Matches like Belgium’s 2-1 victory over Brazil serve to underline the difficulty of assessing managers’ strategic decisions.
On one hand, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez stunned Brazil by using an entirely unexpected system, deploying key players in new roles and shifting smoothly between a three-man defence and a back four. Belgium went ahead early, counter-attacked for a second goal, then dropped deep to defend their lead. It was strategic genius.
On the other, Belgium started nervously, were twice fortunate not to go behind, were gifted their opener by an unforced Brazilian error, then conceded too much possession and space in wide areas, were outfoxed by Tite’s tactical changes, and relied upon debatable refereeing decisions and poor Brazilian finishing to scrape through. The ‘expected goals’ models suggest this should have been a comfortable Brazil win.
What is undeniable, however, is that Martinez’s tactical decisions made for fascinating viewing. Having previously used a 3-4-3 formation throughout this tournament, here he switched to a 4-3-1-2, or arguably a 4-3-3 with a false nine, and used Romelu Lukaku as a right-sided forward, a position he’d occasionally played under Martinez at Everton with great success. Eden Hazard was therefore playing the part of Kevin Mirallas, which roughly works based upon nationality alone, and left Kevin De Bruyne as the Steven Naismith figure, a less obvious comparison.
After Belgium had survived a couple of set-piece scares and Fernandinho had diverted a corner into his own net, Belgium’s system truly came alive on the counter-attack at 1-0 up. As the first half continued, it became clear Belgium’s approach had a further nuance: although it was a four-man defence without possession, when Belgium won the ball they reverted to a back three, with Nacer Chadli shuttling to the left, and Thomas Meunier pushing forward down the right.
The runs of the latter became particularly important, because Brazil simply weren’t defending the left flank. Marcelo, when not caught upfield at turnovers, was dragged inside by Lukaku. Meunier was free on the overlap on two notable occasions in the first half, first when he played a low cross towards Lukaku, then when his presence meant the overloaded Marcelo couldn’t close down De Bruyne properly, allowing the midfielder to drive home Belgium’s second.
Brazil appeared utterly incapable of defending counter-attacks throughout the first half, with Fernandinho proving a disastrous replacement for the suspended Casemiro. De Bruyne was continually left unmarked at turnovers, allowed to bring the ball down and dribble at the Brazilian defence, with Hazard to his left and Lukaku breaking inside from the right, Martinez’s dream scenario. Fernandinho was often covering for Fagner at right-back, and Marcelo was too high up the pitch. Belgium, in truth, didn’t take full advantage of these situations, with a couple of underhit passes from De Bruyne preventing his side from converting promising counter-attacks into goalscoring chances.
Brazil may have failed to defend the left flank properly, but the combination of Marcelo, Philippe Coutinho and Neymar looked dangerous going forward, often overloading Meunier, excellent offensively but overrun defensively. Marouane Fellaini lacked the mobility to support him and Lukaku remained in an attacking position, a calculated gamble. Brazil made inroads.
Tite changed things at half-time, introducing Roberto Firmino in place of the underwhelming Willian, with Gabriel Jesus moving to the right. Tite subsequently brought on Douglas Costa in place of Jesus, ending up with the Neymar-Firmino-Costa forward trio that many observers would have preferred from the outset. Tite remained loyal to Jesus, who starred in qualification, but in Russia Brazil haven’t stretched opponents enough without the presence of Costa down the right.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, it was Brazil’s third substitute, Renato Augusto, who provided the greatest goal threat having replaced Paulinho. With Jan Vertonghen now dragged wide because of Costa’s threat, and Kompany too attracted to Firmino’s movement into clever inside-left positions, space opened up between them. Augusto twice charged into that space, first to nod home Coutinho’s excellent chip, then receiving a low pass, again from Coutinho, before sidefooting wide of the far post.
This was where Belgium’s hybrid defensive approach fell down: at transitions they were sometimes caught between taking the positions of a back four and a back three. Gaps appeared, and they should have been punished long before Martinez eventually switched to a 5-3-1-1 for the final 10 minutes.
Equally, Belgium should have exploited their own counter-attacking chances. After an hour, they again found themselves in Martinez’s ideal situation: De Bruyne dribbling through the centre, Hazard free left and Lukaku available on the right. De Bruyne switched the ball left to Hazard, who shot across goal when he might have squared for Lukaku.
Ultimately it was Brazil who will rue their misses, with Meunier increasingly incapable of stopping Neymar. Brazil’s star man squared for Firmino, who shot over on the spin, then he pulled the ball back for Coutinho, who sliced hopelessly wide. Thibaut Courtois palmed over his curled effort in stoppage time, but Belgium’s goalkeeper was forced into relatively few saves considering Belgium’s number of chances.
Afterwards, Martinez reminded television viewers that matches are won on the pitch, rather than the tactics board. Rarely in this tournament, however, has a tactics board been so crucial in understanding the nature of a game.
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