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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Tactical case study : Belgium

Introducing a new writer, Sherry Philips. While Sherry is a Chelsea man at heart, he routinely analyzes other teams and his preferred mode of attack is screenshots covered with squiggly lines. This week, Sherry gives the much-touted Belgium team a thorough once-over. Are they really worth the hype?


During the World Cup qualifiers, Belgium beat Croatia 2-1, and were held to a draw by Wales. They are seen as the dark horses in the 2014 World Cup, but one cannot foresee how far they will go. Before talking about their philosophies, system, transitioning phases etc, we’ll have a look at their game against Croatia. 


Belgium play a 4-1-4-1 on paper. This can be interpreted in many ways. It could be a 4-5-1, a 4-2-31, or a 4-3-3, all depending on the phase of play one is looking at. A solid back four with attacking full-backs. Ahead of them lies a hybrid profile of three players. Sometimes one of them plays as the #10, while the other two settle down as the pivot, while sometimes two attack and one sits back. This fluidity and versatility gives Belgium a variety of options in attack and defense. The wide players have the tendency to cut inside or play as pure wingers, which helps them make the pitch narrow or wide at will. The striker up front must always be ready for long balls.


While transitioning into defense, Belgium always form a 4-5-1. This gives them an option to sit back and initiate counter-attacks when the ball is recovered. Many would say Croatia dominated the game. Highly untrue, as they could dominate only possession but not the proceedings.

Each player has his range of pressing. Only in that area can they press at their player. Their pressing isn’t high, but relatively low, as they aim to block passing lanes rather than pressurize and leaving their zone wide open.

Lukaku can press and block off lanes in between his two black lines, while the midfielders do the same in their own and the one behind them. Such a structured approach to pressing and organization means it’s quite hard to break through them without numbers.

However if you were to push too far forward, you could be annihilated on the counter. Belgium flourish on the counter, thanks to their wide players and midfielders with tremendous technical ability.

They hold a high line, and push as many players up front as possible. The wide players can cut inside, allowing the full-backs to push forward as well.

While transitioning into attack, the defensive midfielder (who can be any of the three, usually the one who reacts late) is responsible for making sure the organization is perfect. If the ball is lost, players will look at him to properly position themselves so as to not suffer from a counter-attack themselves.

Now to live examples -

Here we see Belgium’s defensive transition, where everyone’s role is well explained. Highly self explanatory. Also note that it is indeed a 4-5-1. Lukaku ‘s positioning explains the zones of pressing.  He won’t move further ahead of the player numbered as one. This is his zone as explained before.

Also look at how the midfield 5 are holding their structure incredibly well. Complete in sync and know their duties. Croatia can have all the possession they want, but they’re going to have a long night breaking them down.


Here we see Belgium’s reluctance to press. They are holding their structure quite well. The Croatian player has all direct passing options cut off. His only option is a long ball, that could be recovered.

The philosophy of avoid pressing and block passing lanes. Bayern used the philosophy of high pressing and blocking passing lanes against Barcelona. Realistically you can’t do both, so Bayern opted to block out passing lanes to only Busquets, Barcelona’s most influential player.

Belgium stick to deceptive pressing and blocking off direct passing and dribbling lanes.


Let’s say you are lucky enough to get through them on the flanks. We can see two players (one obviously from midfield) helping out the full-back. This gives Belgium a numerical advantage all the time.

Moreover two holes can be exploited. These are well covered thanks to brilliant positioning by the players.
Numerical advantage is one of the key strategies Belgium employ, both in defense and attack. The opponents who are not willing to commit too many men forward find it hard to break down the organized structure. The ones who commit, have a tendency of giving the ball away only to be vulnerable on the counter-attack.


Now that the ball has been recovered, Belgium counter-attack as fast as possible. Croatia have played almost 6 players forward, but still fail to create a clear chance. All the 5 midfielders in the 4-5-1 defensive transition push forward. The one encircled in white is the odd one out as he is the full-back. This shows how much Belgium are willing to push forward in a search of goal, while at the same time remaining disciplined.

Interesting to note that the full-backs have a peculiar partnership. Both of them don’t flood forward at the same time. Only one does at a time, with the other closing in with the center-backs to form a 3-man defense. One of the midfielders usually sits back (in this case it is Witsel, who is not as close as to the half-line as the others are, and reacts a bit late) , cause as said earlier, the other team-mates look at him to properly position themselves after losing the ball.


This a scenario which can happen vice-versa as well. The only reason Belgium employ this is cause it offers defensive solidity even if they lose the ball in their attacking third.

The biggest problem some will note is that the flank which is not being attacked at is left wide open. The two central midfielders have the responsibility of covering it, but the duty mainly lies on the defensive midfielders shoulder. He drifts wide and presses so that the other players have time to get back into positions and initiate their defensive transition.


As can be seen, Croatia’s entire structure is disfigured. This is what happens if you commit too many forward to break down a system. Belgium have thrown in 5 players, the 6th one, the full-back, drifting wide.

A number of exploitable holes pop up, the first one being the direct one. The player can keep running with the ball while the defenders try covering zones and keep an eye on players running behind them. This gives the player with the ball a clear chance at goal as his team-mates distract the others. This is the option finally taken , but the ball sails wide.

Two and three are almost the same. The ball can be lofted in wide and the 6th player, the full-back, can also join in the attack. It can also be lobbed into the second player. Four and five, namely Lukaku and Fellaini, all have the pace and physicality to have a pop at goal if the ball is laid in with the right trajectory. If Belgium weren’t 2-0 up, that would be the most likely option taken by the player who has the ball at his feet.


So an attack fizzes out and Croatia retain the ball. The problem Belgium face now is that they have to get back in time . Witsel, the man in the middle, is what players are looking at to position themselves. If Belgium were to block off passing lanes and press high only when they entered the final third, the whole system would break down.

So to give them time to get back into position, the full-back, the wide player and maybe even the defensive midfielder will press at them. In this case it is the wide player and full-back pressing really high, as the central midfielders encircled in white get back into position.

This is called recovery phase pressing. High pressing so as to pressurize the player into either giving the ball away or playing it back-wards. This makes sure that the game doesn’t progress for the opposition in an attacking sense. Therefore there is zero chance for the opposition to exploit any holes that were open. By the time Belgium stop pressing high, the central midfielders are back into place and the 4-5-1 formation is in place.


It wouldn’t be complete without talking  about their normal phase pressing. Instead of directly pressing at the player with the ball, the 3 Belgium players in the middle are aiming to cut off passing lanes, and indirectly press at the three encircled in white. In doing so, the Croatian player with the ball has a dilemma. He doesn’t have a 100% sure pass unless he takes it back or gives it to a wide player.
In a nutshell, Marc Wilmots sits on his office chair, puts his legs on the table and sends you a clear message. “Have all the possession you want, but you are not going to find it easy.” You could call it deceptive possession in a sense. The team’s core philosophy revolves around structured defending and blitzing fast counter-attacks rather than the fancy possession based football admired by the young generation of today.

The team is destined for greatness. Reaching the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup, would be seen as a sensible target. Anything more than that, and Belgium have worked really hard in transforming themselves into a footballing superpower.

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