SOMEWHAT incredibly, Belgium are still ranked second in the world by FIFA – which probably says more about their rankings than Roberto Martinez’s actual chances of glory in Qatar.
They are favourites to win their group – up against Canada, Morocco and Croatia but the tournament could get a lot harder from that moment.
Is it their last chance? Can they improve on their previous tournament results?
Predicted starting XI
Below is the starting XI we believe Roberto Martínez will be hoping he can start the tournament with.
Roberto Martínez will set Belgium up in a 3-4-3 formation.
However, what variant of the 3-4-3 he plays will determine who plays as part of the three-man attacking line.
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The former Everton manager has been flexible with his attacking line throughout both the qualifying and Nations League campaigns, switching between a 3-4-3, 3-4-2-1 and a 3-4-1-2.
The 3-4-2-1 formation with two number 10s allows Martínez to be able to get both Hazard and De Bruyne in the team at the same time without compromising any defensive structure.
They will no doubt be playing Romelu Lukaku, who is Belgium’s top scorer.
Witsel and Tielemans will start as the double pivot that provides the balance in midfield and Amadou Onana will feature as the primary backup in this position.
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Anderlecht defender Zeno Debast has started the last two Nations League matches and could well be the player to start the tournament alongside Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld.
Although how Martínez sets them up positionally could prove decisive.
An alternative option would be to play Jason Denayer in defence and have him play in the centre of the three.
This allows Alderweireld to play on the outside and get involved in the way Martínez requires.
It also provides defensive benefits as Denayer can provide a quicker recovery to Vertonghen and Alderweireld which could help counter their vulnerability to balls played over the top and through the half-spaces.
Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier are likely to start the tournament in the wing-back positions, but this will be the area that Roberto Martínez rotates the most throughout the tournament.
Timothy Castagne will feature as the main backup and could even start in place of either Meunier or Carrasco as he can play down both sides.
Belgium will attempt to control each game through possession.
Keeping possession and being patient with the ball is the core of Roberto Martínez’s tactical philosophy.
During the build-up phase, Belgium will build up through the centre-backs.
The team will then change into a 3-2-4-1 shape as the wing backs start to push high and maintain width as the image below shows.
As the two central midfielders drop deeper so will the two number 10’s. This creates a box midfield centrally.
Belgium’s wing-backs like to push up high and maintain width
Overloading the pitch centrally during this stage of the build-up draws the opposition inside and makes them stay compact as they attempt to block the passing lanes into De Bruyne and Hazard.
When the opposition presses them high and tries to stop them build up through the centre, Belgium will look to beat the press by creating overloads on the wings.
You can see the 4v2 overload in the image below and how Poland has six players moving further towards Belgium’s goal.
This suits Belgium as it creates more space to attack.
Overloads are created in wide areas to beat the opposition press
As they move up the pitch their attacking shape maintains the 3-2-4-1 as they look to put as much pressure on their opponent’s defensive line.
The two number 10’s will play higher and pick up pockets of space closer to the striker and look to exploit the space in between the lines.
De Bruyne and Hazard split their runs – with one going deep and another in front
The image above shows how Belgium entered the attacking third.
In this image, De Bruyne and Hazard split their runs with one running behind the midfield and one running in front.
This disrupts their opponent’s midfield line. Having players with this level of individual ability allows Martínez to give his players freedom within his tactics.
Teams tend to allow Belgium to keep possession of the ball and look to combat that with a solid and organized defensive block. This is when the importance of the two numbers 10’s in Belgium’s formations comes to show.
Their ability off the ball and their ability to see space to exploit help disrupt the opponent’s defensive shape but also create space for others.
De Bruyne and Hazard coming towards the ball draws the opponents out of position
For a team that looks to keep as much of the ball as possible Belgium are a lot more vulnerable when they lose possession than they should be.
At times it is clear the team lack a plan on how to react when they lose the ball.
A team who wants to keep possession of the ball naturally will want to win the ball back as soon as they lose it, so they will inevitably look to counter-press to win the ball back.
Belgium don’t press as aggressively as they did when Martínez first took over in 2016.
When they lose possession, Belgium now looks to transition to a 5-2-3 or a 5-2-2-1 defensive block .
This image shows The Red Devils defending.
Belgium keep their shape but still put pressure on the ball
They are still maintaining pressure on the ball but it is man orientated while the rest of the team maintains the shape.
You can see how they pushed Poland to one side of the pitch with little opportunity to play through them or play over them because of how compact they are.
The image below shows Yannick Carrasco immediately looking to put pressure on Poland right back before he receives the ball.
Carrasco puts pressure on the Poland right-back before he gets the ball
Their high block differs, as they don’t look to pressure on the ball until the first pass out of defence is made.
They will let the opposing centre-backs hold possession and then once the first pass is made, the individual press is triggered.
The image below shows this. Michy Batshuayi is not putting pressure on the ball carrier. The whole team is keeping shape until the first pass out of defence is made.
This is so the team can keep a limited amount of space between the two number 10s and the two central midfielders.
Batshuayi stands off the ball carrier while the whole team keeps shape
Playing high up the pitch and not exerting constant pressure on the ball leaves Belgium vulnerable to long balls behind their defence and with the lack of pace between the centre backs it represents a high-risk approach.
The way Belgium set up their defensive block makes it look like they will counter-attack aggressively during their attacking transition.
However, this is not the case. When Belgium win possession, they look to regain control of the ball and regain a positional play structure.
This image is a prime example of how Martínez wants them to remain patient when they win the ball.
As Poland’s attack breaks down and Tielemans regains the ball, you can see how he has two possible passing options available to progress the ball forward and transition quickly into an attack.
Patience is key when Belgium win the ball
The image below shows Belgium’s defensive transition.
At this point, there is lots of space behind Belgium’s wingbacks for Poland’s attack.
The wing-backs are out of position which is expected because of the attacking influence they hold when Belgium are in possession.
Opposition teams can exploit space behind Belgium’s wing-backs
The defence has often been considered Belgium’s Achilles heel – Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld have had the label of being the weak link for years and they are still there, just older.
But, they completely understand the system and can still provide an important platform for the team to build on.
As a team that craves midfield domination, this is a crucial area for Martinez. Witsel and Tielemens will be important, as will the wing-backs in Martinez’s system.
4-3-2-1 can quickly become 3-2-5 if the players are on form.
And they have Kevin de Bruyne who has started the Premier League season in exceptional form.
So much depends on the fitness of Romelu Lukaku – at the time of writing, he’d only played three times for Inter and had been injured since August.
If he’s fit, he starts – if not, it’s likely to be Michy Batshuayi so that the side can play the same way.
If Martinez gets creative, we could see Hazard play there but that would involve quite a change in their approach.
Here’s a shock – Kevin de Bruyne is Belgium’s key player.
Martinez builds the side around him and he is given complete freedom to play in areas of the pitch where he can hurt teams.
He won’t do much for Belgium defensively – but keep him fresh to get on the ball and you can see how he ranks in all the attacking metrics.
A lot of people are looking at Messi’s final swan song – but could De Bruyne go out with a bang?
It feels like we said this in the last tournament and maybe even the tournament before, but it feels like the last chance saloon for Belgium’s golden generation and even Martinez himself.
Having reached the last eight in 2014 then the last four in Russia, they will be hoping they can at least reach the final here.
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It won’t be easy – if they win the group as expected they will get either Germany or Spain. After that, Portugal, Brazil or Uruguay could well be their last eight opponents.
Just matching their third place from 2018 will be a massive achievement and we are predicting that they could be the first big name to fall in the knockouts – going out in the Round of 16.
For even more detailed analysis of all 32 teams in the FIFA World Cup 2022, download your copy of the November Total Football Analysis magazine here