Belgium – Canada: Belgium Survive A Mighty Canadian Scare (1-0)
Canada returned to the world stage after thirty-six years and showcased their ability in style. Their vibrant energy and high pressing caused Belgium enormous problems, but the world number two side edged over the line, partly thanks to some poor finishing by their opponents.
Tactical analysis and match report by Rahul Madhavan.
After achieving an impressive third-place finish during the 2018 World Cup, Belgium returned to the center stage with the hope of going one step further. Much has been said about the ‘Golden Generation’ that dominated international football for half a decade, but they are yet to lift a major silverware that could well and truly capture their name in the football folklore.
The Euro 2020 and the Nations League campaigns were unquestionably an opportunity for a country imbued with pride, but Belgium’s disappointing displays, especially against neighbors – Netherlands, have done little to change supporters’ underwhelming view of the recent performances. Despite facing a few issues in the squad’s balance, the 2022 World Cup offers an ultimate chance for Roberto Martínez’s side to step up and produce results.
On the other side of the ring, the Canadian fans celebrated a momentous occasion as their nation qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Canada qualified in some fashion as well, topping the CONCACAF group ahead of Mexico and the United States of America.
Unsurprisingly, Martínez opted for a 3-4-3 formation with Thibaut Courtois between the posts. Leander Dendoncker started on the right of the back three alongside veterans Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld. Timothy Castagne and Yannick Carrasco played as the wing-backs, whilst Axel Witsel partnered Youri Tielemans in midfield. The front three included Eden Hazard, Michy Batshuayi, and the in-form Kevin De Bruyne.
Canada manager John Herdman has rotated between the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 formations, and this time he went with the latter, therefore, matching Belgium. Milan Borjan played in goal, with Alistair Johnston, Steven Vitória, and Kamal Miller as the center-backs. Richie Laryea and Alphonso Davies started on the flanks as wing-backs. Stephen Eustáquio was joined by the 39-year-old Atiba Hutchinson in the double pivot role, while Junior Hoilett, Tajon Buchanan, and Jonathan David formed the forward line.
Canada’s pressing suffocates Belgium
Belgium and Canada had a similar formation on paper, so the teams matched up against each other at the start of the game. Martínez has regularly utilized a double pivot in front of the back three in his tenure as Belgium’s boss, but this time he instructed Tielemans to push forward to the right flank, whilst Witsel sat in front of the center-backs.
However, it was Canada’s high press that stole the show as they strangled Belgium’s back three when they received possession. Canada’s forwards and the double pivot pushed high and were tight to Belgium’s creative outlets. As a result, they restricted their opponents from penetrating through the central areas and forced them to go wide.
As mentioned above, Tielemans was positioned on the right flank to create overloads in the wide areas and isolate the left center-back. However, Canada’s lightning quick wing-backs (Davies and Laryea) provided no time on the ball for Belgium’s wing-backs and they ultimately had to clear their lines or pass backward. Moreover, Miller and Vitória comfortably dealt with the long balls coming their way.
Canada’s pressing trap. When Alderweireld had possession, David looked to press him with Buchanan covering Witsel. As Alderweireld passes it to Vertonghen, Buchanan jumps onto him, while David screens Witsel. Sometimes, when the ball-sided central midfielder pressed Witsel, the other midfielder tightly marked De Bruyne. They were ultimately forced wide, but Canada’s wing-backs were quick to close down when Belgium’s wing-backs received the ball.
Canada were quick to turnover possession in midfield and created numerous chances on the break. Belgium struggled to deal with the physicality and pace of their opponents as Canada consistently won duels and second balls. Additionally, because Belgium’s wing-backs were higher up the pitch, Herdmen’s side targeted the channels, with Hoilett, and Buchanan alongside Davies and Laryea tearing up the flanks against the struggling Vertonghen and Dendoncker.
They were ultimately rewarded for their brave showing when Carrasco handled the ball in the box from a corner kick and Canada got a penalty as a result. As it turned out, Thibaut Courtois saved the penalty from Canada’s star man, Alphonso Davies. Nevertheless, Canada kept probing, but it was Belgium who scored first through a simple lofted pass from Alderweireld, which Batshuayi converted.
Martínez turns to substitutes
Canada resorted to a 3-4-3 system in possession, but it was fluid with positional rotation on the left side from Davies and Hoilett, while David also dropped deep. Buchanan, meanwhile, moved centrally, which allowed Laryea to hold the width on the right. The wing-back, central midfielder, and winger formed triangles when they looked to build up with short passes, but Canada’s center-backs were also direct and exploited Belgium’s weakness in wide areas.
Martínez turned to the bench in the second half and introduced Amadou Onana and Thomas Meunier in place of the struggling Tielemans and Carrasco. The substitutes brought much-needed stability in defense with the manager instructing Onana to sit alongside Witsel in a double pivot. Further, Meunier was also tasked to stay deeper to attract Canada’s pressure and isolate their center-backs against Belgium’s dangerous front three. This worked to some extent as De Bruyne and Hazard were able to receive passes centrally, and created a few chances on the transition.
Minute 66: Belgium’s change in possession. Canada press high as Dendoncker receives the pass. Onana is stationed close to Witsel and drags Eustáquio, which frees up space for De Bruyne between the lines. When Meunier has the ball, he occupies the space vacated by Eustáquio and beats the out-rushing Miller to create a three versus two situation at the back.
Having said that, Belgium still struggled to find passes between the lines because of Canada’s aggression while pressing. Despite the changes, they failed to exert control, so Martínez resorted to a 5-2-3 medium block and let Canada have possession during the last final quarter of the game. Herdman also decided to bring in form striker Cyle Larin and played Davies higher up the pitch with the hope of scoring the equalizer.
While Belgium’s backline does not possess the pace to match Canada, they certainly compensated it with their experience in the closing stages. Alderweireld, Vertonghen, and Dendoncker defended their box brilliantly as Canada continued to push men forward in search of the equalizer. In the end, Belgium were arguably lucky to get away with three points, but Martínez will not complain about the result.
On any other day, Canada could have beaten Belgium comprehensively. This performance is a wake-up call for Martínez and co. The lack of ideas to overcome Canada’s vibrant press combined with vulnerability at the back is not a good sign for a team hoping to go all the way. De Bruyne and Hazard struggled to influence the game, while Witsel and Tielemans were constantly outrun in midfield.
Perhaps it is time for Martínez to replace the old guards with the young talents his squad possesses. Nonetheless, Belgium will need to improve quickly, as they will face two opponents who are more than capable of causing upsets.
Returning to the World Cup after three and a half decades, Canada produced one of the best performances against the world’s number two side. The coordination while pressing and the defensive organization would have pleased Herdman. Unfortunately, all it took was a brief lapse in concentration, and they learned it the hard way.
Canada were the highest scorers during the CONCACAF qualifiers but left their shooting boots against Belgium and it will be difficult to qualify from here. If Canada ultimately fail to advance to the knockout stages, they will undoubtedly leave Qatar with their heads held high.
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