Belgium’s World Cup: The difference between hype and reality
The benefit of tournament football is that it is very temporary. For those people who were experts on Belgian football for a few days are now too busy being experts on Brazil or Germany to remember their original views.
For many the Belgian national team disappointed at this World Cup, which is both fair and unfair in equal measures. For the team they made their goal, the quarterfinals of the World Cup is not to be sniffed at and while they never really amazed, they did what needed to be done which is more than can be said for many teams whose hopes were dashed extremely early.
No one particularly likes to point out the failings of others but some of the comments in the build up to Belgium’s World Cup campaign were just flat out wrong and misleading. A lot was made about Belgium being the tournaments ‘dark horses’ a phrase used so often it became totally irrelevant and superfluous. The dark horse tag wasn’t issued by Vincent Kompany or Marc Wilmots. It was a comment associated with them by media outlets prior to the tournament. Of course there are ‘dark horses’ at every tournament and in this case it was most likely Costa Rica or Algeria. How underrated can a team full of players plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues be? Vincent Kompany just won another English Premier League title with Manchester City, Dries Mertens plays in Serie ‘A’ with Napoli, Eden Hazard cost Chelsea over £30m when he joined from Lille.
What people meant is that Belgium had the makings of a team that could do well. However, their young players had a massive lack of international tournament experience. Nothing compares quite like the World Cup. When you lose in a domestic cup you continue with the league, you don’t leave and go home. The Belgian team would look to Kompany to lead them in Brazil but even he had never played in a World Cup or European Championship – only Daniel van Buyten had back in 2002. It was a new experience for every other player and that cannot be overlooked.
So the much deplored dark horse tag was coined not by the Belgians themselves. But the people on the outside looking in. To anyone who heard our writers Bjorn De Cock or Gary Niblock on a smorgasbord of media outlets prior to the tournament will know that we made a rather more dispassionate assessment of Belgium’s chances. Our words were those of warning. Stop overrating this side. Stop expecting miracles. Stop telling us Eden Hazard is the danger man, of course he is talented but his performances for les Diables Rouges have never matched those in a Chelsea strip. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but looking at the names on Belgium’s squad and assuming the goals would flow was only going to be tantamount to disaster.
Belgium qualified for the tournament scoring 18 goals and conceding just four. They were grouped with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales and the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia. A potentially tricky group but hardly one that should prove difficult to break down. Belgium didn’t lose a single match of their ten, a great feather in their cap that probably added to their reputation to other countries, but the facts are there to see: 18 goals in 10 games isn’t a great return. That people are surprised Belgium played a relatively rigid and cautious brand of football just highlights that some people didn’t really do their homework. The real surprise came in how calm and composed Daniel van Buyten was after a few jittery moments against Algeria and not only was he the model professional on and off the pitch, he also reaped the maximum benefit from his prior tournament experience and was one of the best defenders in a tournament that saw other oft-criticised veterans (Vlaar, Yepes) excel at the heart of defence.
Belgium are a team that contain their opponents and put men behind the ball when possible. With centre backs playing at either flank of the defence their is not a lot of call from Wilmots to let his defenders maraud forward in a gung ho style, he wants to keep his team relatively tight at the back and curbs Axel Witsel’s box-to-box tendencies by making his fuzzy haired midfielder lay anchor in front of the defensive line. The main disappointment, you’d suspect, for most people is the seeming lack of a cutting edge from the attacking players. Belgium succeeded in the World Cup by outlasting opponents, bringing on fresh, powerful players such as Origi, Lukaku and Mertens to torment tired defenders but the decisions could hardly be called tactical masterstrokes from Wilmots.
Wilmots failed to get the best out of Eden Hazard, again. Although he isn’t the first coach and probably won’t be the last to struggle with the Hazard conundrum at international level. 6 goals in 50 appearances is hardly the fear inducing form of the player Hazard is capable of being. But again, it’s the failings of preparation that people assumed Hazard would be so potent when clearly the figures dictate that he wouldn’t be. Without wanting to blow our own trumpet too much in one article, we constantly dismissed Hazard in favour of Kevin De Bruyne but people didn’t seem to want to hear it. De Bruyne isn’t the name player Hazard is but the child-like attacking midfielder is Wilmots’ go-to guy when it comes to creating chances, the ten chances made against the United States of America a glimpse of the talent he wields.
Unfortunately for the nation the creativity was too inconsistent for Belgium. It turned out Algeria were much more a difficult proposition than people were ready to give them credit for, but Belgium managed to outlast them in their first game of the tournament – a match that would have been a sin to lose. Russia and South Korea both play a relatively unambitious style of football that is hardly condusive to Belgium’s counter attacking style of play where they look to catch teams out high up the pitch and hit them quickly on the break. When Belgium did get the chance to play the ball they were ponderous in possession and bereft of ideas for the most part and struggled to really unlock teams like you’d expect. The United States were rightly lauded for their open approach but it did play into Belgium’s hands and only Tim Howard ensured one of the most memorable of extra-time periods.
In summary Belgium’s World Cup was a relatively successful adventure but with definite room for improvement. They come out the battle with a good deal of experience but visible scars or injuries. The European Championships in France in 2016 will be a good test of this team’s real ability. With Adnan Januzaj set to play a bigger role in the squad if he matures sufficiently and Divock Origi’s emergence giving Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku some much needed extra competition, the young squad will be richer for the Brazil experience.