There is a slightly different aura surrounding the Belgian national team in comparison with past tournaments, and it is not easy to summarise why. After all, this is practically the same core squad which was very much fancied at both the World Cup in Brazil and then the Euros in France. The issue was that on both of those occasions they flattered to deceive before falling timidly at the quarter final stage. It was perhaps acceptable in 2012 as they faced an experienced Argentina side that went on to the final but few excuses could explain how they flopped so badly against Wales two years later. It was a humiliating day that still stings in Belgium.
All that being said, the expectations have significantly lowered both in Belgium and by the average football fan around the world. There is a distinct possibility though that the Belgians are wrongfully being written off. After all, there are few squads around that can rival the talent that they possess. The problem with Les Diables Rouges has never really been about their ability, but instead how they perform as a collective group.
Following the embarrassing exit to Wales in the 2016 Euros, Marc Wilmots was relieved of his duties unceremoniously under a cloud that suggested that despite his undoubted talent as a player, the squad didn’t take him at all seriously as a tactician. Former Everton and Swansea boss Roberto Martinez was surprisingly the man chosen to replace Wilmots and it is not very controversial at all to say he has been an upgrade. Maybe only a small one so far but an upgrade nonetheless. Martinez is not everybody’s cup of tea but he does have a clear plan of what he wants his teams to do. That plan may not always work or be particularly flexible but it is a genuine plan of sorts which was never apparent under Wilmots.
The team waltzed through what was a relatively easy qualifying group unscathed. A tight draw in Brussels to a typically industrious Greek side was the only blemish along the way. The Belgians scored an imperious 43 goals in their 10 games led by Romelu Lukaku with 11 strikes. In fact since taking over Martinez has only lost one match in 20 which was actually his first game in charge against Spain.
While expectations are lower, pressure does remain on Martinez to get the best of the Golden Generation as this may well be the last major tournament in their prime for many of this group.
Tactical Set Up
Martinez has essentially for his entire tenure, settled for a 3-4-3 formation. One headache for any manager in charge of a squad like Belgium is not just getting as many of your best players on the pitch together as possible, but also having the majority play in their favored position. Needless to say this was a challenge for Wilmots and remains one for Martinez.
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibault Courtois is well established as the number 1 but there is a trusted deputy in our very own Simon Mignolet who has always performed well for his country when called upon.
On paper, Belgium’s back three is as good as any in the game. The key for Martinez is the always questionable fitness of former captain Vincent Kompany and the lingering doubts over Toby Aldeweireld’s injury which so disrupted the second half of the season. Toby’s club teammate Jan Vertonghen completes the imperious back three on paper. If this trio can get through the tournament unscathed, the Belgian threat rises considerably. They do not want a repeat of the Wales nightmare where Aldeweireld was surrounded almost comically by Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku.
The shield in front of the back is likely to be the responsibility of Mousa Dembele who again we know well from the Premier League. Another Martinez favourite in this role is Axel Witsel who now plays his football in China as does the preferred left wing back Yannick Carrasco. Carrasco particularly can look like a bit of a square peg in a round hole at times but there is no denying his attacking abilities. On the opposite flank, PSG’s Thomas Meunier has made the position his own. As a converted centre forward, Meunier likes nothing more than getting involved in attacking play and scored an impressive 5 goals in qualifying.
In front of Dembele/Witsel is the simply brilliant Kevin de Bruyne. Fresh off an eye opening season for champions Manchester City, de Bruyne will be expected by Martinez to be the catalyst for the Red Devils. Through his club exploits, the world is finally waking up to the realization that there are few better players at orchestrating play like de Bruyne. The dilemma for Belgium is that they can be overrun in midfield against the better sides as both de Bruyne and Dembele are more accustomed to playing in three man midfields.
Up front, there is another embarrassment of riches for Martinez to pick from. Our current and former strikers Divock Origi and Christian Benteke didn’t even make the squad though neither can have too many complaints after having disappointing seasons by their standards.
The preferred forward line is led by Romelu Lukaku. The big striker had an inconsistent first year at Old Trafford and doubts remain over his ability to sync up effectively with his more technically gifted teammates consistently. Martinez does appear to have complete faith in him which is decisive at least. A huge bit of positive news for the Belgians is the surprise inclusion of Michy Batshuayi. The Chelsea man was in devastating form on loan at Borussia Dortmund before a knee injury looked like it had ended his World Cup hopes but he is back and should be a key influence off the bench for the Red Devils.
The two wingers will be captain Eden Hazard and Napoli forward Dries Mertens. Both are an absolute nightmare for defenders to deal with and can easily play anywhere across the front line. When fully fit, the Belgians are not short of devastating world class weapons in their first team.
A huge omission from the final squad was Roma’s maverick Radja Nainggolan. There is no doubt that Nainggolan is massively popular among the supporters and always performs for his country but despite Martinez’s claim that his decision was tactical, there is clearly a personal issue between the two. Nainggolan may not have started but he would have been one of the better impact subs out there.
Despite this glaring mistake, the Belgians still have a very strong squad. They are however a little vulnerable in defence after the starting trio with only a half fit Thomas Vermaelen and Celtic’s Dedyrck Boyata in reserve.
Youngsters Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker provide solid depth in midfield but neither will likely see too much action unless there is an emergency. Their time will surely come in the future. The same is probably true of Adnan Januzaj who was probably the most peculiar selection given his lack of form in recent years.
Resident enforcer Marouane Fellaini again makes the squad and most fans will be hoping he isn’t needed too often. Begrudgingly I do admit that he isn’t the worse plan B option as a target centre forward but please don’t ever play him in holding midfield Roberto…
The midfield is completed with Eden’s younger brother Thorgan who is quietly emerging from his sibling’s shadow with a solid career in Germany and will provide some invention if needed from the bench. Nacer Chadli is always available to provide versatility in a whatever position he is needed most likely as a reserve wing back or forward.
Expectations may be lower this year for Belgium but possibilities are still endless for this team. They do remain extremely vulnerable to injuries to key men at the back or either Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne. At their best though, few teams can match the combination of creativity and goalscoring threat the Belgians possess. Mertens and Hazard are both capable of moments of inspiration. Dembele or Witsel also offer very different but equally dangerous qualities alongside de Bruyne in the middle of the park, and Carrasco and Meunier are genuine threats down the wings but while also being a potential area of exploitation. The Belgian fortunes do appear to lie on a knife-edge and can realistically go either way.
The quarter finals still appears to be the minimum required for the Red Devils, and once you get that far anything is possible. Doubts do remain over Martinez’s tactical ability especially against the bigger sides. If he can master that perceived weakness, then Belgium become an instant threat with the personnel at his disposal.