Belgium booked their place in the FIFA World Cup quarter-finals on Tuesday evening, sneaking past the USA 2-1 after extra time.
Kevin de Bruyne scored the opener after an action-packed initial 90 minutes, then Romelu Lukaku made it two on the break. Julian Green notched his first international goal soon after to make things interesting, but Belgium were able to hold on for the victory.
Formations and XIs
Belgium began in their customary 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 hybrid, with de Bruyne encroaching upon the No. 10 role but never truly occupying it. Divock Origi earned a start up front.
The USA began in a 4-2-3-1 but dropped Kyle Beckerman for Geoff Cameron in defensive midfield.
Countering from Set Pieces
The first 20 minutes were very careful from both sides, unwilling to commit to attacks too heavily and getting numbers behind the ball.
But the game began opening out after the corners began racking up, as both teams found joy on the counter-attack breaking out from defending set pieces.
By the end of the first half, 11 corners had been taken, per WhoScored.com, and from most, a counter-attack by the defending team had ensued.
Despite the USA's careful 4-2-3-1 system, they left themselves obscenely open in the middle, and against Belgium, that's a very odd tactic to employ. Eden Hazard, de Bruyne and Origi are killers with space to run into.
The U.S. were also at their best running into space, with Clint Dempsey able to find space to receive passes in and around Belgium's retreating back four.
Switching to the Right
As the game expanded, the U.S. developed a trend of attacking using the right flank despite the fact Fabian Johnson had been substituted due to a hamstring injury.
DeAndre Yedlin came on in his place and looked a near carbon copy, buccaneering forward from right-back, leaving the left-back in his dust and crossing for the forwards with regularity.
The U.S. took to building play up down the left side, handing the ball to Michael Bradley and asking him to switch play with a long, accurate pass into Johnson's, then Yedlin's path.
Hazard's refusal to track back allowed Yedlin into acres of space, and he's so fast that even Jan Vertonghen—who's no slouch!—failed to keep up with him.
Yedlin's low crosses redefined menacing.
On the 70-minute mark, Jurgen Klinsmann shuffled his pack, bringing on Chris Wondolowski for the ineffectual Graham Zusi.
As effective as Yedlin had been down the right surging into space, Zusi's inability/refusal to track the runs of Hazard had left the U.S. in equally deep trouble down the flank.
Klinsmann switched to a 4-4-2 and played Dempsey just off Wondolowski, while Jermaines Jones switched out to the right. Later, in extra time, Julian Green replaced Alejandro Bedoya on the left.
It made for an even more end-to-end spectacle, with the ball zipping from goal to goal and keepers making sprawling saves with regularity.
Jones tucked in at right midfield to allow Yedlin to overlap and continue firing crosses over, and his presence also helped track Hazard's movements and reduce his impact somewhat.
At the start of extra time, Marc Wilmots brought on Lukaku for Origi and switched to a 4-2-3-1. Hazard moved inside to the No. 10 position (partially to get away from Jones), and de Bruyne filtered left to the flank.
It gave Belgium three outlets to hit when passing out from the back on the counter, with Lukaku filtering wide right with Kevin Mirallas, Hazard occupying two in the centre and de Bruyne largely free on the left.
With both U.S. full-backs committing forward and Cameron refusing to leave Hazard alone with Bradley, space opened on the touchlines for a quick out ball to find a pacey attacker.
Lukaku and de Bruyne both did serious damage inside a five-minute spell, scoring a goal each as their athleticism and finesse shone through.
Green's consolation goal made things interesting, and the U.S. were close to grabbing a second, but Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel simply dropped off as a "2" and closed the gate.
This was a crazy game—the best of the World Cup so far.
Klinsmann can be proud of his troops for the effort they gave, and if hamstring injuries hadn't haunted the camp, they could well be in the quarter-finals facing Argentina.
Belgium move on to the last eight instead, and they'll be buoyed by the fact that no team from here on will sit back and nullify them. The USA attacked and, admittedly, opened the game out in Belgium's favour, and if the Red Devils can work on their decision-making, they can kill La Albiceleste on the break.