Analysis – Same old story for Belgium in Wales defeat
On a raucous night in Cardiff, Belgium slipped to their first defeat in a qualification match since 2011, in what was a fairly underwhelming performance from supposedly the 2nd best team in the world according to FIFA.
Gareth Bale capitalised on Radja Nainggolan’s lazy pass to the keeper in the 25th minute to send the Welsh crowd into raptures, and despite the wealth of attacking options deployed by Marc Wilmots, Belgium were unable to find an answer.
Going into the match separated only by goal difference at the top of Group B, many expected the Rode Duivels to lay down a marker and control the game. While they had plenty of the ball during the 90 minutes, there was little to show for it, with most of the Welsh players entrenched in their own half and behind the ball frustrating the away side.
The preparations for this game could have gone smoother, with on and off-field matters rearing their heads. The loss of Marouane Fellaini caused a midfield shuffle that ultimately didn’t reap any rewards. The Manchester United battering ram is a rich vein of form internationally, and his presence further forward as an outlet could have helped his teammates here. Wilmots admitted as much in the post-match conference, with Witsel unable to offer the same sort of threat.
The late injury of Nacer Chadli meant Dries Mertens was given a starting berth on the right, with Kevin de Bruyne dropping deeper. Mertens was anonymous before being hooked at half-time, while De Bruyne’s involvement was nullified somewhat, though his linkup in the first half with Eden Hazard looked promising.
The introduction of Romelu Lukaku should have meant a greater attacking presence with a shift to 4-4-2, pairing him with the isolated Christian Benteke. Belgium haven’t tried that too often in Wilmots’ tenure, and the experiment didn’t work out here which isn’t much of a surprise if it wasn’t used in training. Crosses were routinely dealt with by Chris Coleman’s side, and both Benteke and Lukaku looked static in the penalty area.
The defence certainly missed the presence of Vincent Kompany to organise, looking disjointed on occasion. Despite conceding only two goals in qualifying so far, it could be a lot more had teams taken their chance/beaten Thibaut Courtois. Man City youngster Jason Denayer was encouraging at times though.
Rumours swirling around the camp over Marc Wilmots’ future as national team coach were also unhelpful, with Schalke 04 seemingly keen on bringing a legendary player back to the club where he enjoyed the best years of his playing day. While ultimately the Gelsenkirchen club favoured another man in the end, it proved to be a distraction for the coach and could have rubbed off onto his squad.
The team seemed to look disinterested at times, despite being a goal behind for much of the game, and faded as time went on, perhaps due to the rigours of the season just gone. The lack of creativity is something that has dogged them for a while now. In theory, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne should alone be able to carve up international sides with ease, yet against Wales they were targeted effectively and given little time on the ball or space to maneouvre with it.
Arguably the biggest flaw in the side at the moment is down to tactical inflexibility. While Wilmots did offer up a different plan in the second half, it didn’t seem to have any effect. Plodding play combined with a lack of incisiveness meant it looked unlikely that Belgium would break Wales down.
Chris Coleman didn’t particularly offer anything radical, drilling his team in the same way he did when they grabbed a draw in Brussels, and showed others how you need to set up against the Rode Duivels to get a result. Though it was a mistake that ultimately gave his side victory, they did deserve it for their measured approach.
The result came as a shock to the players going by their tweeting after the match and it will be interesting to see how Belgium bounce back from this minor setback to qualifying in September. Due to the new qualifying expansion, it looks like unlikely that the Rode Duivels will miss out on France 2016 barring a major collapse, but it is the performance of the players rather than the result that raises eyebrows, certainly over the suitability of Marc Wilmots. At the same time, there’s no obvious candidate in the wings to replace him should results turn sour (Preud’homme aside).
Belgium host Bosnia and Herzegovina before travelling to Cyprus in September, their two toughest games remaining. Will a lesson have been learnt by then?
Photos courtesy of Jon Candy