The Blog

Belgium at Euro 2016 - More Lame Donkeys Than Dark Horses

There's still time for Belgium's overhyped team to succeed in a way that England's never did. But the sand is running ever-faster through the hourglass - and Wilmots is not the man to flip it over.

The first few days of the European Championships have gone roughly to the odds. France, Germany and Spain all won (some in more nervy fashion than others), while England managed to stuff up one of their best performances in years - but still completely outplayed Russia.

In short, the favourites all showed why they were favourites. All, that is, except for Belgium.

Belgium were everyone's favourite 'dark horses' at the World Cup two years ago, right up until the point where they started playing. In five games, they didn't score a single goal before the 70th minute - never winning by more than a goal in the group stage, needing extra time against the USA and then sliding out of the competition against Argentina.

Excuses were made. It was said that their opposition was tough (it wasn't; Algeria, Russia and South Korea in the group), the conditions were an issue, and that the team was young and needed time to develop, and gel. The results - it was promised - would come.

Qualifying for this summer's tournament hinted that the hope placed in 'time, time and more time' could be misplaced. In one of the weakest groups around, they struggled to top their group - with only Wales' late stumble against Israel and Bosnia allowing the Red Devils to jump to the summit with a two point lead.

Despite the complete lack of evidence that the team have progressed in the slightest since the tournament in Brazil two summers ago, Marc Wilmots' men came into the tournament feared by their rivals, and with a massive hype around them in the media.

Opening their campaign on Monday night against an Italy side described as the 'worst in 50 years', the Belgians were meant to plant their flag and declare themselves as the true contenders everybody was insisting they were. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne could rip the Italians apart while receiving support from their pair of Spurs defenders, as well as Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan. It should have been perfect.

It wasn't.

Italy played with style, swagger and bollocks the size of bowling balls. Belgium rolled over meekly and let them. It wasn't just that they lost the game, it was they scarcely looked like winning it. If anything, they looked to have regressed since Brazil.

A lot of the above may look familiar for anyone who supported England around a decade ago. This has even been presumptively called Belgium's 'Golden Generation', and the similarities with their England namesakes of a decade ago are uncanny.

The Belgian side is made up of some outstanding individuals, but almost to a man they play exactly like that - as individuals. Eden Hazard plays for Eden Hazard. Romelu Lukaku plays for Romelu Lukaku. Marouane Fellaini plays for...well, Marouane Fellaini plays for the love of spannering people around the back of the head actually, but it's still not a team effort.

Of old, England's diamond formation was heavily criticised and - while Belgium aren't using the same formation - these's a similar lack of width to Wilmots' side. De Bruyne and Hazard are nominally the team's wingers, but both are as likely to cut inside and shoot as they are to get down to the byline and attempt a cross. Indeed, the pair combined for five shots in the game, while leading man Lukaku got off just two.

'Wide' players like Hazard and De Bruyne could be compensated for by a pair of flying full-backs or wing-backs - which makes it all the more baffling that each and every member of Belgium's starting back four on Monday night are centre-backs by trade. The entire formation is narrower than the gap between Wayne Rooney's eyes.

The quality is there. That's never been in doubt. The problem, for now, is the mindset and the tactics - both of which must surely fall under the head coach's remit. Wilmots' place in the technical area has always seemed a little odd, his only previous managerial job seeing him sacked by a mediocre Belgian league side after less than a season. Now though, it seems more than odd. It seems misguided - fatally so, for their chances of European dominance.

Many of the so-called Golden Generation have maybe one more tournament until their decline begins. Jan Vertonghen will be 31 by the time of the 2018 World Cup, with Toby Alderweireld, Nainggolan and Witsel all past or pushing 30. Hazard, Lukaku and De Bruyne should all be in their collective prime, as should Thibaut Courtois in goal.

There's still time for Belgium's overhyped team to succeed in a way that England's never did. But the sand is running ever-faster through the hourglass - and Wilmots is not the man to flip it over.

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