brings the same things to the table, but with more explosion and less consistency. While his start for Chelsea may have been blistering, he's been generally disappointing in the shirt of the national team.
He's still young and shouldn't have the expectations of a nation on his shoulders, but the least he can do is listen to Wilmots and fulfill his responsibilities. By 2014, two more years of growing and maturing should see this problem erased.
English fans may remember Mertens from his shove that made sure Gary Cahill wouldn't participate in the Euro 2012 tournament, but he does more than just push people. His game resembles that of Hazard and De Bruyne, but he's more comfortable on the wing and is more of a scorer.
It's a shame that the push is all people can think of when they hear his name, because he's really a dynamic player with a great work ethic. He gives it all every game and will take on far bigger players if he has to.
Chadli is a classic winger, but he's had a difficult time cracking the starting lineup. No wonder, if you look at the names before him. Still, he's a solid winger with great vision and a good cross in his feet. If he could improve on his finishing, he could threaten the other guys for some playing time.
This group is what makes the attack tick. They provide most of the danger, and their movement all around the field drives opponents crazy. All of the players are fast, explosive and very capable of delivering quality long passes or crosses. They're really good at attacking the box and more than able to put the ball into the back of the net.
The main weakness is simple really: if this group isn't successful, Belgium doesn't score. Take away these guys and the Red Devils lose 90 percent of their creativity on the pitch.
Belgium's main weakness.
While there might be a lot of talent in this department, they lack a decisive goal scorer.
Romelu Lukaku is the big name, but Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) is the starter and the most productive option.
Both Benteke and Lukaku (Chelsea, currently on loan at West Brom) are big, physical target men with surprising quickness and technique for such big players. They do a good job of holding on to the ball and creating space for the running midfielders, but they both lack that killer instinct.
Benteke is slightly better at finishing in front of goal, providing he gets good service from the midfielders. He's not able to decide a game by himself (unlike Tormeisters like Ruud Van Nistelrooy or Didier Drogba), but he seems to be getting better at putting the ball in the back of the net consistently.
Great in the air, Benteke is another player that works very hard for the full 90 minutes.
Lukaku is a bit more explosive than Benteke, and he's able to create space for himself, but he lacks the experience to be a star striker for the national team.
You can tell he's always been bigger than anyone else in the way he tries to take on defenses. He spends too much time on the wing and out of position when he should just be presenting a target to the world class players alongside him.
The loan at West Brom seems to be doing him a lot good, however, so he could (and maybe should) be the main striker in 2014.
Jelle Vossen (Racing Genk) brings more of a goalscoring threat to the team, but he lacks the body to play as a lone striker. Opportunistic and technically strong, he always seems to be in the right place and has built a reputation on scoring the important goals.
Ilombe Mboyo (AA Gent) has recently announced himself as a big up-and-comer, but he lacks the experience to play at this level.
Kevin Mirallas (Everton) has scored more goals for the Red Devils than anyone else of this group. His play style resembles that of Vossen, but he lacks the consistency to be a number one striker.
This group is solid with a lot of talent, but they are far from world class. Two years of development could make the difference for Benteke and Lukaku, but right now the attack force is what is keeping this team back.
Summary of Strengths and Weaknesses
So, a quick summary.
-Tons of potential
-Very strong defensive duo
-Power in midfield
-Great group of creative players
-Lack of class wing backs
-No strong force on the wing
-Lack of a true goalscorer
-Weight of expectations
What Should We Expect from This Team?
Realistically speaking, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil will come too soon.
While this team is littered with talent (and there's even more talent in the youth squads with players like Thorgan Hazard, Dennis Praet and Jordan Lukaku), it is held back by the inexperience of its key players.
Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku are the type of players a great team needs to decide a difficult game. While they all have the potential to become great players one day, they're simply too young to carry a team.
Players like Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel and Thomas Vermaelen will still be in their prime in 2018, the World Cup the Red Devils should be aiming at.
Belgium should qualify for Brazil 2014, and once they make it there, they'll be the one team all of the big teams will want to avoid.
In terms of quality and talent, they can match with teams like Uruguay, Mexico and England, but I sincerely doubt whether this group is capable of going through a full tournament at the level required to beat global superpowers like Germany, Spain and Brazil at this point.
They'll have to qualify first, though, and that will be easier said than done. In a group with Croatia and Serbia, you never know what could happen. They currently top their group along with Croatia.
Can Belgium Win the World Cup?
Look, kids, anything is possible.
Belgium have the potential to surprise a lot of people and make a big splash at the FIFA 2014 World Cup. They have enough talent to do better than the team made it to the semifinals in 1986 and will make life hard on any team they face.
But at this moment, there are too many holes to go all the way. Even with solid play on the wings and one of the strikers that steps up to become that consistent goal scorer, this team still lacks the experience to overcome the best of the best.
Making the quarterfinals would be a great accomplishment for this young team.
Prediction: Quarterfinal, destroying the title hopes of a global superpower along the way.