Crop rotation is a vital aspect of farming. It maintains soil fertility, allowing the previous crops to be harvested to promote the growth of new plants. However, one has to ask if Anderlecht’s recent sales have left the soil barren, even if the bank is very full. The feeble excuses for not signing Mitrovic stick in the throat, given the deluge of money flowing into the club from transfer deals and the Champions League.
Were there an in-form forward, scoring regularly, then fine. However, Anderlecht’s forwards at the moment are both towering dyspraxics with no form or confidence. Young forwards, with potential to offer something different, are all out on loan (Leya Iseka, Vancamp etc). At this rate, I can see Oli Deschacht signing a contract extension to play up front.
Counting the confirmed sale of Acheampong, at least 17 milion euros, not including bonuses, has come into Anderlecht this month. Only 6 million was spent (on Saief, Morioka and Markovic’s loan. Here, we analyse the each of these sales, and their justification.
Sofiane Hanni (8.5M€ to Spartak Moscow): Hanni’s departure will no doubt be met with mixed feelings. There is a siezable percentage of the Anderlecht support who have not fully accepted Hanni and some of his poorer performances have been met with heavy booing. Others (including me) saw him as Weiler’s ‘pet’; undroppable, despite indifferent periods of form.
Nevertheless, one criticism that could not be levelled at Hanni is that he does not work for, or care for, the team. When Anderlecht were poor, Hanni’s hurt was visible. He always worked relentlessly for the team and some of these qualities were why Weiler made him captain. He was a leader in the absence of others. You could say that, at times, he wasn’t good enough, provided that it is also recognised that he also produced some sublime performances. Leaving on a hat-trick was a fitting departure, and he leaves the club an under-appreciated player.
Nicolae Stanciu (3.5M€ to Sparta Prague): There was a large amount of expectation when Stanciu arrived for a club-record fee of 7.8M€ in 2016. Great things were expected. The transfer was considered ‘a coup’. Yet, despite occasonal moments of genuine class, his time at Anderlecht has been largely disappointing. Reasons for this include Weiler’s direct style, lack of pace but mostly a lack of game time. When Hanni was going through periods of dreadful form and Stanciu was still on the bench, you had to ask yourself “what is wrong with him”? Did he refuse to comminucate with players? Was he lazy, or arrogant, in training? Was his life away from football not professional enough? These questions need to be asked, as this is a footballer bursting with talent. With Frutos and Van Haezebrouck playing different styles from Weiler, yet still ignoring Stanciu, you have to wonder what the problem was. He would have been on big wages, so selling him was the correct decision if he was not being considered for the team.
It was widely considered that Anderlecht would be Stanciu’s stepping stone to the more lucrative leagues, with the abundance of scouting done in Belgium coupled with exposure in UEFA competitions. However, his new destination of Prague looks like a sideways move at best. What remains to be seen is whether or not he can produce big performaces for them, and Romania, in high-stakes competition. He was criminally underused at Anderlecht, and the jury remains unconvinced, but I have a nagging feeling that in a technical league such as Serie A, or La Liga, Stanciu will flourish.
Dodi Lukebakio (1.5M€ to Charleroi/Watford): Lukebakio burst onto the scene a couple of seasons ago and looked full of promise and talent, albeit he was still very raw. He is exactly the kind of player who fits the supposed Anderlecht model of bringing through academy players, yet was sent out on loan (twice) by Weiler. He was exactly the kind of player who could have been a good impact sub, or cover for a more experienced player last year. I would argue that, right now, he is better than what we have at the club. Quick, direct, unpredictable, athletic. He would have increased the ‘home-grown’ quotient too, which restricted Anderlecht’s purchases to Belgian players (or those in the pocket of Mogi Bayat…).
Hamdi Harbaoui (0.5M€ to Zulte Waregem): Harbaoui is a big, strong penalty-box centre forward, who will score a bundle of goals in a team playing direct football with 2 up front or two wingers. However, he is ill-fitted to the Van Haezebrouck system, which is crying out for a false 9. He will score plenty at Zulte, and look like a bargain, but Anderlecht have enough slow, clumsy centre-forwards as it is, making this a good sale.
The non-sale of Leander Dendoncker is also a tricky one. He was excellent in 2016-17, doing much of the ugly work alongside Tielemans, allowing the latter to flourish. There are, however, far too many false comparisons drawn here. Tielemans is immeasurably more gifted than Dendoncker and justified his >20M€ fee during the summer of 2017. Dendoncker’s reputation has benefitted from these comparisons.
However, anybody who has watched him regularly this season will have seen a player whose form has deserted him and whose versatility has kept him in the team. The 16 million euros, with add-ons, offered by West Ham is a fair return for a player in such poor form and who clearly wants to leave. He is effective as a fast and strong defensive midfielder, but he does still kick the ball the way his nose is pointing, and I wonder how much he can actually improve. I believe the loss of Hanni is more troublesome than the departure of Dendoncker would have been.
On the other hand, had Dendoncker’s departure not been offset with a significant permanent arrival, then the fans may have boycotted the remaining matches of the season. With the club changing ownership in March, Vanden Stock probably couldn’t risk his last significant action as Chairman being the sale of a home-grown key player, tarnishing his legacy.
Anderlecht are meandering on without a plan. Players like Hanni or Dendoncker will always leave for richer leagues: that’s inevitable. Let’s hope Coucke and the coaching staff promote a model where academy players are brought into the team and the money recouped from sales is properly invested in more experienced players. Having to bring in Sels, Kums and Gerkens to raise the Belgian population of the squad, and not for their inherent qualities, sums up the scattergun approach.
Another weekend, another stodgy Anderlecht performance against weaker opposition. This has become a thing. Yet, optimistically, I stood in line outside the stadium this morning to get my tickets for the Champions League matches against Celtic, Bayern Munich and Paris St Qatar. As I left the ticket office (bag slightly heavier, wallet much lighter), I had a perhaps unjustifiably hopeful spring in my step.
However, I had barely walked a hundred metres when the news had broken online: René Weiler had left Anderlecht by mutual consent. At first, I felt slightly deflated and, to be honest, a little shocked. Anderlecht have had a habit of hanging on to managers much longer than they should have in recent years, priding themselves on continuity and development. And here they were, sacking their Championship-winning manager six weeks into the season, a week before a huge Champions League tie against Celtic.
I’m still not sure how I feel. Weiler’s Anderlecht won the title last year a little by default, getting it together when in mattered and in the absence of a genuine challenger. Nevertheless, after two barren years, he had achieved his objectives and got the the last eight of the Europa League, where Manchester United needed extra time to get through. Surely he has bought himself some leverage, some time?
Well, yes and no. For Celtic fans reading this ahead of next week’s match, I have two words that will rationalise today’s move: “Ronny” and “Deila”. Deila won the league with Celtic playing a rather blocky, sometimes unnecessarily defensive system and generally underwhelming their fans. Weiler’s Anderlecht won the league via drilled performances and relied heavily on the goals of Tielemans (now at Monaco and hugely missed) and Teodorczyk, who can’t hit a barn door at the moment. The fluidity and attractive football the fans crave was ditched for a pragmatic, results-first approach.
However, when results do not go to plan, as has been the case recently, turgid victories become disheartening defeats and, as Weiler found out much to his annoyance, the criticism is fierce. In recent weeks, Weiler’s normal “safe and boring” press conferences have become a thing of the past with Mourinho-esque huffs being thrown if he doesn’t like a question and responses were becoming abrupt or corrosive.
This deterioration also found its way onto the pitch with key players such as Dendoncker, Obradovic, Kums and Teodorczyk underperforming. The slope became slippier when key players were being played out of position and systems changed from match to match, none of which were characteristics of Weiler’s successes.
Against Lokeren last weekend, 4-2-3-1 became an amorphous game of shooty-in after an hour. Against Bayern, the now infamous back 5 with Sven Kums at “libero” was an ill-fated and bizarrely timed experiment. Away to Kortrijk this weekend, it was 4-4-2 with two big centre forwards and two out of form wingers, and it was ugly, ugly stuff.
After the match on Saturday, Weiler did a post-match interview flanked by the Chairman and the Sporting Director, and was then televised (without sound) giving them some kind of debrief in the Kortrijk canteen. It was either an overt show of support or, as we have now discovered, the behaviour of a group of people who expected to part ways.
I still feel disappointed for Weiler: I trusted him and his methods but the team have had an awful start to the season and the past week has been PR suicide and there were few glimmers of sunlight on the horizon. So, in spite of last year’s successes, the sacking was justified. I’m sure he won’t be out of work for long and that he’ll do a decent job wherever he goes next, provided he remembers that journalists are only doing their jobs.
So what’s next for Anderlecht? Many fans would be happy to see Nicolas Frutos, current youth team boss, be given the top job. He has the previous playing pedigree at the club but his lack of top-level experience as a coach could count against him, as well as his role under Weiler – will a clean break be for the best.? The club have some talented young players out on loan, as well as the gifted but unhappy-looking Stanciu.
Whoever does take over has a cup game, a league game and the most important game of the Group Stage of the Champions League for Anderlecht coming up in the next week, so they’ll have to get to work quickly. They’ll inherit a group of players who, for all their shortcomings in recent weeks, have worked tirelessly for Weiler – even against Lokeren, the players were certainly fighting for their coach. The time has come for them to stand and be counted; to act like Champions and to regroup quickly, uniting behind the new coach and restoring faith amongst the Anderlecht fans. Three wins in the next week would go a long way to doing just that.
The last time RSC Anderlecht appeared in the Champions League in 2014-15, they were a disharmonious collective of talented individuals who lacked the mental toughness, cohesion and game-management to fulfil their potential. Losing late goals away to Galatasaray and at home to Arsenal ensured that glass ceiling of the Europa League was once again the Mauves’ destination when progression beyond the Group Stages was a real possibility. However, given a group of Arsenal, Dortmund and Galatasaray, third really wasn’t a disaster.
A toxic dressing-room containing characters such as Anthony Vanden Borre, Steven Defour, Alexander Mitrovic and Silvio Proto – all big personalities – showed large fissures, and was being loosely bound by emerging talent such as Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Leander Dendoncker and Chancel Mbemba. Besnik Hasi, since of Legia Warsaw and, now, Olympiakos, had found himself parachuted into the position of Head Coach following unlikely success during the previous season’s playoffs after the departure of John van den Brom. Hasi guided the team to seven wins from ten matches as Standard Liege blew a massive lead to earn the job permanently.
The RSC Anderlecht of today is everything that the team of 2014 wasn’t. Unlike Hasi, Rene Weiler has a plan. The Swiss Head Coach, recruited from FC Nürnberg in 2016, sets the team up in a very defined 4-1-2-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on the opponent and players fit into this system and not the other way round. Although Weiler experienced a slow start at Anderlecht, he persisted with his team’s short-passing build up and reliance on crossing from wingers and overlapping full backs until it started to work. The team became far greater than the sum of its parts and an equilibrium had been reached, ensuring Anderlecht became Belgian Champions for the 34th time in 2017.
As the transfer window approaches, Anderlecht will be hoping that they can hold on to their most valuable first team assets in Dendoncker, Kara and Spajic. Last year’s top goalscorer in Belgium, Lukasz Teodorczyk, is currently enduring an horrendous run of form. The tall centre-forward scored 30 goals in total last year, but only 6 since January. He is physically imposing but lacking in confidence and Anderlecht desperately need him at his best to have any chance of even reaching the Europa League.
Capacity crowds (around 21500) will cram into Stade Constant Vanden Stock for these fixtures in hope more than expectation: the days of the late seventies and early eighties when Anderlecht won the Cup Winners Cup twice and the UEFA Cup once are long gone in these days of teams being measured as a function of their country’s TV deal.
The departure of Youri Tielemans to Monaco leaves a gaping hole in the Anderlecht midfield. Tielemans contributed 18 goals from central midfield last season and was the team’s main creative outlet; he was the one midfielder who could destabilise defences and conjure a decisive pass or goal from nothing. Weiler has already tried Hanni and Trebel in Tielemans’ “roaming playmaker” position but neither looks able of filling his boots.
Tielemans left with the good grace of the Anderlecht faithful: he had earned his move having given the club four good years. However, those expecting another home-grown player from the club’s Neerpede Academy as his replacement probably didn’t envisage that it would be 29-year old Sven Kums. The wonderfully named midfielder spent ten years as a youth team player at Anderlecht and was loaned to Lierse and Kortrijk before finally being sold. His journey back to Brussels has gone via Kortrijk (who signed Kums permanently after his loan), Heerenveen, Zulte Waregem, KAA Gent (where he was voted Best Player in Belgium two years ago) and Watford (who immediately loaned him to Udinese, that well-trodden Pozzo passage) where he never played a game.
Kums is a tidy player but his arrival has slowed down the midfield and his tendency to take up the same positions as Dendoncker has left Weiler looking through his squad to solve this dilemma. Unfortunately for Weiler, an increasing number of Anderlecht youth players are being developed by the club but then leaving before they turn 18, meaning Anderlecht cannot keep them. In the past few years, the Neerpede Academy has developed talent such as Adnan Januzaj, Charly Musonda, Ismail Azzaoui, Orel Mangala and now Mile Svilar only for them to be poached with negligible compensation by richer clubs looking to add to their ‘home grown’ contingent. While some of these names are not yet ‘household’, they almost certainly will be. This has increased the need for the club to ensure they buy enough Belgian players, making Kums all the more attractive a proposition.
Profile of Anderlecht’s Current Squad
Since the departure of Silvio Proto a little over a year ago, the goalkeeping position has yet to have an established and top-class replacement. It was thought that Davy Roef, who had played deputy to Proto for a few years, would now be given his chance to shine but his form at the start of the season was poor, meaning that Franck ‘The Tank’ Boeckx, signed the year before on a free as a 3rd keeper, was suddenly Number 1. In a bizarre move, Roef was loaned to Deportivo La Coruna and Anderlecht loaned Ruben Gonzalez from the same team. Boeckx would play league games and Ruben the cups.
The expected emergence of hugely rated 17-year old Mile Svilar meant that Anderlecht only really wanted another experienced keeper in for a year until Svilar was ready, explaining the loan of Newcastle’s Mats Sels. The former Gent keeper has looked short on confidence though and many fans remain unconvinced. However, with Boeckx perhaps lacking the level required for the Champions League (not to mention recovering from a summer operation), Roef having been shipped off on loan to Waasland Beveren and Svilar shafting the club by joining Benfica, Sels will be Anderlecht’s ‘keeper this season. Hopefully he can recover the level achieved at KAA Gent, although I’m still not convinced he’s even as good as an ageing Proto. Time will tell.
The centre of Anderlecht’s defence will undoubtedly be Kara and Spajic, who developed an excellent partnership in the second half of last season, provided Kara’s head isn’t turned again by thoughts of the money available in the Premier League. Veteran club legend Oli Deschacht will provide cover here, and at left back, although as time catches up with him, his legs are going, and another centre back is seen as a priority in the transfer market.
The left back position will be filled by Ivan Obradovic; an excellent outlet going forward and sorely missed during a long injury layoff last season. He will be heavily involved in much of Anderlecht’s build up play and has the pace to cope with the likes of Robben or Di Maria, even if he can be a little gung-ho positionally at times. The biggest concern defensively is on the other flank. Andy Najar has been at Anderlecht for four full seasons, mostly playing right wing, but has had horrendous luck with injuries. In the second half of last season, he was deployed as a full back and, similarly to Obradovic, is excellent on the ball. However, at the business end of the season he acquired yet another injury, excluding him from the League Playoffs and the latter stages of the Europa League. As popular as Najar is, most fans know that he cannot be relied upon to be fit, which brings us to Dennis Appiah.
Appiah is an earnest player with pace to burn but is frequently bullied and exploited by opposition. His distribution and tackling need work and he has yet to convince Weiler, as indicated by the fact that just last weekend, Alexander Chipciu (a winger) was selected at right back ahead of him. Chipciu is sometimes said to be Weiler’s pet (Chouchou Chipciu) but his inexperience in the position was painfully illustrated by Sint Truiden, leaving fans to wonder what Ribery or Neymar might do to him. In Chipciu’s defence, he has never been a right back and so can’t be expected to simply slot in seamlessly.
Three years ago, Anderlecht had Gillet, Vanden Borre, Maxime Colin and Marcin Wasilewski as options at right back – I’m sure Weiler would gratefully take any of them now (except maybe Vanden Borre, last seen riding through DR Congo like King Baudouin).
The midfield conundrum alluded to earlier depends on whether Weiler deploys Kums as a Regista, with Dendoncker pushing on in a more box-to-box role, or Dendoncker plays his familiar “Makelélé” holding role with Kums in a more advanced position, or a more cautious double pivot. In any case, both are highly likely to play. Dendoncker, like Tielemans, has been heavily linked with moves to wealthier leagues but it seems he will give Anderlecht one more year, which he probably needs for his own development. While parallels are frequently drawn between Dendoncker and Tielemans, mostly due to their emergence at the same club around the same time, Dendoncker is technically far more limited than Tielemans and is not a match-winner in the same mould. He does, however, possess a ferocious shot, is far tougher defensively and remains a key player.
The third central midfielder is likely to be one from captain Sofiane Hanni (who also features on the left as required), Adrian Trebel – perhaps the most defensive option – or Nicolae Stanciu. Stanciu is Anderlecht’s record signing at 7.8 million euros, plus add-ons, but he has been frustratingly poor and his role has been increasingly peripheral.
Stanciu is without doubt a hugely gifted player with the capacity to split a defence but his output for Anderlecht has been, at best, erratic. With a style of play similar to someone like Coutinho, he could play wide or as a number 10 but his defensive work is comparable to Özil and Weiler seems unprepared to accept this.
The candidates for the left wing position are the aforementioned Hanni and Henry Onyekuru, on loan from Everton. Hanni is technically competent and had the highest number of assists in Belgium last season. He frequently drifts inside from the left wing, which can be effective, although he lacks the physical attributes to burn a defender in the way that Henry Onyekuru can. For me, Hanni is a harder working but less gifted version of Stanciu. He will, however, always find a way into Weiler’s team and, based on his consistency and attitude last season, he deserves to play.
Twenty year-old Onyekuru is the wild card in Anderlecht’s attack this season and provided he avoids injury, continues to learn and is consistently selected, he will score and make a truckload of goals this season. He is the one genuinely pacy player still at Anderlecht, following ‘Flying’ Frank Acheampong’s loan move to China, meaning he simply has to play.
On the opposite flank, Alexander Chipciu and Massimo Bruno (former Anderlecht youth product being loaned back to the club from RB Leipzig for a second consecutive season) will probably compete for the starting position. Neither were particularly convincing last season, although Bruno’s ability to score goals in big matches cannot be lost on Weiler. Chipciu’s arrival, shortly after Stanciu’s, seemed like he was signed to keep the main man happy, but it didn’t work out that way, with the former being far more integral to Weiler’s plans than the more lauded Stanciu.
Anderlecht only ever play with one up front and, excluding sudden transfer activity, that’s likely to be Lukasz “Teo” Teodorczyk. Teo endeared himself to the fans with his no nonsense physicality, tireless running and his eye for goal. Capped 13 times by Poland as a centre forward in the era of Lewandowski, and only 26 years old, much will depend on his ability to find the net. However, his form is a huge concern to the club and he is playing like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Signed after his successful loan for just over 5 million euros from Dynamo Kiev, thanks to a pre-agreed clause, Teo’s was expected to be signed and then sold for over double this amount in the summer. However, since January he has the footballing equivalent of a surly drunken giraffe, cutting a frustrated figure as opposed to the intimidating totem Pole of a multi-faceted attack that he had been.
Teo is, however, Anderlecht’s best striker by quite a distance and Isaac Kiese Thelin, returning on loan from Toulouse, seems to have been brought back for his willingness to play second fiddle to Teo and is very much a team player.
How will Anderlecht fare this time?
Being realistic, it’s going to be an enormous shock if FC Bayern and Paris Saint Germain do not qualify from this group by some distance. Anderlecht’s best hope seems to be creditable performances against the two favourites and to ensure that they do not lose either match against Celtic. Anderlecht do have a habit of raising their game in Europe and exceeding expectations in terms of results but finishing third would constitute success for the club and its fans.
The key games are undoubtedly those against Celtic. Since Brendan Rodgers took over, the Parkhead club have improved beyond recognition, even if they were champions before. Last season’s Champions League games were too much, too soon and I’d expect Celtic to pick up points at home, perhaps against PSG and Anderlecht. Game Two of the group sees Celtic visit Brussels and Weiler has one month to iron out the glitches in Anderlecht’s recent performances. His hitherto preference for stability hopefully won’t exclude the team’s most creative players from the side, especially with the ticket prices appearing to start at 75€ for those without season tickets.
“Strength” and “Stability” were the soundbites used by the UK Conservative Party in their recent pyrrhic election victory: Weiler has a squad and a system that is capable of finishing third in this group, but only if their attack shows more of its ability, a little unpredictability and less of its stability.
“Borussia Dortmund seem to see themselves as some sort of custodians of the pure; ‘verein’ of the commoner; the Jedi battling against the Empire.”
The debate regarding the legitimacy and compliance of RB Leipzig’s membership within the construct of the Bundesliga has been done to death. I’ve addressed this in more depth in my review of RB Leipzig v Schalke. To summarise, the complicity of the football-starved people of Leipzig (Lok and Chemie have their place and their attraction, but you can’t blame fans for wanting some ‘big-time’ football) should not be taken as sinful; they have not provided the fertile ground for the ascension of RB Leipzig – the Bundesliga and DfL have. If anything, they are being exploited as part of a marketing vehicle; satiated in the way that the UK population are placated with Strictly and X-Factor. RB Leipzig may be exploiting that fizzy beverages and football are the bread and circuses of the day.
Borussia Dortmund seem to see themselves as some sort of custodians of the pure; ‘verein’ of the commoner; the Jedi battling against the Empire. However, while Borussia Dortmund fans rightly win plaudits for their vibrancy and the club clearly respects them reciprocally, it is impossible to ignore the hypocrisy that tinges some of these ‘protests’.
A word about these ‘protests’ first of all; it is important to separate hooliganism from making a statement. The former act of protest, the belligerent reception gifted by some fans, was a bunch of silly little boys using RB Leipzig’s loopholed compliance of the ’50+1′ rule as justification to act like thugs. They filmed themselves throwing beer and flares, taking a few steps forward with that starfish body language that says ‘come and have a go’, then, when the police moved in their direction, they hid their acne-riddled, bum-fluffed little faces with scarves and hoodies, trying to earn their stripes as a bona-fide ultra. Yawn, yawn. Would they have been so “courageous” had it been a team like Dresden, Rostock, Magdeburg or Halle? I think not.
The actual protests with any significance or meaning – those inside the ground – were brilliantly done. The whole world sees the messages that adorn the Südtribune every two weeks and this way millions can see and discuss the view of the fans without the club’s reputation being stained by these idiots. It may be coincidence, but the last time I attended a Dortmund game, there was also a disturbance involving hooligans and police, although Eintracht Frankfurt were the visitors in town that day and this mindless act of violence took place next to Reinoldikirche.
That German Football fans seem united in their disapproval of RB Leipzig is evident and, by all means, have an opinion on them as a club. However the real problem is that the Bundesliga have allowed them to participate in the competition having only 17 members (with voting rights), whilst actively discouraging, via prohibitive costs and not allowing any voting rights, any fan participation on how the club is run. Outside Germany, this is not uncommon but the Bundesliga, perhaps to the chagrin of certain clubs, have stood by the ’50+1′ rule, in principle anyway.
Borussia Dortmund, like other clubs in the Bundesliga, have corporate links – surely it’s what helps keep them competitive? Without the corporate involvement of Evonik, Signal Iduna, Puma etc, they would be accompanying the nobility of their principles with mediocre football: Mario Götze et al are not social revolutionaries. Nor do they claim to be. But Borussia Dortmund fans seem to have the piety to claim great levels of integrity as a club that simply do not withstand scrutiny.
The club has well over 100000 members who have first refusal on tickets, that they can procure via a horrendous call centre (online free sales only occur, on occasion, for cup games). This protectionism, rightly or wrongly, does make it difficult for the football fan from elsewhere to attend their games, providing fertile ground for the enormous numbers of black market Dortmund tickets exchanging hands for exorbitant amounts on viagogo and other resale sites. Some of these members are fleecing people on a fortnightly basis. Dortmund has become a football tourism temple – nothing wrong with that per se – but this is being exploited by its members to the extent that they are making a hefty markup on tickets. Are these the same fans that claim the moral high ground over RB Leipzig fans?
The irony of the retro scoreboard being used (one assumes, to mock the lack of history of their opponents), being sponsored by Brinkhoff’s, may be lost on some but corporate participation also takes place at the corporately-renamed Signal Iduna Park. The Dortmund fans should protest against the DFL for not clamping down on Red Bull by all means, but those throwing the stones (some literally) may find that they need to get their own glass house in order first.
Football clubs can be a great vehicle for good when their fans support them properly. However, fans should remember that the opposition fans are really just people, like them, who enjoy football and enjoy all that surrounds it. Banter and friendly rivalry is part of that, but violence never should be. If RB Leipzig are the Voldemort of the footballing world, BVB are certainly not the Harry Potter or Dumbledore they claim to be.
When I arrived at work in Brussels on Thursday morning, to teach a class of eleven year-olds, I peered through my insufficiently rested eyes at four boys (out of ten) wearing Barcelona tops. They were proudly wearing their team’s colours in celebration of their victory in relatively nearby Monchengladbach. More than ever, this brought home to me the consumerism that drives modern football.
These boys were about as Catalan as me, hailing from Irish and English families living in Belgium. Not that there is any reason that they should not or cannot support Barcelona: it’s just that previous drivers such as where you live (supporting your local team) and familial loyalty seem almost parochial and quaint to many. They couldn’t understand why I had not wanted to support Barcelona and that I went to the match to support “the German team.” They support Barcelona because “Barcelona are amazing and Neymar is Boss(boss?)”.
So, in a way, a clash between a side from a small, working and dare I say it, unglamorous, city in Western Germany whose fans are nearly all local (relatively speaking) against the international juggernauts from Catalonia was a collision of cultures as well as an intriguing football match. That’s not to say that Borussia don’t exploit their commercial potential – the queue to the club shop is testament to the contrary – but their widespread appeal outwith their geographical catchment is more ‘hipster’ than corporate.
The pre-match food and beverage facilities at Borussia Park on Champions’ League evenings have improved and the local businesses were able to resist the enforcement of a Heineken purge and retain some local beers for the fans’ enjoyment. After a mighty fine sausage, and around twenty minutes of queueing at the Eingang Sud – too many fans going in this way for the other stands – I was in my seat fifteen minutes before kick off.
I don’t know if the fans have been unable to raise the funds or lacked the creativity for a tifo or display but the shredder offcuts of white paper that farted out in front of the Nordkurve was below the usual standard.
Gladbach’s Head Coach Andre Schubert has agreed a new contract extension and, for the most part, has evolved Lucien Favre’s 4-4-2 team into his own. He perhaps lacks the experience or gravitas of his peers and under his stewardship, Gladbach travel as well as unpasteurized Guinness. Borussia Park though, has been seen a point famine for visiting teams since his ascension last September. Their 3-4-1-2 formation against Barcelona’s ‘Barca’ formation (now seen in Manchester) provided tactical intrigue and pontificating pre-match. While Schubert is prone to the occasional brow-furrowing selection, tonight’s starting XI was largely as expected, with Hazard preferred to Hahn, Raffael restored up front and Korb selected ahead of Jantschke and Vestergaard in the back three.
Barcelona selected their strongest, on paper, XI in the absence of Messi with Paco Alcacer his replacement. The uncompromising, cynical, slow yet often brilliant Mascherano partnered Piqué in defence.
By kick off, the fans were energised, excited and perhaps cautiously optimistic in that many felt they had little to lose. Barca’s fans made a little noise, and a few had infiltrated the home seats (perhaps through acquiring tickets from unscrupulous vendors).
Borussia’s pressing and shape unsettled Barcelona – they are clearly not used to teams playing in this way – and prevented them from asserting any meaningful dominance in dangerous territory. Borussia’s passing was slick, short and crisp for the most part.
The most impressive part of Gladbach’s first half display though was the movement off the ball. While some players, like Traore and Wendt, made the runs you would expect (although the latter looked overawed and fearful), the attacking trio of Hazard, Raffael – who was outstanding – and Stindl supported each other by remaining fairly close and their angles had Barcelona’s twisting and turning. They could, and perhaps should, have made more of their first half display but for final-pass profligacy.
Barcelona had their chances too via Suarez and Neymar, with the Uruguayan going very close. Neymar made himself into the ‘boo-boy’ for the home fans with a series of theatrics. It’s such a shame that someone so talented frequently displays that unsporting side to his game.
Gladbach’s 1-0 half-time lead, via Thorgan Hazard’s counter-attacking goal, was not undeserved. And yet, from this point on, belief seemed to sap away from them. This transmitted to the fans, whose boisterous support became increasingly lukewarm and fearful.
Whether or not this was a conscious tactical decision taken by Schubert or the instinctive reflex to guard what you have, Borussia regressed into themselves like testicles plunged into the Arctic Ocean. However, Gladbach are not Chelsea, and have neither the nous nor the skill set to park the bus. Their reluctance to press, coupled with Barcelona’s much higher defensive line, meant that Stindl and Hazard spent most of the second half in Busquets’ pocket inside their own half. It was a tactical blunder of the highest order.
Any rays of sunshine glimmering through the clouds of their second half performance came from aggressive and positive play. Barcelona are great at keeping the ball and score five goals past half of the teams in la Liga because they come and try to cling on. Raffael’s injury was a cruel blow as his direct running was causing all sorts of problems. He was replaced up front by a wing-back in Fabian Johnson. He’s a decent full back or even wide midfielder but he’s never, ever a striker.
There was a sense of inevitability about Barcelona’s goals. They could start being more adventurous and controlling as they weren’t being pressed. Arda Turan strengthened the right hand side of Barca’s attack when he replaced Alcacer, and took his goal very well. The winner came from a corner, outswung to the edge of the box where Busquets struck it well, but straight at Sommer. The Swiss keeper spilled the shot and the ball rolled to Piqué, who poked it home. It was certainly a jammy Swiss roll from Piqués perspective, but all in all Gladbach’s retreat allowed Barcelona to take initiative meaning that they ultimately, disappointingly, got what they deserved.
I’ll be back at Borussia Park for the match against Celtic, which already looks like the Europa League playoff. Another club with global appeal (but with a Football Association limits their growth), yet I suspect I’ll hear less 11 year-olds saying “James Forrest is Boss”.
As a teacher, I have good days and bad days. When I have a bad day, I often ask myself ‘what is my purpose?’ Professionally, I know that the answer to this question is “to help children become rounded, happy, confident and well-informed young adults who are ready to question the world their grandparents generation have shaped.” It can be easy to lose sight of this in the heat of the moment but, upon reflection, I use this to guide my actions and inform my practice.
My question to you, UEFA, is “what is your purpose?” Do you ever consider this question? Or have you lost sight of it in the attempt to satisfy your insatiable hunger for money? The thing with money is that, no matter how much you have, it’s never enough.
Is your purpose to ensure that the unique sport of football preserves its identity and culture in a world of increasing globalisation? In this respect, you have failed too. Fans at football matches do not want to be told when to sing or what to sing and your superbowlification of the game is neither enhancing nor welcome. The extra 350€ you were charging to watch France v Romania due to fifteen minutes of disjointed kaleidoscopic dancing and David Guetta-life before the match is not good value to a football fan.
Is it to ensure that football at grassroots level is flourishing in all countries at all levels? How much money is set aside for rural and deprived communities to have football facilities and coaching that, increasingly, only the middle-classes can afford?
Is it to ensure Financial Fair Play? The same Financial Fair Play that you made a rather extended song and dance about, ensuring that clubs live within their means, yet billionaire-backed clubs openly flaunt these rules without receiving more than a warning as admonishment.
Is it to ensure that football remains a sport accessible to all? When staging EURO 2016, did it occur to you that fans travelling to this event would be spending a lot of money to enhance this event? Fans pay inflated prices for transport, accommodation and food throughout the tournament and do so because they have no choice. “Football First” and “Grassroots and Solidarity” are two of your values About UEFA. Football fans make these tournaments even more than the players do and deserve to be treated with your buzzword: Respect.
Is it ‘respectful’ to ask fans, citing the Welsh as an example, who have lit up your tournament and supported French business, to pay 495€ for a ticket to watch their team play Portugal? Many fans are using unpaid holidays, spending time away from family and emptying their savings in order to get to the tournament in the first place. The least you could do is make the tickets more moderately priced ensuring that real fans can attend.
Bayern Munich recently issued a statement saying that making the ticket prices more expensive was small-time and terrible PR. They figured that the few million they don’t receive in ticket money comes into the club in other ways as a function of this reduction: loyalty; merchandising income;passionate backing. I could buy a Bayern Munich season ticket for three years and spend the same amount as buying a ticket to watch Portugal v Wales.
Football without fans is nothing. This attempt at gentrification and pricing ordinary fans out of the game is one of the many reasons an increasing number of fans boo your Champions League anthem. For an organisation whose former President is suspended for corruption and who espouses the virtues of Financial Fair Play, ripping off the people who prop up the sport – your sport – is contemptible.
Perhaps in the ivory towers of Nyon, where 495€ isn’t even enough to stuff an envelope, you cannot see your impropriety. As we approach uncertainty over future tournaments (Russia(?), Qatar(?) and the next Euros looking like a diffuse series of exhibition matches), many real fans were desperate to come to a proper tournament. Look after fans and you look after football. That is, after all, your purpose.
“Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.”
“It’ll be different this time,” I told myself. “Belgium will surely have learned their lessons from the qualifiers.” During both of those matches, Belgium controlled possession without ever really looking like scoring against a compact, disciplined Welsh team. Wales had a plan and executed it brilliantly.
In a soggy Lille, Wales had a similar plan but had simply improved their ability to execute it and their efficiency increases match by match. Tonight they came up against a Belgian defence as porous as the open (perhaps ‘unshut’ is a better word, because it really ought to have been closed) roof of the Stade Pierre Mauroy. Jason Denayer and Toby Alderweireld managed to make Hal Robson-Kanu look like the fat Ronaldo, and Jordan Lukaku leapt for headers as though he was spring boarding from quicksand.
A Belgium XI full of highly talented individuals started the match with pace and aggression and Wales simply couldn’t cope for the first fifteen minutes. Nainngolan scored an angry long range screamer and Belgium looked like outclassing Wales. Three of the Welsh defenders picked up deserved early bookings and it had the makings of a long, long night.
However, almost immediately after scoring, Belgium lost direction, sat back and seemed as rudderless as the Post-Brexit Boris Johnson. This allowed Wales to take the ascendency and discover the fallibility of the Belgian defence. Wales began to control possession – not something that has characterised their success to date – and Belgium, either by instruction or through lethargy, fell out of the game.
Although Belgium’s defensive personnel were inexperienced as a unit, they should have been far better drilled at defensive set pieces. Every ball lobbed into the box was causing havoc. Eventually, Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.
‘Bring on the Big Man‘
At half-time, having realised that practicing set pieces may have been beneficial, Wilmots’ words of wisdom and tactical adjustments would be vital. After all, since the 20th minute, Wales had been in the ascendancy. Much-maligned, this was the Belgian manager’s time to prove his nous. He did so in the way that he always does. By bringing on Pubic Prince Fellaini for Carrasco and shunting De Bruyne out wide, Wilmots relapsed into his old habit. That I had written about this last August (Predictable Belgium) during the qualifiers illustrates a lack of evolution and improvement.
It is worth remembering that Belgium played in this way against Wales in the qualifying matches and got nowhere. Perhaps Wilmots had forgotten this. It looked like it. His answer to Wales dominating set pieces was not to take control of the match but to send on the big man and resort to the long ball.
I can understand this in the last 10 minutes as a last throw of the dice. An act of desperation. However, I wouldn’t have taken off the guy who scored in the Champions League Final when I needed a goal. When Belgium play De Bruyne on the right, the same thing usually happens. Hazard, in the absence of de Bruyne in the middle, cuts inside to try to make something happen and runs into a wall of Welsh defenders. Wales are set up perfectly to counteract this. It all became so desperately predictable.
Except, that is, from Robson-Kanu’s fabulous turn and strike. It could be argued that his defender should never have allowed him to turn like this but credit has to be given to the forward here. Would Kompany, Lombaerts, Vermaelen, Vertonghen or Engels – all unavailable and ahead of Denayer in the pecking order – prevented this goal? We’ll never know. I’d suggest their presence would have more likely prevented Williams getting a free header though.
Wilmots and Belgium have been unlucky in that nearly all of their unavailable players are defenders. However, his myopia in persisting with an underperforming, uninspiring and generally unhappy-looking Lukaku put together with his reluctance to experiment with defensive shapes in friendlies and his dogmatic adherence to an entirely predictable game-plan reliant on the individuality of Hazard and De Bruyne should be his undoing. Nonetheless, Belgium’s profligacy was again their weakness. They were crying out for a finisher and, in Wilmots’ system, that man is not Lukaku.
Wilmots no more?
I can think of one Belgian coach who would reshape the team so that it plays to its strengths – what Coleman has done with Wales – and that man is KAA Gent’s Hein Vanhaezebrouck. Whether or not he’d take the job or if he’d be seen as ‘not unifying enough’ is another issue. Hopefully the Belgian FA have the courage to thank Wilmots’ for his hard work and then move on. The way he is diminishing his talented side’s potency is paralleled only by Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United.
‘Fouling with Impunity’
However, Belgium were unlucky in other ways. Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey continued to foul their way through the match with virtual impunity yet Fellaini’s first challenge was erroneously deemed bookable. When Aaron Ramsey was finally booked, it was for a handball that looked highly accidental. Belgium also had one stonewall penalty claim, one probable penalty and Davies should have been sent off for a foul on Lukaku on the edge of the box. This shouldn’t be ignored. In this sense, Wales were very lucky.
While Chris Coleman may not be the highest profile manager around, he has consistently sent out a Wales team that was slightly better than the previous match. They play to their strengths, defend intelligently, know each other’s roles and run themselves into the ground. I don’t think I saw Axel Witsel break into a jog all night, such was the Belgian lethargy off the ball.
Sam Vokes’ goal summed up the evening in a way. An unexpectedly excellent header from the big forward was allowed to go unchallenged as Alderweireld cantered back. It was a fitting end to the evening.
How far can Wales go? They shouldn’t fear Portugal, or indeed anybody. While I believe the winner will be whoever progresses between Germany and Italy, Wales have a chance if they continue to play to their strengths. They may need a few nice refereeing decisions – they had some tonight – and they must keep Bale fit (Pepe will test that) but they have earned the right to dream.
Belgium’s slogan has been #tousensemble and, while the team look disjointed, they can unify an often-fragmented country. Wales, on the other hand, epitomise #Togetherstronger and after the fragmentation in the UK over the past week, a little bit of togetherness can only be a force for progression.
“The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFA’s attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well.”
It is said that the Irish are ‘lucky’. Licking their wounds from a Bordeaux-based Belgian beating, their army of fans traversed the country to Lille more in hope than expectation. That Italy had already won the group and were able to field the reserves could be classed as lucky but the performance of the team, whose intensity was only matched by the delirium in the stands, was anything but. Ireland overcame their deficiencies in technical ability through hunger, persistence and playing to their strengths. It will be a night long remembered by everybody, including some non-Irish like me, who was there and millions who were not.
How did you get a ticket?
At every stage of the ticket sale process, I dutifully applied for tickets. Tickets for games in Lille and Lens (both less than 2 hours drive from my house), then individual matches, ticking the ‘I’m willing to pay the next category up’ box but to no avail. I have never been awarded a ticket in a UEFA lottery. Maybe I should change my email address to ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and see if that works? A guy I met in a pub next to the stadium said he won his ticket in a raffle. It’s an interesting raffle prize – kind of obliges you to take time off work, organise flights and hotels etc.
However, in this instance, I simply refreshed the ticket portal a few days beforehand and found that two tickets were available for the match, so I bought one. All official, easily picked up at the stadium (although be sure to take your passport/National ID card along). Parking at the stadium can also be booked although at 15€, I did feel a little bit stung. I was searched as I collected my ticket to be welcomed by an army of bored staff and volunteers. This was the first of three searches undergone pre-match.
Pre-Match – Around the Stadium
The area around the stadium has clearly evolved to cater to a different clientele. Rather depressingly, lots of nice bars with interesting wine lists and trappist beers were only selling sponsored products – Carlsberg and Coca-Cola products. Coke has even bought naming rights to the WIFI in the area! Although an exercise in extreme global capitalism, this paradoxically produces the choice and homogeneity one would expect in a communist state.
One guy actually asked the barman for a half-pint of Grimbergen – very common in France – and was told he could only be sold pints of Carlsberg. He attributed this to this arrival of the Irish but it seemed more like an imposition from The Man.
The atmosphere around these bars in the concourse adjacent to the stadium is how I remember International Tournament Football (as well as distantly, being Scottish) – not the images Lille town centre had experiences the week before and Marseille a few days previously. I wish more of this made the news.
It was very warm when the sun peeked out from between the clouds, causing the Irish boys to seek shade in the bars while the Italians milled around the terrace in what was more people reverting to stereotype than any kind of segregation. Another point of note was the number of fans wearing other teams outfits – Portuguese, Belgian, German fans were numerous enough to be noticed.
Whilst watching the Hungary v Portugal match on TV in a bar, these two characters at the bar were commenting on the aesthetic ‘quality’ of the bar staff. This led to them starting a rendition of “French girls on fire; Irish girls are terrified.” Had you seen these two mammies boys at the bar, it would’ve only added to the humour of the situation. They were two forty-something tubby little ginger hobbits from Limerick, both called Eoin. I’m not making this up!
Anyway, just before the 6pm games finished, I made my way to enter the stadium. There was a queue for checking the tickets (in addition to a barcode reader which checked them again), a queue to be patted down and another guy who checked your bags etc. This whole process did take around twenty minutes although nobody minds because of the purpose it serves.
Pre-match – In The Stadium
Cue: UEFA Grumbling
Once through the security checks, you are presented with the great corporate monoculture. Selling exclusively non-alcoholic beer is just lame. I understand the reasons why but when you can drink for 12 hours before the game should you really want to, I don’t think banning beer in the stadium is the way to go. It makes fans binge beforehand and wait until the last minute before entering the stadium, causing delays. It’s excessive drinking in a short space of time that is problematic, not beer at football matches.
Anyway, you would be relieved of six euros for a pint of pretend beer, in addition to 6.50€ for merguez and some reheated chips. Actually, LOSC have a reasonable buvette for snacks and drinks and generally sell better than this.
Having advanced past this to my rather good seat, I was overcome by the damp smell in the stadium. It reminded me of when I used to wash my rugby kit and not dry it for a few days. However, this was just ‘in the air’ as opposed to emanating from a poorly-laundered fan in the vicinity. I was intrigued to see the roof closed (a step taken to prevent the pitch becoming even heavier) but then the sprinklers turned on. I’m no horticulturist but this seems counterintuitive. The stadium was also very warm with the roof shut.
One part of the pre-match ritual I usually enjoy is the announcement of the teams, where the fans reply with the player’s surname. However, doing this a full hour before the match when the stadium is only about quarter full is just rubbish. It’d be like Blur sound checking with Song 2 and then not playing it during the set. This was followed by UEFA Karaoke, where the ‘Fields of Anthenry’ was played at a pedestrian pace and the fans that had arrived couldn’t sing it that slowly.
All this Superbowlification of football is not required, nor is it desirable. It all seemed to be aimed at people who don’t go to football matches, dreamt up by a marketing consultant who only goes to the football for the prawn sandwiches. The organic atmosphere created by the fans was fabulous and this ‘forced fun’ reminded me of a student Nursery Teacher who tries to teach one-year olds Frère Jacques, despite the fact half of them can’t speak, and carries on regardless of the feedback received.
The atmosphere inside the stadium was fabulous in spite of UEFAs attempt to sanitise it to better fit their purported ethos of inclusivity. Allow football fans to create atmosphere organically and they do it fantastically well. Ireland don’t have many songs, and Italy have even less, but they do belt them out with gusto and joy.
Ireland’s selection, Shane Long excepted, seemed to have been made on the basis of height: Duffy, Keogh, Murphy et al were not picked because of their passing ability. However, Ireland’s challenge would be to get the best out of these players in a way that they failed to do against Belgium. Italy really did field a reserve XI and, if nothing else, that was cause for a little optimism. However, I don’t think even the most optimistic fan would have expected such a spirited, intense and accomplished performance.
The first half was one of frustration for Ireland. Despite completely dominating the match, they didn’t have many clear cut chances. Again, Italy’s shape forced them into some of the ‘negative-U’ passing that Belgium did in their first match. However, Ireland generally don’t have 50 pass build ups, meaning that their directness kept Italy on their toes. Indeed, Italy had James McClean off of his toes and onto the ground with a very clumsy-looking challenge that the referee deemed to be acceptable. Ireland had been unlucky, but had lacked that bit of guile or class to unlock Italy.
Some of the Italian players should have been out to impress their coach but few will have done. Zaza was a no-no, Thiago Motta barely broke sweat and Barzagli and Ogbonna seemed intent on racing to the first yellow card.
The introduction of Hoolahan and McGeady had the feel of desperation about it but it did change things a little. Hoolahan has a glorious chance to score when everyone seemed to think play had stopped, but shot straight at Sirigu. McGeady did what he does, dribble nicely then play an ineffective cross or off-target shot. However, when the breakthrough finally came, even the Italians applauded and agreed that it was deserved. Robbie Brady had spent the whole second half moaning at Ward for not hitting him early with throw-ins and hadn’t done much else but became the hero after 84 minutes when he unconvincingly headed past an off-balance Sirigu.
Lille had exploded into shouts of joy, relief and disbelief. Now all they had to do was hold on. Despite substitute Insigne’s wasp-like movement in Ireland’s half, he was unable to sting and ended up embodying everything that is annoying about a Vespa. In injury time, a whistle was blown and Irish substitutes and coaching staff ran on to the pitch, only to realise it was a free kick. D’oh! However, there was no way they were going to give up what they had fought so hard for all night. When the final whistle was finally blown, the Irish fans descended into delirium.
As much as I was enjoying the celebrations, I did have work the following morning and had to get back to the car, get out of Lille and get home. This was easier said than done. All the stairs were blocked with dancing Irish. I had my sweaty head kissed twice by total strangers, before finally leaving the party early.
Just outside the ground, the party was kicking off and was set to extend well into the wee hours. I heard one guy on his phone just outside the stadium saying ‘look, I’ll book the hotel, you get train tickets and we’ll come up with some bullshit story for the wives and work’. I’d suggest he wasn’t the only one having these thoughts. Maybe these are the Irish girls Eoin said were terrified.
Whether or not they’ll get past the French seems irrelevant – Ireland have already somehow won. Looking on as a lonely Scot, it occurred to me that all three teams who qualified from Scotland’s group are in the last 16: Germany, Poland and Ireland. Lyon will be the next city whose pubs will be in profit. I’m looking forward to a few days excitement, with O’Neill being diplomatic and Roy Keane saying how Pogba wasn’t fit to clean his boots etc.
“You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show, with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he feels he knows”
It seems that just about everybody else can see what Belgium coach Marc Wilmots cannot see, or at least, pretends not to see. The Red Devils’ difficulties against Italy were not unfamiliar to armchair fans. Same old same old. However, more worrying for me is his refusal to accept that Italy, despite ceding much territory and possession, outplayed and outsmarted Belgium. What’s more, it was all so painfully predictable and Wilmots’ XI continue to play with the handbrake on. (Belgium at the Euros Preview)
Why were Belgium so Disappointing?
It is important to acknowledge that, for all that Belgium were disappointing, Italy played them like a Stradivarius. They were everything Belgium were not: fluid in attack, compact (sometimes ruthlessly cynical) in defence and, for all that they played a counter-attacking game, they could have easily won by more.
Luca Vialli mentioned in the build up to the match that he felt perhaps Belgium had “too much freedom and not enough discipline on the pitch”. While I understand this assessment, I believe that the opposite is true. Belgium were frequently rigid and lacked any fluidity. Their dynamism, as a result, is stunted. Marc Wilmots seems to have found a template and he is applying it, no matter what. Even Martin Keown was able to ascertain within 25 minutes that Belgium’s game was too slow and made reasonable comparisons with Van Gaal’s Manchester United. Normally these attempts to frame everything through the lens of England and the Premier League frustrate me but this was spot on.
The lack of urgency of the midfield coupled with the reluctance of the defence to go long to Lukaku who, despite being woefully poor, was frequently isolated, was a key issue. Belgium have this system where they control the game, high up the pitch but fail to support the centre forward. Every time Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne picked up the ball, they were in more or less the same wide position and tried to cut inside to find three centre backs waiting for them. In support, Italy’s midfield arrived to defend the non-existent runs of Witsel and Nainngolan into the box. Instead the two Belgian midfielders were restricted to taking errant pot-shots from outside the box, seldom troubling Buffon.
Hazard, for his part, gave everything but his final pass eluded him. His dribbling was actually very good but this is like shadow boxing unless it hurts teams and is done in and around the penalty box. Kevin de Bruyne, who is the darling of the Belgian media, was simply awful. While I accept that he was not in his preferred position, his passing was dreadful. Wilmots actually lacked backbone by not substituting a misfiring de Bruyne. As we’ve seen so many times before, the substitutions became increasingly desperate.
The static and deep nature of the midfield three has to be addressed as well. That Fellaini was the best of them says a lot. Defensively, he and Witsel worked hard and were fairly effective but this was a game to select players who could be the difference. Nainngolan and Witsel simply lurked around the box once the handbrake was applied to Belgium’s attacks. At no time did they run beyond the ball carrier or Lukaku. Italy knew this would be the case and were prepared to let them shoot from 30 metres. Witsel seems to be in a protected role as Wilmots’ “chouchou” and needs to either play differently (I’m not sure he can) or be dropped. He personifies Belgium’s one-paced game at the moment and unless he is playing instead of Nainngolan, there is no room for him.
Belgium’s shape meant that players were just jogging back into position as soon as possible, as though they had a high-tension bungee cord attached to them. It’s as though the message is “pass and then return to formation.”
Who is at risk of missing out against Ireland?
Well, who is at risk and who should be at risk are two different things. Wilmots spoke after the match that he might switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 but, in reality, these are the same thing for Belgium and is like saying that you’re going to wear a scarlet dress instead of a red one. What Wilmots calls a 4-3-3 turns out to be a 4-2-3-1, where the one cuts a lonely, often disconsolate figure.
Defensively, I would not be surprised to see Alderweireld, who was very poor, moved to full back. Completely outmuscled by Pelle in the box and beaten by a defensive clearance for Italy’s opening goal, he looked ill at ease all game. His movement to full back would mean possible inclusions for Denayer or Jordan Lukaku, moving Vertonghen to centre back to accommodate the latter. Ciman did his best at full-back but continues to look like a centre-back filling in.
Wilmots had special words of praise for ‘le retour d’un grand Thomas Vermaelen’. This suggests that Vermaelen will continue to play and he was certainly better than Alderweireld.
I’d expect one of the midfield trio to make way for Carrasco or Mertens against Ireland. Both looked lively when they came on and their directness should be exploited. I’d expect Nainngolan or Fellaini to make way. Eden Hazard, as captain, and Kevin de Bruyne are ‘undroppable’ in the coach’s eyes but what of Romelu Lukaku? He is not as highly regarded in Belgium as he is in England and the swell of disaffection towards him has surely grown in light of his lethargic performance. Divock Origi came on and ran around a lot but really ought to have made more of his chances. You always get the feeling that Origi never really has the ball under control and I don’t see how he can be fully relied upon.
Michy Batshuyai has a very different profile to Lukaku in that he is happy to play with his back to goal – a prerequisite with Belgium’s current stylistic preferences – and may be the alternative Hazard and De Bruyne need. This is a change Wilmots may have the courage to make as he has never settled on a preferred option up front.
Whether or not Wilmots acknowledges privately that Belgium need to do something differently remains unknown but he is publicly defiant and defending his players. While results continue to disappoint, he can expect to find his decisions met with increasing scrutiny. You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he knows. Ireland will present a different challenge from Italy so ‘more of the same’ shouldn’t be an option for Wilmots.
I expect that, come Saturday, the Belgian fans will turn out in their numbers expecting a series of ‘quite-near’ misses from the Red Devils. While I don’t expect Ireland to be as slick or smart as Italy, I don’t think for a second that O’Neill et al won’t have a particular plan for playing Belgium and based on their records to date, it’s a tough match to call and a must-win for both.
“The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available. He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus.”
History only repeats itself when we don’t learn lessons from the past. Just ask Marseille bar owners who didn’t buy plastic glasses. The echoes of the 2014 World Cup are whistling through Belgium right now, from the red, yellow and black aisles of Carrefour to the slightly homo-erotic Jupiler adverts and the emblazoning of the ‘Red Devils’ brand on everything from pasta to wing-mirror sleeves. The build up seems so reminiscent of 2014 as to be almost formulaic.
However, as expectations of Belgium’s gifted squad inflate, what has Marc Wilmots done to ensure progression, or evolution, from 2014? It should be remembered that, while Belgium reached the Quarter Finals of the World Cup, the performances in Brazil were less than inspiring: Fellaini to the rescue against Algeria, a late winner against Russia and an extra-time victory against the USA were the oases of joy in a desert of square passes. When up against a genuine contender in Argentina, Belgium came up so short that Romelu Lukaku resembled Verne Troyer.
So what has changed since 2014? Well, not a lot. Belgium still play a very slow, patient, possession-based game. They still play in the same formation. They still have the same lack of quality at full back. They still need around twenty chances before scoring. They still have a positional and equilibrium problem with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
Yet some things have changed. The emergence of Yannick Carrasco as a genuine match-winner is exciting, Radja Nainggolan has emerged as the preferred anchor to the midfield and is a better ball-winner than any other option and Jason Denayer is emerging into the natural heir to Vincent Kompany, both at Manchester City and for Belgium. And Romelu Lukaku appears to have usurped Benteke as the centre forward of choice, with Batshuyai also leapfrogging the Liverpool forward in the pecking order.
However, the dogmatic adherence to a possession based 4-3-3 is, at best, prohibitive in lieu of the players available to Wilmots. The lack of options at full back – Meunier and Jordan Lukaku are both good players in Belgium but even domestically they are considered to be defensively suspect – coupled with the injuries to Lombaerts and Kompany could have provided Wilmots the perfect platform to experiment with three centre backs in the friendly matches. Vertonghen and Alderweireld either side of Jason Denayer sounds like an excellent defensive base. However, the near religious devotion to having a ‘number 6, a number 8 and a number 10’ means that Belgium, for all their individual creativity, end up predictable and easy to defend against.
I find Marc Wilmots likeable but I remain unconvinced that he is getting the best out of a ‘Golden Generation’ of players. The sight of Toby Alderweireld, one of the best centre backs in the Premier League, marauding down the right-wing acting as the major provider and creative force leaves me frustrated, leaving a past-his-best Thomas Vermaelen gesticulating to Jason Denayer (who he cannot talk to due to the language barrier) in central defence. Denayer was also tried at right back against Finland and looked uncomfortable, unconvincing and like an ill-fitting suit.
A three-man defence may have proven very effective, it may have been a disaster but, in a friendly match, why not try things out? At the moment, Belgium’s plan B is to hook off a defender and put on another forward and hoof the ball up for Fellaini in support.
On Monday night, Belgium’s first opponents are Italy. A recent article in Het Laatste Nieuws outlined the differences in approaches to training Belgium and Italy have. One key point was that Italy do far more tactical and video analysis than Belgium. With this in mind as well as stylistic stereotypes, I’d be surprised if Italy, of all nations, lack the clairvoyance to know how Belgium will play.
The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available. He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus. His anointment of Eden Hazard as captain in order to make him take more responsibility seems counterintuitive, although I understand the logic therein. It was reported that Vertonghen, who has previously captained his country seven times and exudes authority and leadership, was far from happy. It seems like a move lifted directly from the Van Gaal playbook.
Which leads us to the wild card in the squad. King of the Cranial Pubis, Prince of the Flying Elbow, Lord of the Late Tackle: Marouane Fellaini. Love him or loathe him, the big man is something of a Talisman and has a knack of bundling home decisive goals. He was Belgium’s top goalscorer in qualifying and, while I face-plant as I write this, he needs to start against Italy, assuming Wilmots reverts to type with the formation. He may look like a malfunctioning assembly of spare parts but he adds a level of unpredictability that Italy may struggle to deal with.
If the match pans out as most Belgium matches in recent years have, the Red Devils will be camped in the Italian half against a deep-lying defence. There will be little space which leads to floated crosses into a crowded box. In which case, Fellaini is your man. However, at whose expense is also a big question. Wilmots usually finds a way of playing his best players, even if they are out of position (e.g. De Bruyne on the wing). In order to play Fellaini, and stick to his 4-3-3, he’ll need to drop Witsel (having Fellaini as a central midfielder alongside Nainngolan) or play Fellaini further forward, shifting De Bruyne wide, meaning Carrasco (or Origi or Mertens) will be dropped.
Wilmots’ loyalty is laudable although, perhaps like Jogi Löw, may be his undoing and I’d expect him to start Fellaini against Italy, despite all of his defensive shortcomings. Witsel hasn’t looked particularly sharp in the friendlies and may be sacrificed as Wilmots looks to have De Bruyne, Hazard and Carrasco in behind Lukaku. Carrasco’s form in big matches for Atletico should make him a shoo-in to start, although Wilmots may have seen his impact as a sub in the Champions League Semi-Final and Final and decide to use him that way if Plan-Fellaini doesn’t come off. The presence of Witsel, irrespective of form, is almost a universal constant in the Belgium XI, and Wilmots may take comfort in having him as a defensive ‘axle’ along Nainngolan.
I’d love to see a swashbuckling, pacy and courageous performance from Belgium on Monday but I don’t expect it. A low-scoring caper, perhaps decided by set-pieces, is more likely. When all is said and done, once Wilmots’ white shirt is starched and pressed and Fellaini’s blow-dry has set, let’s hope that when Belgium’s fans ask ‘Waar is dat Feestje?’ on Monday night, those lucky enough to be at the new Stade de Lyon will reply ‘Hier is dat Feestje’, and school kids across this so-often divided country will be wakened by the united celebrations and endless car horns into the small hours.
My Preferred line-up (3-5-2): Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Vertonghen; Carrasco, Nainngolan, De Bruyne, Dembele, Jordan Lukaku; Romelu Lukaku, Batshuyai. (Yes, no Eden Hazard – he’d be an impact sub alongside Fellaini or Origi).