Thursday 7 August 2014

Belgium vs. Argentina: Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold

Before elaborating upon the obvious tactical shortcomings, directly leading to the elimination of a promising Belgian squad in the quarterfinals of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it is important to acknowledge the merit of coach Marc Wilmots. It was he who, for instance, surprised the nation by calling up the till then unknown youngster Divock Origi to take the place of the injured Benteke in his World Cup squad. Origi turned out to be no less than a sensation for Belgium, earning him a €12.5m transfer to Premiership side Liverpool.

Then on to the weaker side of Wilmots, and his assistant Borkelmans: tactics.

July 5th. Belgium was to face Argentina in the quarterfinals. The 2014 generation of the Belgian Red Devils was believed to be even stronger than the best performing side in national history, the team knocked out in the semis in ’86 – by Argentina. Who-ever was to win, it was sure to be an epic battle! 

Source: belgiumtowineuro2016.com

But it turned out to be a non-game. Why was this? Belgium had won all of its games that far – admittedly, none against an opponent of the stature of Argentina. Was Sabella's team simply “a size too large” for the talented but inexperienced Belgian squad? Even though both sides actually met, we'll never know. What we can conclude from the confrontation is that with the tactics employed, it was a game Belgium could only lose. Play the game ten more times, with the same formation, Belgium will be behind at half time ten more times.

The fatal mistake:

In its previous four games, Wilmots had fielded 4 defenders: 2 centre-backs and 2 wing-backs. Belgium had thus beaten Algeria, Russia, South Korea and the USA. Little reason then to change, one might think, and, indeed, Wilmots again fielded his preferred four: Vertonghen on the left, Alderweireld on the right, Van Buyten and Kompany in the centre. Never change a winning team! Right? Wrong – horribly wrong. Reluctance to question a formerly winning strategy is usually due to hubris or laziness – and rarely goes unpunished. In his authoritative chronicle Strategy: A History, Lawrence Freedman, as a notable example, points out that, "simply taking the same approach to...strategy in a series of repeat performances [is] unlikely to sustain a high level of results."

To see the nonsense behind adopting the same defensive tactics against Argentina as employed in the previous games, one only need reflect for a moment upon how Argentina differs from all of Belgium's previous opponents. Without going into too much detail, all previous four opponents had been happy to cede the play to Belgium and speculate on creating an opening from the midfield or via the wings. Typically, these teams operated with a sole striker and relatively offensive midfielders on the sides. Perhaps with the exception of Dempsey, the Belgian defence was yet to face a forward that could match their quality. Even in the case of the USA, it was still “1 against 4”, so not too worrisome.

What about Argentina? Here comes a team that has not just 1 offensive player that can match – nay, outperform – his direct Belgian opponent in terms of overall skill, not just 2, not 3, but 4 – even with Agüero having been injured. They go by the resounding household names of Di María, Messi, Higuaín and Lavezzi. And yes, they were all there in Sabella's starting line-up. Quite a different ballgame from what Belgium had been up against so far; both because of the number and the quality of the attackers on the opposing side.

Fielding four attackers naturally implies that one cannot attempt to dominate both in the defence and the midfield. Sabella's line-up clearly spelled out his intentions: to complement his four-headed attack, he opted for four defenders and two defensive midfielders: Mascherano – more used to playing as centre-back – and Biglia – known in Belgium neither as particularly dynamic nor unpredictable. Argentina was playing defence + attack, virtually without midfield. Their ideal scenario would be to score an early goal and lock the game – perhaps sealing the deal on the counterattack. And even if Belgium were to score first, Argentina’s frontline could be counted on to score at least once.

How then does one defend against such a formation? “With the winning team!”, Wilmots apparently thought. Given that Sabella did think carefully about the game, what are the implications for Belgium of playing with the same formation as it had in its previous games?

The implications:

First implication: Van Buyten and Kompany no longer had one striker to share between the both of them in zone, but instead had to mark one each – and not just any one: Higuaín and Messi, respectively. So no spare central defender to pick up the odd ball making it through as in the previous games. One mistake and there would be only Courtois left to beat.

Second implication: both Vertonghen and Alderweireld – both not used to playing wide at their clubs, nota bene – were now being faced with a quicksilver opponent. Yet, they were still supposed to also provide attacking impulses – after all, they were the wing-backs. Naturally, if you are facing 4 attackers with 4 defenders, two of them being wing-backs – correction, centre-backs fielded as wing-backs – whenever any of the wing-backs takes part in offensive play, your defence is outnumbered. You can mark in zone as much as you want, if you’re outnumbered, you’re up for a tough challenge.

The overall result: by fielding only 4 defenders against Argentina’s four-headed attack, Belgium was operating an extremely risky 1-against-1 tactic - typically deployed only when a team is hopelessly behind in the score.

Moreover, the Red Devils out on the pitch gave the impression of not believing in their chances - hard to say whether the naïve tactics employed had anything to do with this. The formation Wilmots opted for might have worked, but at the very least required the players buying into the belief of being able to beat the opponent and of the opposition not calling for a change of tactics. That the players clearly hadn't, though, left the team with a mismatch between formation ("fearless") and attitude ("fearful"), rendering it most vulnerable. This exacerbated the risk of using a formation with little defensive safeguards.

It thus indeed turned out to be a high-risk, low-return strategy. After 7 minutes, Higuaín scored. A ball bouncing off a Belgian defender unluckily, as most Belgians like to believe? Rather a mere matter of time – a space and chance to occur sooner rather than later. And Argentina effectively switched to the counterattack. The Belgian coach had blindly run into Sabella’s plan in such a naïve fashion his Argentine counterpart hadn’t dared to dream.

Source: telegraph.co.uk

A more promising way for Belgium to approach the Argentina game – in 7 simple steps:

You are up against a team that has 4 star players: together, they happen to form the attack. Then 6 defenders. No real connection between the two. Defending against such opposition is actually the straightforward part:
  1. The sheer quality of each of the forwards requires that each one of them is to be man-marked by a defender with a sole mission: to neutralize his direct opponent.
  2. By no means should Belgium’s attack in this game come from the wing/full-backs. They are to carry out defensive duties only, especially considering that the full-backs are actually centre-backs at their clubs.
  3. When you face a side as strong, attackingly, as Argentina, your number one priority is the heart of the defence. This is to be as strong as possible. In the case of Belgium, this would mean staffing Vertonghen and Kompany here.
  4. The empty space created by moving Vertonghen from left to centre is filled by Lombaerts, a very solid man-marker.
  5. It does not make sense to field 36-year old Van Buyten against the quicksilver Argentina forwards – especially not in a 1 vs. 1 system. Before the start of the game, Van Buyten was included in FIFA’s team of the tournament. So he would be the first person on the sheet, right? Wrong. An army should adopt different tactics according to different circumstances”, noted Sun Tzu. That is how one wins a war. All previous games were circumstantially completely different from the game against Argentina – with the Belgian central defenders sharing one mediocre forward between the two of them.
  6. To move away from the imprudent 1 vs. 1 line-up, an additional central defender is fielded. Not Van Buyten, but Vermaelen, who, although certainly not at his best, is still a superior man-marker.
  7. This leads to the following defensive strategy: Lombaerts on the left and Alderweireld on the right, with one mission: man-mark Di María and Lavezzi. Vertonghen and Vermaelen in the centre, with one mission: for Vertonghen to man-mark Messi, who tends to drop back into the midfield, where Vertonghen is also comfortable, and for Vermaelen to man-mark Higuaín. Kompany in the centre, as a modern libero, with the tasks of picking up any balls that inevitably come through, carrying them out of the defence and keeping the defence organised at all times.
Five players with only defensive duties. Wouldn’t the rest of the squad then be so outnumbered that the ball will constantly be on Belgium’s half?  No, because the midfield was entirely Belgium’s for the taking. When the defenders would flick the ball on, there would be only Fellaini and Witsel to pick it up, as Argentina was playing with no-one in between the defensive midfield and the offence.

Moreover, in addition to this much more solid defence, there would still be space to field Fellaini, as a buffer before the defence, rather than marking Messi when in the midfield, a task he had actually been charged with – the idea alone –, Witsel to further dominate the midfield, ánd De Bruyne ánd Hazard to create the danger ánd Lukaku or Origi as striker.

Now play the game again. See what happens. Not sure who would win. But a game we would have for sure. One to watch – and one to remember.