Belgian Wing-Backs & Freeing Kevin de Bruyne
Belgium have some of the most talented footballers on the planet and, prior to the tournament, were widely tipped to have an extended run in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. However, on their head coach, Roberto Martinez, opinion was much more divided. Belgium won their first game of the tournament 3-0 against Panama last night. The first half was difficult, Belgium found space out wide but Panama crowded the box and it was difficult to hit Lukaku with crosses. In the second, Kevin de Bruyne seemed to come to life and, along with Hazard, drove Belgium to the win.
The loose 3-4-2-1 system deployed by Martinez allows Belgium to create overloads in tight areas between the lines and leaves the option of either going down the outside and crossing to big-man, Romelu Lukaku, or. playing it into the channel for the likes of Hazard, de Bruyne and Mertens. It was an action similar to this that created the second goal for Belgium, but, tactics can go out the door when you have a player that can play a pass like de Bruyne can.
An interesting tactical tidbit, and the focus of this article, is the positioning of Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier. In the first half of the game, both "wing-backs" were instructed to get high and wide to stretch play and open the half-space for business. Belgium found a lot of space down the outside of the Panama defence but struggled to find an accurate ball into the box. The inside-forwards, Hazard & Mertens found a lot of joy and were an ever-present threat.
In the defensive phase, the wing-backs were asked to tuck in (if they ever made it back!) on either side of the back 3 of Alderweireld, Boyata and Vertonghen. This meant there was a lot of leg-work for both Witsel and de Bruyne in the middle, and they were usually caught deep, which is not the best position to create from. As a result, Belgium were slow to build up and Panama were able to get back into their defensive structure quickly on the rare occasions that they attacked.
This is based on just 90 minutes of football, but, the the drawback of 3-4-2-1 system was that Kevin de Bruyne was integral to cutting and creating the passing lanes in midfield and was therefore unable to fully influence the match in the final third. In the first half, KdB only made 21 passes into the final third. If we look at his touch map, it is clear that he was stretched all over the park and wasn't able to stamp his authority on the game.
In the second half, Bobby Martinez changed things around a little bit. Thomas Meunier started dropping deeper than Carrasco and forming a back 4 with the defensive line while Carrasco stayed higher and more central to play on the same line as Witsel. This movement, reduces the space Witsel had to cover, thereby, freeing the "quarter-back", Kevin de Bruyne to find the right space to instigate counter attacks.
It is not apparent if Carrasco's positioning was a result of him not being a regular LWB or if it was coherent tactical instruction from Martinez. What is clear, however is that Carrasco moving infield and supporting Witsel will allow de Bruyne the freedom to operate higher up the pitch. Either way, this movement foreshadows the arrival of Moussa Dembele , for whom Carrasco was eventually substituted, with the Belgians shifting to 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 instead with Jan Vertonghen moving out to left-back.
Below, is KdB's touch map in the second half. His touches seem more concentrated around the middle-right-third of the pitch and in more appropriate zones for a central midfield player. From these areas, he was always available and pulling at strings. His output improved as well - de Bruyne registered 38 passes in the final third, nearly doubling his first half output. Kevin de Bruyne in this kind of form is the best thing Belgium could hope for.
The added security that Carrasco and Dembele provided to Witsel meant that de Bruyne was able to push closer to the halfway line and be available to play an early ball into the forwards after receiving the first pass of the counter attack. He was working as a pseudo-pivot around whom the whole team transitioned.
Moussa Dembele's presence in midfield made Belgium look more solid. Like I said above, I'm not 100% sure that Carrasco's positioning was some form of tactical instruction as he was playing in a new position but Roberto Martinez will have to mull over the two options that he has. Playing Dembele will get the most out of Kevin de Bruyne but will sacrifice width to stretch deep defences. Therefore, I suspect we will start seeing more of the 4-3-3 as Belgium continue to progress.
Feedback and abuse to @sgtsaltnpeppa on Twitter.