UEFA Nations League 2020/21: England vs Belgium – tactical analysis
It was matchday 3 of the UEFA Nations League. All eyes were set to Wembley as England hosted Belgium, marking their first meeting since the 2018 FIFA World Cup. This match was important for both teams as they wanted to clinch the top spot before getting to the second half of the group stage.
Gareth Southgate’s tactical experiments paid dividends as England successfully mounted a comeback win against Roberto Martínez’s Belgium. Some might say that they were lucky. Others say it was Martínez’s naivety that made the Red Devils surrender to the hosts. Which one was true? Without further ado, this tactical analysis will try to find the answer by dissecting both teams’ tactics in this game.
Southgate chose a 3–4–3 for his team. The back three consisted of Kyle Walker, Eric Dier, and Manchester United’s captain Harry Maguire. In front of them, the duo of Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice provided the defensive stability in the midfield. Up front, on-form striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin was supported by Mason Mount and Marcus Rashford as the Three Lions’s attacking trident. Names like Reece James, Kalvin Phillips, Harry Kane, and Jadon Sancho had to start the game from the dugout.
On the opposite side, Martínez also went for a 3–4–3. The trio of Toby Alderweireld, Dedryck Boyata, and Jason Denayer was chosen to start in front of Simon Mignolet. Serie A star Romelu Lukaku was given the trust to lead Belgium’s frontline, flanked by Yannick Carrasco and multiple Premier League winner Kevin De Bruyne. Meanwhile, their bench was filled with promising youngsters such as Yari Verschaeren and Jérémy Doku.
Belgium’s defensive tactics (part one)
This analysis will start by examining the visitors’ defensive tactics. Structure-wise, Belgium deployed a mid-block 5–2–3 when they were out of possession. They didn’t press aggressively and would let England’s centre-backs to have the ball for prolonged times. There were some occasions where Belgium pressed high, but those moments were rarely a norm. It’s safe to say that Martínez’s men would only actively press whenever the ball was played to the flank.
There were two variations in Belgium’s flank press. The first one was by sending their wing-back to execute the press. In the process, the Belgian would step up alongside the midfielders and immediately press the on-ball England wing-back. The objective behind this was to prevent the opponent to play progressive passes to the forwards.
This approach could also be used when the Red Devils pressed high. When it happened, the Belgians would limit England’s time and space even further due to the aggressive positioning of the press. The hosts would try to escape this by instructing their on-ball wing-back to quickly play a vertical ball to the forward nearby the halfway line.
However, Belgium were ready to counter the escape attempt. That was done by putting one player against the English forward so he couldn’t receive properly. In fact, Belgium made two shot attempts from the successful flank presses. In terms of expected goals (xG), both shots combined for a rather good 0.28 rate.
Belgium’s defensive tactics (part two)
Another approach the visitors used was by sending the ball-side midfielder to press England’s flank player. This happened mostly on their right flank due to England’s tendency to play through Trippier and Rashford. The midfielder was tasked to press because Trippier has rotated with Rashford and pinned their backline.
Belgium rarely used this approach when pressing high. Instead, they would only do this when defending quite deeper. The midfielder wasn’t even tasked to press aggressively. He was only instructed to contain the opponent and prevent them from driving his way into Belgium’s defensive block.
England’s attacking plans
Shape-wise, England used a 3–4–3 when they had the ball. The centre-backs enjoyed lots of time with the ball due to the minimum pressure given by the Belgian forwards, particularly in the first half. However, England opted to abandon their midfielders in attacks and went to play through the flanks. There were some ways they could access the wide area, as follows.
Firstly, by a regular pass from the (wide) centre-back to the wing-back. Secondly, they would use the ball-side midfielder to appear in the wide area. They did that by allowing the wing-back to move forward and help the nearby winger to pin Belgium’s backline. By doing so, neither Meunier nor Timothy Castagne could step up to press the drifting English midfielder.
The third option was by using Rashford on the left flank. For a couple of times, Rashford dropped to receive directly from the deeper players. He could do this rather easily because he had rotated with Trippier, who moved to the attacking line to compensate Rashford’s movement. The main objective of these approaches was similar: to send a diagonal ball to Calvert-Lewin in the central lanes.
Another approach England used to access the Everton striker was by sending direct balls from Jordan Pickford or the centre-backs. That’s because Calvert-Lewin possesses great leap and superb physique to win the aerial duels. Occasionally, this was used as the outlet when England had to face Belgium’s rare high-press.
Zero open play shots in the first half
England enjoyed about 58% of the ball in the first 45 minutes. Yet, they only managed to get 0.3 attacks per minute. That’s roughly 23% less than the visitors. Even worse, England made no attempts from open-play situations in the first half. How did that happen?
There were some reasons behind that. Firstly, it’s because of their low-risk approach with the centre-backs. In this game, Southgate rarely allowed his defensive trio to progress the ball on their own, either with a pass or with a dribble. This was quite bizarre because the trio had lots of space and time due to the minimum pressing intensity by the Belgian forwards. As a result, England could be found playing long balls against Belgium’s packed defence.
Secondly, it happened because of Rashford’s dropping tendency, which he did quite often. When he dropped, Rashford would usually pull Meunier with him, especially when Trippier hadn’t moved forward. Even worse, this was combined with Trippier’s habit to pass the ball instead of driving forward. As a result, England easily limited their own playing space and time even before moving to the final third.
Thirdly, England lacked central presence in the midfield. As mentioned before, Southgate preferred to abandon England from attacking through the central lanes. That’s probably because he’d like to lower the risk of losing the ball centrally, which could allow Belgium to capitalise on transitions easier. This was also the reason why England couldn’t take the advantage when Witsel stepped out to press wide.
England’s defensive tactics
England defended quite aggressively in the first half. In terms of structure, they used a medium-high 5–2–3. One of the most interesting features in this defensive strategy is the ball-oriented press shown by the forwards.
In such a pressing system, England’s main focus was to close the on-possession opponent and force him to move the ball quickly. When the ball is still on its way, another forward in white would already start his run to press the receiver. Again, to limit the opponent’s time on the ball when receiving. The last objective in this forward-line press was to force Belgium to play through the flanks.
Southgate also had a plan when the ball has reached the wide area. That was mainly by sending his ball-side wing-back to step up and quickly press the Belgian player in the flank. To support the wing-back, England would close all nearby passing options. That meant the nearby midfielder and winger would help and join the press. By doing this, it’s clear that England wanted to engage in one-versus-one duels when defending the flank.
Sometimes Belgium tried to force their way by playing centrally. When this happened, one of Henderson or Rice would step up from the midfield line to immediately close the targeted Belgian midfielder. The objective was to prevent the opponents to penetrate centrally by using one-versus-one duels.
When having the ball, Belgium would attack in a 3–4–3. Indeed, they were forced to play wide by the hosts. Yet, they were able to outplay England many times in the first half. What’s the secret?
First, we need to remember that England tended to engage in one-versus-one duels defensively. It meant that they would allow their deeper players to step out from their designated positions and close the opponents in a man-oriented manner. On the other hand, this would also open space in behind due to the aggressive movements by the defending players.
That space in behind was exploited by the Belgians for many times. To do that, Martínez instructed his men to be quick in possession. It meant that the Belgians would try to immediately circulate the ball or find a short combination option before being closed by the Englishmen. Then, when the English defender had arrived, the initial passer would run to the vacated space and receive a through-ball from his teammate.
Another interesting feature in Belgium’s attack was the freedom given to De Bruyne. He was allowed to roam freely across the pitch to help his team making overloads. Centrally, he could help the midfielders to outnumber Rice and Henderson. When playing wide, he could help the wing-backs and wingers to outnumber the men in white in the flanks. Even better, he could also serve as a crosser whenever needed. It was no wonder why Belgium finished the first half with an 0.69 open-play xG rate from eight shots.
Contrasting second-half: questionable decision from Martínez
Belgium moved to a more aggressive medium-high 5–2–3 in the second half. This meant that the forwards would press the English centre-backs more actively than before. The most interesting thing from this was their similarity to England’s forward pressing system in the previous half. That being, pressing the opponents’ defenders in a ball-oriented manner, thus forcing them to play wide.
However, the pressing system had its issues. It allowed too much space between the lines or in behind the defenders. The issue became more severe because Calvert-Lewin was able to win the aerial duels against Belgium’s centre-back(s). When he did so, he would try to immediately lay the ball off to the marauding Rashford or Mount in behind. If we pay closer attention, Mount’s goal was started by exploiting the huge space in between the lines after Belgium failed to clear Dier’s long ball.
Contrasting second-half: clever adjustments from Southgate
Offensively, Belgium changed their shape to a 4–2–4-ish structure. In the process, Alderweireld was instructed to move diagonally to play as a makeshift right-back. This movement would allow Meunier to go forward and play alongside the forwards, while Boyata shifted a bit to fill in Alderweireld’s vacated space. The objective behind this was to give Belgium a numerical superiority in the early phase of their build-ups.
It was good for England that Southgate reacted to this quite well. He kept the 5–2–3 shape but made some adjustments to compensate Martínez’s tactical change. Firstly, the Englishman instructed his forwards to lower the pressing intensity. That meant that England would give more time for the Belgians to have the ball in their third.
Secondly, he used an asymmetrical press when the ball had reached the flank. To be more specific, when Belgium tried to build via Alderweireld, Rashford would step wide and press the Tottenham Hotspur player. However, when the Red Devils tried to build from the left flank, it wasn’t Mount that was given the task to press. Instead, Southgate asked Alexander-Arnold to step up and press Castagne, should Belgium try to build through him.
This pressing strategy prevented Belgium from building their play smoothly from the back. As a result, they had to use long passes to bring the ball forward. The stats even showed that Alderweireld finished the game with eight passes to Lukaku – the most among his teammates. To top it all off, Belgium were only able to make four shots in the second half, only a half of what they had gotten earlier.
A tale of two halves. It may sounds cliché, but that was the reality. Southgate’s England moved from zero open-play shots in the first half to finish the game with 1.61 xG. What’s the secret? More or less it was Martínez’s tactical naivety.
Belgium were dominating the first 45 minutes, with and without the ball. However, his bizarre tactical changes ruined the game. His decision for his men to defend with more aggression backfired massively. Belgium conceded space for so many times in the second half, which was successfully capitalised by the Englishmen. Some might say that Carrasco was also responsible after missing two golden chances, but we think Martínez could have done much better with his tactics, especially in the second half.
Until next time.