Belgium were one of the strongest teams coming into the tournament with the likes of Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard in their ranks. A dominant group stage with three wins out of three only reinforced that status. However, the dream of their golden generation came crashing down as they lost 2-1 to Italy in the quarterfinals.
Roberto Martinez’s men were flat and looked bereft of ideas in the face of the Azzurri’s experienced backline and nifty game management. The defeat meant that they yet again to even reach the final of a major tournament – something they really should have achieved over the past decade given the talent at their disposal.
— Belgian Red Devils (@BelRedDevils) July 2, 2021
Their win against Portugal brought some hope that perhaps this time around will be different but it was not to be. So where did it go wrong for the Red Devils at Euro 2020?
PROBLEM ONE – INJURY ISSUES
Belgium were severely unfortunate with key players suffering niggling injuries just before the tournament. Eden Hazard was unable to overcome his injury problems in time for the opener against Russia and looked notably off the pace when he did play as well. He looked much sharper against Portugal but picked up an injury which kept him out of the quarterfinal.
Kevin De Bruyne was floored by Antonio Rudiger in the Champions League final which kept him off the field till the second half of Belgium’s second group game. The Manchester City man then suffered a suspected ligament tear in the Round of 16 tie against Portugal. It is a testament to his persona that he played the full 90 against Italy and was perhaps Belgium’s best player on the field.
Axel Witsel also came into the tournament with an injury while Timothy Castagne was ruled out of the tournament after suffering a head injury in the first match of the tournament. The continuous changes in the lineup made it difficult to generate any sort of momentum. The side looked patchy against Italy and it was clear they missed Hazard and the others.
PROBLEM TWO – AGEING DEFENCE AND NO WINGBACKS
Thomas Vermaelen is 35. Jan Vertonghen is 34. Toby Alderweireld is 32. It is clear that their time at the top is coming to an end. None of the three were blessed with outstanding pace to begin with and with the years catching up to them, it became an obvious weakness of the Belgian squad.
Moreover, Belgium’s loaded squad is light in the full-back and wing-back department. The injury to Castagne meant Thomas Meunier started from the right while Thorgan Hazard, a winger by trade, had to play the wing-back position on the left.
Meunier did not have a great season at Borussia Dortmund and while he did contribute attacking, he was static in the middle and defensive thirds. Similarly, the younger Hazard scored a wonder goal against Portugal but was not solid enough at the back. Wing-backs are a great tool of ball progression (read: Luke Shaw) and Belgium’s lack of quality in that department meant they could not use this avenue.
Italy’s 2nd goal is an example of a pattern of play that’s occurred throughout the tournament – Spinazzola pushing high to pin back the opposition right-back/right wing-back (Meunier) ➡️ allowing Insigne to drift into the left half-space & pick up the ball. pic.twitter.com/YUQSUFg8Tn
— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) July 2, 2021
To protect their central defence’s lack of pace, Belgium had to play a deep line which made ball progression from the back more difficult. De Bruyne looked like the only one who could link attack and defence. The other option, which Belgium took a bit too frequently, was to lump the ball up to Lukaku and take it from there.
PROBLEM THREE – ROBERTO MARTINEZ
It is not that Roberto Martinez is a bad manager. His record at Swansea and Wigan was impressive and his Everton side showed promise. But his appointment as the boss of one of the best international sides in the world did not make much sense. And in all honesty, it still doesn’t.
His Belgium squad has a good overall framework that gives players the necessary freedom while maintaining basic stability. However, Martinez lacks that extra tactical nous to make tweaks to this system to give his side the edge in big matches. The same problem plagued them in the 2018 World Cup against Brazil and France and it resurfaced against Italy.
Belgium's ‘Golden Era’ in Major Tournaments:
2014 World Cup
2016 European Championship
2018 World Cup
• Semi-Final (third place)
2021 European Championship
2022 World Cup
• To Be Decided
— UtdArena (@utdarena) July 2, 2021
Martinez does not have a proven track record as a trophy winner and he has been handed the reins to Belgium’s best chance at winning silverware. It is perhaps too late for him to be replaced seamlessly for the 2022 World Cup. Can Martinez adapt to solve his squad’s problems and get Belgium a trophy? Only time will tell.