The side that knocks Brazil out of a World Cup may not always get the credit they deserve. Brazil are the juggernauts of international football and have collected more world cups than any other nation.
Much of their determination on the global stage comes from their 1950 failure which spurred them on to win the tournament as they eventually did for the first time in Sweden in 1958.
The 1950 World Cup is known more for Brazil’s failure than Uruguay’s triumph, while the 1982 tournament is a rare example of a team who didn’t win the tournament — Brazil — being remembered more fondly than the eventual winners, Italy.
It’s for these reasons that Brazil’s exit from a World Cup is the main story and the team which knocked them out are usually an afterthought.
So spare a thought for Roberto Martinez and Belgium, who conspired to eliminate the favourites this time around in a tournament where the term 'favourites' no longer seems to apply.
All eyes were on the latest chapter in the Neymar story, then, as he and his side were sent home from Russia having failed to be clinical in the final third — an area where one of the world’s best players is supposed to make a difference.
Brazil and Neymar had ample chances to win it but, when watching the game back, Belgium... well... didn’t but won anyway. So how did they do it?
Were Belgium lucky?
Much was made of Roberto Martinez’s tactics, particularly in the first half when a front three of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku appeared to be running the show.
In a novel tactical approach for Belgium this tournament, De Bruyne was operating in the middle as a false nine with Hazard and Lukaku using their ability to beat players in wide positions.
However, when looking at the chances they created in this game, there aren’t too many of them and the ones they did create were low quality.
For instance, the opening goal came from a corner which was nodded into his own net by Fernandinho. There is an argument to say the Brazilian was put under enough pressure by Belgium to force this own goal but, in truth, it was the beginning of a poor display from the man chosen to replace the suspended Casemiro.
Prior to this opening goal, Brazil had already produced their first of what Opta defines as a 'big chance' when Thiago Silva hit the post from Neymar’s corner in the first ten minutes. If the centre-back had been able to adjust his body as the ball came to him just yards from the goal line, Brazil would have been the ones to open the scoring.
The data shows that this was the biggest chance of the game with Infogoal giving it an expected goal probability of 62%. To put this in perspective, Belgium’s biggest chance — which fell to Vincent Kompany from a corner just before half time — had a 15% probability of resulting in a goal.
Brazil went on to create another big chance in the game which resulted in Renato Augusto’s goal, giving them two big chances to Belgium’s none.
All expected goals models produced numbers which lean heavily in Brazil’s favour. The graphic above from our favorite stat producer 11tegen11 shows a number of good chances for Brazil indicated by larger green dots and slim pickings for Belgium who relied on a wonder-strike from De Bruyne for what turned out to be the winner.
Hazard shapes Belgium
Despite the lack of chances, there’s no doubt that Belgium were onto something and the shape used by Roberto Martinez in the first half had more potential than it showed in front of goal.
It was a lopsided 4-3-3 which became a 3-4-3 thanks to the natural defensive tendencies of Jan Vertonghen (5) at left back and the more attack-minded Thomas Meunier (15) on the right.
Nacer Chadli (22) was the surprise tactical tool, acting somewhere between left wing-back and left centre-mid, as shown by the average positions below from WhoScored.
Lukaku looked unstoppable in the opening period and, in his position wide on the right, he could isolate defenders one-on-one, using the ridiculous speed he posesses for a man of his size and his dribbling ability to cause Brazil problems.
On the other side Hazard was doing the same but, as one of the best dribblers in world football, he was arguably even more effective than Lukaku. He completed 10 out of 10 attempted take-ons as shown in the graphic below from StatsZone.
It was this domination from Hazard which gave the impression that Belgium were on top. Brazil missed Casemiro in the middle and, had the defensive midfielder not been suspended, he would have done more to spoil the Belgian gameplan.
His replacement, Fernandinho, was overawed and, for the first time, the 33-year-old looked his age in the centre of the park.
Add the battling midfield duo of Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel to the mix and Belgium looked like they were winning all the duels, but in reality they weren’t really winning the football.
Hazard will be key for Belgium against France, but they will also need to make sure they turn their success in duels — whether on the ground or aerial — into chances in the danger area.
Taking opposition players out of the game is one of the best ways to score goals and win football matches. There are no better players at this than Hazard, and with the all-round centre forward play of Lukaku, and the scheming of De Bruyne, they should be able to improve on this performance against Brazil.
Lessons are usually learnt after a defeat but in this case Belgium can learn plenty from a second half where they and their manager appeared to freeze.
Brazil had no choice but to change things up. As well as altering their tactics slightly, adding more attacking verve down the left in the shape of their own tricky dribbler, Douglas Costa, they introduced Roberto Firmino and Renato Augusto who piled the pressure on Belgium.
Martinez had no answer to this and Belgium’s second half tactics appeared to be nothing more than relying on their existing shape and using Hazard to get them out of trouble.
As shown in the graphic in the previous section, a number of the Chelsea forward’s take-ons occurred in his own half as he used his dribbling skill to get his own side out of trouble as much as he used it to create problems for the opposition.
Belgium may be through to the next round in a style if not in style, and there is plenty of work to do if they are to create the chances needed to progress to the final. At least the platform is there and they have the ideal players to execute a plan which wins duels to win games.
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