Belgium came into their quarter final tie against Wales with the route to the final theirs for their taking. Overcome Wales and then an uninspiring Portugal in the next game and they would be there. And for about 15 minutes of this game it seemed that no one would stop them. But then it all turned sour very quickly as the team; and more pertinently their coach lost their way.
Belgium Out of Euro 2016
With three of their regular back four out of this game through injury there was always going to be some uncertainty in Belgium’s defensive play. Wales would scent their opportunity as a result. My tournament preview for Belgium highlighted this defensive issue and whilst they had performed better than expected thus far, the frailties showed through tonight.
Belgium started this game with a swagger. Inside the first few minutes the Wales defence blocked three consecutive shots to deny The Red Devils their opening goal. But they didn’t have to wait long for it to arrive. Radja Nainggolan scored an absolute screamer from 25 yards out beating Wayne Hennessy into his top right hand corner. Belgium were dominating play and deserved the lead.
For some strange reason though they eased off after this and Wales came back into the game. Belgium did not press enough to win the ball back and Wales grew in confidence as the game went on. At 30 minutes Wales deservedly equalised when an unmarked Ashley Williams had a free header from a corner kick to score.
With the game slipping away Marc Wilmots reverted to type. He brought off Yannick Carrasco at half time and brought on Marouane Fellaini. Clearly worried about defending set pieces after conceding the goal, he sacrificed Carrasco’s attacking intent for something more practical. Fellaini offered little more than a wrecking ball presence in midfield and an aerial threat in attack. It wasn’t long before Belgium started playing to Fellaini’s strengths again rather than to their own.
Things got worse for Belgium on 55 minutes. Aaron Ramsey’s midfield run wasn’t tracked by a lethargic Fellaini, and his pass found Hal Robson-Kanu in the centre of the penalty area with three Belgium defenders around him. In one swift “Cruyff turn” movement he lost all the defenders and easily slotted past a helpless Thibaut Courtois to put Wales 2-1 in front.
After the game against Hungary, I had stated how Hungary had played into Belgium’s hands and how Wales would defend better. And the same issues came to the fore for this Belgium team tonight. They never really looked like opening up the Wales defence who were now set up deeper and in a disciplined manner. Key players like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne were once again disappointing and kept running into blind alleys. They were losing possession with alarming regularity.
Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan were also once again offering little in midfield and it wasn’t long before passes were being aimed to Fellaini’s head for knock downs. Although in what was a packed Wales rearguard there would be no way for Belgium to benefit from this.
On 85 minutes a foray forward by Wales saw Chris Gunter deliver one of the best crosses of the game to the gleefully awaiting Sam Vokes who had replaced Robson-Kanu five minutes earlier. Vokes stole the march on Toby Alderweireld to score with an excellent header. 3-1 and the game was done. Belgium started to get more desperate by playing even longer passes towards Fellaini but these were easy to deal with for the Wales defenders.
At the final whistle the Belgium players looked dejected. They had once again failed to live up to expectations in a major tournament and were deservedly beaten by Wales. Elsewhere it has recently been a time of reflection and analysis for England in particular given their ignominious exit to Iceland, however Belgium will be carrying out their own post mortem following this failure.
Issues to Address
Matters have to start with the coach. Marc Wilmots coaching pedigree will once again be called into question and the Belgian FA need to be asking whether they have the right man in charge to get the best out of what is undoubtedly a talented squad. Yes the team had significant injuries in defence and were missing their talisman and captain in Vincent Kompany. But the inability to break teams down has cost them. Tactically Wilmots has been found wanting when it mattered most.
This was the third time that Belgium played Wales in the last couple of years. They played them twice when qualifying for Euro 2016 drawing once and losing once. One would have expected that Wilmots would have learned enough about Wales style of play to consider that third time would indeed be lucky. Incredibly though Belgium were just as tepid this time around in their play as they were in qualifying.
Some of the players need to look at themselves too as the issues do not always lie with the manager. But as Iceland and Wales have shown in this tournament; Team always beats talent, when talent isn’t a team. Belgium need to become a team with a definitive style of play. I suspect that this will have to come with new leadership.