World Cup quarter final, July 6 2018
Renato Augusto (76)
Fernandinho og (13)
De Bruyne (31)
Belgium had already risked elimination from Russia 2018 in the most open and entertaining of affairs with Japan, who they eventually eliminated to progress to their quarter final against Brazil, when a similar contest unfolded against their decorated opponents. An own goal from Fernandinho and the finest of long-range finishes from Kevin De Bruyne left Brazil with little choice but to attack them to rescue their hopes of putting the misery of 2014 well and truly behind them, but by the final whistle only Renato Augusto has scored for them. Neymar was also ultimately outshone by Eden Hazard – perhaps the highest-profile figure of what has so often been referred to as Belgium's "golden generation". By joining France, England and Croatia in the competition's semi finals, Belgium ensured that for the first time since 2006, the four teams competing for a place in the World Cup final were from Europe.
25 / 11
SHOTS / ON TARGET
8 / 3
Passes / Accurate
14 / 2 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
16 / 2 / 0
Brazil retained their familiar 4-3-3 structure both in attack and defence, with two notable changes. Marcelo returned following an injury, and Fernandinho replaced the suspended Casemiro at the base of their midfield.
Tite’s team created some promising attacking chances in the opening exchanges, and looked particularly threatening from inswinging corners. Thiago Silva had an early chance to put Brazil ahead, but his mistimed effort from close range struck the woodwork.
It was regardless Belgium who took the lead when Fernandinho headed into Brazil's goal from a corner in the 13th minute. Brazil responded by prioritising their build in the channels, because Belgium’s central midfield had become congested and compact. Neymar struggled to exert a positive influence; he was often marked by both Marouane Fellaini and Thomas Meunier.
With Marcelo only sporadically overlapping, Brazil were often unstructured in the attacking third. Too often Marcelo remained behind Neymar, supplying pointless crosses towards the isolated Gabriel Jesus. Belgium’s defence comfortably cleared the danger, against Brazil’s lack of flair and charisma.
Belgium should have punished Brazil more during transitional moments. Fernandinho was ineffective, which resulted in him moving towards the right channel to cover for Fagner, who was moving higher in attack. Brazil then went further behind through Kevin De Bruyne’s superb, long-range effort.
Neymar and Philippe Coutinho eventually began to make progress towards the left. Coutinho’s movements and subsequent crossing positions often tested Belgium's defence, but the usually well-timed runs of Paulinho were absent. Despite Neymar’s directness in possession, they were unable to score by half-time.
Tite’s changes, for the second half, were proactive yet ineffective. Roberto Firmino was introduced, and Gabriel Jesus moved towards right side, until Douglas Costa eventually replaced him, giving Brazil direct dribblers in both channels. Costa and Neymar regularly drove forwards, and their one-on-one qualities pinned Belgium back and created goalscoring chances.
The variety of Firmino's movements was also troubling Belgium’s central defence; they were too rarely sure of his whereabouts. With Jan Vertonghen having to stray from defence to challenge Costa, more central spaces became vacant. Coutinho and a further substitute in Renato Augusto were given more time and space in possession, and they eventually scored; Augusto’s runs in behind had already challenged Belgium's defence when he met an exquisite ball from Coutinho to head in.
Brazil's central midfield had started to overrun Belgium’s defence, so Augusto had a further chance to score but sliced wide. With Belgium continuing to leave three players forward, Neymar and Costa had taken complete control of the channels, but goalscoring chances continued to be missed.
Belgium recalled Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli to their starting XI, in place of Dries Mertens and Yannick Carrasco. They continued with their back three while in possession, but often converted to a back four when without it.
In contrast to their previous matches in Russia, Chadli’s role at wing-back didn’t create a back five during the first half. He instead moved into a central position, helping Fellaini and Axel Witsel to cover the central areas. When in possession, however, Chadli and Thomas Meunier provided their attacking width, and looked more like the traditional wing-backs Belgium have often used.
Belgium were happy to concede possession to Brazil, early on, ultimately allowing them to bring their team upfield. Romelu Lukaku began on the right side of their attack, and Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne rotated to complete that attack. Brazil created the early goalscoring chances and should have gone ahead, but with De Bruyne in the more advanced role in which he flourishes, Belgium were dangerous on the break. Direct transitions from deeper territory were becoming too common, and increasingly exposed Brazil's defence. De Bruyne operating similarly to a false-nine when in the central lane provided the link they required from defence into attack.
Belgium took the lead against the run of play when Fernandinho headed into his own goal from a near-post corner, forcing Brazil into an offensive and expansive approach. This ultimately suited Belgium, because more spaces existed through which they could counter.
Brazil’s full-backs advanced higher and Fernandinho withdrew to between their two central defenders, but, because he is not as strong defensively as Casemiro, Belgium consistently broke with purpose and pace. De Bruyne’s movements were untraceable as he drifted from the centre to the channels, before running in behind their defence.
Belgium’s most effective transitions came through the combinations of Hazard and De Bruyne. They often moved to the same side– most commonly the left – which drew further opponents towards them, and they often had a switch available towards Meunier and Fellaini, who regularly outnumbered Marcelo towards the right.
Despite their lack of possession, Belgium’s threat continued to grow, and they eventually scored a second goal. Similarly to their late winning goal against Japan, they surged forward after clearing a corner. Lukaku’s hold-up play and subsequent charge forward split Brazil's defence, and he found the advancing run of De Bruyne, who struck an unstoppable, low shot into the far corner.
The introduction of more direct substitutes, by Brazil, for the second half meant that Belgium struggled to contain the speed of their opponents’ attacks. Leaving three players forward – De Bruyne only occasionally withdrew deeper to assist centrally – meant that they were consistently under pressure, and Brazil scored one goal and threatened to add another.
Belgium therefore reorganised to adopt a back five. Leaving three players forward encouraged Brazil's pursuit of an equalising goal, but it also gave Belgium chances to put victory beyond doubt. De Bruyne’s movements again created a direct link between defence and attack, and the positioning of Hazard and Lukaku in the inside channels stretched Brazil's defence, and created even more spaces. Only the lack of a finishing touch denied them a third goal.
Author: Tony Hodson