There are plenty of positives Belgians can glean from the 2014 World Cup: they are one of only four teams to qualify to the second round with maximum points, and forced 16 saves in second round cliffhanger against the United States. Even in the wake of their elimination, Belgians have generally consoled themselves with the oft-repeated mantra that they possess one heck of a golden generation, and that is was only pipped by an elite side at the quarter final stage.
But it is just that collection of talent that keeps Marc Wilmots from obtaining a positive grade- or even from making a case for renewed faith in his tenure. Considering the squad he had at his disposal, he simply should have done better, and using a quarter-final elimination to a presumably elite side like Argentina as a cop-out only makes it worse, as the Red Devils are likely to stick to someone who won’t be able to plan Belgium’s rise to elite status.
On paper, there is nothing wrong with how Belgium or Wilmots did ( just look at how Italy, England or Spain fared) but there is something to be said about how the manager failed to muster a coherent gameplan against an Argentinian side weakened by injuries to Angel di Maria and Sergio Aguero, not to mention its own poor play.
With the likes of Martin Demichelis starting in central defence, one could have argued that Los Albicelestes were there for the taking. Could some direct running at the clever-but-slow Citizen stopper bring down the Argentinian back line? We will never truly know, as Belgium favoured their usual cumbersome build-up down the wings, peppering the box with the kind of crosses Demichelis feasts on, despite his stocky build.
Even worse, Wilmots once again failed to provide the attack with a good option down the middle, or even to allow his trio of attacking midfielders much leeway in swapping positions and/or combining together. As a result, Hazard was strung out on the left and Mirallas on the right, with De Bruyne left to mop up as best he could, or even pick balls up deep and attempt a few doomed forays of his own.
Wilmots must surely have had his reasons for this- possibly to leave room for Witsel and Fellaini to make late runs in the centre- but he must surely have realized the futility of this arrangement after four games? Why not use a player who specialises in these kinds of runs like De Bruyne, or the pace of someone like Divock Origi?
Though the latter’s first touch was atrocious against Argentina, he could have been provided with a few neat passes behind the defence, or even a partner with which to try the one-two and beat Demichelis for pace. Instead, Origi got the usual dose of Route One and back-to-goal football, only this time he was up against an opponent experienced enough to not let him run rings round him off the knock down, something Algeria had allowed him to do with abandon.
Considering how this new generation of Belgian superstars has been taught to play the ball on the deck, the complete absence of any semblance of quick, accurate interplay throughout the World Cup was just shocking. It was understandable for a nervy debut against a disciplined, clever opponent like Algeria, but downright unacceptable five games in, even with Argentina at the other end.
Wilmots’ failure extends to other facets of Les Diables’ performance. Total Football taught us long ago that a team should aim to compress space whilst in defence, and open it up at the other end. In this light, Belgium weren’t just ineffective, they were grossly inefficient: how else do you justify a 4-2-3-1 when the two deeper midfielders don’t put pressure on the opposition, or adequately shield the defence? Whether it was Witsel or Fellaini, Dembele or Defour, the Red Devils have never found a combination that could provide satisfactory cover to the back four. To compound problems, Steven Defour’s sending off against South Korea also owes a lot to how often he was out of position, a fault he shared with his teammates.
Wilmots’ management errors also extend to the wings- where his choice of fullbacks ultimately penalised the side. True, Jan Vertonghen got better as the tournament went on- even providing two dangerous crosses against Argentina. But he was also very wasteful against the United States, and not quite capable to capitalise on the numerous balls that were fed to him in dangerous positions.
Vertonghen may have played his heart out (as he did against Manchester United at Old Trafford two years ago), but he was not the speedy, composed (remember the penalty he conceded to Algeria?) option Belgium needed out there, somebody capable of stretching opposing defences and taking defenders out of the picture. Instead, he fit right into the lumbering tactics Wilmots seems to favour, where the objective seemed to pack as many players into the box before going for the cross.
It was even worse on the right, where Toby Alderweireld looked nothing if not lost, another talented central defender who, whilst not utterly unaccustomed to playing on the wing, was clearly unable to play at a top level. The truth is that world-class teams aren’t entirely made-up of world-class players, and there has to be a compromise, especially when Belgium didn’t need their best players out there, just two capable fullbacks who knew how to provide Hazard, Mertens & Co with an outlet down the flanks.
Could Guillaume Gillet – who scored a screamer against Croatia in the qualifiers – have been an option, instead of falling progressively down the pecking order? What of Laurent Ciman and Antony Vanden Borre, who were also included in the squad but barely got any time on the pitch? Vanden Borre may well hold the key to the personnel debate, as even he was rarely able to get forward in his one shot at glory against South Korea. Maybe it was all down to tactics after all, with Wilmots picking the players that suited them the best. For a tournament where the best teams have often boasted quality wing-backs, this may well have been short-sighted of him.
Fingers will doubtless be pointed at the players themselves, or rather at their relative inexperience: barring Daniel Van Buyten, not a single player in the squad had been to a major tournament before.
This is certainly true to a point, as can be seen by how certain midfielders (Hazard) were only too keen to take on multiple opponents in small pockets of space, something England fans can relate to. Yet when given the chance, de Rode Duivels often didn’t show the nerves some would associate with a first bite at the cherry. For example, Belgium couldn’t stop scoring at crucial moments, whether it was in the dying minutes (Russia), extra time (the USA), when a goal behind (Algeria) or under pressure (South Korea).
It is of course too easy to simply blame the system and give the players a pass. One man who was expected to leave his mark, Eden Hazard, was subbed off late in the quarter final having failed to do much except make the crucial goal against Russia. Too often he was allowed to stare down multiple markers and slow Belgium’s attack down to a snail’s pace.
Then again, it is equally unusual that Hazard was so unsupported (those full-backs again), or indeed that his teammates seemed surprised even when he DID make a breakthrough, as witnessed by the complete lack of movement in the box. Chelsea’s players certainly don’t stand on ceremony when Eden does his thing on the wing. It looks like Wilmots has abdicated part of his responsibilities, allowing his attackers to freelance at will.
This may well work against the likes of Wales, Scotland, Serbia and Croatia, all countries whose sights are invariably set on their own feet. Wilmots can certainly point to the deflection which allowed Argentina to take the lead – and he did- as a case of bad luck, but he can hardly lament the fact that Belgium generally failed to convince against packed opposition defences, even in the qualifiers.
Admittedly, Wilmots also got a lot of things right, starting from the substitutions that were able to turn numerous games on their heads: both goals against Algeria came from the bench, as did Romelu Lukaku’s splendid performance against the USA. But there is a flipside: why was a manager who seemed to get his subs right always get his starting lineups wrong? Why did he start Chadli against Algeria after he’d had such a poor season in London? Furthermore, such success could never be repeated indefinitely, especially not for a manger who relied on fresh legs rather than a Plan B.
Granted, it’s never easy to instil discipline in players who rarely meet over two years before being asked to surpass themselves in a short period of time on the world’s biggest stage. Then again, the international manager doesn’t have to be a tactical genius, nor go for complicated, revolutionary systems. Bielsa and Sacchi are two examples of when a certain style can get be too complicated or does not fit its components. What has tended to work are tactics that are comparatively easy to put in place, and then repeatedly drilled over a period of a few weeks. Wilmots could only provide the simplicity, but neither the effectiveness nor an alternative.
Wilmots can point to the good job he did keeping players out of sick bay, employing physiotherapist Lieven Maesschalk to great effect. Wilmots credits Maesschalk with his own speedy recovery from major surgery, a brave call as his doctors had tried to impose a lengthy stop. It is arguable that Maesschalk did a good job keeping the Red Devils fit and injury-free, likely boosting Vincent Kompany’s chances of playing in the second round. Only Christian Benteke’s grave injury slipped through his fingers, though it is debatable to what extend Wilmots can hold his injury up as handicap: the Villa Striker barely scored in the 2013 portion of the last campaign, and would have doubtless struggled to make something of his manager’s schemes anyway.
It feels so cruel to heap all this criticism on Wilmots, Belgium’s very own last Mohican: his was the overhead kick against hosts Japan in the 2002 World Cup, a tournament where he gave a frankly average Belgian squad its only semblance of star power. Wilmots is a father figure to the players, something that can be witnessed in Les Diables au Coeur, a wonderful fly-on-the-wall documentary produced by television channel RTBF during the qualifiers. It is here that we can fully gauge exactly how much he has done for this young team, from the constant bantering and playful fines (late players had to pay for a round of, yes, champagne) to the constructive criticism and stern approach a leader sometimes need to employ. Gone is the dressing room instability, which ranged from Hazard’s bickering with then-manager Georges Leekens (which included an open letter essentially questioning his non-selection) to the formation of language and, yes, league-based factions in the locker room, which included the “Frenchie”, Dutch, Walloon and Flemish groups.
That said, Wilmots’ biggest legacy will always be how he gave a whole nation its pride back. Five missed tournaments in a row had caused untold damage to the country’s fans, emptying the stadiums and promulgating a sense of farce and futility that was hard to shake off. There were Stijn Stijnen’s dumb threats to Ronaldo when Belgium visited Portugal: rather than have his legs broken (as Stijnen had promised), the Ballon D’or winner helped Portugal to a 4-0 cakewalk.
The talent Wilmots could count on isn’t enough to dismiss his achievements either, especially as predecessor George Leekens botched the previous qualifying campaign with a well-endowed (if not as much as this one) squad by drawing at home to the likes of Turkey and Austria. Belgium used to be the laughing stock that was desperate enough to go for a part-time Dick Advocaat, only to be jilted by the Dutchman as soon as a better offer was made to him.
Belgium have a lot to thank Wilmots for, yet it doesn’t look like they will improve under him. Inexperience is not enough to justify why this side didn’t go far enough. When you have a Top-10 side in terms of quality, the quarter finals are around par for the course, and it is up to the manager to help the side make that extra step. It is often not the most talented teams who come home with the trophy (just ask the 2004 Greek squad, or the 2006 Azzurri), but the better coached ones. Whilst Wilmots helped the Red Devils get rid of their losing mentality, Belgium need someone who can win games, not just avoid losing them.