Having secured their first FIFA World Cup appearance since 2002, we can now state with absolute certainty what we have thought for a long while – Belgium will be a force in Rio at next year’s tournament.
Favourites Spain, Germany and Brazil deserve their mantle given their proven track records, whilst Argentina remains in contention simply because they are yet to reach their full potential. Oh, and some kid named Lionel Messi.
If you look past the obvious candidates for glory in Brazil however, you find yourself starved of alternatives. Italy are perennially unpredictable because they save their best for the big tournaments, France experienced a mutiny last time out and England still lack the chemistry in midfield, competence in goal and skill up front to guarantee surpassing the group stage, let alone going further.
Belgium on the other hand, are seemingly flying under the radar. Despite sitting 6th in the somewhat controversial FIFA World Rankings, many see the side as a ‘Dark Horse’ or a potential ‘surprise package’, terms given to a side many would be surprised to see escape the group stage. Maybe it is because they stumbled in Euro 2012 qualifying, allowing Turkey to reach the Finals at their expense, however no previous indiscretion should undermine what we believe to be a team very capable of reaching the World Cup Semi-Finals and arguably good enough to fare even better. Some believe that their quest for success will have to wait until experience and maturity also become virtues of this young and dynamic side, however discounting them as spectators, biding their time until Euro 2016 dismisses what we believe to be a team capable of incredible things.
Despite the undeniable talent so many Belgian players gracing the Premier League stage in particular, their structures and tactics closely resemble those of successful international sides of recent times. Whether the managerial nous of former Belgian captain Marc Wilmots has fostered this or his relative inexperience will hinder the young squad’s development remains to be seen, however for the time being, his desire and understanding of the players have been overwhelmingly positive for a naturally-gifted side.
Very few international managers can claim to talent at their disposal which even closely rivals that of Belgium’s. In recent years, maybe only Spain can contend that they’ve had a single generation display such enormous potential at such a young age as to create a dynasty of success on the international stage.
The versatility of nearly all players present endless possibilities when it comes to developing match-day strategies with Vertonghen, Demblele and Fellaini amongst others, capable of playing in several positions generally deemed specialist posts. Regardless of which players are deployed in which formation though, Belgium possess genuine game-winners. Hazard and Lukaku have the potential to turn matches individually whilst Mignolet’s current form at Liverpool suggests he is unlikely to be bettered by many of the world’s goalkeeping elite.
How the Belgians take shape heading into the 2014 FIFA World Cup is obviously a point of discussion, however their potential to shift from a 3-2-3-2/3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1 without compromising their potency or cohesion puts them in an elite category of teams filled not only with technically gifted, but intelligent and disciplined players.
Uruguay were the surprise package of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, reaching the Semi-Final on the back of the mercurial play of Forlan and the defensive rigidity of the Lugano-led back four and the goalkeeping prowess of Muslera. Heading into 2014, there aren’t any unknown commodities within the Belgian defensive structure, however that doesn’t mean we won’t be pleasantly surprised by how they perform. Simon Mignolet is the form keeper in European competition, Vertonghen was arguably the valuable player in the Premier League last season and Kompany remains an elite central defender despite Manchester City’s defensive struggles.
In qualifying for Euro 2012, Belgium conceded 15 goals in their 10 matches, keeping just 2 clean sheets. In World Cup 2014 qualifying, the side have conceded just 3 goals in 9 games so far, conceding no more than 1 goal in a single fixture. Of equal importance, they haven’t conceded a goal against a side ranked 4th or lower in their Group’s standings, accounting for the lesser teams with requisite comfort.
Whilst Belgium’s promising midfield will score and create goals on the international stage, the lack of alternatives to Lukaku up front mean that clean sheets will often be necessary for victories. Uruguay didn’t concede in the group stage in 2010 whilst Spain didn’t concede in the knockout stages of the tournament.
Midfield Creation, Cohesion and Fluidity
England’s long-standing issue on the international stage orients on their inability to field a cohesive midfield unit. For years the Gerrard/Lampard duo in midfield was technically gifted yet spatially unaware, there were a wealth of wingers, yet none were complete players in the mould of Gareth Bale or Cristiano Ronaldo, and a creative maestro such as Ozil, Messi or Xavi. Whether they can address the issue under Roy Hodgson also remains to be seen, however Belgium already possess a solution to these main issues through both their personnel and implemented formations.
The ability to create chemistry between players who not only play so irregularly but also are so young and have participated in the sporadic international circuit for such a limited time is understandably difficult. The midfield combination of Fellaini, Hazard, Mirallas, Dembele, Chadli, Witsel and De Bruyne have a total of 254 caps between them at an average of 36 appearances per player, compared to the 379 commanded by Spain’s Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva (an average of 95 caps per player).
The process is assisted though by most players participating in similar schemes in domestic competition. Chadli and Dembele play together under Andre Villas-Boas at Tottenham alongside fellow Belgian Jan Vertonghen, whilst Hazard and and De Bruyne are managed by Villas-Boas’ mentor in Jose Mourinho. Fellaini and Mirallas have played alongside each other also, however this link is far more tenuous than that which links players at both Tottenham and Chelsea. This benefit is only mirrored by Spain and the traditional dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid players. Animosity between the sides and very different tactics undermine this potential benefit however with Spain’s international set-up more heavily modeled on the possession-dominant Barcelona than the direct Madrid.
The interchangeability and fluidity of midfield formations has become a staple in many modern managerial philosophies. The Hazard/Mata/Oscar combination at Chelsea is probably the most apt example, however the absence of true wingers within that set-up somewhat limits the width achievable by Jose Mourinho’s men. When you combine the links of Hazard and De Bruyne with the natural width of Chadli and Mirallas – both of whom prefer to work outside-in – and you have an interchangeable formation capable of exploiting both width and executing short, one-touch passes in middle third. Complement this with Fellaini’s preference to play a defensive midfield role and the sheer class of Axel Witsel and you have, in our opinion, the fourth best midfield in world football, behind Spain, Brazil and Germany, only because of inexperience.
Bound for Glory
As Italy constantly seem to prove, rankings and form count for very little once major competitions come around. Belgium may play an attractive brand of football, but there still exists scope for them to fail on the world stage come the 2014 World Cup. Should they continue in their current ways, remain relatively injury-free and develop on the domestic scene under consistent managerial guidance, expect Belgium to exceed the low expectations implied by their status as a ‘dark horse’ or ‘surprise package’ in Rio.