American Soccer Now's Blake Thomsen thinks the United States has what it takes to beat Belgium, and he breaks it down for you here in this highly detailed look at the round of 16 match.
APPROXIMATELY FOUR YEARS
June 30, 2014
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and one week after the United State’s gut-wrenching loss to Ghana, the Yanks are back in the knockout stage for the second straight World Cup. Welcome to the ASN tactical preview, knockout stage edition.
Belgium came into the tournament as such a trendy dark horse that it was more or less perceived as a genuine title contender. On paper, the Belgians have met expectations, winning all three matches en route to the top of Group H. But it hasn’t been easy—Belgium won each game by one goal, scoring the winner in the 80th, 88th, and 78th minute, respectively. Considering that its group opponents were Algeria, Russia, and South Korea, it was a far from convincing display.
To make matters worse, the Red Devils have suffered a slew of injuries as well as Steven Defour’s red card suspension, giving them as few as 17 fully fit players on Tuesday. Given the injury shakeup, it’s most likely that we’ll see something like this (still very strong) 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 hybrid:
Chelsea-owned striker Romelu Lukaku has had a poor tournament—capped by a mini-tantrum after an early substitution against Russia—but he’ll still almost certainly start alone up top.
All-world winger Eden Hazard hasn’t been at his best but has still notched a pair of game-winning assists. On the opposite wing will probably be Dries Mertens, who played himself into the starting XI with a superb winner in game one against Algeria.
And Kevin de Bruyne has shined in the No. 10/attacking central midfield role—it’s worth noting that he cut the U.S. to pieces in a similar role 13 months ago.
Central midfielders Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini are difficult to tell apart on television based on their similar appearances, but their styles of play are far more divergent than their matching poofy hairstyles. At six-foot-four, Fellaini is immense in the air, and he has perhaps the world’s best chest control—watch out for the ease with which he can control 60-yard balls via the unconventional method. Witsel is smoother on the ball and is a far bigger attacking threat with the ball at his feet than his center midfield companion. Although Fellaini may not be world-class on the ball, he’s a huge goal threat with his head, as he showed with his equalizer against Algeria.
At the back, Belgium’s defenders come from a who’s who of the world’s biggest clubs. But that doesn’t mean the Red Devils’ defense is elite. The very weak Group H didn’t do much to test Belgium, but the U.S. should ask more questions than Algeria, Russia, or South Korea did.
Toby Alderweireld, who plays sparingly for Atletico Madrid, plays out of position at right back. Center back Daniel van Buyten plays for Bayern Munich, but at 36, he’s far past his prime. Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany missed Belgium’s final group game against South Korea with a groin injury—he may play against the U.S., but he won’t be in top form. And prospective left back Jan Vertonghen is also a natural center back, which he plays for Tottenham.
One of the biggest blemishes on U.S. Soccer’s excellent year 2013 was the blowout 4-2 loss to Belgium in Cleveland last May. The final score probably flattered the Americans, who only made it a two-goal game with the help of a dubious late penalty, taken and scored by Clint Dempsey.
But it’s important to not read too much into that game, as the U.S. was missing Michael Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann played just two center midfielders—Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan—against an in-form Belgium side. With far too much space in midfield, the Red Devils were able to do as they pleased offensively, striking four deserved goals.
Expect a vastly different contest this time around. The current U.S. system is set up to take away space in the center of the attacking third, which is where Belgium prefers to operate. With Jones and Bradley ahead of Kyle Beckerman, the Yanks will provide a far sterner test in Brazil.
BELGIUM’S ATTACKING STYLE
In recent months, Belgium has struggled to get back to the extraordinarily high level it reached in World Cup qualifying, in which it went 8-2-0 in one of Europe’s most well-rounded groups.
A big reason for this drop-off is the Achilles rupture that striker Christian Benteke suffered in Aston Villa training in April. Benteke’s replacement is the capable Lukaku, but though the two are similar physically, Benteke is far more comfortable stretching defenses with runs in behind the opposition’s back. Lukaku prefers to drop deep to receive the ball when Belgium is in possession in midfield. It works well at Everton, which uses the space created by Lukaku’s movement to free up the Premier League’s best attacking fullback duo. But it isn’t ideal for Belgium, as it slows down the tempo of its midfield play.
Belgium also has zero natural width, with two wingers who prefer to cut in and two center backs masquerading as fullbacks, who are generally unable to provide an outlet near the touchline.
With Lukaku posing a minimal risk over the top or in behind, Belgium is forced to play far more methodically than it did when Benteke was fit—see the 3:15 mark of the above U.S.-Belgium highlight video for a good example of the dimension that Belgium lacks in Benteke’s absence.
The likely methodical tempo will suit the Yanks, who are quite comfortable maintaining a defensive shape. However, the U.S. needs to make sure “methodical” doesn’t become “never touching the ball or getting out of its own half” as it did against Germany. If the U.S. is unable to 1) successfully press and 2) keep possession of the ball in midfield after it is won, a repeat of the bunkered-in, no offensive threat Germany game could occur.
In favor of the U.S. cause, Belgium isn’t nearly as good as Germany, and the U.S. should have fresher legs after four rest days instead of three. But Klinsmann needs to make sure his men apply sufficient pressure on the ball and do enough with it to avoid another 37% possession, zero shots on target debacle.
BELGIUM’S LUMBERING DEFENSE
Like so many elite teams in modern soccer, Belgium plays a 4-2-3-1-type system that defensively leaves plenty of space down the flanks. This suits the U.S., which in recent years has never been comfortable breaking teams down through the middle of the defense, anyway. The presence of Belgium’s excellent central midfielders even further invites the U.S. to take the play out wide—and this invitation will be warmly accepted.
At this point, the U.S. isn’t surprising anyone offensively. All dangerous attacks—aside from Clint Dempsey’s first-minute goal against Ghana—are coming down the right flank, and 90% or so of those are involving Johnson’s bursting runs, either with or without the ball. Johnson looked beyond exhausted against Germany, and it’s imperative to the U.S. cause that he has recovered enough to run hard for 90 minutes (or however long it takes for the U.S. to take the lead). But even if he’s still somewhat fatigued, Johnson is a mortal lock to cause Belgium at least some problems. Who else will be unleashed on Belgium’s four center back set, though, is up to Klinsmann.
DeAndre Yedlin has been lively in two substitute appearances, but is he ready to start a World Cup game in the midfield? No assertive answer here—I’m glad I’m not Klinsmann regarding that one. Yedlin’s speed makes him a tantalizing proposition, but his lack of experience in the position may make Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi a better fit.
Another pacey option is Aron Johannsson, who would pose problems with his movement in behind Belgium’s center backs. Dempsey looked just as tired against Germany as Johnson did, so it’s not impossible that Johannsson (or perhaps Chris Wondolowski) could start, moving Dempsey to a withdrawn forward role. Elsewhere, the Mix Diskerud whispers are getting louder—deploying him behind a lone striker could be rather sensible, as no one in the U.S. player pool is as adept at playing the type of clever through balls that can undo Belgium’s slow defense.
A potential cheeky lineup deployment would see Johnson moved up to midfield, Omar Gonzalez retained at center back, and Geoff Cameron restored to the starting lineup, but this time at right back. Small sample-size alert, but Cameron has neutralized Hazard to the tune of zero goals or assists in three previous starts when Cameron has played right back for Stoke and Hazard left wing for Chelsea. Cameron makes sense opposite Hazard beyond simple club success, too. Cameron’s best attribute is probably one-on-one defending, and tricky dribbling is Hazard’s specialty.
One final note: this writer thinks a start for Jozy Altidore is not going to happen. If he’s anything less than 100%, it makes little to no sense to unleash him against one of the World Cup’s most physically imposing center back pairings.
Regardless of who Klinsmann names on the team sheet, expect an emphasis on getting behind Belgium’s back four to create quality goal-scoring chances. With four center backs plus Fellaini on the pitch, the Red Devils will be tough to beat on set pieces—a U.S. goal or two from the run of play seems crucial.
Before the Neymar and James Rodriguez mania of the 2014 World Cup, the list of players in world football who could most reliably score a goal from nothing would probably read as follows: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Eden Hazard. The U.S. has already vanquished one of those players in this tournament—though a non-fully fit one, at that—but another is coming on Tuesday.
Hazard is a truly magnificent dribbler, and he also has a terrific shot and eye for the killer pass. He led Chelsea in both goals and assists last season, and he’s delivered two game-winning assists in his two starts this tournament. In many ways, Hazard is somewhat of a reverse Arjen Robben. Deployed as a left winger, Hazard is constantly looking to cut onto his stronger right foot, from which he can pass or shoot. He’s not quite the goal scorer that Robben is, but he’s a far better passer, and at times that can make Hazard even more dangerous than the speedy Dutchman.
The U.S. will need to be careful to not foul Hazard in and around the box. He’s a foul-drawing machine, and Chelsea has reaped the rewards in his two seasons at Stamford Bridge by scoring tons of goals off penalties and dangerous set pieces. Given the surplus of height and dangerous leapers in Belgium’s starting lineup, the U.S. must make sure to avoid conceding too many fouls in dangerous areas.
It’s worth noting that Hazard has rarely shined for Belgium in the same way he has for Chelsea or, previously, Lille. The main tactical reason for this, as far as I’m concerned, is the absence of overlapping runs from fullbacks for Belgium. Given that Belgium generally deploys Vertonghen or Arsenal center back Thomas Vermaelen at left back, Hazard lacks a consistent overlapper to both create space to dribble as well open up a dangerous pass. In the above highlight video, note how frequently Hazard waits until space is created by his fullbacks’ runs before he makes his move, whether dribbling and shooting or finding an open teammate (sometimes the overlapping fullback himself).
In keeping with most of his Belgium career, Hazard has continued to edge more toward merely above average than superstar level in this tournament. With that said, he’s still provided those two game-winning assists. Even at his worst, Hazard remains a major threat.
As I mentioned in the previous section, Cameron would be well-suited to playing against Hazard. Johnson would be too, though, as he is also a capable one-on-one defender and is yet to fail a tackle in this World Cup. With that in mind, the U.S. should be in relatively good shape against Hazard, unless Klinsmann shocks everyone by playing Yedlin at right back.
The final Hazard item of note: much like Ronaldo, he doesn’t play a whole lot of defense. It’s no coincidence that the U.S. had by far its best game going forward by utilizing the spacious attacking right wing on Ronaldo’s side of the field. Johnson and Co. will be looking to exploit the similar space likely to be found against Belgium. Below is Hazard’s heat map against Russia, which shows the limitations of his defensive effort.
HIGHLY SPECIFIC PREDICTION
It wouldn’t be a Blake Thomsen prediction section without relentless optimism, right? My picks so far: U.S. 2-1 over Ghana, U.S. 2-0 over Portugal, and U.S. 1-1 against Germany. Is there a trend emerging? Not really, except that I either accurately predict or overestimate the U.S.’s performance. With that in mind, I’m calling U.S. 6, Belgium 0. That way, we’ve got plenty of wiggle room for me to be too confident but for the U.S. to still win. Just kidding. To the real thing:
Belgium will score first, because the U.S. wouldn’t have it any other way. Hazard will go on a mazy run and win a deserved penalty in the 20th minute, which he’ll convert with far more ease than feels reasonable. This will spark the U.S. back to life, though. Johnson will equalize just before the half, and the Yanks will go into the locker room with their tails up. Finally—FINALLY—it’ll be time for Bradley’s 2014 World Cup moment. He’ll notch a super winner in the 73rd minute after fine work from Dempsey. Go crazy folks, go crazy. And give Bradley a break. The Yanks will be on to the quarterfinals.
U.S. 2, Belgium 1
Does this result seem possible? Who needs to step up for the U.S.? Who do the Yanks need to keep quiet for Belgium? Let us know in the comments section.
Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter. Heat map courtesy of FIFA.com.