On Monday, Roberto Martinez’s Belgium saw off an entertaining but uncomposed Panama in their first game of the 2018 World Cup. The game also provided an insight into what England can expect from their Group G rivals.
In the case of Belgium, who are arguably the strongest side in the group, Gareth Southgate’s men could face a setup similar to their own as Martinez is also going with three at the back with a holding midfielder in front.
In the event, Belgium were able to score three past the central Americans with a front three of Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Romelu Lukaku doing the job with support from Kevin De Bruyne.
The Shape of Belgium
Belgium lined up in what was roughly a 3-4-3 formation but this became more of a 3-2-5 when attacking as the wing-backs joined the attack.
De Bruyne played as a number eight in midfield, connecting the defence with the attack and acting as a lurking playmaker, while Axel Witsel played a holding role which sometimes appeared unnecessary in front of three centre backs.
(Photo credit: James Nalton)
The centre backs spent a lot of the game passing to each other as they were always the ones in space. In the end, Toby Alderweireld made more passes than any other player on the pitch and the top three pass combinations were all between the Belgium back three.
Luckily for Belgium, they had De Bruyne, who would immediately look forward to pick out one of the wide forwards Hazard or Mertens. The Manchester City midfielder made four key passes in the game and got a nice assist with a pinpoint pass with the outside of his right boot for Lukaku's first goal.
No need for Witsel and Boyata?
As has already been suggested, the use of both a third centre back and a defensive midfielder seemed unnecessary as the game unfolder but Martinez will have his reasons.
The thinking behind it could be that Belgium need defensive reinforcements to cover their attacking wing-backs who double up with the inside forwards down the flank in that front five.
On the other hand, it could be the case that Martinez doesn’t fully trust his wide centre backs, Tottenham duo Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen: this despite the latter’s good performances this season and the former being one of the best defenders in the Premier League before spending time out though injury after which he was replaced.
Removing one of the centre backs, as we have done with Dedryck Boyata in the graphic below, and having the defensive midfielder drop between the defensive pairing would allow them to play an extra midfielder, such as Mousa Dembele, to provide more control in the build-up and help stop counter-attacks at source.
When a team has won 3-0 maybe it’s wrong to suggest such changes as the plan appears to have worked but Martinez himself switched to a back four later in the game, showing that this is something they are drilled in on the training ground.
Vertonghen moved out to left back with Alderweireld and Boyata forming the centre-back pairing. Thomas Meunier continued his attacking play from full back, so in attack with the more conservative Vertonghen on the other side in place of Yannick Carrasco, it still resembled a back three.
High Full Backs
The high wing-back system used by Belgium has been seen several times already during this World Cup. This re-inversion of the pyramid could become a tactical theme at the tournament, especially in the group stages where favourites are looking to break down the defensive blocks and counter-attacking play of the underdogs.
Not only do high full-backs stretch a defence, they can also persuade even the most work-shy opposition wingers to drift back and help the defensive effort. This means the counter-attacking team have no out-ball, making it easier for the stronger team to win possession back quickly.
These aggressively advanced full backs have been seen both in teams who play a back four, as with Argentina, and in those with a back three, as with Belgium and England. Teams are favouring extra width over an extra midfielder, as they add a third centre back or play with a double-pivot, in keeping with the often cautious play in international tournament football.
If Belgium or Argentina were really going for it, they wouldn’t need the back threes or double pivots. Argentina will just wish they had displayed the same ability in front of goal shown by Belgium in Sochi, but, to be fair, Iceland were much more solid defensively than Panama.
Belgium were clinical when it mattered and Lukaku impressed while Panama wasted their chances on the counter. Martinez's side are likely to face a similar task against Tunisia in their next game before their clash with England next week.
What do you think? Are Belgium being held back by their formation? Let us know your thoughts by commenting below.