Romelu Lukaku with a brace. Thibaut Courtois with a clean-sheet. In the end, Belgium hardly had to break sweat as they emerged 3-0 winners against World Cup debutant Panama. But a match is a sum of its parts, and the performance would have raised a few questions in Belgium coach Roberto Martinez's head, such as why his star-studded Red Devils side failed to break open a resolute Panama defence.
Here are three observations from the Group G encounter.
A game of two halves
Belgium started with a 3-4-3 formation with captain Eden Hazard and Napoli forward Dries Mertens playing support to Lukaku in the front. Kevin De Bruyne partnered Alex Witsel in central midfield, while Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier occupied the left and right wings respectively. While on paper this looked like a formidable, attack-minded set-up, the execution wasn't at its fluidic best, especially in the first half. Belgium's 'Golden Generation' struggled to break down the wall of Panama defenders and got increasingly frustrated as the half progressed.
The Red Devils were a changed side in the second half though, playing with greater intent and taking an early lead through a stunning goal by Mertens. The goal was followed by a period of dominance where the Belgium side finally looked like the title favourites that they were billed as ahead of the tournament. An outside-of-the-boot cross from De Bruyne found Lukaku with space in the box and the Manchester United striker made it 2-0, before running onto a through ball by Hazard to give Belgium a three-goal advantage.
Unlike Germany in their match against Mexico, Belgium didn't look a side deprived of motivation. The golden generation of footballers probably understand that this is their one best shot at football's most coveted prize, and they certainly put on a show when there was a need. The Reds had enough firepower to ease past Panama but tougher challenges still remain for the Red Devils. Interestingly, each of the Belgium's last 11 goals in the World Cup have come after half-time, suggesting a lethargy at the start of the game.
What's plan B?
Against Panama, Belgium did not have to use a Plan B but it still remains a doubt if Martinez has a contingency plan in place for tougher situations. The side is dependent on the trio of Hazard (one assist in the match), Lukaku (two goals) and De Bruyne (one assist), and an injury to any could prove tricky for Martinez. The team played the 3-4-3 formation — something Martinez has used since his club days at Wigan Athletic and Everton FC — throughout the qualifiers, so one isn't clear if Martinez has the tactical ability to tweak the team if being overpowered in the midfield.
The 3-4-3 strategy was traditionally used by a weaker team to contain its opposition until the likes of Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri tweaked the system to make it more effective. The 3-4-3 still remains a defensive approach though, and while it helps Martinez to include the likes of Carrasco in the team, it might still be hampering the team's attacking capabilities. A change to a 3-5-2 formation is likely against tougher opponents, but with Radja Nainggolan not in the squad, finding the right player to compliment both De Bruyne and Witsel will be a tough task.
Similarly in defence, the three-man backline was custom-made for the experienced trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany. But Manchester City defender Kompany is currently nursing an injury which has resulted in Dedryck Boyata starting in the central sweeper/libero role. The Celtic defender isn't a player of the same mould as Kompany and could be the chink in the Belgian armour, especially if opponents resort to direct football. The defending abilities of makeshift wing-backs (both Carrasco and Nicer Chadli) will also come under scrutiny when Belgium go up against quality oppositions.
A historic debut for Panama
For the tiny country with a population of 40 lakh, reaching the World Cup itself a dream come true. Though the fans did not get to see their team score a goal, Panama showed promise, especially in the first half. The team stretched the Belgian defence on multiple occasions and it was Courtois' timely interventions that kept the North Americans at bay.
The Los Canaleros are in the tournament with modest ambitions — learn from the football mega-event, and make a little bit of history such as scoring a goal or keeping a clean-sheet. England might be too strong a side for the upcoming footballing nation, but Panama will fancy nicking a point out of Tunisia in their final match in Group G.
Updated Date: Jun 19, 2018 11:22 AM