FIFA World Cup 2018: Untested Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ still not settled into a system

With their wingers masquerading as wing-backs, Belgium's the back three are vulnerable to wide attacks or quick switch of play.

Settlers of Catan. While a majority of footballers unwind with a session or two of the FIFA video game (or Fortnite, if you are England), the Belgian squad comes together over Catan — the 23-year-old board game. Defensive mainstay Jan Vertonghen introduced it to compatriots Toby Alderweireld, Moussa Dembele and Nacer Chadli at Tottenham, and the contagious German classic established itself as a regular feature in locker rooms and hotel lobbies.

Explaining how the four-player board game about colonising the titular island, along with other hits like Scotland Yard, backgammon and Werewolf, helped build a strong familial bond between the players, Vertonghen told the English press: “I love board games and the people around me, maybe I make myself believe that they do too, but because I force them into it! With Belgium it is worse. When I am with the national team, I don’t even open my laptop or iPad, I just play board games.”

Built around the principles of demand and supply and superior positioning, Catan incidentally encapsulates manager Mauricio Pochettino’s vision at Spurs, through the back three defence controlled by Vertonghen. Head coach Roberto Martinez employs the same tactic with Belgium but has tried to force all his stars in a system of his choice, rather than devise a system which fits the players. It’s less strategic and more haphazard; less Catan, more FIFA 18.

Once obsolete, the 3-4-3 formation, along with all its variants, is all the rage (both on virtual and real pitches). The forwards can stay high and wide, two wing-backs provide width and options, and a holding midfielder can shield the back three. While defending, the wing-backs track back to make it 5-3-2. It’s effective on paper. But to implement it, you need two functioning wing-backs. Tottenham have Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier (both are performing the same duties in England’s 3-5-2, with Manchester City’s Kyle Walker as an option). Belgium’s got none.

Former Atletico man Yannick Carrasco is an out-and-out winger and can be a liability on the left side. On the right, PSG’s Thomas Meunier prefers to venture, and stay forward while Nacer Chadli has infrequently played as a wing-back. Like the formation itself, Belgium’s ‘wing-backs’ are high risk, high-reward. Against Panama, Carasco’s overlapping runs made space for Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens. But the opposition’s best chance came down his flank, as Edgar Barcenas slipped between Carasco and Vertonghen to take a shot. The same channel was exploited by Tunisia’s Hamdi Nagguez who provided the assist for their second goal in the 5-2 drubbing.

With wingers masquerading as wing-backs, the back three — Vertonghen (31) and injury-ravaged Alderweireld (29) and Vincent Kompany (32) — are vulnerable to wide attacks or quick switch of play. On the attack, holding midfielder Axel Witsel or Marouane Fellaini can be left isolated protecting the back line. Kevin De Bruyne, who rules the midfield at City with David Silva by his side and Fernandinho behind them, has had to drop back, restricting the playmaker, who accounted for one assist in the eight Belgium goals in the first two matches.

De Bruyne was rendered ineffective against Mexico’s conventional 4-3-3 last November, when Belgium was divided in two halves and were “swimming in the midfield”.

“Their system made our five defenders sit deep and we were swimming in midfield — it was five against seven,” said De Bruyne, who went off on Martinez after the 3-3 draw. “As long as we don’t have a good tactical system, we will have difficulties against countries like Mexico. We play with a system that is in principle very defensive, but it is filled with many attacking players who want the ball. I think the trainer has to find a solution so that we can avoid such situations in future.”

The head-strong Martinez, whose solitary title is the 2013 FA Cup triumph with Wigan, also didn’t win any fans with the bold decision of dropping ill-disciplined, flamboyant Radja Nainggolan from the squad. The Roma star, and predecessor Marc Wilmots’ third-favourite player, plays as a creative midfielder and could have been the missing piece for Belgium.

Wilmots was let go after Belgium, then world number one, lost the 2016 Euro quarterfinal. At the Brazil World Cup, Belgium aced their group, survived Tim Howard and ten other Americans and lost to eventual runner-ups Argentina. The campaign in Russia has been familiarly dominant and Monday’s Round of 16 clash against Japan, sadly, looks to be another lopsided affair. Anything less than a semifinal though won’t count as progress. Belgium will face either Brazil or Mexico in the quarterfinal, and France or Uruguay in the semis. It’s a tough business end, and opposed to popular belief, Belgium can lose, and lose spectacularly. But the sky hasn’t fallen yet.

World-beaters De Bruyne and Hazard are somehow even better than they were in France two years ago, and frontman Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois are among the best in their positions. But there is an eerie similarity to the two England contingents under Sven-Goran Eriksson — squads of outrageous individual talents which couldn’t gel into a cohesive unit.

A hipster’s pick four years ago, this ‘golden generation’ is riding the hype train in part due to the constant abundance of familiar Premier League talent. It is up to the players, and the manager, to prove that they can rule more than just a fictional island.

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