Romelu Lukaku (left) and Roberto MartinezPhoto: Getty Images
“BELGIUM’S LAST CHANCE!” You’ve heard or seen this before. They are Europe’s biggest waste of the past decade. There hasn’t been a greater pool of talent than Belgium has displayed in the last four major tournaments and a 3rd place finish in Russia is all they have to show for it. Either the last spin is well received here, or the pressure of the previous failures tears everything down.
Belgium have been the hipster picks to win either the World Cup or Euros since 2014 or so, since Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard started tearing the Premier League at the seams, Romelu Lukaku started making good on his promise, Thibault Courtois became perhaps the best goalkeeper in the world, and an absurd amount of talent scattered across Europe’s best clubs. And they never complied. They made it to Argentina in the quarter-finals in 2014, were somehow beaten by Wales out of Euro 2016, failed to beat France in Russia and then found an Italian wall in their way in the summer of 2021. They were so inclined to deal with this group of obscenely talented players have only beaten one true heavyweight in four tournaments and that was Brazil in the quarters of 2018. And they were very lucky (Brazil fired 27 shots and ran a 2.8-0.5 xG count in that game). Quite simply, the Red Devils didn’t live up to the bill.
Some (like me) would point the finger at manager Roberto Martinez, who has always used his ease and availability to the media to cover up the fact that he may have no idea what he’s doing. He is among a parade of managers who have thrown Everton into chaos, although it could be essential for that club. He somehow brought that to the Belgian job, where Belgium, even with the unique collection of attacking talent, have never looked so dynamic or cohesive.
Part of the Belgian problem is that Martinez insists on a 3-4-2-1 formation, which doesn’t always get the best out of De Bruyne, despite maximizing the abundance of players able to play on the full-backs. The other problem is that Martinez has his favorites and rarely strays from them. Although one of them is Eden Hazard who hasn’t played regularly for Real Madrid for three seasons and just isn’t the guy he was. Leandro Trossard or Charles de Ketelaere would like to take the place opposite De Bruyne behind Lukaku or Michy Batshuayi and yet Hazard always finds himself in the starting XI. There are other kids who have resented being behind established veterans like Axel Witsel, who is almost certainly past his sell-by date.
The problem Martinez has to solve this time is how to get further in the tournament than Belgium ever has, the only acceptable result, with a defense three days older than Wasser. It continues to be anchored by Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (age combo: Statler and Waldorf). Based on their recent Nations League games, it looks like 19-year-old Zeno Debast will join them in the back three. There’s certainly one way to do it, but Belgium isn’t blessed with too many other options. They have great starters in many places but not too many options off the bench.
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Martinez has never cared too much about defence, always thinking that he can make up for his defensive weaknesses, which seems like the only way for this Belgium squad with such an old defense. What you can. The full-back’s firepower is the envy of most, with Yannick Carrasco, Trossard, Thomas Meunier, Timothy Castagne and Thorgan Hazard all capable of playing that role. And everyone basically wants to play as a striker while playing full-backs. For this reason, as in the past, Belgium can set up large numbers, such as Eg three against Russia at the Euros or eight together against Panama and Tunisia at the last World Cup, or as they did, after two defeats against Japan they stormed back at this tournament too.
But it always kicks off when it’s time to dance with the big boys. Brazil, France, Portugal and Italy didn’t find it too difficult to neutralize the attack. In those four games, all in the knockout rounds of the last two tournaments, Belgium amassed just 2.9 xG combined, and 1.8 of that against Italy in 2021. Tuck the full-backs back and suddenly they are blunt. Canada’s wingers have to lick their chops.
Nonetheless, Belgium has been ‘in’ for a while and would only need a few jumps to find themselves in the semi-finals or even the final. If they win the group, they will have a very weak opponent from group E, be it Germany, Spain or Mexico or Japan. If you pull through that it could be Portugal or Uruguay or Serbia or Switzerland or Cameroon unless something stupid happens to Brazil in the group stage. If they don’t win the group, Brazil are much more likely to wait in the quarterfinals.
Still, it would be a question of how Martinez will balance his damn torpedo tactics with a defense that’s aging by the second if anyone thought Martinez would ever worry about that. It would be great if a daring team rushed to the trophy, but that rarely, if ever, happens. And it will be an interesting study to see how they deal with Canada’s rampaging full-backs on the counter, let alone Portugal or Germany.
They won’t be the only ones worried about age in certain spots as Croatia still bring some wise old minds like Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić and Dejan Lovren. If momentum is a thing (it isn’t), then Croatia will make it into this tournament, having twice gone 3-0-1 against Denmark, France and Austria in their last four Nations League games.
While the defense needs some tinkering, the midfield is occupied by Modric, Mateo Kovačić and Marcelo Brozović. Mario Pašilić is a solid starter in the top three, but the other two front spots have been juggled through a variety of options. There is simply no striker who takes his chance with both hands.
But whatever you see among Croatia’s problems – a lack of security in offense or some questions in defense – no team is coming together as Croatia seems to be.
We’d all like to think Canada is just here for the party, because the last thing anyone needs is happy, distracted Leafs fans, even for a couple of weeks, but this group could be well placed for the Hosers to continue Another upset they did in qualifying. The world doesn’t need to know more about Alphonso Davies on the break, but combined with Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David in the middle, they could easily scare an exposed, aging defense like Belgium and a shaky one like Croatia. Or Cyle Larin, their top scorer in qualifying, can come in behind them with Davies to pair with David, as they showed in September’s friendly against Uruguay. How far Canada can go will likely depend on how well their midfield duo of Stephen Estáquio and Samuel Piette/Richie Lareya can handle the solid midfielders they will see in the group stage. If they can’t provide a starting platform for the Canadian forwards, they will be home before the postcards. If they hold their own, there is enough pace and spirit on this team to produce results that raise some eyebrows. We know they will be tactically at home in games against Belgium and Croatia as those two sides are likely to have more possession and Canada have already kicked Mexico and USA around off the ball and hit on the counterattack. The sight of one of these teams attempting to chase Canada when they let loose on a switch will be good for a chuckle
Morocco were just in time to realize that having their best players is probably a good idea for a World Cup. So they canned the manager who made Hakim Ziyech leave the national team and hired Walid Regragrui, who immediately welcomed Ziyech back. Which means Ziyech is back to combine with Achraf Hakimi on the right, with Ziyech tucking in and leaving Hakimi all the room to romp. Morocco would find many teams wanting to swap full-backs with them, with Hakimi on the right and Munich’s Noussair Mazraoui on the other (although his natural side is also on the right, but must). Sofyan Amrabat is a very good anchor in midfield and Sofiane Boufal on the other side of Ziyech has the potential to actually be a pretty sexy part of the attack. You will not be a weakling in this group.
Most likely, the manager will get the red card
Croatian Zlatko Dalić, because he’s just so damn handsome.
I’m always a fan of Croatia’s checkerboard look, but this time it’s their away kits that really are the boss.
Wednesday, November 23 – Morocco – Croatia (5:00 p.m. EST), Belgium – Canada (2:00 p.m. EST)
Sunday, November 27 – Belgium – Morocco (8:00 a.m. EST), Croatia – Canada (11:00 a.m. EST)
Thursday, December 1 – Belgium – Croatia, Canada – Morocco (10:00am EST)