Belgium: How can Kevin De Bruyne be liberated?

Despite Belgium’s win against Panama on Monday, questions still remain about their tactical approach.

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REUTERS/Hannah McKay

“Something has to be changed.” 

Kevin De Bruyne was in no mood for diplomacy. He’d just watched Belgium draw 3-3 with Mexico in an international friendly and, in his post-match interview, chose not to mince his words.

“We are playing a system that is very defensive, but filled with many attacking players who want the ball… we had very little ball possession and everyone in a system that does not really suit.” 

The criticism was obvious. Roberto Martínez, the tiki-talkative Spaniard who suffered relegation with Wigan, has insisted on a 3-4-3 since assuming the Belgium job. Against Mexico, he’d fielded West Brom’s Nacer Chadli as a trundling left wing-back.

Seven months later, little has changed. Yannick Carrasco has replaced Chadli in the starting formation but the tactic and the dissent remains.  

De Bruyne might have managed a lovely assist against Panama, but he looks stifled and sunburnt under his manager’s auspices. The question is; how can he be liberated?

Too much cover?

Roberto Martínez is no Pep Guardiola. 

He has neither the time, the talent nor the players to implement the system that yields De Bruyne’s brilliance at club level. Attempting to replicate Manchester City’s tactics would be a frivolous waste of time for everyone concerned.

REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

What Martínez could do, however, is free the Belgian of some of his more arduous duties by removing one of his centre-backs. 

Dedryck Boyata, talented though he is, is a spare part in a backline that already boasts Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. 

Switching to a back four would free De Bruyne from his central role, which could then be filled by one of Moussa Dembélé or Marouane Fellaini. Eden Hazard could then adopt a floating position on the left wing with De Bruyne charged with playmaking from a more advanced place on the pitch. 

Setting up against Tunisia

By now, Tunisia’s tactics should be plain. 

Against England, they set out to stifle and they very nearly did it.  Gareth Southgate’s men might have had 61% of the ball, but most of it didn’t go anywhere. 

Nabil Maaloul was happy to watch the Three Lions’ centre backs exchange sideways passes, just as Panama were happy for a lethargic Belgium to do the same in the opening game. 

REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci 

Giving De Bruyne free rein will be crucial as he will be the one that is charged with picking the North African lock. 

De Bruyne’s positioning is designed to bring out the best in Hazard but doing so robs the former of his incision somewhat. 

Were Martinez to be brave, he could decide to drop the Chelsea man altogether and move De Bruyne further forward, into a role alongside Dries Mertens and in support of  Romelu Lukaku. 

Again, De Bruyne would be shorn of defensive responsibility, charged only with doing what he does best; creating goal-scoring opportunities.

Do nothing?

Perhaps the bravest decision would be to do nothing at all, though. 

Before Martinez arrived, the dominant assumption was that De Bruyne and Hazard couldn’t play together. 

Short of adopting a Ferruccio Valcareggi-inspired idea of playing one in each half, the Spaniard appears to have found the maximal way of extracting performances from both at the same time. 

Neither man may be operating at full capacity in this system, but they’re both performing in any case. It might just be enough.

The proof of Martínez’ system will arrive in the knockout rounds. Then, Belgium will face a side that is capable of exculpating their tactical flaws. 

Regardless of what system his manager uses, however, De Bruyne remains integral.

How do you think Belgium can maximise their use of De Bruyne? Let us know by commenting below.