It has been observed on many occasions before, but a team of talented sportspeople should only become a ‘golden generation’ when they actually triumph in a significant way. Thus, England’s much-discussed lineage of supposedly golden talent (one that never made it past the last-eight of a major tournament) are undeserving of the title, while Germany circa 2006-2014 (perennial semi-finalists before becoming world champions in Brazil) fit the bill more accurately. Despite this, the latest team to carry this honour/albatross around their necks is the current Belgium side: frequently ranked as one of the best two or three sides in world football, and boasting some of the most expensive and talented individuals to ever grace the modern game. Like England, they have earned this international title of ‘golden generation’ through no major international achievement, and their opening round defeat to Italy at EURO 2016 has provoked many questions over this side’s true quality.
When trawling through many of the post-match think pieces, a common theme of analysis emerges. Italy – a side under Conte labelled by some of their own media as direly lacking in quality – were a brilliant collective team, that triumphed over Belgium’s collection of individuals: a side boasting more talent, but lacking the togetherness that Italy used to brutal effect. There is truth in this observation, but too many of the accounts wandered into age-old archetypes of each team. Belgium’s performance became wrapped in seeing the side as pampered, over-hyped ‘individuals’, while accounts of Italy’s collective performance dug out the old observations of canny Italians cynically fouling their way to the win. Again, there is truth within these points…just not the whole truth.
Belgium did indeed look like less of a cohesive side than Italy. Their attacks often came from individual sparks of magic, in contrast to Italy’s flowing team counter-attacks. But there were times when the much-feted Belgium attack did click. The latter stages were awash with smart, recycled attacks featuring swift interplay between the forwards, while a second-half counter sprung by Hazard was breath-taking. The issue however is that these flashes – moments of truly excellent, flowing football that any supposed ‘golden generation’ should aspire to – came in spite of, rather than because, of the team’s tactical set-up. The fault of Belgium is not a team of inherent individuals; it is a team that becomes individuals due to the unimaginative, restrictive instructions of their manager.
Marc Wilmots, following the Van Basten line of managerial career, had precious little coaching experience before taking on his nation’s football team. On the surface he is impressive: excellent qualifying results and the team’s regular topping of the FIFA rankings would suggest real success. However, closer looks at these begin to shed doubt. The FIFA rankings are a constantly critiqued valuing system that never seems to reflect a nation’s real quality, while a deeper look into their recent qualifying makes for interesting reading. They topped their EURO group averaging over two goals a game, but most of those goals came against the group’s whipping boys Andorra and Cyprus. In the four fixtures against their closer group rivals – Wales and Bosnia – they gained just one win and four goals…three of which came in one game.
Then we look back to the 2014 World Cup. After being touted as virtually everyone’s dark horse for the title, their campaign was one of thoroughly underwhelming football. In their stodgy run to the quarter-finals, they scored only four goals in regular time, and didn’t score once before the seventieth minute in the entire tournament. Their group-topping disguised performances where they ground opponents down with sluggish, repetitive football before snatching a goal or two late on from piece of individual inspiration, most notably seen in Origi’s goal against Russia. A last-sixteen humdinger against the USA was a freak result – the entertainment came in extra-time when both sides’ tactical shape deserted them – before they were beaten comfortably by Argentina. When we see the Italy game not as a micro-narrative, but as part of this longer history of Belgium’s supposed golden age of football, we see the constant: Wilmots.
His shortcomings with this national side are beyond the McClaren-esque criticisms of a man ‘too small’ for a big job, but a man whose tactical setups seems to hinder, rather than help, his undeniably talented players. Too often, their victories come when attackers improvise something outside of the rigid 4-2-3-1 that Wilmots sticks to religiously game on game. The inflexibility of his formation hurts his attack through the restriction of movement and passing options: many of the chances against Italy came from solo runs rather than planned team attacks. It is a style that also hurts them defensively as they stick resolutely to a zonal formation structure of defending that better teams play around. Conte’s Italy frequently formed triangles between the rigid yet surprisingly open grid of defending players that made attacking far, far too easy.
There also comes the classic issue that plagues and often cripples any manager of a ‘golden generation’: fitting star names into a coherent system. For English fans, the classic Gerrard-Lampard debate was the prime example of a failure to prioritise the team over the big names in the squad. With Wilmots, player selection results both in stars out of position and often to the detriment of the overall team’s style of play. Playing centre-backs out wide results either in ineffective attacking from overlaps or, in the case of Vertonghan, defenders unused to the full-back position leaving swathes of space in behind for attackers to exploit.
The more pressing issue though comes in the attack, as players are played together despite continual problems with integration. Hazard and de Bruyne are both superb, and an envy of many domestic and international side. However, both are asked to play as the widest players in the side, when both really excel centrally, or in Hazard’s case drifting in off of the wing. Couple this with playing the immobile Fellaini as a number ten (a role he only ever played well at when receiving long balls as a deep-lying target-man at Everton) and you end up with a team attempting passing football through a lumbering midfielder while asking two creative players to swing crosses in to a forward (Lukaku) who prefers to drop deep centrally for the ball: the space occupied by Fellaini, and desired by the other three. Thus, the crosses rarely find a target; the ‘space’ in front of the opposition central defenders clogs up with players and the flanks are further opened up to opposition counters, thus further exposing the centre-backs often asked to play at full-back.
Are there solutions to the tactical confusion? It is possible. Hypothetically, a variation of the 3-4-2-1 recently used by Liverpool (among others) could be more effective with many of the same players. The centre-backs could play in their more comfortable positions, with Hazard and de Bruyne given more space and freedom behind the forward with the midfield behind them now spread a little wider. This though presents new problems: who would play wide in the midfield four, perhaps Mertens and Chadli? Alternatively, the 4-2-3-1 remains but with a more mobile forward, or a more outright winger in place of one of the natural number tens? The situation facing any struggling football manager, as many fans shouting from the stands probably realise, is not easy.
Wilmots though should contemplate change for the rest of this tournament, and think of refreshing his tactical approach and think more of the team balance, than the inclusion of individual names. However, he has proven for most of his tenure a resolute believer in his methods. It is this, the defiant resistance to flexibility that is so painfully obvious both on the pitch and in the dugout for this latest golden generation. If it, like many others, is to fall short of its name, then it will come very much from a manager and by extension a team too confident that the magic will appear from within their inherent talent. To truly reach one’s potential however, one must do more than rely on one, old, familiar trick.