The most peculiar thing about Belgium’s status as the best team in the world, which is how Fifa classed them between October and April (when they were leapfrogged by Argentina), is that they achieved it without beating anyone really strong in a competitive match or even regularly looking like a team, at least not one familiar with the notion of synergy.
That is why they are not many people’s favourites to be crowned European champions even though Fifa still has them pegged as the continent’s top side.
Belgium could triumph but they could fail in the first round like an extremely knowledgable University Challenge team who cannot find the buzzer. A squad with undoubted gifts remain a puzzle. The lineup for their first match – against Italy on Monday – is hard to predict and their performance level even harder. Marc Wilmots and his players need to answer several questions quickly if they are to avoid being chomped by a vicious sense of what might have been.
The uncertainty is particularly acute at the back and partially attributable to injuries. Misfortune has stripped Wilmots of the central defensive partnership that featured in the qualifying campaign, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts, and also of one possible replacement, Dedryck Boyata. There is an obvious solution: pair up Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who were nigh-on infallible in the heart of Tottenham Hotspur’s defence last season just as they used to be for Ajax.
Wilmots finally deployed the duo in the last warm-up game, a 3-2 win against Norway, but hinted afterwards that Vertonghen would revert to full‑back against Italy owing to doubts about the savviness of Jordan Lukaku, Ostende’s left-back and Romelu’s 21-year-old brother. “He was fantastic going forward but I have to wonder about the tactical training he gets at his club,” Wilmots said.
Alderweireld is likely to start on the right if the Bruges defender Thomas Meunier does not regain full fitness, even though Montreal Impact’s Laurent Ciman, the only other specialist right‑back in the squad, came off the bench against Norway and capped a short but decent performance with the winning goal. It would be quite a turnaround if Ciman, a wholehearted but limited 30-year-old, won over Wilmots who had resorted to Jason Denayer and even the midfielder Axel Witsel at right-back instead.
The manager’s concerns about his full-back options are understandable, but in an effort to avoid vulnerabilities out wide he risks fragilities right across the back four. Neither Alderweireld nor Vertonghen is as good on the flank as in the centre. The alternative centre‑backs – Denayer and Thomas Vermaelen – are not as good as them in the middle.
Even if Vertonghen and Alderweireld start together in the middle, it is not enough for them to demonstrate their understanding with each other: they have to communicate with their full‑backs, which they did not do well enough against Norway, when Belgium’s offside trap was faulty and Denayer, at right-back, and Jordan Lukaku could have done with better guidance. The lack of leadership at the back is the most serious consequence of the loss of Kompany, though even he has his errant moments. Whatever permutation Wilmots chooses, he needs it to mesh quickly. That may be a tall order in a team that finds coherency elusive.
Doubts persist about how they will shape up between the defence and the centre-forward, as Romelu Lukaku has secured that role with sharp displays in the recent friendlies, which were much needed by a player who has not scored a competitive goal for his country since the World Cup. Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi all underperformed in those friendlies.
Behind Lukaku, Wilmots could opt for the solid midfield triangle to which he was once wedded (likely to be Witsel, Radja Nainggolan and Marouane Fellaini) but seems more likely to go for two deep-lying and three offensive mischief makers, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and either Yannick Carrasco or Dreis Mertens. That trio will have freedom to wreak havoc where they please so long as they do not get in each other’s way, as they occasionally did against Norway. Against strong sides it will be important they coordinate to make sure defensive duties are performed. Only twice in the past two years have Belgium really clicked as an offensive force, both times in friendlies (in November’s 3-1 victory over Italy and last June’s 4-3 win over France in Paris).
However, quibbling about selections, formations or Wilmots’s supposed lack of tactical acumen seems beside the point. It boils down to this: Belgium do not really have a personnel problem, they have a personality problem. They froze against the first big team they faced at the 2014 World Cup, Argentina, and went out meekly. They have probably grown since then and in the qualifying campaign for this tournament tried to assert their superiority over everyone, but failed to even score against their strongest rival, Wales.
Sometimes they play too slowly, as if suffering from the delusion that their class will eventually prevail by itself. Sometimes their inventive players do not fizz although Hazard seems to have clambered out of the rut of last season. Plus, they give their prey opportunities, as none of their players is above lapsing into sloppiness. Nainggolan goofed in the runup to Wales’s winner in Cardiff, only days after the Roma player had inspired the friendly win against France, when it seemed he would bring the killer mentality the team lacked. He made an almost identical mistake against Norway. This team’s flakiness is paradoxically stubborn.
Wilmots, nicknamed “Warpig” as a player, has instilled bonhomie but not battle-hardness. Belgium are capable of beating anyone – but opponents at Euro 2016 will know that if they can keep matches tight, Belgium are likely to crumble first.
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