Belgium World Cup Squad: Defenders
Marc Wilmots has an embarrassment of riches for the two central spots but the fullbacks are often pinpointed as one of the weakest areas of the squad. We take a look at the eight defenders in the final 23.
Success seems to follow Toby Alderweireld around. He won three successive titles at Ajax before winning La Liga with Atlético Madrid this season although he has found it difficult to break into Europe’s most formidable defence. Alderweireld is one of the many Belgian players to have made a name for himself without playing top division football in his home country although he did start out at his home town club Germinal Beerschot.
He formed an integral part of Frank De Boer’s side in Amsterdam as a foil to the more adventurous Jan Vertonghen but his versatility and ability to defend first and foremost, allied to a weakness at fullback, has seen the 25-year-old often deployed on the right-hand side of defence for his country. Guillaume Gillet may have begun the qualifiers but come the trip to Belgrade, it was Alderweireld who was once again entrusted with the position.
With Wilmots voicing his concerns over a lack of regular football in Madrid as well as the fact that a converted centreback is not an ideal long-term solution, the likes of Anthony Vanden Borre and Thomas Meunier were given an opportunity to stake their claims. Alderweireld had a difficult end to the season, playing leftback in the Champions League final but he dusted himself down to join the Belgian camp within 24 hours. If he is to at least do a holding job (for his limitations in attack are well-established), he will need help from the winger ahead of him, which is not always the case.
Daniel van Buyten
World Cup 2014 will be Big Dan’s swansong at international level and he comes into the tournament as the only surviving player from Belgium’s last tournament back in 2002. In his eight years at FC Bayern, he has often borne the brunt of criticism from the ever-demanding fans in München. However, he grew in confidence following the tumultuous departure of Louis van Gaal and while not first-choice under Pep Guardiola, can nevertheless be said to have enjoyed something of an Indian summer to his career.
Adored by fans of Standard Liège who would love to see him return to Sclessin next season, van Buyten is the link to the past and is someone whom Wilmots places a great deal of trust in, so much so that he is set to start alongside Vincent Kompany in defence. Mobility has never been his greatest strength and the friendly defeat at home to Japan highlighted concerns that he can struggle against nimble forwards with clever movement.
However, he brings a number of other qualities to the table, not least his leadership and he revels in his role as the squad’s elder statesman. Nicknamed Tarzan at Marseille, he is a warrior who puts his body on the line for the team and is curiously the leading goalscorer in the squad with ten to his name. He recently remarked that he feels less nerves than back in 2002 but should he line up against Algeria next week, he’ll be determined to end his long international career on a high.
Quite simply the face of de Rode Duivels, Vincent Kompany is a true leader in every sense of the word, both in the heat of battle and off the pitch. Brussels-born and fluent in four languages, he has long been earmarked as a truly great player even before he made his Anderlecht debut at the age of seventeen. He reads the game so well, allowing him to get in front of his man to win the challenge, is strong, quick and can bring the ball out from the back, sometimes even charging forward into the opposition’s half.
While it is easy to take Kompany’s status as one of the game’s finest centrebacks for granted, his path to the very top was not without its problems. He struggled in his early Clasico’s against Standard only to impress to such an extent that Barcelona wanted to bring him to the Camp Nou in 2005 after an outstanding display topped off by the opening goal. He continued his education and would eventually move to HSV but injury problems spanned his final year in Brussels and first in Hamburg.
A fall-out with Huub Stevens saw Kompany move to Eastlands and he was often used in midfield such is his technical ability. However, he has become the symbol of Manchester City’s rise and his steely determination has driven them to two league titles and everlasting popularity in the blue half of the city. Refreshingly, he has a sense of fun allied to a professional attitude and a sense of perspective that there are more important things in life than football. Marc Wilmots had to manage without Kompany at times during the qualification campaign but he knows he can count on the man affectionately known as Vince the Prince come Brazil.
A versatile and flamboyant defender, he is very much a permanent fixture at leftback when fit, although he prefers to play in the centre of defence. Along with Alderweireld and Vermaelen, he came through at Ajax and became an immensely popular figure and captain under Frank De Boer. He can play at centreback, leftback or even in midfield and loves to bring the ball out from the back.
He has almost been a victim of his versatility at times at Tottenham having to cover for their lack of a top class leftback. After making a stunning impression in his maiden campaign in England, he found things more difficult during a topsy-turvy season at White Hart Lane – the implosion at Stamford Bridge springs to mind.
At 27, he has a wealth of experience, boasting over 50 international caps and dons the captain’s armband when Kompany is unavailable. He may not be Roberto Carlos going forward but he has a dangerous left-foot and can pose problems from free kicks and long-range shots. Sometimes he is caught out by the diagonal ball in behind but as with Alderweireld, it is vital that he is afforded sufficient protection from his winger.
Anthony Vanden Borre
It’s been a typically eventful last few months in a rollercoaster career and yet Vanden Borre is still just 26. He was even younger than Kompany when he made his Anderlecht debut at sixteen and became an integral part of the side. And yet since those halcyon days in purple and white, his career has not panned out as expected.
Inconsistency and a less than stellar attitude (to say the least) have blighted spells at Fiorentina, Genoa and Racing Genk, where he often flattered to deceive and was used in midfield. Genk understandably decided not to keep him on. After a period in the wilderness, he rejoined his beloved Anderlecht but such was his standing that the terms of his contract did not allow him to appear for the first team. Fans recalled the brilliant performances of his youth and began to wonder (rather hopefully it seemed at the time) if he could take this chance.
And take the chance he did in the knowledge that it was his last. He became much more diligent and eventually displaced Guillaume Gillet at rightback, helping Anderlecht to come back from the dead to win a third consecutive title. Wilmots gave him his chance against the Ivory Coast and picked him on the back of some fine displays in the Champions League, as he wanted a player who knew the group, was a defender first and foremost and who could play in a three-man defence if required.
When Thomas Vermaelen hit the ground running at Arsenal, it looked like nothing would stop him being a permanent fixture in the Belgian side for years to come barring injury. He quickly became as popular in London as he had been in Amsterdam due to his committed style and penchant for surging forward and was made club captain by Arsène Wenger.
However, there is no doubt that Vermaelen’s stock has fallen dramatically and once Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker formed an excellent understanding at the heart of Arsenal’s backline, he would not regain his first-choice status, often having to settle for covering for the centrebacks or at leftback. His positional play became less reassuring, as did his decision-making and Arsenal could ill afford to carry him.
Although he played eight games in the qualifiers, the World Cup has come at the wrong time. Too long out of the Arsenal team has understandably led to a drop in confidence, which was even evident against Luxembourg when he was at fault for the first goal. Another below-par display in Sweden and being selected at leftback when he needed a boost were signs that his place with Belgium was also in danger and at this stage, van Buyten is the favourite to partner Kompany.
Nicolas Lombaerts is a player who could be easily forgotten having been in Russia for such a long time but that would be a mistake for he has blossomed into an excellent defender. Although from Brugge, he made his name at KAA Gent when Georges Leekens began to establish De Buffalo’s as a serious footballing force in Belgium. Leaving his law studies behind, he earned a move east to Zenit St. Petersburg and has remained there ever since.
A succession of Zenit bosses have placed their trust in the 29-year-old and it is not hard to see why. He is strong in the air, covers the ground well and is a difficult opponent to get the better of. Injuries have at times plagued him but he can rightly feel unfortunate to have amassed just 25 caps over the years. He has featured alongside Vincent Kompany in the past and can cover at leftback.
Although he played just twice in the qualifiers, he held the defence together in the important away wins to Croatia and Scotland. Many feel that he would be a better option to partner Kompany than van Buyten (in light of Vermaelen’s form) as he is more mobile and would give Wilmots the balance of a left-footed centreback.
One of the more maligned members of the squad, Ciman is the only Standard Liège player this time around. He is capable of playing at rightback but like most of his fellow defenders, is a centreback by trade. He began his career at Charleroi before joining Club Brugge but it was only when he was involved in a transfer to Standard, which saw Marcos and Wilfried Dalmat go the other way, that he would reach his peak.
Ciman is very much aware of his status a backup player as he didn’t play a single minute of World Cup qualifying, having to content himself with a few appearances in friendlies. He doesn’t expect to play at all in Brazil but will apply himself nevertheless, coming off the back of the best season of his career at Standard. His trademark is his ability to play penetrative long balls out from the back, which he does better than anyone in the league. The criticism will continue to come but let’s be honest, every one of the critics would trade places with him in a heartbeat.