Belgium laboured to an unconvincing win against group underdogs Algeria in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday, failing to combine the indubitable individual talent they have in their squad into any kind of tangible whole.
Belgium looked out of ideas for the entire first half; their players failing to combine to any meaningful effect, and there were a number of reasons for this.
Romelu Lukaku, the young Chelsea striker who has torn high quality Premier League opposition apart for fun single-handedly during his loan spell at Everton, repeatedly found himself isolated on his own up front.
This often forced him to drop deep to search for the ball and then finding nobody making runs ahead of him. His frustration was compounded when he was withdrawn in the 58th minute.
The biggest problem, and one that Algeria successfully exploited, was their lack of genuine full backs, which in turn contributed to their lack of any real natural width other than that offered by Eden Hazard on the left.
The lack of full backs, with centre backs Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld played out of position at left and right back respectively.
Algeria’s penalty in the 24th minute was evidence that these centre backs, and Vertonghen in particular, are not comfortable dealing with the type of runs in behind which wingers tend to make.
Their lack of natural attacking flair also meant that Hazard was asked to do far too much against a stubborn Algerian defence.
This improved slightly when Dries Mertens was introduced after half time to give Belgium more natural width, but even when Belgium did eventually equalise, it was more through a moment of individual skill than any great engineered goal. A wonderful cross from Wolfsburg’s Kevin de Bruyne was met with a delicate glancing header from Marouane Fellaini to guide it past the as yet untroubled Algerian goalkeeper.
There was evidence that things could improve, the second goal of the afternoon more the style of football that we have come to expect from this Belgian side.
Dries Mertens again provided width to latch on to Hazard’s through ball after brilliant awareness and vision was shown by the Chelsea man, before finishing calmly to put Belgium ahead.
Belgium looked much better in the last ten minutes when Algeria were forced to open up and chase the game, but one still feels they will struggle against any well drilled defence that does not allow them space in the centre of the pitch, or any team with genuine width that can exploit the lack of pace and awareness in the Belgian back line.
Yes, this Belgium squad has superior talent, more so perhaps than any of their previous national sides, and they could still go on to do very well in this tournament, but until they can come together to form a cohesive unit that works together, it seems that they will be forced to rely on the individual brilliance of their attacking players to drag them through adversity rather than having any confidence in grinding out a result.
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