(Over the next month or so, we’re going to be doing previews for all 32 teams participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Yes, all 32 teams. We’ll make you laugh, cry, get mad and perhaps question why you read us in the first place. We hope you enjoy the product nonetheless)
In every competition, there’s a team that a lot of people latch on to as a means of displaying their football acumen. These teams aren’t perennial powers or lovable losers, but there’s a quality about them that many casual fans don’t see. Some people will rave about the Swiss full backs, others will talk about Chile’s style of playing football (with copious references to Marcelo Bielsa), but a lot more will talk to you about Marc Wilmot’s Belgium squad. And with good reason.
This Belgian squad is a treasure trove of young talent, going two deep at almost every position. Two of their goalkeepers are world class, their defenders play for the biggest club teams in Europe, and that midfield is the envy of almost every nation in the world.
Oh, and Romelu Lukaku is a beast.
Goalkeepers: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, on loan from Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Sammy Bossut (Zulte Waregem)
Defenders: Toby Alderweireld (Atlético Madrid), Laurent Ciman (Standard Liege), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit), Daniel Van Buyten (Bayern Munich), Anthony Vanden Borre (Anderlecht), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham)
Midfielders: Nacer Chadli (Tottenham), Steven Defour (Porto), Moussa Dembélé (Tottenham), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Axel Witsel (Zenit)
Forwards: Kevin De Bruyne (Wolfsburg), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Adnan Januzaj (Manchester United), Romelu Lukaku (Everton), Dries Mertens (Napoli), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Divock Origi (Lille)
While boasting a lot of talented defenders, the Belgian national team have a glaring weakness: they have no established full backs. Wilmots’s defense is comprised of eight defenders, seven of which play center back at club level. Belgium will probably line up with four center backs across the back line. Luckily, Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen have deputized as left backs for their clubs at times.
While this probably won’t cause them any trouble in the group stages, they might encounter some problems in the knockouts. So far, this World Cup has seen the emergence of the left back, with Daley Blind impressing for the Dutch and Ricardo Rodriguez absolutely killing it on the Swiss left flank. It will be interesting to see how Wilmots handles this going forward.
Further up the field, Axel Witsel anchors the midfield, and although it is unclear who will be his partner, both options are appealing (and may be a little problematic) in their own way. Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini hasn’t had a great season by any stretch of imagination, and Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele’s season has been erratic. Both offer a different set of skills, with Marouane being the more physical presence of the two while Moussa is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges. Kevin De Bruyne will start at the top of the midfield trio and move into clever positions, often moving laterally out to the flank to receive the ball.
Although the loss of Christian Benteke to injury will hurt, Romelu Lukaku has stepped into the striker role quite nicely. Lukaku’s link up play isn’t as good as Benteke’s, but Romelu is quick, strong and able to give the Belgians a direct point of attack. He will most probably be joined by Dreis Marten, who can score goals as well as defend his flank admirably, and the star of this squad, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
While Hazard hasn’t been as prolific for Belgium as he has been for Chelsea, his talent is unquestionable. He is the primary attacker for this team, with Belgium often looking to him to break down their opponent’s right flank. This isn’t dissimilar to what he does for Chelsea, but again, as was the case with Chelsea, he might be lacking in support in the absence of a true full back behind him. He needs someone to bomb forward and allow him to cut inside, where he is most lethal.
Belgium can vary it up with options off the bench. Fellaini, Nacer Chadli, and Kevin Mirallas can come in as second strikers, while Adnan Januzaj can also offer some creativity on the flanks. This is a very deep squad that should advance to at least the quarterfinals, but from then on, the absence of full backs might come back to haunt them.