Highlight of the tournamentToulouse was the location for the highpoint of Belgium’s EURO 2016 campaign. Hungary were the opponents and it was the only time in France that Marc Wilmots’ men turned on the style.
The first half was fairly even but after Belgium took the lead, Hungary threw caution to the wind and were heavily punished. For once, both Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne made contributions, with Hazard having his best game ever for the national team, both making and taking goals. He also left De Bruyne to command the central midfield area and there was admirable support from Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel.
The game was eerily like the ‘Last 16’ game in Brazil 2014 against the USA. The Americans gave Belgium the space to play and they went through to the last eight – to play Argentina – with their best performance of the tournament.
There were two low points, at the beginning and end of the team’s campaign. They need to be seen together as, in both matches, Wilmots found himself facing a team playing 3-5-2; both ended predictably with Belgium chasing the game by crossing long balls into the box.
Belgium had met Italy in a friendly last November and Antonio Conte had taken sufficient notes to know the ‘tactics’ that would be employed. In Lyon, Italy sat back and picked off a Belgium team that employed Marouane Fellaini at no. 10 with De Bruyne shunted out to the wing.
In the quarter–finals, Belgium faced Wales. They’d met in the qualifying rounds, with the teams drawing 0-0 in Brussels and Wales winning 1-0 in Cardiff. Belgium had failed to break down the Welsh defence in those games but Friday night demonstrated that no lessons had been learnt. Nainggolan’s goal came out of nowhere and Belgium then reverted to type and struggled against Chris Coleman’s spot-on tactics.
In Belgium’s first four games, one man stood out from the rest of the Belgium team: Thomas Vermaelen. His selection as ‘star man’ in the squad was underlined when suspension meant that he missed the quarter final defeat. His replacement, Jason Denayer, was completely out of his depth when thrown in at centre back alongside Toby Alderweireld.
Vermaelen came into the tournament after a lost season at Barcelona, a club he joined in 2014 but for which he has hardly ever played. After numerous injuries, Vermaelen was selected for the ‘23’ for France but most people doubted he would stand up to the rigours of major tournament. In the event, Vermaelen was the outstanding defender; commanding in the air and on the ground. In Brazil in 2014, the veteran Daniel Van Buyten had surprised everyone by outperforming his fellow defenders. In France, that honour went to Thomas Vermaelen.
It was symbolic of Belgium’s EURO 2016 campaign that it both started and ended with Fellaini in an advanced ‘10’ role trying to get on the end of hopeful crosses. It seems that little has been learned following the quarter final exit in Brazil in 2014.
Now, the Belgium Football Association must understand that this talented squad needs a coach who can innovate and be able to react to events. Marc Wilmots was appointed without any coaching experience and did a good job in forming a tight squad who enjoyed being together. He stayed too loyal to some players however and stories have emerged of boring training sessions and of senior players being left to choose their own tactics.
Other than that, they must identify young defenders and introduce them into the squad as the current first–team choices are rapidly ageing.
An edited version of this article appeared on the ESPN website on July 3 –