Is this the real Belgium?
They swaggered through a qualifying tournament based on the fact that you have sufficient individual talent in your squad to see you comfortably through and thereby built on their FIFA ranking; and then reached a major finals and came unstuck against better quality opposition. It all sounds rather familiar.
The opening game of any tournament is critical. You just daren’t lose it because all of a sudden the next two games become “must win” scenarios and you don’t need that kind of pressure when you could be going home after just three games. Particularly when you are a pre-tournament favourite.
Marc Wilmots’ Belgian Team Continues to Underachieve
But this is what The Red Devils now face after a disastrous start to their European Championship campaign, losing 2-0 to an Italy team whose fans had somewhat low expectations prior to this tournament starting.
There is no question that this Belgium squad has significant individual talent. But the best teams are those where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that is precisely what Italy were on Monday night and the reason they won.
Team will always beat talent when talent isn’t a team. Belgium looked disinterested for long periods and in disarray tactically and questions will now rightly be asked as to the credentials of Marc Wilmots and whether he should be the custodian and leader of this crop of talented individuals.
Wilmots will be remembered as a decent footballer for the Belgium national team in his time, who also enjoyed a good – although not stellar – footballing career in Belgium and Germany. His leap in to football management, however, has been somewhat unconventional. He was named manager of Sint-Truidense in the summer of 2004 only to be sacked in 2005. And aside from an eight game spell in charge of Schalke 04 before this, that appointment is his only taste of club management. Thereafter he served as an assistant coach to the national team from 2009 until taking over as Head Coach in 2012.
It is easy to be critical after just one game, but the signs looked ominous for Belgium against Italy. There was a naivety in Belgium’s play that can only really be attributed to the tactics employed by the coaching staff. Full-backs were not encouraged to attack, thus depriving the side of any real width in the attacking third, and thereby congesting play through the central areas.
Passing was erratic and at times just plain hopeful, and the players really seemed at a loss as to how to break Italy down or indeed to know what their individual assignments were. Skilful players such as Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne spent most of the game running down blind alleys.
Aside from a Radja Nainggolan shot on nine minutes and a long range speculative effort from Axel Witsel on 38 minutes, Belgium had precious little to show for their first-half efforts. Usually conceding a goal would rouse a team to drive forward in search of an equaliser but the Belgian response was tepid.
The defensive weaknesses outlined in the Euro 2016 preview article surfaced again when the Belgian defence was caught napping from a long pass from Italy’s half straight into the Belgian penalty area. A rare mistake from the usually dependable Alderweireld who was looking for cover from his full back. It is not clear why Vermaelen, who has started only a handful of games for his club side Barcelona this season, should be a preferred starter in central defence for Belgium.
It was also unclear what Witsel’s purpose in midfield was and whether Fellaini would be used for anything other than a predictable target for crosses and set plays that negated the talent of so many other Belgians on the field. That Mousa Dembele could only watch this from the bench after having had an excellent season as well as Michy Batshuayi, one of the most sought-after strikers currently in football, keeping him company there only makes one wonder further.
The second half performance improved slightly, but Romelu Lukaku was as awful as he was in the first half. He hadn’t managed to hold up a single ball for his team-mates or get an attack going. He looked clumsy in his footwork and hopeful in his play. When he did finally get the one chance he had been waiting for, he blazed his opportunity over the bar when one-on-one with an advancing Buffon in the Italian goal.
His replacement Divock Origi fared little better also missing two very good chances at crucial points in the game. As the Belgians pressed for an equaliser the Italians became ever more cynical and tactical in their fouling which frustrated them even more. And it seemed that if any team was to score a goal it would be the Italians, and in expected style, they did through Graziano Pelle in the 91st minute.
If Belgium are indeed to progress in this tournament then the players need to step up in their play and actually deliver something tangible. If Brazil 2014 was considered a disappointment then exiting Euro 2016 at the group stage will be perceived as a disaster.
One would hope that they at least have the beating of Ireland and Sweden in order to avoid this. Moreover Marc Wilmots needs to show the world that he is the manager or coach that can lead this talented squad to greatness, as otherwise this could be the last major tournament that he will be at with the National Team.
Whatever happens Belgian fans will hope that last night’s defeat will be the wake up call that this side appear to badly need.