Can Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ Win the WC2018 in Russia?
Belgium have never been considered as one of football’s iconic nations, it is fair to say. Despite periodically producing teams which have featured world-class players, the nation has never numbered among the top ranks of soccer countries. Now, though, that could be about to change.
The current Belgium team features a host of world-class talents, playing across Europe’s top leagues. They also have an experienced coaching team, who are well aware of the level of expectation on their team, and the potential burden that that might place on the shoulders of the players.
Can this Belgium squad win the WC2018? Here, we’ll take a closer look at the squad, and give an assessment of their chances in Russia.
Whilst they can never be counted amongst the true giants of the world game, Belgian fans have had some moments to celebrate their team in the past. Those moments have been a little sparse, however.
Belgium played their first game as a national team in 1904, and they have enjoyed some success on the international stage at various points in their history. With legendary striker Paul Van Himst in the side in 1972, they finished third in the European Championships of 1972.
The 1980s was also something of a golden era for Belgians, as they finished as runners up in the 1980 European Championships, and in third place at the 1986 tournament in Mexico. Guy Thys was coach when they lost to West Germany in the final in 1980. From 1982 until 2002, the Belgians qualified for six consecutive tournaments, and usually reached the second round of those tournaments.
Players like Enzo Scifo and Jan Ceulemans were big stars of that 1980s team, and goalkeepers Jean-Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud’homme were both recognised as being amongst the best in the world during that era.
Belgium certainly have a history of producing world-class players at various stages of their footballing history, but they have never really been counted amongst the true giants of the world game, as have their neighbours the Netherlands. That could all be about to change this summer in Russia.
The Red Devils sealed their qualification in September 2017 with a 2-1 win over Greece, and were the first European team to attain their place at the tournament alongside host nation Russia. The Belgians topped UEFA Group H, registering 28 points, collected from nine wins, one draw and no defeats. Greece came second in the group, a long way back with 19 points, with the other teams in the group being Bosnia & Herzegovina, Estonia, Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Astoundingly, the Belgians scored 43 goals in the group, and conceded just six. Their passing accuracy was an impressive 89%, and they managed 214 attempts on goal in total, with 214 of those on target. Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku was both Belgium and the group’s top scorer, with him netting 11 times. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard netted six games, and Napoli’s Dries Mertens and Paris Saint-Germain’s Thomas Meunier both scored five.
The Belgium coaching team features some names which will be familiar to fans of English football. The head coach is Roberto Martinez, the former Swansea City, Wigan Athletic and Everton manager. The Spaniard’s greatest achievement in England was, of course, winning the FA Cup with the Latics in 2013. He also guided Everton into European football during his time on Merseyside.
Martinez took over as Belgium coach in 2016, a few months after being dismissed from his role at Everton. He is well aware of the quality in the Belgium squad, and told the Daily Telegraph in 2017 that there is a pressure to perform on his players. Managing the expectation is perhaps the biggest part of his job.
But he also believes that his players should revel in the expectation that comes with their talent.
“Yes, this is a golden generation in terms of the quality of the players because they are fulfilling big roles at club level now and have developed a winning-mentality,” he said.
“But tournaments don’t understand about ‘golden generations’ or big reputations.
“They understand about being a team and being able to perform. That is my biggest intention: to allow what we all call in Belgium the ‘golden generation’ to enjoy the responsibility they are carrying.”
In the same interview, the Spaniard also asserted that the chance to work with such a special group of players was the job’s big attraction.
“I’m only young in coaching years but after 265 consecutive games in the Premier League I wanted to be part of this because of this generation,” he added.
“I don’t think I wanted to be in international football. It wasn’t I wanted to be an international coach. It is that I wanted to work with this group of players. I had an incredible curiosity about them.”
Martinez’s assistant coach is former Arsenal striker Thierry Henry. Although the Frenchman sometimes cops some criticism for the lack of meaningful insight his Sky Sports punditry offers, he does have plenty of experience of coping with expectation.
He is also a tournament winner, having been part of the successful France squad which won the tournament on home ground in 1998. His insights into what it takes to succeed at the very highest level will be key to Belgium’s chances of success this summer.
The Belgian squad is stuffed full of individual world-class talents, most of whom are plying their trade in Europe’s top leagues. There is a large group of Premier League players, who will be key to the Red Devils’ chances of success in Russia. Martinez tends to favour a 3-4-3 system, with the emphasis very much on attack. Give the players at his disposal, that is hardly surprising. Here, we’ll take a closer look at each section of the team, so you can see exactly what kind of quality the Red Devils can deploy in Russia.
Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois should be Belgium’s number one goalkeeper in Russia. The 25-year-old, who will be 26 by the time the tournament kicks off, has established himself as one of the Premier League’s top shot-stoppers since moving to Stamford Bridge from his loan spell at Atletico Madrid in 2014. Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet offers good quality cover, should anything happen to Courtois, even though he has found game time at Anfield hard to come by in recent weeks.
Manchester City veteran Vincent Kompany remains the mainstay of the Belgian back line, and usually plays in the middle of the back three. On his left, Tottenham Hostpur’s Jan Vertonghen is a classy, truly left-sided defender who has become an experienced player during his time in the Premier League.
On the other side of Kompany, Vertonghen’s Spurs team mate Toby Alderweireld often occupies the right sided centre back berth. He suffered a hamstring injury in November, though which has seen his game time limited this season. Martinez has stated that the defender needs to be playing to nail down a spot at the tournament.
The Red Devils also possess strength at wing back, in the form of Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, now playing in China with Dalian Yifang, and Thomas Meunier, who has been a strong performer on the right-hand side with Paris Saint Germain this season.
One potential weakness could be a lack of depth in defence, though, with the quality in the squad looking a little threadbare if one of the first-choice players suffers an injury.
Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City provides most of the team’s creative thrust in the middle of the park. De Bruyne has netted seven goals this season for City. But what will be of more interest to the likes of Lukaku and Hazard who play in front of him for Belgium is his assists tally. The midfielder has recorded 15 assists in the Premier League in 2017/18. He has also hit 11 accurate long balls, a sign that Belgium can play in a direct style when things get tough.
Anchoring the midfield is Axel Witsel, currently playing his club football with Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian. He played nine games in qualifying, and scored two goals. Witsel has plenty of experience, having won 88 caps for Belgium, and having played in the 2014 tournament and at Euro 2016.
Manchester United’s Marouanne Fellaini also provides a different type of option if required. Fellaini offers power and strength, as well as a real threat in the air, giving Martinez a bit of variety when he needs to take a slightly different approach.
If you need a good example of how money can’t buy success, then just take a look at Southampton’s fortunes. Despite massive spending sprees on the likes of Guido Carrillo, their £223 million squad is languishing in the relegation zone. And their habit of selling homegrown stars like Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott at the first opportunity shows that this team need to think a little better about how they manage their money.
When you assess this Belgium squad on the individual quality of the players in the group, you have to say that they have every chance of at least reaching the final. Players like De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku can break down the best defences in the world. Further back in the team, Kompany and Vertonghen are two of the best defenders in Europe, and probably the world. The midfield is not short of a few options either.
But tournaments are not won on paper, as Martinez will know. It is all very well having the best players, but tournament football is about moulding a unit which has the flexibility to cope with different challenges, and is bound together with a strong spirit and collective ethos.
England once had a ‘golden generation’ of players, and their performance in tournaments was, generally speaking, execrable. One senses, however, that this Belgian team possesses more psychological resilience than their English equivalents did, and probably more overall ability.
This Belgium team is certainly capable of beating every other team in the tournament. They do not have the tournament pedigree or history of sides such as Germany, Brazil or Argentina, so it will be interesting to see how the players cope with being amongst the favourites, something which comes as a matter of course to those teams who have won the tournament multiple times before.
If the Red Devils have the luck that a side always requires to win the WC2018, and their top players all perform to their best, as well as staying free of injury, then they have every chance of going all the way. Their main barrier to success may be psychological, but if they believe that they can win it, they certainly have the ability to do so.
Belgium are in Group G of the competition, along with England, Tunisia and Panama. They open their campaign against Panama in Sochi’s Fisht Stadium on June 18, before heading to Moscow, where they play Tunisia in the Spartak Stadium on June 23. Their concluding group game is against England in Kaliningrad, at the Kaliningrad Stadium on June 28.
William Hill has priced Belgium at 11/1 to win the tournament, making them sixth favourites. That bookmaker has Brazil and Germany as joint favourites for the competition at odds of 9/2. They also have Belgium priced at 5/1 to reach the final, 7/4 to reach the semi-finals, and 4/7 to reach the quarter-finals. Another interesting Belgian bet is for Romelu Lukaku to be the tournament’s top scorer, which William Hill have at 16/1. Eden Hazard is priced at 33/1 to be the WC2018’s top scorer.