Marc Wilmots would have been hoping for a show of support from his players after Belgium’s 3-1 defeat by Wales in the quarter-finals of the European Championship on Friday. Instead, he effectively received a declaration of no confidence.
“He has to make his own decision,” Thibaut Courtois responded when asked whether the Belgium manager should continue in the job. “I gave him my opinion in the dressing room.”
Football is a collective endeavour and it is rarely possible to pin the blame for a loss on just one individual, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Belgium’s premature exit from this summer’s competition was a gross failing of management.
Leading an international team is not easy. There is limited time to work with players on the training field, which means it can be difficult to establish the type of defined playing identity that club sides are able to hone through constant repetition during a 10-month domestic season.
It is no coincidence that Spain and Germany, the only two European countries to have got their hands on a trophy since the 2006 World Cup, have relied heavily on a core of players from Barcelona (five starters in the final of Euro 2012) and Bayern Munich (six starters in the World Cup final two years ago) respectively, with both nations benefitting from the on-field rapport that already existed among multiple members of their first teams.
Italy have similarly benefitted from the presence of Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and centre-halves Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini this summer, although Antonio Conte deserves immense credit for successfully imbuing the rest of the side with a clear model of play – something that many other coaches have been unable to do at this level.
Indeed, while Italy and Wales have shown exactly how to ooze every last ounce from their players and produce a team that amounts to more than sum of its parts, Belgium have done the exact opposite. There is plenty of quality within their squad – Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne are two of the most talented attackers in the entire tournament – but Wilmots’s inability to fit everything together and demonstrate any sort of tactical nous has proved to their undoing.
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The contrast with Wales in Lille on Friday was stark: whereas Chris Coleman’s men possessed an intelligible system and strategy, Belgium lacked clarity and coherence. They were not quite as open as in previous matches against Italy and Sweden, but there were still plenty of occasions when Wales were able to slip passes in between the lines and move the ball into dangerous areas far too easily, with the space between the front and back of the Belgian team far too big.
Compactness without the ball is a key characteristic of almost all of the strongest sides in today’s game. Unlike establishing intricate patterns of attacking movement, it does not take an extended period of time to master, and the fact that his side have been so unorganised out of possession is a rather damning indictment of Wilmots and his coaching staff.
The plan to swing the tie back in Belgium’s favour did not work, either. Marouane Fellaini was introduced in place of Yannick Carraso at half time with the scores tied at 11, with Belgium’s attacks consequently becoming increasingly centred on launching balls into the box for the Manchester United man to challenge for in the air.
Fellaini did win a fair few headers – and should have scored with one – but while such a strategy is understandable when chasing a goal in the final few minutes, it was frankly baffling to see De Bruyne’s best qualities nullified as a result of being shifted out wide with so much time remaining as Belgium focused on sending hopeful crosses towards Fellaini.
Wilmots remains in his post at the time of writing but it is difficult to see how he can survive beyond this competition, when Belgium promised so much but delivered so little.
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