The Nations of the 21st World Cup – Belgium

Belgium National Team

Belgium

Belgian Red Devils

Every four years, national pride and footie artistry reach peak levels in a global dance of no small magnitude, the World Cup is here again. This summer, all eyes will be focused on Russia as the time to crown a champion draws ever near. With the sport’s best and brightest from 32 lucky nations on display, it’s time to take a look at what each squad brings to the table. We will dive deep beyond the usual team sheets, we’ll scratch beyond the player names, and get you ready to be the smartest on the couch/bar stool for Russia 2018.

Belgium

Qualifying Record (W-D-L) 9-1-0
Current FIFA World Ranking (May 2018) – 3rd
World Cup 2014 Finish – Quarterfinals (1-0 loss to Argentina)
Russia 2018 Group G (Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England)
Formation – 3-4-3
Strengths – Individual brilliance and talent
Weaknesses – Cohesive 90 minutes/fulfilling expectations
Major Threat – Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard

Everyone’s dark horse favorite for the last World Cup returns to the grandest stage hoping to turn promise and potential into true success. With a qualifying record that boasts a near perfect journey to Russia, there’s no way that Belgium is considered a “dark horse” any more. If you aren’t putting Belgium near the top of your list of who is going to walk away from Russia the happiest, then you haven’t been paying much attention.
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Realistic Federation Goal for RUSSIA 2018:

World Cup victory. While it would seem odd that a team that only made the quarter-finals in 2014 would see Russia as a failure without the Cup, this is Belgium’s best window for victory. Several of the veterans of their squad, while they might not even be in the starting 11, will not be making the trip to Qatar in 2022. The time is now, before several of the other big players on the international scene can reload their squads with talent. Anything other than a finals appearance has to be seen as a failure for this group, and an agonizing four year wait to shake of their misery.


DEFENSE:

Despite having Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermaelen, why would you not go with a pair that gets to play each other on a daily basis in Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen. Add in the fact that you’re playing England in your group, and the choice seems obvious. We hate that Kompany won’t bring his incredible presence with the starting 11, but he’ll always be ready to shore up should Belgium be looking to protect a lead or start being a massive threat from set-pieces. The Belgium squad feels like the deepest group in Russia in terms of central defenders, with four legitimate world class defenders standing at the ready. Kompany will be especially ready to perform, coming off a title with Manchester City and staring down international retirement.

However, that might be the main concern of Roberto Martinez as the Belgium squad jets to Russia. All four of his central defenders might see this as their last major shot at a World Cup (Alderweireld is the only player not in his 30’s, but he’s still 29). This might mean we get to see Christian Kabasele or Dedryck Boyata getting a chance if Belgium qualifies for the knockout rounds with a game left to play. Still, the successor to the middle of Belgium’s defense isn’t quite clear for 2022 (Boyata and Kabsele are 27), but that’s not what we’re focused on right at the moment.

Indeed, Belgium is so stacked at CB that lately Roerbto Martinez has experimented with a three man central defense formation. That has worked to a treat and it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see that as the base formation the Red Devils go with in Russia.

Belgium will be playing Thomas Meunier as the preferred right-back in this set-up, and Meunier has one of the most impressive goal returns for a defender in the entirety of international soccer. In only 22 caps, the defender has already bagged 5 goals. On the left side, the likely choice will be the “other” Lukaku; Jordan Lukaku. Outside of those two players, Belgium is lacking some depth for the wings on defense. It wouldn’t be surprising for Martinez to slot whichever central defender that he doesn’t start out wide for some extra strength in his defense, but not using Lukaku or Meunier seriously diminishes Belgium’s attacking prowess and width.

The starting keeper job will undoubtedly be Thibaut Courtois position to lose. The Chelsea shot-stopper, on his day, is one of the best in the business. It certainly helps that the players hoping to take his job either play in a less-profile league/club [Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg), Matz Sels (Newcastle United/Anderlecht) or haven’t played since January (Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)]. The only thing that should scare Belgium fans should be that Courtois is known to occasionally have a very bad day at the office. Belgium’s fans and coaching staff will hope that the Chelsea keeper waits until the Premier League season to showcase that particular trait.

MIDFIELD

Perhaps one of the biggest stories surrounding the Belgium squad is the decisions of Roberto Martinez heading into Russia. Leaving Roma’s Radja Nainggolan at home (a player who promptly retired from the national team after his exclusion) and taking Nacer Chadli, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, and two players currently playing their trade in the Chinese Super League in Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang) and Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian), will raise more than a few eyebrows.

However, the group that is heading into Russia is ridiculously talented. Led by Kevin De Bruyne coming off of an absolutely incredible season, the Belgium midfield will be looking to exploit space left by the incredible strike-force, create for the strike-force, and add some speed to the back-line.

Look for Kevin De Bruyne, Mousa Dembele, and whoever Martinez is looking to play as the third midfielder as part of the starting 11. De Bruyne will be allowed to float wherever he wants to go and will get first dibs on every free-kick within 40 yards, while expect Dembele to sit deeper and try to break up play in front of the defense (and get his yellow card per game), and Martinez’s third choice will be looking to allow KDB the freedom to do whatever he wants. If Martinez goes with Carrasco, Chadli, or Witsel in the midfield, they’ll be trying to add width and play from the wings. If Martinez adds in Fellaini or Tielemans, it will be for depth in the middle of the squad. If Martinez goes with Adnan Januzaj, then he’s just trying to mess with us. Despite Januzaj having his best scoring season ever, Januzaj isn’t a massive scorer and has never been seen as a more creative force than some of the other players on the bench. However, Nainggolan might be sitting at home begging Martinez to play Januzaj so every pundit will yell at the screen “WHY ISN’T NAINGGOLAN HERE!?!?!”

The one aspect of the players Martinez has brought with him is that any two goal (heck, almost a one goal lead) will be insurmountable for opposing teams. Being able to bring in Vincent Kompany if the defense wants to go five deep or having Dembele (or Fellaini) sit as deep as possible (perhaps both of them) means that teams are going to have to try and break Belgium down early and try and play from in front. This group also ensures that goals can come from any situation. The defense provides massive targets for corners or swinging in dead ball deliveries (Fellaini is also 8 feet tall), and De Bruyne makes every free-kick a likely goal. The likes of Chadli, Carrasco, and Witsel will love exploiting the space that the Belgium attack will create.

Thorgan Hazard's big brother

Eden Hazard

STRIKERS

We’ll start off by saying that Thorgan Hazard will need to use this World Cup to try and step out of his brother’s shadow, but we’d be surprised to see him actually get the playing time necessary to do that. Eden Hazard will start whenever he can, and the masses are saying that Romelu Lukaku will probably get the starting nod, even while he hasn’t had his best season leading into the World Cup, lastly Dries Mertens will make up the third prong in the attack. The main reason why Batshuayi and Benteke won’t be on the starting line-up is because Lukaku/Batshuayi/Benteke all prefer to play in the middle, they all play as a force in the middle (Batshuayi is the most versatile of the bunch), and the only reason to have any of them on the field at the same time would be if you’re playing route one soccer and the thought of Belgium playing “route one” soccer makes me sick to my stomach because of the talent that they have.

Hazard and Mertens will love taking players on and pulling defenders out of position, while Lukaku will bully his way into the middle and be a headache for anybody that he is playing against. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Mertens starts to get dropped by Martinez if games are well in hand, his age (31) means he will be the only attacker that won’t be a part of the 2022 cycle. This could be Thorgan’s chance that we mentioned, or Belgium resorts to a 4-2-3-1 with Lukaku or Benteke in the middle.

Belgium’s strikers might have the smallest amount of scoring pressure in the entirety of the tournament. Belgium’s defenders score buckets of goals, the midfield is incredibly dangerous (even Fellaini scores), and the usual starting choice in the middle of Belgium’s attack will be seen as being successful if they just keep defenders occupied and are dangerous at crosses. Sure, Belgium wants to win this time around and will have pressure from that, but their strike-force might be in the most comfortable position of any squad in the entirety of the tournament.

GAME by GAME (v Panama, v Tunisia, v England)

Keys to Panama Game*
Belgium’s first World Cup game against an unlikely qualifier is built to look like Belgium’s chance to announce themselves as the favorites to take home the biggest prize in Russia this summer. However, Panama is also going to be the type of side that no team likes playing at such a major tournament. With nothing to lose, danger lurking from any set-piece, and the backing of a fan-base that is euphoric from their squad’s qualification, Panama has the chance to really cause some issues for Belgium here…but they won’t. Martinez will have Belgium ready to stomp Panama and prevent a slip-up from derailing their Cup pursuit at the first hurdle. Panama’s height on set-pieces gets neutralized by Belgium’s defense and this game sees Belgium get the jump-start they want.
Prediction: Panama either gets scored on in the first ten minutes or allows three goals in the second half…perhaps both happen = 3-0 Belgium win

Keys to Tunisia Game*
Sadly, Tunisia enters into this game with playing styles that typically are the easiest for Belgium to handle. With big, hulking center backs, Belgium usually only falters against speed and sadly for them, Tunisia isn’t known for breaking land-speed records. Add in that Belgium will see this as a chance to get three points and pad the goal differential before facing off against England, and Tunisia has found themselves in between a rock and 11 hard places. If this game doesn’t allow more than 5 goals, then something’s gone wrong.
Prediction: Belgium strolls and makes a second statement to the rest of the WC competitors = 5-1 win for Belgium

Keys to England Game*
There might not be another pair of teams with as much intimate knowledge of each other in the group stages as Belgium and England. Huge chunks of both squads play in the English Premier League and Martinez who coached there too will be intimately familiar with many of the faces he sees in Belgium’s last group game. If England enters this match desperate, it could be an incredible affair. However, if England seems to have already wrapped up qualifying, it wouldn’t surprise me if Southgate sends the second choice players out to prevent seeing his preferred 11 drop such an important game early in the tournament.
Prediction: England gets one goal on the counter and Harry Kane beats his club compatriots for a headed goal at some point, but KDB buries a stoppage time free kick to take all the points = 3-2 Belgium win

Coaches of Belgium

Asst Coach Thierry Henry and Head Coach Roberto Martinez

Here’s the likely Belgian Roster for Russia 2018
GOALKEEPERS (3): Thibaut Courtois (Chelsea), Simon Mignolet (Liverpool), Koen Casteels (Wolfsburg)

DEFENDERS (8): Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham Hotspur), Dedryck Boyata (Celtic), Christian Kabasele (Watford), Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), Jordan Lukaku (Lazio), Thomas Meunier (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Vermaelen (Barcelona), Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham Hotspur)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Yannick Carrasco (Dalian Yifang), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Mousa Dembele (Tottenham Hotspur), Marouane Fellaini (Manchester United), Adnan Januzaj (Real Sociedad), Youri Tielemans (Monaco), Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian)

FORWARDS (5): Michy Batshuayi (Chelsea), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United), Dries Mertens (Napoli)

Piece by Andrew McCole, frequent Center Circle writer, boot prince, and never walking alone at Liverpool FC.

 

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About the author: Andrew McCole

 

If I may be so bold to condense my immense personality into two words, it would be: soccer nerd. I love everything about the beautiful game and I tend to reflect that in my writing. I suffer through Liverpool fandom and hope that they will win another title before my wife spreads my ashes at Anfield (considering I'm in my twenties, it seems somewhat likely). Although I also dabble in tennis, teaching, and coaching, most of my free-time is spent writing articles for The Center Circle! Feel free to stalk me on Google+

 

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