There is a cliché that soccer is a game of two halves. Sometimes the big change in the match occurs at halftime and the contest is different from then on. In this match, there were two major turning points, neither of which occurred before the half. The first came at the 60-minute mark, when Belgium Manager Marc Wilmots brought on wide forward Kevin Mirallas to attack a tired American back line. The second came very late, when the substitution of Julian Green and possibly superior American fitness gave the United States the upper hand for a dramatic final sixteen minutes.
The first 60 minutes of the game were reasonably good for the United States. While Belgium out-shot the Americans 21-4, the two sides were nearly even in shots from the danger zone. Belgium had four, three assisted by crosses, while the United States had three, none assisted by crosses. The United States had kept the Belgians from driving through the middle of the defense and forced them wide, from where Belgium had already attempted a massive 27 crosses. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan of clogging the center of the pitch with Geoff Cameron in defensive midfield appeared to be working.
At this point, the plaudits for American keeper Tim Howard seemed a bit overdone. Yes, he had five saves already, but none had come on a high-expectation chance. Two shots from outside the box, two from wide, and one header off a cross from the center about 12 yards. Any top-flight keeper should have handled what the Belgians had thrown at him, at this point.
But at 60 minutes, Belgium produced its first real attacking threat. Eden Hazard cut inside and laid off to striker Divock Origi. Origi blew past his marker, made the end line, and cut back for Dries Mertens, who had gotten free at the near post after a clever cross-field run. Mertens’s improvised shot ran just wide and out for a goal kick. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Shortly after Mertens’s near miss, he was pulled for Kevin Mirallas. All tournament long, the strongest aspect of Belgium’s tactical performance has been Wilmots’s use of substitutions. Soccer analysis has shown a huge “substitute effect” whereby players who come on late into games score at rates much higher than players whose legs are tired from 60 minutes of running. Here, Mirallas started terrorizing the American defense in the channel between the left fullback and the left center back. He completed four dribbles, assisted three shots and twice got himself free for a shot on target from inside the box.
From 60 minutes through the end of the first period of extra time, Belgium smashed shot after shot at Tim Howard, and for a half hour he stood on his head to prevent a Belgian winner.
There are two slightly odd notes about this period of the match. While Belgium was absolutely rampant by expected goals, possession numbers were nearly even. In the 45 minutes of the second phase of the match, Belgium completed 130 passes compared with 184 by the Americans. Even in the final 30 minutes of regulation, in an even game state, the United States completed more passes (95 to 88). The difference came in the location and target of the passes.
Possession can be overrated. Belgium did not control possession, but when its attackers had the ball, they drove vertically into the American defense and created chances. The United States could hold the ball for short periods in its own half but offered almost no danger to Thibaut Courtois’ goal.
With one exception. In a chance as against the run of play as any in this World Cup, a headed pass from Jermaine Jones found its way to the feet on Chris Wondolowski in stoppage time. A ball-watching Toby Alderweireld played the American striker onside even as his teammates attempted an offside trap.
Wondolowski scuffed it, popping the ball far over the bar and the chance was lost. The sideline official had raised his flag to incorrectly signal offside, but the referee did not signal offside, rather a goal kick. It is possible that if Wondolowski had finished the shot, the referee would have correctly overruled his linesman and let the American winner stand. It may have been undeserved, after Belgium’s dominance of the play. But it could have won the match anyway.
Instead the contest went to extra time, where replacement striker Romelu Lukaku provided Belgium two goals in 15 minutes. All seemed lost.
The final period of extra time was incredible. Klinsmann called upon 19-year-old Julian Green. The Bayern Munich youth star immediately got himself on the end of a beautiful Michael Bradley through-ball. His volley flew into the net and America was back in the match.
Belgium seemed utterly spent. The US completed 51 passes in the final period of extra time, compared to just 14 for Belgium. It was one-way traffic. It is hard to say if Belgium switched off up 2-0 or simply did not have equal fitness to the US, but in either case the United States very nearly took the match to penalties. Of three American big chances, two came in this final period of extra time. 1.5 expected goals in just 15 minutes is a massive total, but it was just not quite enough.
Overall Belgium had the better match, but just as the US had a chance to get a result against the run of play at the end of regulation, so likewise American dominance made a dramatic late equalizer a possibility. It did not come, and the American World Cup was over. You cannot say the United States was the better side on the night, but likewise you cannot say this team did not fight back with everything it had.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.