Updated: Jul 10, 2018
One's practically ready to show a Monty Python parody to sum up the fears of getting countered: "Oh, noooooo, we couldn't possibly take the ball! You, sir, you take it. Yes, there--and head down into our garden, please. And bring your friends? How many? As many as you can, old friend! We have the reception committee waiting for you, Shelby will take the horses. Jolly good!"
Neither team was thought to be a countering one when this tournament started, and France hasn't played as a countering team, but have been pretty unconvincing when trying to unlock one a deep-lying team. Indeed, I found myself hoping for Brazil-France here, because that would be the most open game of the tournament. But France has looked its most explosive on the counter (perhaps enhanced by the flailing Argentinian display), while Belgium really bunkered in against Brazil and have produced two swashbuckling end-to-end counters to provide the winning margin the last two games, so we've got two teams who have a lot to lose by the lightning strikes that these sides can unleash. I'd expect a cagey start, ending with a 2-0 victory--by whom, I have no idea. A few factors to consider.
Stage and Age: Belgium arrives at the perfect peak moment, just a tad of grey but the critical players in their prime (De Bruyne and Hazard are 27, Lukaku 25). They’ve got a ton of experience and enough speed/fitness to stake their claim. France feels a bit young--the backline is about 7 years younger, on average, than their Belgian counterparts. If the game goes into extra time, that may be to their advantage (they’re the deeper squad, too).
Everything hinges on the first goal. Belgium will come out not to give it up, and France will come out and be France, maybe a bit relaxed and suspecting that Lloris, Varane, or Kante will pull them out of whatever mess they get into. If Belgium has to play from behind, they will open themselves to the deadly Mbappe pace, and if France faces a bunkered in Belgium, they’ll be liable to see what Japan and Brazil have already experienced. While it’s a truism to state the being down a goal is a problem, in this case I’d say you’re more likely to end up with a 2-0 score than a 1-1, given how dangerous these teams are against anyone who's allowed them space to attack.
Missing Meunier and the Belgian Set-Up: From the outset of Belgium’s campaign, I started with a question with a question: who protects Vertonghen on the left flank in the 3 center back system, and why don’t they have any left backs in the first place? That question heated up in my head after watching the Panama match and then turned into code-red neurosis the longer I watched Yannick Carrasco try to fill this role. What would they do against a proper winger?
Change it up the system that Martinez has sworn by since taking over! Against Brazil they pulled the bionic Thomas Meunier to right back in a 4-3-1-2 (I think that's a more realistic description than 4-4-2), and dropped Carrasco for Chadli, who gave more support on the left. Vertonghen still played fairly narrow, and the project didn’t look nearly as good against Costa in the second half, but it was a crucial change. Meunier of course was critical in the second goal, sprinting 70 yards, just enough to pull Marcelo over a few yards to give De Bruyne the window for his thunderous blast. Essentially Meunier allowed them to have their cake (legs and precision for the counter) and eat it too (muscular, dependable flank defense), and no one else on this squad can do that (and Carrasco provides neither!). Meunier's been superb, and will be sorely missed.
I assume they go 4-3-1-2 again, Hazard and Lukaku high and wide, De Bruyne in the hole, Fellaini and Witsel clogging, but what comes next? I’ve heard various configurations, but none of them offer Meunier's support wide: 1) Boyata to center, Alderweireld wide, which is a strong defensive side; 2) Vermaelen and Vertonghen on left side--not sure which goes wide. Vermaelen being able to make it through a match, though, is questionable; 3) Leander Dendoncker--my, these Belgian chaps have some fabulous names!--at right back. Dendoncker’s not really a back at all, but seems to play like a #6 for Anderlecht, where he sprays the ball quite well with both feet; 4) Chadli and Carrasco out wide (maybe even Chadli at right back?). If the line-up has Carrasco in it, I’d say they’re cooked, and he probably won’t go with the relatively green Dendoncker. So, either Boyata or Vermaelen in for Meunier; I’d go with the former (take all the speed you can get, I’d say) but I think he’ll be taking the latter, and rolling the dice on Vermaelen’s longevity.
What we know for sure is that we’re not going to get a replacement that has Meunier’s engine and speed on the flank.
Hence, a defensive middle that’s set to clog, with lots of eyes on Griezemann; a set-up that will likely lure French full-backs into the attack, trying to overload the already questionable wings; and a Belgian squad looking to counter very directly to their two strikers, each of whom has shown that they can hold the ball up or go-for-broke as the situation requires. If they don’t have to defend Mbappe in much space, this could hold up, because…
...Every brilliant Mbappe moment that I’ve seen comes in wide swaths of space, which will be hard to come by on Tuesday. People compare him to Neymar, who’s swift himself, but they’re entirely different attackers. Mbappe takes some massive touches going forward, ones that seemingly no one else could reach yet he does through the electrifying pace. In tight spaces, I haven’t seen the close touch that’s needed. So, if Belgium hunkers in as they did against Neymar, I’d say it will be even more effective; Neymar created several good chances, while Mbappe didn’t really create anything near striking distance with his feet against a tight Uruguay back line. I expect he’ll fleece Vertonghen at least once, but will have more axemen waiting for him if he does.
Giroud and Matuidi seem to be almost perfect matchups from the Belgian side. Whomever partners with Kompany knows they have a pace advantage against the lumbering front-man, and will be strong enough to contest him in the air, while Matuidi’s industry in getting back and lack of a frightening outside shot (compared to Tolisso) will relieve pressure, too.
It gets more complicated in the midfield; Kante will certainly watch De Bruyne closely, but he’s a hard player to negate, as so much of his capacity comes from moving the ball.
As deep as Witsel and Fellaini might drop, one wonders where the space will develop for Pogba and Griezemann. The latter is a little genius at finding spots, and is constantly on the move, but it will take some extra guile to find a crack in the Belgian center. So maybe then it comes down to Pogba, and how well he balances his ever-present desire to find the killer pass with the need to prevent the lethal Belgian counter off an optimistic effort that’s easily cut out and jammed down France's throat. Part of me wonders if Kompany will bait him into making these passes. At the end of the day, if France win the game, it may well be from Pogba coming from a deep position, one more man in the box (much like the Gusto goal for Brazil). I often think that’s the secret sauce for Pogba, as few midfielders bring his aerial talents.
If France need to really chase a goal, they well miss the not fully fit Benjamin Mendy at left back. If Belgium's being overrun, we may finally get a substantial Moussa Dembele sighting, which many Belgian (and Spurs) fans have been clamoring for all along.
Up front, we know that Hazard and Lukaku present challenges for any defense. France’s backline has good size, so even the wingbacks have a chance to at least put Lukaku off balance for a header (good luck with that, but they've got a chance. Varane may well be the best centerback in the world and he will have to come up big for France to win, while Pavard will like be the center of Belgian attacking as they look for Hazard. The Armada of Fellaini, Kompany, Lukaku, Alderweireld, and Vertonghen going forth on a corner is greatly worrisome, and as pretty as Varane's goal was against Uruguay, Belgium brings the greater fear factor on launched set-pieces.
I’m going with 2-0 as the final score, and a host of yellow cards (were I wagering man, I'd take the odds on Fellaini picking up one). I don’t really have a clue which team will get there, in part because who knows what Martinez will do. If Belgium win, I expect a Pogba giveaway or ill-advised Griezemann flick sends the Belgians on their way. If France wins, it will because those speculative ventures come true, or any Carrasco sighting without Belgium up 2. Even the sight of him warming up is cause for butterflies. Either way, the first team to concede will be on knife's edge trying to get back into it, and I'd suspect a second goal to come rather than an equalizer. Hopefully we'll get a great game--it's certainly one that comes with the brightest collection of stars who haven't gone into the waning phase. Barring some drastic reds, whoever takes this will be the champion.