FIFA World Cup 2018, Novy Kapadia column: Belgium's success has showcased the triumph of tactics over individual flair
Football has changed and just possession and individual skills do not always provide a cutting edge. Belgium have adapted to the change and are reaping the rewards.
For the fourth successive World Cup, Brazil have been eliminated by a European country, by France in 2006, the Netherlands in 2010, Germany (routed 1-7) in the 2014 semi-finals and now by Belgium. It is a triumph of tactics over individual flair. Brazil must realise that those who do not learn the lessons of history often repeat the mistakes.
Due to scientific inputs, improvement in diet and standards of fitness; individual flair gets curbed in modern football. Emphasis is more on tactical innovations, accurate passing and use of dead ball situations. Football has changed and just possession and individual skills do not always provide a cutting edge.
The element of surprise is now missing in Brazilian football because times have changed. When Garrincha and the incomparable Pele, a teenage prodigy burst onto the scene in the 1958 World Cup, they took the world by surprise as few outside Brazil had seen them play or analysed their movements. Similarly, the magnificent Zico, Socrates, Falcao and Toninho Cerezo displayed superlative individual skills and visionary passing to dominate the 1982 World Cup but unfortunately did not win the tournament. After 1982 coaches even in Brazil sacrificed individual genius for cohesion.
Also now Brazilian players move to rich European clubs with lucrative payments at a young age. Neymar moved to Barcelona, Gabriel Jesus to Manchester City as a teenager and Philippe Coutinho to Liverpool and now Barcelona. Their movements are analysed and the element of surprise is missing.
In the 2014 World Cup, Brazil put forth the excuses that Neymar was injured and ace defender Thiago Silva was unavailable due to two yellow cards in previous matches. In 2018, they were at full strength but in the vital quarter-final match against Belgium, they were tactically outwitted. In the battle of the coaches, Belgium’s Roberto Martinez checkmated Brazil’s Tite, in a match of high-intensity and one where the best quality of football was on display among the four quarter-finals.
Martinez' masterstroke was to introduce Marouane Fellaini as a defensive midfielder along with Axel Witsel. Fellaini blocked the penetrative passes by Coutinho and when Neymar cut inside the Manchester United man foiled him too. Right back Thomas Meunier played more defensively and restricted Neymar and Marcello on the overlap. Also using two defensive midfielders ahead of the back four made penetration down the centre difficult for Brazil.
Martinez also cleverly played burly striker Romelu Lukaku on the right. With his powerful runs, Lukaku kept Marcello pegged back and was always a threat in the absence of defensive midfielder Casemiro (missing due to two yellow cards). Eden Hazard played wide on the left and harassed Brazil’s inexperienced right back Fagner. Kevin de Bruyne was the false number nine, made probing passes and also frequently ran into space to trouble the Brazilian defence. Lukaku and De Bruyne confused them. The Manchester United man turned provider for the Manchester City man who responded with a brilliant finish. Brazil reacted late to that situation as they thought Lukaku would surge towards goal. Instead, he passed cleverly to De Bruyne and his powerful finish was lethal.
Brazil were more effective in the second half when Tite switched from a conventional 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 system with Roberto Firmino in the attack along with Jesus. When Douglas Costa replaced Jesus on the right flank, Brazil became more penetrative as they stretched Belgium. But it was too late.
Belgium’s success in international football and triumphant entry to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals is not just because of a golden generation of players but because of a system. The transformation started after Belgium co-hosted Euro 2000 with the Netherlands. Euro 2000 had magnified Belgium's failing football culture, shackled by partisan interests and thwarted by the lack of vision. The national team lost to Turkey and got eliminated early in the tournament. They lacked skills, resourcefulness in the final third, intelligence and cohesion. They were just gritty and determined.
Michel D'Hooghe, then president of the Belgian FA and long-standing FIFA executive committee member, realised it was a time for a change. He appointed the shrewd Michel Sablon, Belgian assistant coach in the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups and a visionary as the technical director. Sablon re-shaped Belgium’s future using scientific inputs from three Universities which analysed game footage, touch on the ball the use of the short pass, quick transitions and the long ball.
Inspired by Johan Cruyff and his coaching methodologies, Sablon revolutionised Belgian football based on a 4-3-3 formation with focus on individual player development and institutional change. While recruiting new talent Sablon insisted that coaches looked at six different parameters, winning mentality, emotional stability, personality, explosiveness, insights to the game and ball and body control. From age group levels Belgium teams started playing in this fashion with the focus on quick transition and shared collective responsibility. Sablon made coaches realise that a player’s desire to improve is more important than just talent at the youth level.
Results arrived gradually. In 2008 Belgium U-23 fielded Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen, Fellaini, Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele and reached the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympic Games. A decade later all these players are in Belgium’s national team competing in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.
Countries like India aspiring to improve football standards must realise it is a long haul to reach the top in Asian or international football and mere cosmetic changes are not enough. The system has to be overhauled in a scientific manner.
France, England and Croatia, the other three winners of the World Cup quarter-finals, also outwitted their opponents. Croatia slowed down the pace of the game and weathered the Russian blitzkrieg to win for the second time on penalties. France used a well-rehearsed set piece when Griezeman hesitated before taking a free kick and allowed Raphael Varane to sneak in ahead of the Uruguayan defenders and head into the net.
The biggest revelation was England. Realising they could not outwit the tall Swedes with aerial crosses from the flanks, England resorted to clever possession football. They used the aerial pass only when an English player was unmarked, for instance, Jesse Lingard's diagonal cross to an unmarked Delli Ali at the far post on the left to head in England’s second goal. They used the long ball occasionally to take advantage of Raheem Sterling’s speed and thrust. But otherwise, it was a tactical triumph for Gareth Southgate who is proving to be a very clairvoyant coach.
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