“The time isn’t in one, two or four years. I think now is the moment to be together and do something great,” stressed Eden Hazard, Belgium football team captain, to the press who had gathered, ahead of his team’s friendly against Costa Rica. The purpose was clear – a rallying call for his troops to embrace themselves for what is undoubtedly a make-or-break tournament for the much-hyped ‘golden generation’ of Belgium footballers.
Hazard, a symbol part of this ball-playing, intelligent football generation, probably understands the importance of the event as much as anyone else. A team, however good it might be, will only be remembered for the trophies it wins. History is full of examples. Johan Cruyff-led Netherlands 1974 World Cup team or Roberto Baggio’s 1994 Italian team were arguably better than the Dutch or the Italian team that tasted international success. Yet it is the latter people remember.
The ‘this is Belgium’s tournament’ rhetoric has been floating around for over four years now. The Belgium Red Devils was an outside favourite to win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. They were knocked out in the quarters by a Messi-inspired Argentina. At the 2016 Euro, a more experienced side, was expected to do better. But things didn’t improve, as a directionless Belgium were knocked out by a far inferior, yet highly motivated Wales.
So the time is clearly now for the Red Devils. The core of the team have already played in two major international tournaments are arguably in the peak of their career. According to research, the best age to play in a World Cup is 27.5; the average age of the Belgium team for the World Cup is 27.6, and is one of the most experienced side at the World Cup.
Belgium had a flawless qualification campaign in UEFA’s qualifying Group H with the likes of Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar offering very little threat. The team scored 43 goals in the campaign with Lukaku leading the way with 11.
The relative easiness of the campaign meant coach Roberto Martinez, who replaced Marc Wilmots, and his coaching staff had ample time to test out a three-man defence formation. The Red Devils have stuck with the formation till date but questions still persist on its effectiveness against a strong side.
The rationale behind the switch from a four-man defence would be Belgium’s lack of a genuine left-back – Jordan Lukaku is still developing and not seen as an option by the manager. The formation allows Martinez to field the trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany, along with wing-backs, thereby ensuring defensive stability.
The formation unfortunately puts a lot of pressure on the central midfielders, especially in terms of helping out in defence, so whoever might partner de Bruyne in the centre will have a large role to play.
Part of Wilmots’ fault was his inability to out-think his opposition managers even with a better set of players in his ranks. Martinez’s Belgium have not been tested against major opponents yet and his decision to stick to a three-man defence might come into question if they struggle.
With Kompany still nursing an injury it won’t be a surprise if Belgium switches to a 4-3-3 for the World Cup though. While the team might not have played it under Martinez, it is a system that is widely popular amongst youth teams in Belgium. Academies and junior teams were asked to adopt the system as a part of a football revolution under Michel Sablon which is often credited as the reason behind Belgium’s phenomenal growth as a footballing powerhouse.
Cohesion the key
Having a set of good quality players is one thing, winning a title is a totally another. Ask England side who had like the likes David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen playing for it. Team unity and cohesion will be the key for Belgium if they are to challenge for a title come mid-July. If the superstars in the team can click, then Belgium would be a force to reckon with.
But in a squad with so many big names and egos, finding the right balance is hard task. Martinez claimed the ommission of Radja Nainggolan from the World Cup squad was purely tactical but it is widely accepted that decision was taken with team unity in mind. The Roma midfielder is a great asset for any team but Martinez believed keeping him in the substitute bench could back fire.
Premier League stars v England football team
Belgium are a part of Group G which also features England, Tunisia and Panama. England are likely to be Red Devils’ major challengers but working to Belgium’s advantage will be their players’ familiarity playing with/against the English opposition.
11 players of the 23-man Belgium squad ply their trade in the English Premier League which would make the match against England interesting in multiple levels. England have a very young, attacking side, spearheaded by Harry Kane, and will pose a threat to the ageing Red Devil backline. But Belgium have enough star power to top their group and proceed to the knockout stages.
But a mere entry to the knockout phases will not quench the thirst of the multitudes of fans waiting for the Red Devils’ entrance into the history books. Nothing short of silverware will suffice for Belgium’s golden generation.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (VfL Wolfsburg).
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City).
Midfielders: Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Nacer Chadli (West Bromwich Albion), Leander Dendoncker (Anderlecht), Thorgan Hazard (Borussia Moenchengladbach), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur).
Forwards: Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea/Dortmund), Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli).