Belgium are no longer dark horses. Two-thirds of their squad have been in the international frame for five years or more. Many players have found their way to the Premier League, which has pushed the national team into the glare of the media spotlight. By 2012, it seemed every Premier League club wanted a Belgian in their ranks; at one stage, Chelsea had seven on their books.
And so, Euro 2016 is seen as the moment when Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ – a title that brings its own pressure – should peak. Brazil 2014 came too soon but by now, the theory goes, all pieces of the jigsaw will have fallen into place. That’s the theory, anyway...
Are golden boys ready to justify THEIR billing?
So, will Belgium deliver in France? The timing is right: Thibaut Courtois, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Toby Alderweireld are all in the age bracket of 24 to 27, backed by younger talents such as Michy Batshuayi, Yannick Carrasco and the Lukaku brothers. But cracks are showing among the over-30s. Captain Vincent Kompany is a big absence through injury, while Thomas Vermaelen is unlikely to last the pace of a full tournament and Nic Lombaerts is beginning to show his age.
This centre-back problem is surprising as it was seen as the area where Belgium had talent to spare. Instead, Marc Wilmots must decide whether to move the Spurs duo of Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld inside to their natural home in central defence. That, though, would expose the Red Devils’ weakness at full-back. Young Belgium-based pair Thomas Meunier and Jordan Lukaku are candidates, but with a mere seven caps between them they are really seen as back-up.
Elsewhere, there are options galore in midfield and attack, and no problems on the goalkeeping front. It is the defence, where a certain amount of juggling will be necessary, that could be Belgium’s Achilles’ heel. And it could mean that their time will come in Moscow 2018.
What they’ve learned
It’s not ideal, but Belgium have been taught that they’ve not progressed since Brazil as much as was hoped or expected. Prior to that World Cup, the team had been getting good results against good teams, while certain individuals – particularly De Bruyne – were coming to the fore.
This time around, in a weak group, Belgium lost to Wales and never played the attractive football everyone had assumed they were capable of. Their game was often one-paced, with Hazard and De Bruyne seemingly competing for the No.10 spot during matches. The qualifying campaign was something of an eye-opener.
World-beaters on tap
It is undeniable that Belgium have world-class players. De Bruyne has been the main man since breaking into the side back in 2013. He was the most creative player in Europe in 2015 and has since proved that he can handle the pressurised atmosphere of the Premier League.
Of a similar ilk are Courtois, Radja Nainggolan (inexplicably omitted in Brazil) and Eden Hazard – although Hazard has rarely, if ever, shown his full potential when wearing a Belgium shirt. These four are backed by a number of top-class players almost all over the pitch, many of them in the Premier League. Wilmots’ squad has remarkable strength in depth.
Another asset is the solidarity and team spirit in this multicultural squad, one that accurately reflects the composition of the country. Finally, Belgium have shown themselves hard to beat: it’s the reason for their rise to the top of the FIFA rankings.
Incisive they ain’t
Apart from the aforementioned issues related to the back four, Belgium lack the ability to quickly turn defence into attack. With a propensity to pass the ball sideways in order to keep possession, they often find themselves outnumbered in the final third. Indeed, in the past few years, Belgium have found it difficult to break down a packed defence. This is surprising in a team that contains Eden Hazard, and it’s an issue that has to be addressed.
The other main weakness has been the inability to find a regular and reliable source of goals up front. Despite Belgium having Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke and Divock Origi – that’s £70 million of Premier League striking talent – it is Marouane Fellaini who leads this squad’s scoring charts. The answer may lie with Batshuayi or a renewed Origi, as they have the mobility and technique to link up with the team’s other talented forwards.
Much depends on De Bruyne. The Manchester City player has pace, strength, a football brain and an eye for goal, plus the ability to cross well with either foot.
After coming to the fore as a teenager at Racing Genk, playing on the wing, his career stalled at Chelsea. It took time but after a loan spell with Werder Bremen he blossomed at Wolfsburg, who gave him responsibility playing in central midfield, combined with the freedom to roam. It was the making of him: he was named Players’ Player of the Year after scoring 10 goals and assisting another 21 – a Bundesliga record.
When he arrived in Manchester four weeks into the 2015/16 season for a staggering fee of £55 million, there were doubts that he could immediately slot into a title-chasing team. In fact, he hit the ground running and won Manchester City’s Player of the Month award a club-record four times, including in the first two months of his time there. He was instrumental in taking City to their first ever Champions League semi-final.
De Bruyne will undoubtedly start as Belgium’s chief playmaker (which shows how much has changed in the three years since he and Hazard were at Chelsea together) and if he can repeat his league form, Belgium could go far.
Wilmots was brought into the Belgium setup by Dick Advocaat in 2009 for his knowledge of Belgian football and the players. After Advocaat quit and his replacement Georges Leekens did the same, Wilmots got the job despite having little coaching experience.
He is popular with the players and deserves praise for taking them to the top of the FIFA rankings. He has created a team that rarely loses – but seldom plays eye-catching football.
Nevertheless, Wilmots remains convinced in his ability to get results. The fans are less sure, feeling he should have achieved more with the players at his disposal. Euro 2016 provides the acid test.