Issues Belgium’s Marc Wilmots must address v South Korea
Two wins out of two and a safe passage to the knockout stage in your first tournament for 12 years. No problems then…
Belgium have done the job set out in front of them in Brazil, yet many have been disappointed with their two displays in the group games thus far, and with some justification.
In the opener against Algeria, the Rode Duivels came from behind to defeat the Desert Foxes, following Jan Vertonghen’s needless foul giving away a penalty. Wilmots utilised the array of talent available to him on the substitutes bench quickly, sending on Divock Origi, Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens to disrupt, with the latter two turning the game on its head. Yet, for some, Belgium were very lucky to edge out a resilient Algeria side, struggling to find their rhythm for much of the game.
Fabio Capello’s Russia also made life difficult for Wilmots’ men, defending for plenty of the game and restricting the Belgians from entering the penalty area. Once again, it was the bench that changed the game, first Mirallas providing the moment to stir Belgium into life late in the game, before Lille’s Origi fired right at the death to send Belgium through. Wilmots wasn’t as decisive in his changes and looked fairly content with a draw in this one.
Perhaps it was the unfair lofty expectations pushed upon the group pre-tournament that have played heavily on the minds of the Belgian players, but there are undoubtedly improvements to be made as Belgium head into the knockout stage. Here are just some things that Wilmots must look at in the South Korea.
Drop Romelu Lukaku
With Christian Benteke absent from the tournament, the pressure was ramped up on the former Anderlecht prodigy as the only recognised striker present with any semblance of international experience. With the striking spot up for grabs, Lukaku hasn’t done anything yet to suggest he merits a starting spot. He failed to touch the ball in the opposition box in his 58 minutes against Algeria and nearly went the whole game against Russia doing the same.
A bigger concern is just how jaded Lukaku looks in the entire game. When being asked to drop back to help out with the ball, Lukaku’s touch has been sloppy. When running forward, his runs have been sluggish and not usually into the place the winger wants him to be. It’s now clear to see why Wilmots prefers Benteke over Lukaku, the Aston Villa targetman provides good link-up while Lukaku struggles to find a connection with his teammates. As Lukaku made way against Russia, he looked visibly and understandably frustated, something Wilmots claims he is yet to discuss with a player he is still backing publicly.
For Everton, Roberto Martinez has occasionally deployed Lukaku on the right (v Arsenal at Goodison for example) allowing the striker to run at defenders menacingly. For the national side, Lukaku feels like a deadweight with little purpose.
He’s been on the periphery in his two appearances, unlike the man who replaced him both times, Divock Origi, who has glided past the opposition. It’s time to give the Lille youngster the nod with the pressure off, with Lukaku coming on later to ruthlessly punish to restore confidence. Perhaps the opponents so far haven’t allowed Lukaku time and space, but we should expect more from him.
Give Kevin De Bruyne a defined role
Those who saw Belgium breeze through qualifying would have noted the importance of Chelsea outcast Kevin De Bruyne throughout the campaign. The only player to record more than two goals and countless assists, he is very much the lifeblood of this side, and the fact that is well-versed in many roles should be lauded. He can control games effortlessly.
However against Russia, De Bruyne was given too much to do. He was the man asked to link up the midfield to the attack, and more often than not had to drop deeper than Fellaini to collect the ball. This isn’t the best way to use De Bruyne. Sure, he’s more than capable of the task, yet his creativity is wasted. Maybe being in tandem with Fellaini was the problem here. The Manchester United man is quite often shuffled between being a holding midfielder or asked to play further forward. Axel Witsel’s role in the side is simple enough – keep things ticking over and start moves.
De Bruyne played most of the qualifying campaign on the right of a midfield three behind the striker, where he proved devastatingly effective. He played here against Algeria, after playing much of the friendlies before the tournament in a midfield trio deeper. The switching about of De Bruyne just to plug holes doesn’t bring the best out of him – it may be time to play him on the right and keep him there.
The million dollar question – how to get Hazard involved?
Up until about the 75th minute mark of the Russia game, Eden Hazard had once again let a game pass him by. It’s a problem that has plagued Wilmots and managers before him – how to get the Chelsea midfielder to replicate club performances into the national side.
Dries Mertens was the only spark for Belgium in the first half, looking as exciting as he had in the game before, yet this quickly dissipated as the game progressed. It took the insertion of Kevin Mirallas on the right for Eden Hazard to awake from his stupour, moving more centrally to make an imprint on the game, setting up Origi for the eventual winner.
Much of Belgium’s play goes down the right-hand side with Hazard/Lukaku being asked to finish the moves. Neither really have had sniffs in the tournament so far, suggesting a shift in play is needed. Hazard will likely continue on the left in this game but needs to drift in more centrally, rather than drift out of the game itself.
Reunite the Standard trio if possible
With the aforementioned midfield troubles, bringing in Steven Defour as another body in midfield could be an option. His understanding with Witsel and Fellaini looked good during qualifying, arguably Belgium’s best games featured the trio and he could be the man to string things together between midfield and attack. The Porto man hasn’t played often enough at club level, causing him to slip down the order internationally also.
Wilmots has stated he will rest Axel Witsel (and Toby Alderweireld though not Jan Vertonghen) for the South Korea game, which should open the door for Defour to stake his claim for a starting spot in the second round alongside the Zenit metronome. The coach could well bring Moussa Dembele back in from the cold and ask him to play in front of the defence.
Give Januzaj a whirl
The selection of the United youngster suggested Wilmots was looking to the future with his pick, yet Januzaj could well provide an “X-factor” that Belgium so badly seek. His pace on the wing might be perfect to upping the tempo for Belgium. Despite being relatively untested in big games, there’s little for Januzaj to lose in a fairly routine group ender against South Korea. It’s more likely Wilmots will bring him on late to blood him in though there has been much clamour among Belgian fans for Januzaj to play a much greater role, in part due to Hazard’s inconsistency.
Not all of the above will work in unison, yet are just some pointers on how Wilmots can finally silence the doubters who have questioned his ability to add value to this squad and believe his true mettle as a coach is now being tested at the highest level. The cliche is that teams who win ugly go on to do well. Yet there are plenty of examples of teams who’ve slept walk through the group and then been given a hiding in the knockout stage. Regardless, the game against South Korea demands some experimentation, yet not a massive overhaul to alienate others and create an imbalance. The jigsaw puzzle just got a bit more complex for Wilmots.