EURO 2020: The key issues Roberto Martinez must fix if Belgium are to win the tournament – tactical analysis
Belgium successfully qualified from EURO 2020 Group B to enter the knockout stage. They began the journey by putting three past Russia clinically, then coming from behind against Denmark. In the last game, Roberto Martínez rotated the team by making five changes and the team beat Finland to secure the top of the group.
In the knockout stages, Belgium will face tougher opponents, Martínez believed the team was ready for challenges. This tactical analysis introduces some positives tactics of Martínez and some potential worries that required improvements.
Belgium bagged seven goals in the first three games, same with Italy and only one behind of Netherlands. However, they suffered against Denmark in the second game. When Kasper Hjulmand’s men pressed with high intensity, the Belgians could not play out from the back to reach the final third, let alone creating the opportunities. It was a bit disappointing to see the team only registering one shot in the first 45 even possessing talents like Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, and Dries Mertens.
Belgium’s major issue was their occupation of half-spaces when playing Carrasco and Mertens alongside Lukaku. Without a holding midfielder, Martínez could only encourage the team to construct the attacks through the flanks. However, this also become a weak spot when the opposition invited Belgium to enter one vertical half and trapped them with the touchlines.
Against high pressing, Belgium could not break with quality first pass. One of the reasons was the verticality of passes from wide center-backs to wing-backs. Their wing-backs played too deep, and inevitably, when they dropped, they received the ball with a closed body shape and an opponent sticking behind.
The above image shows Thorgan Hazard receiving with a closed body shape, hence, his visual perception was limited. Meanwhile, Belgium struggled to advance the ball in these situations because of not creating enough passing options for the wing-backs.
Carrasco and Mertens often drifted to the wide spaces too early where wing-backs did not have the angle to find them. Then, Belgium lacked the occupation of half-spaces as suggested in the image, so T. Hazard could not pass laterally to evade the pressure. Meanwhile, Youri Tielemans was not supportive enough to provide a circulate option on most occasions. Passing to the Leicester City midfielder was risky as he was usually checked by the opposition. When the return passing lane to the centre-back was blocked, Belgium were trapped in the wide zones.
Similar situations also happened in higher areas of the pitch. Sometimes the wing-backs and wingers rotated but the half-spaces occupation was the same issue. Here, T. Hazard drifted to the wide zone, but the passing lane was blocked by Daniel Wass. Tielemans was too deep to receive again.
The only progressive solution of Carrasco was to find Lukaku but that will be relying on the Inter Milan striker’s physical strengths to hold plays. Another pattern Belgium might develop was the lateral third-man plays if they wished to enter the final third quickly.
The antidote to this issue must be Kevin De Bruyne. The Manchester City star was phenomenal enough to invite the multiple markers, so he could open spaces for teammates. De Bruyne’s impact was obvious after being introduced at halftime against Denmark. He smartly roams into spaces between the lines to create confusion on the defenders – track or leaves De Bruyne free?
The above image shows De Bruyne occupying the half-spaces and spaces behind the midfield, drawing the Denmark midfielder deeper. As a result, Tielemans was freed from his marker to receive a lateral pass from the wide zone.
Their recent game against Finland shows us an optimal execution of the plan when Belgium could open the shape to play. Against Finland, they had more space to attack the opposition in the final third. The formation becomes a 3-2-5 and Belgium could create wide overloads to attack the channels.
Here, when Eden Hazard wants spaces, he would drift out wide and the wing-back – Nacer Chadli would swap to exploit the half-spaces. Very easily Belgium could create 2v1 overloads on the wing-backs, giving more options to the ball.
Despite the attack of Belgium had some problems in the group stages, they still managed to score seven goals with the exceptional qualities of players. Comparatively, the defensive issues are more difficult to solve in short term.
Since Vincent Kompany retired from national football, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen needed a partner to play in a back three. Currently, Jason Denayer and Dedryck Boyata were the candidates to compete for that spot. In our tournament preview analysis, we suggested Denayer might be the first choice because of having more game time at club level last season. Also, in the previous year, Denayer started with Alderweireld and Vertonghen as a regular option in international competitions.
Nevertheless, Martínez played Boyata against Russia to combat the most physical striker in the tournament – Artem Dzyuba. The Hertha Berlin defender did his job very well, keeping Dzyuba silent throughout the game.
Boyata’s good performance was reflected by numbers as well. In terms of duels, he won 10 out of 13 against Russia, the 77% success rate was a very positive figure.
In the second game, Martínez gave Denayer a chance to play but the Lyon defender was a bit disappointing. He had several weak spots that were targeted by the oppositions, while his error-prone performance might have been costly without De Bruyne saving the day.
Only a minute after the whistle, Denayer made a mistake by passing the ball onto a Denmark player’s feet. The situation was not irredeemable before the 25-year-old defender panicked. Despite being far away from the ball, Denayer forgot Yussuf Poulsen was around and burst towards the carrier, leaving the RB Leipzig striker to receive freely in front of Thibaut Courtois.
The screenshot was the moment of Denayer’s poor defensive decision. You could see the surroundings: two other Belgium players were closing the ball already while the carrier was yet to reach the box. It was unnecessary to commit himself, especially Poulsen was lurking. Denayer’s prone to error might be a concern if Martínez insisted on starting him in the knockout stages.
Denayer also had other weaknesses that might be exploited by the opposition. Although having pretty good dueling statistics, Denayer was not good at defending spaces in front. Since Belgium only had two midfielders, they needed the centre-backs to step up and cover but it was not the strength of Denayer.
The above image was an instance in which Denayer failed to get tight on the dropping striker, allowing Finland to advance the attack through him. As specified, only having Axel Witsel and De Bruyne at the midfield was insufficient numerically, the duo will be separated apart when the opposition midfield moved wider.
Martínez will have to consider dropping the Lyon defender if he could not cover Alderweireld and Vertonghen. On the contrary, Boyata seems to be the answer to the fragile centre-back position.
Belgium was a bit unfortunate to lose Timothy Castagne in the first game. The candidate to replace the Leicester City right wing-back was probably Thomas Meunier, who immediately filled the vacancy and started against Denmark. However, the Borussia Dortmund defender failed to reach his best this season, his unstable form was carried on to the national team.
Therefore, it is expected to see Belgium’s opponents targeting their right flank to attack. The above image shows Meunier’s unconvincing 1v1 defending. His body orientation always invited the dribbler to cut inside, but Meunier could not twist his body to shut the shooting angle if that happened. On most occasions, it required another defender such as Witsel in this image to press the winger at half-spaces.
The image has shown the imbalanced defence of Belgium in the group games. It was very clear that they conceded much more shots on the right side than on the left side. Stopping the cut-ins and prevent the curlers will be another key task for Martínez to solve.
Great transition threat
Despite listing some of the potential worries of Belgium in the above scout report, in fact, there were positives to mention as well. Martínez’s men should be counting on the offensive transitions to create some opportunities as they got talented attackers in the team.
For example, Lukaku possessed a very good attacking sense as a striker. The above example shows his contributions in the counter-attacks to create isolation for teammates. When Jérémy Doku was driving forward, Lukaku smartly moved to the far side to drag the centre-back away. In this 2v2 situation, the Finland defenders must separate themselves to defend, so Doku could use his quality to take on the opposition.
Another secret weapon of the team was placing Lukaku on the right side while keeping De Bruyne at the centre. This variation was proved to be powerful in the game against Denmark. When the Inter forward began his runs on the right flank, he was always reached by De Bruyne’s right-footed passes. Arranging a quick attacking player on this side could better release the stronger foot of De Bruyne, as shown in the above image.
Winning all three games was a good result in the group stage. However, the team still needs to be better at some departments if they wanted to challenge the title. Belgium might not be at the best without starting the strongest eleven because of injuries. With De Bruyne and Witsel back, E. Hazard getting fitter, Martínez would have more cards to play hopefully they play better!