What can we expect from Belgium in the Brazil 2014 World Cup?

It’s difficult not to get caught up in World Cup fever and for Belgium they are one of the most interesting sides in the competition.

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Having not fought out a World Cup since 2002 in Japan and South Korea there has been a group forming whose expectations of Belgium went so high that the nation went from outside bet to fourth favourites to win the trophy with some bookmakers. Now it seems logic is taking over and expectations are becoming more realistic as Belgium are back to outside chance at best.

On the surface Belgium have an immensely talented squad which is bursting at the seams to fit in their many talented players, yet Group H still remains possibly the most open group of the competition. Belgium and Switzerland were the two highest ranking teams everyone was looking to be grouped with and while you could argue that Belgium’s team is superior to a country like England; there is still a lot of respect for England in major tournaments and Belgium’s lack of pedigree means most opponents would prefer the lowland country in their group.

Is this kind of thinking fair and reasonable? Well, maybe. Ultimately this is a World Cup and it’s verging on impossible to predict what will unfold over the month. That Belgium’s squad is the strongest in the group is undoubted but they came through a relatively straightforward qualification group and the tournament finals will add a lot of extra pressure to the inexperienced shoulders of Belgium’s players. We take a look at some of the certainties, and the more grey areas, of what to expect from Belgium in Brazil 2014.

The Certainties

Thibaut Courtois will be the goalkeeper
Thibaut Courtois is one of a few players in the squad with real life big match experience. He’s already won the Primera Division in Spain as Atletico Madrid’s on loan goalkeeper and despite conceding four goals he has played in the final of Europe’s biggest club competition, the Champions League. He is undisputed number one for the team ahead of Liverpool’s young goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.

One thing Liverpool did very well this past season was concede goals but the finger was rarely pointed at Mignolet. He’s a solid goalkeeper, nearly always dependable and good with his reflex saves. Yet everything he does well, Courtois seems to do better. Courtois has made it very clear that he expects full backing from his fellow goalkeepers, seemingly put out by the fact that the number two in the squad could dare dream of being the starting goalkeeper for the country, he demands compliance that everyone else in the squad respects him as the starting goalkeeper for Belgium. And while it may seem egotistical, it’s true. He’s the best goalkeeper in the country, one of the best in Europe and behind a defence held together with gaffer tape he increases Belgium’s chances of winning when he is on the field.

Vincent Kompany will lead by example

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Vincent Kompany did not have the greatest 2012/13 season. We here at BeNeFoot were quick to point out such and he did not do well in the ‘top 10 Belgians’ list. However the 2013/14 season was capped off with another Premier League title and it seems the centre back has returned to his best. There is an air of confidence when you see Kompany play. He has a physical presence and both the on field and off field intelligence to back it up. He’s the kind of guy who would walk your girlfriend past the gang of youths late at night when you’re too afraid to do it but still not make you feel bad for your cowardice. His leadership for club and country is what sets him apart from the rest and it’s telling that he may be Belgium’s most influential player in a defence where most players are not au fait in the position they will be assigned. His commanding hand will be the one that makes the makeshift right and left backs feel safe again as they face a tougher challenge than in the group stage.

Lukaku is one injury away from disaster
For all the interest that came with Divock Origi’s surprise inclusion in the Belgium squad, there are precious few hoping that he will have to be relied upon in any capacity in Brazil. Should the worst happen and Lukaku is injured like predecessor Christian Benteke then Belgium are left with very few options. Their attacking corps consist of the aforementioned Origi, Kevin Mirallas of Everton who is a wide player but can fill in as a striker if needed, and then Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, Adnan Januzaj and Kevin De Bruyne all of whom are extremely talented players but unfamiliar with leading a forward line.

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The team have already had to evolve to accommodate Lukaku, who is a bit more dynamic than Benteke. Lukaku can drive from deep and lead the attacking charge with the ball at his feet whereas Benteke is more the icing on the cake man; a powerful presence in the box who will rise highest or think quickest to get to a ball. Should Lukaku go down with injury then it would require another plan and I’m not sure Belgium have thought that far ahead. Personally I feel they’d go with a strikerless formation persisting with Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens or Mirallas ahead of throwing Origi in at the deep end. It’s all scenario I hope never comes to fruition, and for obvious reasons.

The Grey Areas

What formation Belgium will play
To me formations have always been cumbersome things. Arbitrary dots on a tiny field so people can look at pictures to help them understand, the issue with formations on a piece of paper is that they don’t move – they’re static and therefore a misrepresentation of how the team operates. Is it where they will stand for opening kick off? When they are attacking? Perhaps how they defend? Unfortunately it is the norm and easiest way to communicate with people how a team will look when playing a match so we persist with them for now.

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To all intents Belgium went through most of the qualification for the tournament with what would be recognised as 4-3-3 formation. Lukaku was central with Hazard and De Bruyne flanking him compromising of the forward ‘three’. Behind them sat a narrower three, Axel Witsel – one of Belgium’s most talented and consistent players – was the central holding midfielder and often Marouane Fellaini, Moussa Dembélé or Nacer Chadli would sit either side of him and push up, back or wide when necessary depending on the situation.

As time’s have progressed Belgium have moved towards a different type of 4-3-3 formation or even a 4-2-3-1 formation if you will. Lukaku remains central striker and Hazard one of his flanks, Kevin Mirallas was on the right flank in the recent friendly with Luxembourg where this formation was consciously practiced. This allowed Kevin De Bruyne into ‘the hole’, ‘the number ten role’, or whatever it’s latest term is – he was sat just behind Romelu Lukaku with a designated free role to drift around and look for space when it came available.

This allowed Witsel and Fellaini to sit a bit deeper, with the latter pushing up into attack when he likes as is Fellaini’s wont. One of the drawbacks is that it made Belgium a little more unsafe in the centre of the pitch, but the positive was it allowed Belgium to fit in another of their many talented attacking players into the starting line up and when playing Luxembourg you’re allowed that extra bit of attacking freedom without fear of reprisal.

Adnan Januzaj will feature heavily
Adnan Januzaj is something of a dark horse for the team often referred to as dark horses in the competition. On the one hand Marc Wilmots, the coach of the team, has heavily favoured the players that got the job done in qualifying. It’s why those who follow Belgium football keenly were not surprised to see Radja Nainggolan overlooked for the final 23 while fans of Serie ‘A’ who have watched him for AS Roma this season see his omission as a massive injustice. Ultimately Wilmots relied on Witsel, Fellaini and Defour in qualification and he will reward that with spots at the final competition.

Januzaj, however, is the wild card. He was not registered for Belgium until after the qualification period and given his fantastic breakout season for Manchester United it would have been difficult for Wilmots to leave him out completely. Januzaj has an abundance of potential and it would not surprise me to see him start to force his way into the team most likely at the expense of Kevin Mirallas or Dries Mertens in that right sided forward position. Admittedly Januzaj would probably feel more at home in the number ten role but as mentioned above that position is earmarked for Kevin De Bruyne – Belgium’s most consistent performer – and Januzaj will have to get in a long line of players to play that position.

Eden Hazard should be a starter
It’s always a contentious issue when perhaps the most talented player on the team is not the stand out. It will rankle somewhat as Hazard has had a good season for Chelsea FC in England, although manager José Mourinho has voiced his displeasure regarding the tricky youngster previously, but the main bane is that Hazard is constant outshone on the international stage by former team mate Kevin De Bruyne.

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Hazard’s goal against Sweden in the 2-0 friendly win was his first since March 2013. That Hazard’s game doesn’t revolve around goals is fact of course, his job is to provide for the team as well as take for himself so in that sense the figures can be somewhat misleading but ultimately he doesn’t not contribute for the country as much as he does for the team. His partnership with De Bruyne can be fantastic, and by moving De Bruyne into that central role and therefore closer to Hazard can only be a good thing for the pair of them in my opinion. That said there are many who question whether Hazard should be starting in the team at all, and with no shortage of attacking options and the ranks recently swelled thanks to Januzaj’s decision to represent Belgium it would take a big decision from Wilmots to drop Hazard. That said, Wilmots is a man with conviction and if he thinks Hazard is hindering, and not helping, then he will not hesitate to make the call.

The Conclusion

In summary it’s quite clear Belgium are a highly talented team with some glaring holes. The paper can lie, as mentioned above Hazard does not perform as well for country as he does for club whereas Fellaini’s disastrous time at Manchester United looks unfathomable as he continues to thrive for Belgium. We may be a bit closer to knowing some of the grey areas come June 18 when Belgium take on Algeria in their first game of Group H – but until then the speculation will continue to be rampant as Belgium look to shoulder he expectations of not only their nation, but seemingly other nations as well.

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