Tuesday 24 May 2016

How Kompany’s Absence Could Prove a Blessing for Belgium’s EURO Title Hopes

In this short post, I will explain how the injury of Belgium’s captain Vincent Kompany could potentially boost Belgium’s hopes of EURO 2016 victory – and why it probably won’t.

The key to understanding why the absence of a great player in this case may actually turn out to have a beneficial effect on team performance relates to automatisms. Concretely, Kompany plays in the central defense and is sure to play there with Belgium when fit. This necessarily means that the duo Vertonghen-Alderweireld will be broken up and at least one of them will be played on the sides, which is exactly what happened at the 2014 World Cup – when also Van Buyten was a certitude for coach Wilmots in the central defense.

Today, it makes much less sense to consider Belgium's defenders individually than at the time of the previous World Cup, though, for the following straightforward reason: Vertonghen and Alderweireld have been playing side by side all season, as a central defensive duo. Moreover, this was in the Premier League, the world’s most competitive domestic league, as well as in the Europa League. And, above all, no team in the Premier League conceded fewer goals this season than did Tottenham Hotspur. The automatisms of a central defensive duo that played at this rate of success in a direct combination for over 30 games at the highest level can be considered a godsend for any national team.

When Spain won the 2010 World Cup, coach del Bosque had three excellent central defenders at his disposal: Puyol, Ramos and Piqué. Two of them, he would field in the centre of the defense; one of them, he would move to the right-back position. While both Ramos and Puyol could fit the right-back position, naturally, del Bosque always elected to field Ramos on the right, preserving the Barça tandem in the heart of the defense. Spain’s 2010 world cup victory would go down as a prototypical example of one that followed from exploiting automatisms generated at the club level, mainly at Barça.

Source: theguardian.com

Skeptics may question the level of automatisms between Vertonghen and Alderweireld relative to the one of, say, Piqué and Puyol, given that the two Belgians have only been together at Tottenham since the beginning of the season. It is important to realize, though, that Alderweireld and Vertonghen coincided frequently during their careers and were formed in the same football academy: from 2004 till 2006, both were being formed at the youth of Ajax Amsterdam, after having joined from the same club in Belgium, Germinal Beerschot. From 2008 till 2012, Vertonghen and Alderweireld made up the defensive block at Ajax’ senior squad. (Thomas Vermaelen followed a similar trajectory, but left Ajax already in 2009.) Alderweireld and Vertonghen share as solid a common basis as you will find in contemporary football.

Source: scoopnest.com

There are yet two more compelling reasons to combine Alderweireld and Vertonghen at the centre of Belgium's defense. First is that whereas the former is right-footed, the latter is left-footed, underlining their complementarity. Second is that another Belgian who had an individually outstanding season at Tottenham, Mousa Dembélé, there plays one line above the defensive duo, opening up the possibility to leverage automatisms relating not just to the duo, but to the triangle as well.

Within the realm of economic rationality, having more available options can only lead to better or similar outcomes, but not worse. Economic rationality, however, is not the regime of a football team and certainly not the one of the Belgian national team. Leaving the influential captain out of the team or not playing him in his favored position could have had serious repercussions. It is thus only through Kompany’s absence that the way was freed for the successful Spurs duo to be united in the heart of the Belgium defense.

Especially with other contenders for the central defensive roles Vermaelen and Lombaerts mainly having been used as substitutes at their clubs this season and youngster Engels having had to forfeit the Euros because of injury, building on the successful central Tottenham duo would appear to be a no-brainer. Yet, I suspect coach Wilmots to come up with some alternative that will still require breaking up one of the most effective defensive duos present at the Euros.