The much-anticipated group H encounter between Belgium and England failed to live up to its hype, with both camps making drastic changes to their first-choice teams. However, the match did provide insights on squad depths and the plan B for two teams who will be vying for a place in the World Cup final at the Luzhniki stadium on 15 July.
Belgium coach Roberto Martínez fielded a much-changed side for the England clash. Thorgan Hazard was given the mantle to have a run at England's right-side instead of his famous elder brother and Red Devils captain Eden Hazard. Kevin De Bruyne was absent from a central midfield that opted for power over guile by fielding Mousa Dembélé and Marouane Fellaini. Striker Romelu Lukaku was also given the night off, among nine changes that Martinez made in the night.
While the game was attractive, especially with Belgium cutting open chances, it lacked the raw energy that both sides showed in their first two games. The match would have probably been different if it had been the first match of Group H. However, with places in the knockout phases guaranteed, and the road to the final seemingly easier for the second-placed team, the match often gave the impression that both sides wanted to lose.
Was topping the group a bad idea?
Martinez, in the post-match conference, insisted that consistency was the key to a successful knock-out tournament, but the coach and his players must feel a little hard done by after seeing their route to the finals.
Belgium will play Japan in the Round of 16, a day ahead of England's game against Colombia, and might have to face Brazil in the quarter-final if Neymar and Co beat Mexico in the last 16. England, on the other hand, have to get past Colombia to face the winner of Switzerland v Sweden, to reach the semis.
On paper, England have the better path to the semi-finals but as sayings go, you have to beat the best to be the World Champions. Hence, a test against Brazil or any other strong team is inevitable. Belgium have the squad and momentum to beat the World's best and it is upto the players to deliver.
3-man central midfield
There was a minor tweak in Belgium's formation against England. In their first two matches, they played a clear 3-4-3 with Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens supporting Lukaku, while De Bruyne played in central midfield. However, the team against England was a more withheld 3-5-2 formation. Adnan Januzaj, the former Manchester United winger who scored the winner of the match, played in Mertens’ role, but in the left, Thorgan was used almost like a wing-back.
The support in the attack came surprisingly via Fellaini, who contributed more in attack than he did in defence. The tall Manchester United midfielder was a bully in the midfield, initiating counter-presses and winning crosses, while Dembele excelled in the anchoring role. Their presence also gave Youri Tielemans the freedom to occupy dangerous spaces and the Monaco midfielder was a handful against the English side.
This could well be Belgium's plan B against big teams in the tournament. The shape looked more solid and De Bruyne in a role similar to Tielemans' would unleash the strengths of the Manchester City star. In Thomas Meunier and Yannick Carrasco, they have wing-backs who can bomb forward to help out the attack.
A game of positives
Former captain Vincent Kompany was given a run-in, much to the delight of the Belgium supporters. Kompany is a vital cog in this Belgium defence and the trio of him, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen would be tough to crack down for most sides in the competition.
Most importantly, Kompany is a leader, someone who has spearheaded this golden generation of Belgium footballers, and his motivation and experience will bring a different element into the football field for the Red Devils. It still remains to be seen if Martinez is entirely convinced by the Manchester City captain, especially with Dedryck Boyata and Thomas Vermaelen putting in a good shift against England.
Similarly, Thorgan, Januzaj, Fellaini, and Dembele had good outings, which will create a selection problem for Martinez. While the manager is known for picking Witsel ahead of Dembele, the latter might be better suited in a midfield anchoring role, especially if Fellaini and De Bruyne are going to be alongside him.
Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 17:42:39 IST