To say Belgium v Japan was a thriller is an understatement. The Red Devils took a hold on the tie after an even start half an hour into the second round encounter with the Samurai Blue. The Japanese, instead, settled and stuck true to their game plan of targeting the defensively weak wing backs of Belgium. Nullifying the main men and peppering the wings to great effect, we had an upset on our hands. But…
1. Isn’t it naïve?
The weaknesses in a talented Belgian lineup were evident from the very first match in this World Cup so the double strikes in Rostov-on-Don came as little surprise to a keen observer. Still, Mousa Dembele is a necessity going forward. Why? The issue is multifaceted.
Belgium line up in a 3-4-2-1 formation with an inverted winger in Yannick Carrasco and a slow, but hardworking, Thomas Meunier patrolling both wing back positions. Neither cover themselves in glory defensively as much as their endeavour to go forward is noticeable. How much quality is there, though? One must feel as if Carrasco on the ball detracts from the fluency and effect of many an attack once it gets to the final third. You’d much rather Kevin de Bruyne or Eden Hazard over a final pass than Carrasco. His effort is obvious, but too often has the quality and decision been lacking.
The holes created whenever either man attacks is criminal. This compounds the vulnerability of an experienced and classy, but slow, back three. Neither the oft-injured Vincent Kompany nor Jan Vertonghen are spring chickens, and when asked to cover the vast spaces left by Meunier or Carrasco, the defense is too easily pulled apart. Surprisingly, the Japanese opted to focus on Meunier rather than Carrasco, and inasmuch as Meunier is a liability against pace and shifts of direction, Carrasco is non-existent in defense. Neymar and company must be licking their lips at the prospect of running at this Belgian team.
To be blessed with De Bruyne, Dembele and Hazard, and not be able to accommodate all three must be a crime. We should add that to the all legislation. Make no mistake, Dembele is a gem in midfield. His inclusion immediately gives De Bruyne more license to roam free. It’s a travesty when France do it to Paul Pogba. It’s a calamity when it is done to De Bruyne. One would think it easy to aim for replicating the fluidity of the Manchester City midfield where David Silva controls the tempo and allows the gifted crosser and final passer to do what he is most gifted at.
De Bruyne knocks it around, less burdened by the responsibilities of a typical deep lying playmaker, for that he is not, and pops up between the lines of central and attacking midfield. There are few more dangerous in full flight because he is so versatile, so all round. Belgium would much better be served by crosses from the feet of the ginger haired De Bruyne than Carrasco. It’s a simple shift.
It’s maybe too obvious to see.
Belgium still have concerns in a back four as they’ve inexplicably only Vertonghen to play the left back role. Give Martinez credit though because…
3. The changeup was smart
Japan, for all their tenacity, organisation, and guile, aren’t vertically blessed. Insight with a touch of hindsight proved the introduction of a proven clutch header in Marouane Fellaini and an improvement (anybody really) to Carrasco in Nacer Chaldi to be the two strokes of class from the former Everton manager. The calm in which they mounted the comeback amidst off colour performances from their big four, regardless of what stats may say, augurs well for the pretenders to the throne. Get past Brazil and it is there for the taking. It’s all there.
For Hazard, Dries Mertens, Lukaku and De Bruyne to have muted outings and still be on the winning end is a warning to all and sundry. However, this outcome proves again that you can scarcely take teams at face value in a knockout, and especially in Russia, 2018. Japan allowed the lesser threats to have the ball in potentially dangerous areas by sticking to De Bruyne and Hazard like white on their beloved rice. The winning goal, though, was a beauty to behold as Thibaut Courtois released it to his best mate, De Bruyne, who then unleashed a venomous counterattack that was assisted by Meunier, made by double Red Devil Lukaku with an intelligent dummy and finished off by the man whose spot Carrasco had occupied in Chadli.
So much to ponder for Mr. Martinez. So much to work with. Use it.