For a game that consists of 22 players and a pitch that is generally larger than 7000 square metres, football can be an awfully simple sport. For all the tactical preparation that is invested in a match, a culmination of scouting, training and continuous analysis, a single game of football is far too often decided by the best player on the pitch.
They may not necessarily be the most talented overall, but the one player who outperforms everyone on the pitch often does enough to tip the scales in his or her team’s favour. Such a phenomenon belies the trumpeted team nature of football. This World Cup has been emblematic of this, with many nations relying on the exploits of only one player to drag them into the latter stages of the tournament.
Argentina have Messi. Brazil had Neymar. Holland had Robben. The list goes on. But two unique teams are exempt from that list. One is Germany, a team that worked in effortless unison to dismantle Brazil in a display of dominance we are unlikely to see again at a World Cup. The other is their European neighbour, Belgium, a team with the potential to emulate the results of this German side in future tournaments.
Belgium, depending on your viewpoint, have either no one or everyone. Coming into the World Cup, Belgium were widely acknowledged as a dark horse that would be led by star midfielder Eden Hazard, indisputably the most naturally talented outfield player on the Belgium squad. However, contrary to this World Cup’s norm, Belgium obtained a place in the quarterfinals by virtue of consistent team performances.
Much of this can be attributed to the work of coach Marc Wilmots in instituting an apt tactical system for his players and instilling a strong level of harmony within the squad. Throughout the tournament, Belgium chose to not to rely on a single player, but on their rigid 4-3-3 formation. Such a formation offered Belgium defensive solidity with an imposing back four comprised of four specialist centre backs, with both wingers being asked to track back and disguise the fullbacks’ lack of pace when required. On the other side of the ball, the midfield trio, where Wilmots emphasised work rate over fanciful tricks, was expected to provide a platform for Belgium’s offensively minded players. This system, where trust and work rate were keys to success, epitomised the team-based mentality that the Belgium squad have successfully adopted. Each player could break the system, but no single player made the system, evident in the fact that they had three different top performers (statistically) in their first four matches (via WhoScored.com), all of which they won.
But while the notoriously brazen Wilmots would welcome the praise in his direction for Belgium’s successful formula, the roots of this success can be traced back to several years ago. As expressed by The Guardian’s Stuart James, Belgium’s footballing structure and approach has undergone extensive reformation under the direction of Belgian FA director Michael Sablon, who has sown the seeds for a new chapter of Belgium football. The most crucial of these reformations is the opening of centralised coaching schools for young players across the nation over the last decade, which has seen the emergence of an unquestionably effective and wide-reaching talent scouting system that operates at the grassroots level. Furthermore, as Holland and Germany have done before them, the Belgian FA have prescribed a set formation (in Belgium’s case, the 4-3-3), to be taught and drilled into all talents from an early age, and to be used by all youth and professional levels of Belgium’s national teams. For Sablon, this World Cup was to be the culmination of these two key changes, where the Belgian team, comprised of a young core which have matured in this system and become familiarised with the 4-3-3 setup, were meant to shock the footballing world.
Alas, it was not to be, as Belgium's World Cup came to an end at the hands of eventual finalists and potential winners, Argentina. While their team-oriented approach disguised their youth in the earlier stages of the World Cup, Belgium's relative inexperience was laid bare for the world to see when Argentina's Gonzalo Higuain opened the scoring early in the quarterfinal. Facing elimination, Belgium failed to produce the fight and urgency to negate Higuain's goal, ultimately exiting the tournament with little more than a whimper. But while Sablon may have hoped to see his groundwork bear fruit in this year's World Cup, the reality is that he will be perfectly content with Belgium's performance and overall result. This is, after all, their first World Cup appearance since 2002.
For Sablon, Wilmots and the Belgium national team, the seeds have been sown and the stems of the plants are starting to poke out of the ground. With a solid structure in place, Belgium's attention now needs to turn towards strengthening the squad's spine, their mental fortitude, which can only occur through match experience and exposure. For now, they can draw inspiration from Germany, the model that Sablon's project is loosely based on. The talent is there. The team structure is there. Just one element is missing, and Belgium have four years to gain experience and add that element. Given their recent meteoric rise, it may very well be Belgium contesting the World Cup final in 2018, reaping the rewards of years of planning.