At the end of a sodden night at Hampden Park, one thing was made abundantly clear: this current crop of Belgian players can go very far indeed. All but qualified for the upcoming World Cup finals in 2014, the Red Devils swept away Scotland with a comfortable 2-0 victory, despite missing captain Vincent Kompany and prize asset Eden Hazard through injury. Their absences were not missed too much, as Nicolas Lombaerts and Nacer Chadli proved themselves to be more than able deputies for their positions, albeit against weaker opposition than they will face in Brazil.
Belgium Vs Scotland Lineups
Both sides lined up in the 4231 formation, playing two holding midfielders, and in Belgium’s case inverted wingers in the form of Nacer Chadli on the left, and Kevin De Bruyne on the right (assisted Defour’s goal), although De Bruyne’s ease of passing with either foot makes him a natural winger, on whatever side he plays. Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke led the line for Belgium, with the striker in fine form for his club before the break with 3 goals in as many appearances. As per usual, Belgium used natural centre backs as full backs with Toby Alderweireld on the right, and Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen on the opposite flank, though the duo’s natural agility and pace ensured Snodgrass and Forrest caused them minimal problems.
Scotland lined up in the same formation. Leigh Griffiths taking the place of the recently retired Kenny Miller. However the Scots played a deeper variant of the formation than their Belgian counterparts, in the hope of hitting them on the counter attack and to absorb the waves of relentless pressure specifically from Alderweireld overlapping De Bruyne on the right hand side and the powerful duo of Fellaini and Witsel in the middle of the park.
Belgian marking and out of possession
As we can see from this screenshot, whenever the Scottish had possession of the ball within their own half, each Belgian player gravitated towards the nearest outlet for a short pass, in order to cut out any chance of Scotland playing out from the back and threatening Belgium on the ground. This tactic worked, to an extent, with 16.3% of Scotland’s passes being long balls up to Griffiths; Belgium used this tactic effectively, knowing that they were superior to Scotland in the air, especially their two centre backs against Leigh Griffiths and Belgium dominated in the aerial duels – winning 65% of the battles in the air and 57% on the ground. Belgium’s isolation of Scotland’s passing avenues and their isolation of Griffiths effectively nullified the Scotland attack, and while Scotland had a few bright opportunities, such as James Forrest’s darting run in between Alderweireld and Van Buyten, the Scottish were woeful offensively, failing to muster even a single shot on target.
Benteke’s positioning and Belgium’s defensive awareness
As we can see from this screenshot, Christian Benteke did not take up the deep lying position he usually does when he plays as a striker. In fact, aside from his pass for Kevin Mirallas’ goal, Benteke had rather a quiet game with no goals, and even more worryingly no shots at all, and no crosses to speak of. Perhaps it was his positioning that reduced his shots, as throughout the majority of the game, Benteke was dropping deeper to receive the ball, occupying areas and playing not unlike a false 9 (as physically unsuitable as Benteke is for that role). His heat map corroborates this theory, showing him occupying space in between the Scottish defence and the Belgian midfield. At the time of the counterattack, Benteke is behind his wingers, a position he shouldn’t find himself in if he wants to be scoring regularly.
What is also worth noticing in this picture, is the position of Fellaini, instructed to play in a double pivot with Axel Witsel, the duo were very disciplined and rigid, staying back in attacking situations in order to combat the threat of a Scotland counterattack, which the Scots were looking to do throughout the game. Had Fellaini bombed forward, as he did last season at Everton, it would have left a sizable gap in front of the back four which could have allowed Scotland to score. Obviously, Fellaini is naturally a defensive midfielder, but his tendency to go forward, or even be played in an attacking position gained him some plaudits last season, and his discipline and willingness to stay back impressed me.
When all was said and done, Belgium’s dominance showed, with a secure 2-0 victory and they have all but secured their place in Rio de Janeiro. Are the Red Devils dark horses, or genuine contenders to win the World Cup? Will Scotland qualify? Or will they fall flat yet again? It all remains to be seen.