Belgium – Switzerland: Roberto Martínez fights fire with fire to spark game into life in second half (2-1)
Roberto Martínez used the half-time break to make adjustments that not only addressed Switzerland’s attacking threat, but gave Belgium the upper hand going forward. Commanding Thomas Meunier to push further forward and instructing Romelu Lukaku to play wider put Switzerland’s attacking plans into disarray.
The UEFA Nations League has thrown up a number of exciting three-way groups to play out over the final months of 2018. Belgium and Switzerland, however, find themselves effectively in a head-to-head battle to reach the Finals next summer, due to Iceland’s fall from grace. Belgium (3-0) and Switzerland (6-0) have both defeated the Icelanders with ease, making this effectively the first of a two-legged playoff for the first spot in the group.
Belgium lined up in their usual 3-4-3 formation. Jan Vertonghen’s injury forced Roberto Martínez’ only change to his starting lineup, with Barcelona’s Thomas Vermaelen coming into play at the left side of the back three – completed by Toby Alderweireld and Vincent Kompany.
Meunier and Yannick Carrasco were deployed wide and certainly in the first half were more focussed on their defensive roles than getting forward. This is partly due to the attacking width being ably provided by Dries Mertens and Eden Hazard, who lined up either side of Lukaku.
Switzerland had experimented with a back three in their September friendly defeat to England (1-0). Despite the result, Vladimir Petković had seen enough to deploy the same approach in this competitive game, albeit with the implementation of Nico Elvedi, Michael Lang and Remo Freuler to the side. Granit Xhaka sat in front of the defensive line with Xherdan Shaqiri playing just off Haris Seferović in attack.
Switzerland’s shape allowed Zuber and Freuler to double up on Meunier. Ball displayed at the feet of central midfielder Granit Xhaka.
Switzerland target Belgium’s right
As soon at the match started, Switzerland’s passing was more accurate and at a higher tempo than Belgium’s. They had a clear plan in attack – to double up on the left flank with Steven Zuber, who was joined more often than not by Freuler. This provided Meunier difficulties in deciding who he needed to mark. Alderweireld could not always provide assistance, because he had to mark Shaqiri, who is arguably Switzerland’s best player. This way, the Swiss were able to exploit both Meunier in one-versus-one situations and with passes in the space behind him.
The clearest chance of the first half was produced with this approach as well. Shaqiri raced onto a ball that was played low into the space behind Meunier and picked out Seferović with a low cross. The Benfica striker took an extra touch to get the ball out from under his feet – by the time Seferović got the shot off there were a number of Belgian defenders around to block the shot.
Belgium struggled to get the ball on Switzerland’s half when building up. Often passing the ball around between the back line, then playing an aimless – and unsuccessful – long ball. When they did manage to produce attacking threat, it came after a successful high press. With the ball back close to goal, and then feeding in directly to Eden Hazard is always a good idea. The very much in-form Hazard was as direct as always and his dribbles provided the most hope for the Belgian supporters.
Other than the direct running of their star player, Belgium were limited to shots from distance. Often the front three would be combining with passes midway into the Swiss half – then turning towards goal and having little option but to shoot. None of these efforts troubled Yann Sommer in the Swiss goal very much.
Martínez sees Petković’s hand, and raises.
After the half time break, there was a clear instruction for Meunier to play much further forward when Belgium was in possession. This affected Zuber on Switzerland’s left flank. Having to track the more positive movement from Meunier, Zuber was unable to get back up the pitch fast enough to provide an attacking outlet for his side. Equally, he may not have wanted to get forward so quick after Switzerland won the ball back, only to race back towards his own goal again to track Meunier.
Belgium’s positional change mostly nullified Switzerland’s attacking threat, the visitors being unable to create anything on the opposite wing, where Lang and Denis Zakaria had very absent games. Belgium did not stop there, though, as this time to generate a threat of their own rather than just combat their opponents’ one.
Lukaku moved from his central position, where he had had little success on the ground or in the air, and took up a position wider on the right. This was reminiscent of Belgium’s heroic 1-2 victory over Brazil at the World Cup in Russia.
Mertens and Hazard interchanged in the central and left positions. This put Lukaku in direct competition with Ricardo Rodríguez, who is most often deployed as a left back. This mismatch ultimately sparked the game into life.
After 57 minutes, Belgium took the lead at a moment where everything Martínez had changed fell into place. Switzerland had been pushed to a deeper defensive line which allowed Hazard to turn with the ball and pick out a pass at his own leisure. His ball into Mertens was prodded on to Meunier – positioned in the box – who in turn managed to knock the ball to his right, where Lukaku was waiting unmarked. Manchester United’s striker struck the ball first time with his left foot. While the goalkeeper may feel he could have done better, there really was little chance of Lukaku missing on his stronger side with plenty of time.
Both teams in turn abandon defensive duties.
Now trailing, the Swiss were forced into leaving more men forward when defending, in an effort to break quicker and find a route back into the match. This had the effect of giving both sides’ midfields far more time on the ball. Both teams created many minor chances over the next fifteen minutes.
For all of each sides’ efforts, it was Switzerland who struck the next goal in the 75th minute. Shaqiri’s free kick from outside the corner of the box was met by Elvedi, who beat Meunier in an aerial duel. He managed to head it back into the six-yard box where substitute Mario Gavranović was able to knock the ball past Thibaut Courtois and tie the game at 1-1.
Now it was Belgium’s turn to abandon their defensive roles, a move underlined by the replacement of Carrasco with Nacer Chadli. Switzerland switched out the disappointing Zakaria for Edimilson Fernandes, but the on-loan Fiorentina man could do nothing to stop the excellent attacking move that produced the winning goal of the match.
As so many times in international football, this game was decided by a display of world-class talent. From a deep position, Meunier played a ball towards Hazard who, with all the skill and flair you would expect, flicked the ball first time to Lukaku. The Belgium striker played a one touch one-two with Mertens and was once again in on goal with the ball at his feet. This time Lukaku took a touch to control the ball before placing it past the on-rushing goalkeeper.
A beautiful goal, that did not sprout from training drills or coherently constructed movements, but from very talented individuals having fun on the pitch.
This game was a perfect example to any coach that your tactical changes should not only address what your opponents are troubling you with, but give them some trouble back. The change of focus for Meunier and change of position for Lukaku were not the obvious solution but they certainly worked and Belgium take the upper hand in the group.
Both sides face Iceland before meeting again in November in the last match of the group. Should both sides, as expected, defeat Iceland then Switzerland will go into that match knowing that a 1-0 victory would see them progress to the Nations League Finals, the amount of away goals being the deciding factor in that scenario.