Belgium advanced to the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup in somewhat of a shock result against title favorites Brazil as a strong counter attacking performance in the first half gave Belgium the goals that they needed to beat Brazil on the night. Roberto Martinez changed his system a bit to suit playing against Brazil as Romelu Lukaku played in the wings with Kevin De Bruyne playing as the false nine. The change in system when Belgium defended off the ball was the stark difference from previous games. There were a number of other interesting aspects that I have explained below in one of the best games of the tournament thus far.
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Change of shape in and out of possession for Belgium:
The standout feature of the game was how Belgium behaved when on and off the ball. Chadli had replaced Carrasco in the line-up while De Bruyne had pushed up in place of Mertens, with Fellaini taking his place in the centre of the park. Roberto Martinez did not change the basic shape in which his team attacked, barring a few (important) tweaks. The most crucial factor was the way Belgium shaped up when Brazil had the ball. Chadli moved infield along with Witsel and Fellaini, while Vertonghen moved to left back, with the team set up in a narrow 4-3-3 off the ball. This move was presumably to nullify Brazil’s midfield, blocking off the centre to avoid any progress of the ball down the middle. Chadli’s position in the centre here pitted him up against Paulinho, against whom he displayed a keen sense of man orientation.
Paulinho usually makes run beyond the midfield when the ball is in the left side for Brazil, to open up space for his teammates to move into and also for Gabriel Jesus to drop into. The left sided focus for Brazil in possession works well with this, Paulinho’s movement complementing their basic game plan. Chadli’s focus on Paulinho nullified his strengths massively, with Martinez trying to take away Brazil’s biggest variability factor in their attack.
While in possession, Belgium were in their customary 3-4-3. However, it was not Lukaku in the centre. Rather, De Bruyne was the one taking up the spot, assuming a false nine role to fee Lukaku and Hazard down the channels. Lukaku in particular was very wide on the right side, whereas Hazard often roamed around the half spaces on the left. This was done in order to maximise Belgium’s threat in transitions, their best bet to try and score against Brazil.
Belgium’s press and focus on forcing Brazil wide:
Belgium’s narrow 4-3-3 out of possession was aimed at forcing Brazil wide to win the ball off them. Both Silva and Miranda were not pressed and allowed to have the ball at their feet. De Bruyne, located centrally, cut off access to Fernandinho, unless the Brazilian was ready to drop off the block and go deep to receive possession of the ball, in Brazil’s half. Both Hazard and Lukaku were crucial in this setup, using the pass to a Brazilian fullback as their trigger to press. Chadli’s man orientation on Paulinho was also vital here in removing an option for a pass when Brazil tried to play through this Belgium block.
There were early signs in the game that the match would be intense around the centre, with both teams trying to block the central channels and forcing the opponent wide. While Belgium did defend well further up the field, they were a mess in their own half, at least in the opening stages of the game. They were bypassed a tad too much for one’s liking in the opening stages of the game and were lucky to not concede first. With Belgium blocking off Brazil’s right side as explained above, the focus started to switch towards their usual left side for Brazil.
Brazil made use of some simple, yet effective movements in the left side to create a dynamic that would allow the likes of Neymar and Coutinho to thrive. Coutinho would make a run in behind the midfield while Neymar dropped back on the opposite side to create space for Neymar to receive into. The movement of Coutinho in the opposite direction is key here in dragging his markers along with him so that Neymar could drop into the vacated space and have space to turn and run into.
This was the phase of the game that I blamed Martinez on. For all the homework done to congest space on Brazil’s left side, they left far too much room in the opening stages of the game for Brazil to exploit. This was mainly due to the fact that their narrow 4-3-3 did not have much help down the flanks once the ball was advanced past midfield. Lukaku and Hazard had clear instructions to hold their position high up the pitch to hit Brazil in transitions. This had a depreciative effect while defending though, as Marcelo could run behind Lukaku, helping Brazil overload the left.
NOTE- This tactic, presumably, was planned by Martinez to allow the likes of Lukaku to have space in that flank to burst into when Belgium claimed the ball. It was a risky tactic nevertheless to implement in such a high stakes match, where the probability of this working in Belgium’s favour alone with Brazil taking advantage of it being very minimal.
Brazil’s strong defensive structure against the ball- in rest phase:
By rest phase, I mean the phases of play where Belgium resume with the possession of the ball and not having won it in transitions and countering immediately. Brazil did not press the ball carriers in the Belgian defense and instead matched them man to man with Neymar, Jesus and Willian up against the three centrebacks. Jesus was involved with covering Witsel with his cover shadow, which he did admirably, never allowing the first line of defense to be beaten by a pass to Witsel.
The only logical solution that Belgium had in these type of situations was to play a slightly lofted ball to Meunier or Chadli in the flanks to try and advance. While the pass was always executed, Brazil were able to gain immediate access in those areas and closed space down very well. Jesus’ backwards pressing, despite the ball being advanced into the middle third, via Meunier, was fantastic as he helped win the ball and execute a swift counter.
Belgium lacked a player in central midfield to assume responsibility of advancing the ball into the next phase. While Witsel has decent press resistance and ability to pass the ball, he could not be sought due to Jesus cover shadowing him while Fellaini was brought into the team for reasons other than the one mentioned now.
This meant that advancing the ball down the sides and bringing it into the centre was the only solution Belgium had in these scenarios unless a long ball to Lukaku was played, hoping he can win the aerial duel. This did not have huge implications on Belgium’s fortunes as they took the lead early against the run of play and did not necessarily need to have the ball/possession. This worked well in their favour as this invited Brazil upon them and they could implement their pre-planned strategy to effect transitions with Lukaku, Hazard and De Bruyne.
Positional fluidity and transitions:
Hazard and Lukaku briefly kept changing their positions based on the situation while De Bruyne solely occupied the central areas to function as a false nine. With Belgium’s focus being on quick counterattacking football, they did not suffer because of the lack of occupancy in and around zone 14. Rather, their strategy warranted such measures and this worked to full effect with them having taken the early lead. Positional fluidity offered Belgium some early chances in the game, with the corner that led to the goal having come from a chance that saw De Bruyne completely vacate his position and drop deep, while Fellaini had made the run into the vacated space to receive the pass.
Brazil were clearly uncomfortable with the way Belgium had set up and took some time to get to grips with it. The backline, Miranda and Fagner in particular, did not know when and where to commit and go unnecessarily dragged around by positional interchanges from Belgium. The shot that led to the corner is as seen below.
To effect the transitions that decided the game in favour of Belgium, Lukaku and Hazard were positioned wide to receive the ball and run into space while De Bruyne was tasked with carrying the ball and bringing it into the spaces as he saw fit. As the game wore on, the separation of these three from the rest of the team became more and more apparent as the rest of the team defended in a single clumped block while the three patrolled around the half way line to run at the Brazilian defenders. Lukaku and Hazard excelled in this role as they were able to make incisive runs and bring the whole team up the pitch and create numerical/positional disadvantages for Brazil.
Another minor tweak from Martinez to get the ball forward quickly and effectively in transitions was by making De Bruyne drop deep when Belgium defended near their box. This was done in anticipation of a second ball or a quick release from Courtois if he claimed the ball, similar to the goal they scored against Japan.
Tite’s changes at half time and Brazil’s suboptimal dynamics:
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Tite took off Willian on the right side as Brazil sorely lacked an attacking presence with variability on the right side. Willian could not offer that and Tite looked to change things by bringing Firmino on for Willian and pushed Jesus out wide on the right. The play down the centre improved drastically for Brazil with Firmino’s introduction as he was much more dynamic and involved in the play than Jesus was in the first half. The predictable nature of their left side still caused Brazil problems as Belgium kept defending their spaces in a group.
Neymar moved more and more towards the centre while Marcelo almost functioned as a wing back as he was a constant outlet on the left. Augusto came in for Paulinho later while Douglas Costa came on for Jesus on the right side. This helped Brazil’s attack to an extent as he is a much better player in 1v1 situations. However, the close spacing between the Brazil players did not help in stretching Belgium while Neymar’s central position worked against his favour than anything else. Brazil did fashion a few chances and grabbed a goal via a very good Coutinho pass to Augusto, who more or less played the same role as of Paulinho, only with more freedom as Brazil needed to score.
Eden Hazard’s press resistance and ability to draw fouls while dribbling became the feature of the second half, especially towards the end as he bought invaluable time for Belgium to recover and un down the clock as well.
Tite pushed both Douglas Costa and Marcelo high on either flank with Fagner dropping beside Silva to form a situational back three to provide cover. Neymar and Coutinho worked down the centre with Augusto making runs beside Firmino up top to salvage a goal. It was not to come thanks to some very good individual defending from the Belgian backline and heroic goalkeeping from Thibaut Courotis as Belgium recorded somewhat a fortuitous win. Their counterattacking was top notch throughout the game while Fernandinho was just no Casemiro in terms of winning the ball and providing cover for his backline in transitions. A fortunate own goal just after the ten minute mark worked in Belgium’s favour as they could defend and wait for their opportunity to counter. They now have a date set with France for a spot in the World Cup finals, which promises to be a enticing encounter.