With many of their young and incredibly talented players currently active in the Premier League and other major competitions, Belgium have been the subject of much excitement ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Whether or not the Belgians will actually go far during the tournament remains to be seen, but it can’t be denied that a lot of the excitement surrounding the “Rode Duivels” is grounded in truth. Picking someone from their defence, midfield and attack, one or more star players can be named.
But with all this talent in the squad, it’s difficult to decide, at first glance, what the Rode Duivels’ main strengths and weaknesses are. It’s even possible to argue that there are no apparent weaknesses—especially when just focussing on the first XI.
In this regard, the fact that this generation of Belgian players has not yet played in a major international tournament doesn’t help matters. How will these players react when the pressure is on, and how will they perform against some of best teams in the world?
Looking at the Belgian team ahead of the World Cup, how do we know our eyes are not deceiving us?
In terms of goals, a lot is expected of Romelu Lukaku, who scored four goals in Belgium’s three preparatory friendlies. But three of those goals came against Luxembourg, a nation who can’t be compared to the opposition the Belgians will face during the World Cup.
Meanwhile, Eden Hazard’s form is still surrounded by question marks, which has led manager Marc Wilmots to state that he will replace the winger if he plays badly, as per Fifa.com.
At the back, a similar sense of duplicity might be at play. On the one hand, defenders like Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany and Arsenal veteran Thomas Vermaelen make Belgium’s defence seem enviable, even to the best teams.
But look a little bit closer and you’ll see that Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld, solid centre-backs who play for Tottenham Hotspur and Atletico Madrid respectively, are often played out of position to compensate for the Rode Duivels’ lack of natural full-backs.
The prevalence of the full-back is often cited as crucial to the way modern football is played. While full-backs still have to mind their defensive duties, they are often tasked with providing width during the attacking phase of play.
In that sense, the position of full-back is a specialist position. With Belgium playing natural centre-backs in this specialist position, there is a chance they will find themselves exposed against teams that boast world-class wingers.
But while some of the initial excitement about Belgium’s attack and defence might have to be curbed, there is all the more reason to be enthusiastic about the Rode Duivels’ midfield. There, raw talent is regularly backed up by performance. The players’ intelligence and ability to fluidly adapt to the tactical roles mapped out by Wilmots play no small role in this.
There’s the playmaker, who often drifts out wide when wingers like Hazard and Mirallas cut inside from the flank. Then there’s the central-midfielder, who often bombs forward from deep, especially when the playmaker moves away from his central position. Then there’s the anchor, who guards the defence and intercepts balls misplaced by the opposition.
Even with these roles mapped out, Wilmots has plenty to choose from. Tottenham Hotspur’s Moussa Dembele, for example, has played as the playmaker and as the central midfielder. FC Porto’s Steven Defour has adequately replaced Axel Witsel on many occasions, and should the situation require it, even Marouane Fellaini can be moved around within this setup.
Looking at Belgium’s midfield, our eyes do not deceive us. In fact, it may well turn out that they haven't informed us enough.
Contrary to the Rode Duivels’ defence and attack, the midfield hides few inadequacies beneath its apparent class and ability. During the World Cup, it may well manifest itself as Belgium’s key weapon. The only question that remains is: Will this weapon make up for their Achilles' heel at the back?