Belgium – Russia: Devils Show A Class Above (3-0)
The second matchday will be remembered for its traumatic events hours before, but we got a game of football. Romelu Lukaku dedicated a fine victory to Christian Eriksen, in which the Belgian striker was the centerpiece in a flexible Belgium attack.
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Group B of the European Championship contains the widest variety of expectations. Belgium are quick to point out that they are the underdog, but the makeup of the squad suggests a team that is more than capable of lifting the trophy.
Under Roberto Martínez, they have established a strong blueprint, built around the 3-4-3 formation and spearheaded by the profiles on the pitch. With Kevin de Bruyne injured, Romelu Lukaku is expected to be the team’s focal point in possession, but Belgium have issues getting the ball to their main striker. In their last friendly against Croatia, more positive signs were shown, but translating this into the tournament will be a key factor.
Stanislav Cherchesov came in at the same time as Martínez and has implemented a flexible system, which can transition from building in a back four to a three quite comfortably. The two tens of Aleksandr Golovin and Aleksei Miranchuk provide dynamism and creativity, although the latter had to settle for a substitute appearance here. Mostly though, this is a team that still evolves itself around the gigantic Artem Dzyuba upfront.
Both Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard were not included in the starting eleven, as Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco were part of the front three, completed by Romelu Lukaku. Dedryck Boyata was preferred in the heart of the center-backs, while Timothy Castagne was picked ahead of Thomas Meunier, as the right wing-back.
Out of the 4-2-3-1 formation, Russia started with a very experienced backline, which can see right back Mário Fernandes stay deeper, while left back Yury Zhirkov push further ahead and vice versa. Golovin started in the ten position, completed by Daler Kuzyaev and Roman Zobnin on either side.
Flexible Belgium flow through Russia
Belgium’s superiority came to the forefront from the early stages, as they began to control possession out of their dynamic 3-4-3 formation. Progressing the ball was an easy task for Martínez’s team, due to Leander Dendoncker and Youri Tielemans constantly adapting their positions in the center of the field, to ensure that a passing lane was always open.
They were able to get up to the halfway line comfortably, against a Russian press that was uncoordinated and poorly executed. They aimed to press out of the 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape, but this involved Dzyuba and Golovin pressing more aggressively with a poorly staggered midfield line behind them. Building with three center-backs against two forwards enabled both Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen to receive, carry the ball forward and distribute the ball from wider positions.
3rd minute: Belgium able to play through a poorly staggered Russia press, by moving the ball back towards the right channel.
When past the halfway line, Belgium’s shape transitioned into a 3-2-4-1 shape, with Timothy Castagne and Thorgan Hazard maintaining the width, while Mertens and Carrasco sat narrower. This created a box in the center of the field where Belgium could circulate the ball effectively. Progression was accessible for two reasons; firstly, Russia’s pressing triggers A pressing trigger is a specific pass or movement by the opponent that draws out a coordinated team press. continued to be mistimed, which opened a lot of space for the inside forwards and secondly, the rotations between wing-back and forward enabled separation against opposition markers.
At the start of the half, Lukaku stuck to Russia’s defensive line to pin the center-backs deep, but this alternated as the first period progressed. He started to move into both halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. more, which provided more flexibility, as Mertens or Carrasco could move into the center-forward position and four-versus-three overloads When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. were made down the channels.
Belgium’s ball circulation was effective at moving the ball between the lines, even if the sheer numbers forward made their shape look a little imbalanced during phases. The source of their shot creation came from low crosses towards the penalty area, where their two first-half goals came from.
For their first goal, Mertens was able to receive in acres of space due to bad transitioning from the Russian defense. Daler Kuzyaev joined the defensive line when deep, which made Russia move into a 5-3-2 low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. As Magomed Ozdoev was dragged centrally, Dendoncker could pass to Mertens, who turned and crossed the ball towards the area. A bad touch from Andrey Semenov teed up Lukaku, who just wasn’t going to miss.
The second goal came from a more regular pattern. Alderweireld switched from right to left, towards an overload of Belgium players. Rotation amongst Carrasco and Thorgan Hazard, enabled Hazard to receive a Tielemans pass in space and deliver a cross. The cross was spilt by Anton Shunin, into the path of Meunier, who replaced the injured Castagne just a few minutes before, to slot the ball in from close range.
33rd minute: Buildup to Belgium’s second goal. Alderweireld is able to switch play, into a Belgium overload, before rotation down that channel enables Thorgan Hazard to put a cross into an optimal position.
Varied shapes with one-dimensional attack
When adapting your team’s shape, one would expect a change due to a principle or pattern that is put in place, to provide your team with another way of moving the ball. This did not apply to Russia’s approach, whose form of attack didn’t match the variety of shapes they could start them in.
They built in a mixture of a back two and three, depending on the movement of the fullbacks. Both Fernandes and Zhirkov could either drop next to the center-backs or push further ahead to sit alongside the winger. This gave Russia an asymmetric setup and could see players cluster towards one area, but they did not utilize this with short passing exchanges.
Belgium defended in their usual 3-4-3 shape, but only engaged in higher pressing situations when Russia was moving the ball backwards. Georgiy Dzhikiya and Semenov had time in possession but the staggering of the rest of the team resulted in short sequences not being accessible.
Positions for Russian long balls forward. Asymmetric setup, but players not close to the target man and space down channels not utilized.
As a result, the long ball to Dzyuba became the only option for a limited Russia offense. The striker moved into the halfspaces, but what made their approach even weirder was the fact that the target man wasn’t anchored in support. When Russia decided to go long, it was without close options to build transitions off and Cherchesov’s team failed to create shots because of it. Russia’s shape often changed, but the principle of ‘take it in turns to hit it to Dzyuba’ remained in place, rather than offer something new.
A slow second period
At the start of the second half, Russia’s build became more of a regularity as the game fell into an even possession spell. Although Russia had cleared some defensive issues, as they sat in a 5-3-2 shape and toned down their pressing intensity, they had no solution for their passing problems.
Belgium also faced buildup issues of their own, as their patient short passes into uncrowded areas turned into longer balls down the channels, from either the wide center-backs or Thibaut Courtois. The first fifteen minutes was Russia’s better part of the game, but with zero offensive product. In the same time period, Russia produced two shots to Belgium’s one, but after this, the next registered attempt wouldn’t come until the 88th minute.
Martínez’s team regained fruitless control, while their shape moved back into their 3-4-3 in the buildup. As a result, there was less penetration on the defensive line and rotations were not formed down the channels, with the wingbacks playing at a further distance from the inside forwards. Eden Hazard was given crucial minutes, but Belgium had already done the damage in the first half.
Belgium polished off their opponents with an excellent third before the final whistle. Meunier was given the room to motor through, before sliding a fantastic pass into Lukaku’s path, to score his fortieth goal in his last 38 games for the national team.
With the potential of third-place seeing you through, it is still far too early to write a team off at this stage, but Russia already has a lot to do to get back to their World Cup highs. A poor offensive approach, combined with poor defensive execution is not a good mix and Cherchesov needs to help deliver more routes through.
Belgium blitzed through, with a lot of encouraging signs within their buildup play in the first half. Lukaku was the centerpiece, while flexible forwards enabled them to get into good positions. Having said that, important areas can still be massively open when losing the ball high up and teams with a more coherent transitional threat could exploit this more effectively.
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