Boasting a rich contingency of star players, Belgium entered Euro 2016 expected to set the tournament alight. The Red Devils were, however, brought back down to earth with a bump by Italy in the opening game of the group stages. Antonio Conte’s superior tactics allowed the Azzurri to clinch a convincing 2-0 win, leaving Marc Wilmots with some serious thinking to do ahead of the next game.Tactically, there were gaping holes in Belgium’s play, as the manager committed several seemingly obvious strategic blunders, which could have easily been addressed.
There was a severe lack of chemistry and cohesion among the players during the first half and it appeared the players had been simply thrown together without any prior practice or training.
With tricky games against Sweden and Ireland coming up, the Belgians need to find the right shape and deploy players in their most effective positions.
Wilmots made some interesting choices in midfield, none more perplexing than playing Marouane Fellaini as an attacking midfielder when there are several other players in the squad who could have served that role better.
Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Dries Mertens are all tailor made to play in that number 10 role. Instead, the manager chose to deploy these players on the wings for most of the game, before eventually switching the Chelsea man to a more central position.
Installing three defensive minded midfielders in the team restricted their flow and ability to build coherent attacks, with the Belgians keeping a lot of possession in their own half and in the centre of the pitch but lacked any cutting edge in the final third.
Putting the attack-minded Mertens on the bench proved to be yet another error of judgement, as the Napoli midfielder’s introduction in the second half added another dimension to Belgium’s attack. Seeming lost for most of the encounter, De Bruyne had minimal influence on the game as the Manchester City midfielder was isolated on the wings.
Lone striker, Romelu Lukaku, faced the gargantuan task of going up against the highly experienced back three of Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, seeing his only glimmer of a chance in the second half.
Lacking blistering pace and consistent ball control, the big striker was eased off the ball on multiple occasions during the game. Only the introduction of Divock Origi injected some much-needed speed in attack, causing the Italian defence some problems during the latter stages of the opener.
Another tactical error made by the manager was playing Jan Vertonghen, who is a centre-back by trade, on the left side of the defence, instead of a more recognised and natural left-back. Belgium were defensively frail throughout the game and the Italians looked like they could score from every attack.
Despite rectifying some of the errors during the second half, the damage had been done and there was very little time to claw back against a highly experienced and organised Italy side.
Heading into the next game, it is imperative for the Red Devils to register their first victory of the tournament, any other result will be increasingly detrimental to their chances of progressing in the competition.
Considering the Belgians are lacking natural wingers in their ranks, it would serve them well to adopt a tighter formation which would allow the more attacking players to operate narrower. Looking at the previous game, as well as the friendlies leading up to the tournament, it is evident that their strengths rest on directing their attacks through the middle.
It will be difficult for Wilmots to incorporate Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens in the same team, but perhaps a change in shape could allow him the luxury of having three attacking midfielders in the side.
If the former Schalke manager does opt to stick with the same 4-2-3-1 formation, he should look to move the wide players more centrally and allow the full-backs to occupy the channels during attacks.
Playing De Bruyne behind the striker instead of Fellaini, with Hazard and Mertens operating on either side of the 24-year-old, will hand a great boost to Belgium’s attack. The Man City midfielder is used to playing in that role at the Etihad and would relish the opportunity to be the creative spark to start his nation’s assaults.
The Belgians are rather spoiled for choice for the two central midfield positions, with Mousa Dembele, Radja Nainggolan, Axel Witsel and Fellaini all capable of slotting into that role.
In fact, Wilmots could very well turn to Tottenham’s Dembele for future games following Nainggolan disappointing display against Italy.
After a short but promising display during the last game, Origi could also be handed his first start of the tournament. The 21-year-old added the much-needed spark against Conte’s men and has shown his maturity as a striker for both Liverpool and Belgium in the past.
In defence, Vertonghen needs to be moved to central defence alongside Thomas Vermaelen, as the Spurs defender is much more influential at the heart of the defence and was not used to his full potential at left-back.
The 29-year-old seemed to be one of the few motivated players for Belgium and his leadership and experience at the back will be crucial in the upcoming games.
His Tottenham teammate Toby Alderweireld could be pushed to right-back ahead of Laurent Ciman, a position the former Southampton man has occupied in the past, with Jordan Lukaku the obvious choice to bring in at left-back.
It will be interesting to see what formation Wilmots chooses to deploy as well as his choice in personnel. Also, the Belgian needs to be clear in his instructions to players and assign specific roles to each man in order to form a cohesive unit, rather than the bewildered side that took the stage in the opening game.
One thing is for certain. The 47-year-old manager must not adopt the same tactics used against the Azzurri, as the Belgians cannot afford to drop any more points if they would like to secure a more favourable draw in the next round – if they even qualify.