Belgium’s Euro 2016 final tournament campaign commenced on a low with a 2-0 defeat at the hands of the Italians. It was a highly anticipated match as both teams are considered strong favourites to make it to the knockout stage. The result was helped on by an experienced and stern Italian defense. Italy also showed great efficiency while in possession of the ball and their Belgian counterparts failed to match them with similar quality in the team’s setup and performance. The Belgian players may be blamed for their disappointing turnout in Parc Olympique Lyonnais, but it should be the Belgium manager who needs to provide the justification for the results.
Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s Manager, fielded a team which was setup to execute an unique system and in it the ‘uniquely’ favoured Marouane Fellaini was the centre of the attack. Fellaini is known for his aerial dominance and his physicality, and Wilmots seemed to had believed that using these attributes in the heart of the Italian defense would give Belgium an edge. Long ball attempts were made to Fellaini in the central attacking midfield position, where he would collect and distribute, and this part of it had worked as intended. Fellaini created 7 chances but only had one shot on goal and it was off target. He also won 4 of his 6 aerial duels with all successes coming in the opposition’s half. Another crux of the system was the usage of long-ball specialist, Toby Alderweireld. Providing long balls is a strength that Alderweireld has shown proficiency with at the club level but against the Italians he fell short of his usual quality with 5 out of 10 long balls being successful; none of which were completed to the supposed main target, Fellaini.
What Wilmots seemingly tried to do was fine in theory. He had expected the Italians to enamour their approach to the match with the defensive game that they are famous for. He wanted to penetrate their defense from the air, but where Wilmots went wrong was not giving his strategy the best chance to succeed. Lukaku’s poor first touch was on full display and Fellaini creating chances from the air for him made it even more difficult. His first touch woes are no secret and Antonio Conte made full use of that knowledge. The Italian defenders were seen bombarding Lukaku upon every ball sent his way. They made him uncomfortable and it was enough to mostly quieten him on the night. Lukaku had a total of 2 shots at goal and only 1 of which was on target.
Wilmots’ plan needed more thought. Given the style of play he opted for, there was a more suitable front man within his ranks in Christian Benteke. Based on Whoscored.com, Benteke completed 4.4 aerial duels per game for Liverpool in the English Premier League this season. Comparing to Lukaku’s 2.5, Benteke’s superiority in the air is clear. While Lukaku featured and scored more for his team overall with 18 goals in 3177 minutes played, only 4 of those goals were headed. Benteke scored 9 goals in 1520 minutes played with 3 of them being headed. However, 6 out of his 9 (66.7%) goals came from aerial balls played to Benteke while Lukaku scored only 8 out of 18 (44.4%). Factors surrounding the comparison vary as both do not play in the same system with the same players, but its difficult to argue against Benteke’s better numbers and experience for the kind of football that Wilmots set the team up to play.
Another point to note is that the use of Fellaini at the centre of the attack forewent Belgium’s other, and arguably better, options in Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard for the role. De Bruyne and Hazard were deployed on either side of Fellaini but they weren’t much in the way of providing crosses. De Bruyne completed only 3 of his 9 crosses while Hazard failed to complete any out of his 3 attempts. Wilmots’ decision to not mainly play the ball on the ground meant that the strengths of dribbling and play-making the team has in abundance were not the focus of his strategy. Also, his neglect to utilise the physical and efficient ball-carrying Mousa Dembélé to help tear down an iron wall Italian defense made his intentions even more transparent.
Wilmots committed to a long-ball system that is likely to be less effective than others that are at his disposal. Despite such, how effective it could have been if he had made better player selections, we are yet to see. He may or may not continue to use it. However, for the sake of Belgium players and fans, whatever he decides on must give Belgium a chance to succeed and not set the team up for mediocrity. Belgium currently sits at the bottom of Group E and they have the Republic of Ireland and Sweden to play in their next two matches. These games are now must-win matches for Marc Wilmots and his men. Failure is not an option.