From a back three to a back four, but from being utterly overwhelmed to be entirely underwhelming.
Belgium were second best in their opening World Cup 2022 game, fortunate to not be behind and then even more lucky to beat Canada. A response was needed against Morocco and head coach Roberto Martinez reacted accordingly, changing both personnel and system.
Neither had the required effect. The defeat to Morocco by two goals to nil leaves them second in Group F with one to play, yet a long way from qualified for the last 16 and with a tough clash against Croatia to come.
Their second outing in Qatar was stodgy, predictable and one-paced, entirely reliant more on moments of inspiration – mostly from an increasingly agitated Kevin de Bruyne – than any kind of patterns of play, clear build-up methodology or regular final-third threat.
In short, this was a largely horrible Belgium performance on the ball. Morocco let them have the possession for large spells, no doubt in part because it was so easy to defend against: pedestrian attackers, extremely safe and slow passing in midfield, a huge lack of quality from full-back.
Eden Hazard spoke before the game about Belgium’s best being behind them, but believed there was enough magic, enough quality players, to still have a significant impact on the tournament. Martinez has said similar. On the evidence so far it’s tough to make any assessment other than this being a wildly optimistic, near-sighted opinion of those who don’t realise quite how far they have fallen.
The captain and No10 is sadly a prime example of this.
He was here entirely ineffective in terms of ball progression, creativity or individuality, save for one successful dribble and shot right after half time. The rest of the time, watching him in a wide turning circle, habitually needing to play the way he’s facing and not being able to escape even journeymen defensive opponents is a sad indictment of his recent career run.
It is very nearly a full year – the last two games before Christmas 2021 – since he started back-to-back LaLiga matches.
And boy does it show, in every incapacity to change direction, every failed attempt to dribble past a defender who faces him up and every substitution around the hour mark.
But it’s far from just Hazard; it’s just that as captain, as the central cog of the attack, he’s the face of Belgium’s current failings.
Axel Witsel has been playing centre-back for Atletico Madrid all season, and not particularly well. As the heart of the Red Devils’ midfield, he’s another too easily bypassed, another who offers far too little ball progression, either by way of passing or carrying. In his time he was one of Europe’s best box-to-box options, but now at 33 he has not the legs for defensive protection, recoveries or covering for teammates who do too little.
The age of the centre-backs is well-detailed by now, but either side of them the full-backs – not wing-backs, today, but certainly not improved defensively by a change of role – have had very poor seasons by their own standards.
Wherever you care to look in this Belgian side there is a lack of renewal of the team, which has in turn led to lowered physicality and lowered tempo of play.
It did not help that the two genuinely elite talents in the side, De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois, had off-days. The Man City midfielder increasingly tried to do too much himself; the Real Madrid goalkeeper twice was caught out by set-pieces aimed directly at his goal. Nothing like top-corner curlers, these were crosses which others were able to run across and distract the ‘keeper; he got away with the first thanks to an offside call, but there was no reprieve when it happened again. No excuse, either.
Martinez ended the game with Charles De Ketelaere on the pitch, a talented younger player but who had only been handed ten caps before this game. It’s another example of Martinez failing to incorporate the next generation quickly enough, well enough. Often enough.
Amadou Onana (three caps), Zeno Debast (three), Lois Openda (six), Jeremy Doku (11) are in the squad and Yari Verschaeren (seven), Alexis Saelemakers (nine) and Sebastiaan Bornauw (three) are all not. Each of them are other talented potential options for the team – irrespective of whether form dictated they should be in Qatar or not right now – who have been largely overlooked or not given enough chances to integrate themselves into the team.
The failure to rebuild the team with so many components past its best falls squarely on the coaching staff, but the performance on the day is on the players.
Martinez has a choice for the final group game: keep faith and trust with those he has done for the last four years, or make big calls and many changes.
Only one is particularly likely to jolt a result out of the team. The other will end this cycle of the national team with a whimper.
Belgium were second-best to Morocco throughout, in every part of the pitch. It was a deserved result which leaves the group wide open, but even if the Europeans do manage to sneak through, few will fear facing them.