On paper, Belgium could seem like one of the best sides at the World Cup. Coming into the tournament, Belgium was rated as the top contender for the championship outside of the big four of Brazil, Spain, Argentina and Germany. Its roster is full of stars from Europe with price tags of $30 million or more. It took the full nine points from three group stage matches. But under the surface, Belgium appears beatable.
The simplest stat here tells the story the most clearly. Belgium scored its three winning goals at 80 minutes against Algeria, 88 minutes against Russia, and 78 minutes against South Korea. Group H was the weakest group in the World Cup, and three sides far from categorically better than the United States had every opportunity to win their matches against Belgium.
So how can the Red Devils be beaten? First, what Algeria, Russia and South Korea all did well was to stymie the Belgian attack through the center. Belgium has no true fullbacks, typically playing center backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld at these wide defensive positions. Both attack less than usual, because they cannot track back as effectively as the typical fullbacks. While most modern attacking sides expect their fullbacks to provide width, Belgium cannot count on this and often its wide attackers must stay on the flanks to provide width. At the same time, Belgium does not have a true playmaker in midfield, with ball-winners Axel Witsel and Mousa Dembele playing primary minutes in center midfield. This leaves Belgium’s attack with few paths through the center of opposing defenses, leaving the side dependent on crosses delivered from wide areas. None of the teams which made the round of 16 had a higher ratio of crosses to through-balls than Belgium.
I wrote earlier about how the United States altered its attacking strategies in the absence of Jozy Altidore. The tactics, which the United States used to good effect in the group stage, should likewise be effective against Belgium even if the injured striker returns to the American team. Of the team’s 17 open play key passes (that is, passes that assisted shots), seven were provided by wide players Fabian Johnson or Graham Zusi. However, only one of these seven open play key passes was a cross. The United States depended on its wide players to attack down the flanks, but they did not simply head for the byline and ping in speculative balls. Johnson in particular was most effective cutting inside and looking for a pass or a shot once he reached the box.
So far, Belgium has mostly faced opposition who attacked down the flanks and looked to cross. Algeria, Russia and South Korea totaled 45 attempted crosses against the Red Devils. This contrasts to just 18 crosses played by the United States in its three group matches. The strategy of attacking Belgium down the flanks seems sound. Vertonghen and Alderweireld are not natural fullbacks, and wingers Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens prefer to stay higher up the pitch in wide forward positions. However, if those attacks into wide areas simply result in crosses, the tactic plays right back into Belgium’s hands. Its defense is composed of center backs skilled at protecting the danger zone. If the United States can effectively attack the Belgian flanks but then look for runners through the channels, it should be able to create some good opportunities.
This is one reason why I think the United States would be better off without Altidore.
Leaving aside that it is basically impossible to recover from a hamstring injury in such a short time, the style of play that Jurgen Klinsmann has instituted in his absence seems much better attuned to Belgium’s weaknesses than the more traditional attack the United States has featured with Altidore at center forward.
Now, there is one further key to beating Belgium which may not be so easy to accomplish. When its attack through midfield sputters, Belgium tends to expect its dominant center forward Romelu Lukaku to create on his own. Through three matches, Lukaku has been almost entirely anonymous, with just one shot attempted. If Lukaku can regain his league form—the 21-year-old scored 15 goals for Everton—he will be exceptionally difficult to contain.
But so far, Belgium’s strikers have not been terribly effective. The map above shows shots by either Lukaku or his replacement Divock Origi. They have managed only three danger zone shots in three matches. If Belgium cannot get Lukaku back on form, or does not luck into a breakout game by Origi, the United States should have a reasonable chance at shutting the door on the Red Devils’ attack.
This is not to say that the United States should be favored. In Lukaku, Mertens and especially Hazard, Belgium has the three most dangerous players on the pitch. Any of them could spring a moment of magic to win the match, as Hazard did late against Russia. It will take a disciplined performance by the Americans to keep Belgium in check. But the evidence of the group stage suggests that it can be done, and the United States has already been playing a style of soccer that should be effective against Belgium.
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.
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