A Generation’s Last Chance

For the past decade, success has been an expectation for Belgium, as their greatest set of players assembled at the same time. Having suffered just one defeat in three years, Roberto Martínez must prop up an ageing defense to be the launchpad for an attack that is well into its peak.

Written by Joel Parker.

Like the Adventures of Tintin, this Belgium team had travelled across the globe, without seeming to age a day. A year’s delay to the European Championship has sent a loud reminder; time is running out for the world’s number one ranked team to live up to their potential in international competition. 

Belgium go into the Euros with the oldest squad picked: ten players are in their thirties, while Jeremy Doku is the only player under the age of 23. Injuries to Axel Witsel, Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne prior to the competitions kick-off, can also hinder Belgium’s on-pitch quality going forward.

Nevertheless, this is a team that has maintained its immense level over the years. With age comes experience and Belgium have operated within the same tactical framework since the arrival of Roberto Martínez five years ago. In this tournament preview, we look at the tactical approach Belgium has adopted, the mechanics within it and whether it has the quality of taking Belgium to EURO 2020 glory.

Belgium in the 3-4-3 shape

Since the start of his tenure, Martínez deployed a 3-4-3 system and has stuck to it ever since. With virtually the same body of players, his personnel have become accustomed to playing within this formation and the principles dictated by the profile of players selected. 

The bulk of their ball-progression comes down the right side of the field, which is no surprise as Martínez often fields a midfield line of predominantly right footers. This results in possession flowing towards Belgium’s right when circulating the ball. Toby Alderweireld is the player starting most buildups, as his range and execution exceeds his fellow center-backs. With Axel Witsel in a desperate rush to get fit, the duo of Leander Dendoncker and Youri Tielemans are most likely to start as the double pivot. Two central midfielders next to each other.

Belgium’s 3-4-3 formation, which can transition into multiple shapes due to midfielders’ movements, versus Denmark’s 4-4-2 defensive block.

Though both Dendoncker and Tielemans can operate in similar positions, both offer very different profiles when in possession. Tielemans prefers the right side and can both offer a deeper line-breaking pass or be on the receiving end of one, to link with the strikers, between the lines. Although Dendoncker’s range is more limited, he is more the type to move behind the opposing midfielder and dominate the aerial battle.

Martínez’s wing-back choices often involve a winger being picked on the left and a more natural wing-back down the right. Both sit high and wide to pin their opposite numbers deep, but in the final third,  the left wing-back can play more central when the ball is on the other side to join the forwards for the cross, whether that is Nacer Chadli, Thorgan Hazard or Yannick Carrasco.

Belgium’s buildup is flexible but can face issues when their shape is matched. Against England at Wembley, the opposition matched their 3-4-3 shape, with an emphasis on blocking lanes to the double pivot, which led to Belgium playing exclusively down the channels. Fortunately for Belgium, improvised movements from their attackers can come up with resolutions.

Roaming De Bruyne provides solutions

Kevin de Bruyne is often selected as one of the tens, but is given ultimate positional freedom to roam where play dictates. He never sticks to one position, within this system, and such movement can give Belgium fresh dynamism when they move the ball forward.

He can drop deeper to create a midfield three, as well as pick up really wide positions, behind the wing-back, to turn and drive the ball forward. Having three midfielders, who exchange positions can make their positioning between the lines suboptimal, but De Bruyne, Tielemans and Dendoncker can keep Belgium’s center balanced and evade being man marked by opponents.

Kevin de Bruyne’s consistent rotation enabled a passing lane to open for Toby Alderweireld and pull England’s 3-4-3 set-up out of their shape.

De Bruyne’s role can also shift the positioning of the two attackers. Dries Mertens can start on either side of the front three, but can also operate as another striker, whilst De Bruyne can move into more central positions.  

What makes his injury problems a concern for Martínez is that he doesn’t have another creator that can truly replicate his attributes. Dennis Praet and Hans Vanaken are the backup tens but offer different stylistic choices. Praet is a strong presser whilst Vanaken can roam and make excellent passes from deep, but neither have the sheer directness and world-class ability that makes De Bruyne such a constant threat.

Lukaku scores but disconnected in buildup

Lukaku has been Belgium’s crown jewel out of their striking options over the past decade, perhaps going into this tournament in the form of his career. However, a difference in buildup patterns sees Lukaku’s influence drop, when compared to how he has operated in Italy. 

For Internazionale, Lukaku is the focal point; able to dictate with his lateral movements in front of defenders and his trademark back-to-goal linkup play, to bring other attacking options into the game. It’s a structure that gets the very best out of Lukaku, which has seen him dominate Serie A in both goals and creative numbers, but this does not entirely translate to when he features for Belgium.

Belgium’s way of attacking is more patient and passive. Although Alderweireld possesses the long-range passing ability to make this happen, Martínez’s team does not pull their opposition forward as regularly as Antonio Conte’s team did. As a result, Lukaku has not been involved in sequences outside of the box for his national team.

Recent friendlies against Greece and Croatia showcased what Belgium can get out of Lukaku in different scenarios. Against Greece, Lukaku had very little presence on the game’s events, as Belgium’s buildup was nullified. Versus a Croatia defense that set up higher, Lukaku was able to drop towards the right side of the field and was significantly more involved. 

Christian Benteke and Michy Batshuayi are the natural nines who can replace Lukaku, but league form has seen their stock drop since the previous tournaments. Leandro Trossard is a forward who can both drop to create overloads, When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. whilst laterally move out of wide positions to become a dangerous shooting option. Jeremy Doku is by far the youngest out of the Belgium squad, whose end product is yet to blossom, but his ball-carrying ability makes him an excellent option in getting the ball into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal.

The captain is Eden Hazard, despite barely featuring over the past two years due to continuous injury problems. When played, Martínez hasn’t tampered with Hazard’s role, controlling the left halfspace, 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. providing his teammates with his elite one-versus-one ability and line-splitting passes. How much we would see of Hazard is hard to predict, but anywhere near his Chelsea form would be a strong addition to a loaded attack.

The defensive plan

Out of possession, Belgium rarely engages in a high press, in favor of staying in their 3-4-3 formation. They encourage the opposition to pass the ball down the channels, with the three forwards part of the same flat line and using their cover shadow to block lanes into the opposing midfielders. 

Once the ball has reached the fullback, the Belgian forward would apply pressure, whilst the wing-back would remain deeper to protect the center-back. This is an important mechanism in Belgium’s defensive approach, as they can keep the channel compact and protect their ageing center-backs from being isolated with a runner. 

However, with different varieties in wing-back options, their defensive block A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block. can tilt in certain phases. With no active pressure in place, a two-versus-one situation can be created on Jan Vertonghen, if the opposition were to switch the ball down that channel.  

When the ball moves past the halfway line, their organization resembles a 5-2-3 / 5-4-1 medium-to-low block. The three center-backs remain very central, whilst the wing-back on the side of the ball and midfielder responsible for applying pressure out wide. As Finland and Russia will look to attack Belgium from crosses or transitional situations, keeping their center-backs central is crucial to dealing with these events.

16th minute: Buildup to Denmark’s equalizer, versus Belgium back in November. Thomas Delaney can break two lines because of bad staggering. Space opens on the side of center-midfielders for Christian Eriksen to receive.

Another route through the Belgium block can open on the shoulders of their center-midfielders. Both Dendoncker and Tielemans can mark potential receivers in an aggressive manner, which can allow space to draw open in this area for a roaming forward to drop into. Denmark had exploited this effectively in their Nations League meetup, which involved Eriksen moving laterally and into a position where he was able to turn, which led to their early equalizer. 

Goals also conceded against Iceland and the Czech Republic contain similar traits, where a lane opened up on either the midfielders shoulder or blindside and a vertical pass can be made. Belgian center-backs retreat in these situations, which enables the opposition receiver to turn and drive forward. 

Defending in a 5-2-3 / 5-4-1 shape is a sensible approach for Martínez to choose, as the center-backs can protect a lot less space than they would in a back four. Having said that, defensive frailties have been a common trait in Martínez teams and his Belgium setup is no exception; not to the extent of Wigan or Everton, but there are still routes through. With better staggering and more aggression from the center-backs, these issues can be eradicated.


Belgium deploy a flexible game plan and patterns that are more established when compared to some of the other national sides. They also go into the group stages in serious form, ten wins out of ten in qualifiers and scoring forty goals in the process.

In a group containing Denmark, Finland and Russia, Belgium should be able to progress through comfortably. If they can optimize Romelu Lukaku even further, as well as get a late run out of Eden Hazard, then Belgium are serious contenders, to get to the final hurdles. 

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Joel Parker (21) is an Everton fan. Whenever he’s not watching his beloved Everton, Joel spends his time analyzing all sorts of football. Chief editor and Founder of Toffee Analysis. [ View all posts ]


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