Updated: Jun 24, 2018
No team has been more entertaining and synchronous in the attack than the star-studded Belgium, and unlike other celebrities conglomerated into a “team,” the Red Devils played a scything total football that pulled apart a half-decent Tunisian side into fully diced filets. They had three chances in the first three minutes, and all of the goals came from beautifully constructed combinations, where the weights and pulleys were all moving in unison. This was gorgeous football, and it came against a Tunisian side that looked better than they did against England.
After a down year at Chelsea, we’re seeing peak Eden Hazard, liberated to play where ever he can find space. Hazard has always had the ability to run at the defense, but we’re seeing brilliant decision making in releasing the ball for combinations; some delicious dummies; and off-ball run in the middle of tika-taka, picked out with maestro-precision by center back Toby Alderweireld for the fourth goal. A better defense might have nicked it off at the last moment, but this was brilliant work. Add to the dummy-and-turn that toasted the backline and led to the PK, and he was my Man of the Match. In the World Cup, you need your stars to be swelling with confidence, and Hazard has that flame going.
What Belgium have that everyone else lack is an imperious, immovable pivot in Romelu Lukaku, whom no man can move off the ball, but also more than just a target man. Lukaku’s first goal came from a brilliant run, in which he broke off the initial angle and then audaciously went through the legs and off the far post. The second was a gorgeous little chip from a cheeky reverse run.
The delivery on these balls (and the first to Hazard) came from what is turning out to be the Belgian secret sauce: Dries Mertens and Thomas Meunier. Mertens is a low-lying speedster with a nose for goal (55 goals in 95 appearances for Napoli, the kind of run that gets you a candy bar named after you if you’re on the Yankees). Here, though, he stripped the ball from the Tunisian midfielder in played Lukaku in for his first, after combining with Hazard for his first. At times he looked like a mini-Hazard on the ball. Mertens is moving across the pitch, too, creating matchup difficulties for anyone. PSG’s Meunier has been a horse on the right, doing all the hard work on defense and then showing creativity in the attacking half. The laid-on ball for Lukaku’s second has a great bit of footwork to pick out (and really invite) the reverse run. The three man back puts a premium on the quality of the men who fill this position, and Meunier is seems sent from the lab for this role.
Despite giving up two goals (one from a brilliantly nodded free kick), the back three have been solid. Bouyata gave the ball away more than I’d like today, but his speed and confidence have been a strong replacement for Kompany. There is the Carrasco Conundrum, though, and that’s putting it generously, and with Brazil likely looming in the quarters, there’s got to be a Plan B, because an isolated Vertonghen is not a happy Vertonghen (actually, he’s never happy, anyway). Carrasco’s the weak link in both attack and defense, offering so little in both areas to almost scream “why me?” Douglas Costa, if he’s looking ahead, will surely be licking his chops. I don’t know if the youngster Youri Tielemans can step into that role, but the serious work rate that he showed and the butter-like assist he provided to the woeful Batshuayi (Lord, how did the announcers see his performance as a good option #2?!! Twitter responded with cavalcade of mockery) suggested that perhaps he deserves a chance. Tielemans made a great impression on me. I'm pretty sure he's not a left back, but Carrasco isn't either.
The other piece that left me uneasy was De Bruyne’s body language through most of the game, a torporous look that a redhead might give his parents after being left on the beach too long. I’d love to hear if you think I’m wrong, and given the results (8 goals in 2 games, with many spurned), it’s hard to argue that Belgium don’t have enough offense. But while De Bruyne can orchestrate from the back, he mainly jogged a little to his left or right as the situation demanded, and was flat in affect and impact. The problem, again, is that the formation leaves little solution; unless you want Hazard or Mertens playing left back, one of them has to come off for De Bruyne to play in a more advanced position. Once Fellaini came in for the double-’fro pivot (a great look, you have to admit), the spark came into De Bruyne, the one touch wonder and sparkle. Maybe I’m reading too much into the body language, but De Bruyne’s not afraid to be public with his complaints. If they don’t move on, you’ll hear about it. On the one hand, being able to shift and move De Bruyne up is a great ace in the hole to have, but the combination of Carrasco’s presence and the 3-man back problem is going to cause problems, I think, and the Brazil’s precisely the team to exploit it. If they go four in the back, then you end up with centerbacks out wide. Unless Martinez has a rabbit in his hat, or Clockwork Red proves irresistible, something’s got to give. It’s a tournament that’s really quite lacking in left backs.
Lukaku’s got a ligament issue, too. Hopefully a week’s rest will be all he needs, because as Chelsea fans will tell you, Batshuayi will not prove to be an adequate replacement.