Belgium began their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a comfortable win over a Russian side who failed to show the form they showed at their home World Cup last summer. Belgium breezed through the game bar one scare for Courtois, with Russia’s style of play seemingly complementing Belgium’s. In this tactical analysis, I will show you why Russia struggled so much and how their high press hindered them against an energetic Belgium side.
Belgium lined up in a 3-4-3 while Russia went with a 5-4-1, which is a formation many wouldn’t link to a high pressing style. However, if Russia’s full-backs could push high enough and press effectively, they would essentially have an extra man in midfield to press with than a team who play a more traditional pressing formation such as 4-3-3. When done correctly by teams such as Frankfurt, a 5-4-1, which turns into a variation of 3-4-3 out of possession can be very successful, but for various reasons, it was not successful for Russia.
A common theme which emerged in Russia’s press was large gaps between central players and the wing-backs, which gave Belgium’s centre backs passing lanes to beat the press.
We can see below that by being this wide, Fernandes isn’t helping anyone, as he is not covering the man out wide nor the central player. If Fernandes moves centrally and closer to his teammate, this will both close the passing lane and cover the wide player. This is one of a number of examples where Russia’s wide players let down the press and in this instance, happened in the build-up to Belgium’s first goal.
The danger that can come from employing the high press unsuccessfully can be very costly. It was here where one pass beats the whole press and leaves eight players behind the ball, with only two of those remotely close to making recovery runs.
Russia’s high press, therefore, played to Belgium’s strengths, in that Belgium could thrive quickly in these kinds of transition areas and keep the ball moving forward so no recovery runs could be made in time, which maintains their numerical advantage.
There are a number of factors in the photo below which show Russia’s failure for the majority of the match to employ a high press.
Firstly, Russia’s lineup didn’t have the personnel to conduct a high press effectively. Selecting Dzyuba up front, a player with a real lack of pace, meant that the press couldn’t happen quick enough and Belgium were able to at least get their first pass off quickly, which put Russia’s player pressing the second pass at a disadvantage, which we can see below as he fails to reach the ball. We can also again see that large gap forming between the wing back and central player.
This can be prevented by the wing back tucking in and closing the gap, which opens more space for Belgium’s wing back, or by Russia’s midfield shuffling to allow the extra man in the middle to cover Golovin‘s space while Golovin occupies the passing lane. Belgium exploited the gaps in Russia’s press well throughout the game and should be given credit, but Russia looked uncoordinated in their pressing.
Belgium’s offensive patterns
As said, Belgium’s build up was helped greatly by Russia’s uncoordinated press, which allowed them to get in behind and run at their defence. Due to Belgium’s formation, this meant that if they could beat the press, they should be able to create at least a 4v3 situation, with their three forwards.
Belgium did an excellent job at making decisions quickly to maintain momentum in these counterattacks and had coordinated crossing situations well, as we can see below.
Here, Tielemans has the ball in behind Russia’s midfield. Two Belgium players occupy the centre backs while one player pulls wide, leaving the far centre back caught between going for the ball or staying with his man.
It was clear that Russia had to find a way to stop Belgium from playing through them so consistently and so they decided to stop pressing high, which gave them some success. We can see below that Russia look much more compact, with a narrow midfield diamond forming and stopping Belgium from playing through the middle.
This four-man diamond in midfield forced the play wide and such is the nature of the diamond meant that if the ball went wide, the widest player in the diamond could press to prevent the ball going forward. This change led to fewer chances for Belgium, but Russia struggled to transition into attack quickly enough while sitting to create any chances themselves, and Belgium ultimately finished Russia off late on.
Overall, Belgium were too strong for a Russia side who were brave to get at Belgium but lacked coordination in doing so. Belgium should be pleased with their performance apart from a slip up from Courtois, and Martinez’s fast transition play is looking like the perfect system for Belgium’s talented crop of players.
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