On loan Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku lead the line for Belgium in place of Premier League counterpart Christian Benteke. Steven Defour and Axel Witsel formed the holding duo, allowing Marouane Fellaini to push on to support Lukaku. Belgium’s back four and goalkeeper remained the same, Thibaut Courtois keeping in form Liverpool stopper Simon Mignolet on the bench.
Mario Mandzukic lead the line for Croatia, hoping to increase his tally of 12 goals in 42 games for the Eastern Europeans. Former Tottenham defender Vedran Corluka and current Southampton man Dejan Lovren formed two thirds of a shaky Croatia back three, flanked by two wingbacks.
Lukaku’s movement and masterclass
In the wake of the Belgium win, Romelu Lukaku deservedly received the plaudits from those who watched the game. Praised from everything from his technique to his composure, Lukaku is an exceptional striker and rightfully gains praise for his playing style; however, there is one aspect of his game that does not gain as much recognition as it deserves: his movement. Lukaku has developed a very basic method with regards to his movement, pointing to where he wants the ball. Whilst it sounds like a joke, the method is extremely effective and led to Belgium’s first goal after Defour played Lukaku through after his gesturing. On his movement, Lukaku told the Telegraph “I want to make defenders scared of me,” he says:
[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”” cite=”Lukaku after Croatia game” quotestyle=”style02″] I study them all. Van Persie has the best movement. He always finds a yard of space for himself. I love Rooney’s all-round game, a great No 10, Jermain Defoe’s finishing and then Drogba’s hold-up play, which is still unmatched. Then there was Thierry Henry. He had complete authority on the pitch. When they saw him defenders said ‘oh no’. Drogba had that as well, but Henry had a presence that meant the opposition defence was already killed before the game started, and yet off the pitch he was humble. I want to be the same. [/sws_blockquote_endquote]
Another aspect of Lukaku’s movement that allows him more chances is the Belgian’s dropping off to free himself up in terms of space when his wingers are attacking down the flanks. Dropping off to the edge of the 18 yard box allows Lukaku more space to shoot but also frees up space for him to run into should the ball be played in the air, another aspect of his game he is very comfortable in, as shown in his last minute winner against West Ham earlier in the season. Lukaku’s ability to play on the shoulder of his centre half also sees him create more chances for himself and his teammates. Utilising his deceptive pace and strength saw him brush aside his runner and slot coolly past Pletikosa for Belgium’s first goal. His second goal was practically a carbon copy of the first, easily brushing aside his defender to tuck away.
Belgium’s counterattacking and rotation
A notable tactic, and one that Belgium often use away from home, is dropping deep and allowing the opposition’s defence to keep the ball around their back line. This allows Belgium to cut off short passes whilst pressing the man on the ball, hoping for long balls which Belgium’s aerially dominant defence should be able to win most times. This passing around the back makes Croatia’s statistic of 55% understandable, despite its misleading nature as they did not dominate the game visibly. This also allows Belgium’s midfielders to break quickly in the case of a quickly won ball which leads to a counter-attack as was the case for Belgium’s first, and illustrated by the picture below. It also shows that each of Belgium’s midfielders was close to a Croat, cutting off the supply lines and eventually winning the ball through their defensive endeavours. It is this tactic of counterattacking that has helped Marc Wilmot’s side become such a force on the European stage. The tendencies of Fellaini to track back also contributed to Belgium’s shielding of the back four by Witsel and Defour, the Manchester United man slotting just in front of the duo, acting as a screen against roaming Croatian centre halves. The wide men in the form of Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard also provided an outlet for the defence in attack – for the former, both men tucked inside and tracked Croatia’s wingers to nullify, and in attack, they had the ability to break quickly to support Romelu Lukaku, although both were no-where to be seen for both of the Everton man’s goals.
This performance capped off what has been a thoroughly impressive qualification campaign by the Belgians, dispatching a Croatia side who were no minnows to be turned over. Their performance certainly raises some questions; how far will Belgium get in Brazil? Can they win the World Cup? Or is Euro 2016 a more viable option for a team that certainly has great potential?