During Belgium’s friendly against Luxembourg last week, manager Marc Wilmots played Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini in the centre of midfield and Everton’s Kevin Mirallas on the wing.
The "Rode Duivels" (Red Devils) defensive line was made up by each position’s prime candidates: Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen in the centre, flanked by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as full-backs.
Belgium’s friendly against Sweden, however, saw a slightly different lineup. In the centre of midfield, Fellaini was replaced by Moussa Dembele, while Daniel van Buyten took the place of Thomas Vermaelen—who was pushed to the left to replace Jan Vertonghen. Up front, Dries Mertens replaced Mirallas.
This sort of shuffling around seems to be part of a deliberate strategy employed by Wilmots, and it wouldn’t be surprising if the Rode Duivels lined up in yet another first XI for their next friendly against Tunisia. The benefits of this strategy, however, could be questionable.
On the one hand, it’s not difficult to follow Wilmots’ line of thinking. The games against Luxembourg and Sweden were non-competitive friendlies. First and foremost, they’re played so that teams can experiment. What’s more, players need to become fit ahead of the World Cup—especially the ones who have had relatively inactive seasons with their clubs.
In this regard, the changes made by Wilmots could be part of a master plan. By giving each and every important player—the ones in the first XI as well as the most important subs—ample playing time, Wilmots might be trying to get his team to peak during the World Cup in Brazil—not before or after.
But while this strategy may seem intelligent at first sight, it could also mean that Belgium are walking a thin line between readiness and naivety. Aiming to reach a balance between fitness and rhythm is all well and good, after all, but when it comes to forging a team out of a group of players who rarely play together, familiarity and confidence are valuable attributes as well.
Were Belgium to line up in a constant first XI more often, players would get much more of a chance to get to know each other’s on-the-pitch habits and style of play. Because international teams often consist of players deriving from different clubs, sometimes from different countries, playing a regular team is sometimes seen as a requirement—and not just an option—in international football.
Many teams do it. When the Netherlands, Belgium's northern neighbours, are not trying to find the right man for a certain position, they can be seen playing with the same starting XI, to name just one example. And surely, Spain’s familiarity as a squad—the group has played and won various international tournaments together—will not hurt them in Brazil.
Even though they might be expected to fulfil similar roles in Wilmots’ tactical setup, Dembele is simply a different player from Fellaini. The Rode Duivels’ most advanced midfielder, Kevin de Bruyne, who seems like one of the few players who can can be sure of his spot in the manager’s first XI, would benefit from knowing who he’ll be working with—not to mention Dembele and Fellaini themselves.
Familiarity might be even more important when it comes to the defence, where a small mistake can lead to serious consequences. Perhaps more than any other type of players, defenders need to be able to time their runs according to their team-mates’ positions. What’s more, they need to be absolutely sure the next man has got their back no matter how many attackers come running at them.
Arguably, Wilmots’ and his players’ phase of experimentation has ended by now. With only a couple of friendlies to go until the World Cup, Wilmots should know who he would like to play where.
Fitness and abstract ideas of "peaking time" might need to be shoved aside, for a moment. What players need now is confidence in their place and role in the team.