World Cup – round of 16, July 2 2018
Belgium recorded one of the great World Cup comebacks by recovering from two goals down to beat Japan 3-2 with the final kick of their last-16 tie at Russia 2018. After a goalless opening half, Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Inui scored for Japan within seven minutes of the restart. A double substitution from Belgium manager Roberto Martínez, who introduced Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, then proved significant. Jan Vertonghen headed in from a seemingly impossible angle, and then Fellaini drew Belgium level by powerfully heading in from Eden Hazard's cross. A blistering counter-attack, with just 30 seconds of normal time remaining, ended with Chadli scoring from close range to devastate Japan.
23 / 8
SHOTS / ON TARGET
9 / 4
Passes / Accurate
13 / 0 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
9 / 1 / 0
After making multiple changes for their final fixture of Group G – a narrow victory over England – Belgium’s strongest starting XI returned for their last-16 tie against Japan. They sought to start on the front foot, and to dominate the ball as their back three expanded while they had possession.
Japan began with a surprisingly high-pressing approach, harrying Belgium's defence into playing longer balls towards Romelu Lukaku. They initially struggled to maintain effective periods of early possession as a consequence; their opponents’ midfield tirelessly pressed the ball carrier and blocked forward options with curved pressing movements.
With his access to the ball limited, Eden Hazard’s increasing frustration forced him to drop deeper. Japan’s narrow 4-2-3-1 structure did provide early access into Belgium's wing-backs, who both provided maximum attacking width, but there seemed to be a reluctance to attack with direct play and crosses into Lukaku, despite the striker's clear aerial superiority over Japan's central defenders.
Axel Witsel accompanied Kevin De Bruyne in central midfield, but during their attempts to build possession, Witsel would leave the central lane and move much deeper. He effectively became part of their defence, which afforded De Bruyne more space to roam against a midfield aggressively man-marking him.
Belgium’s lack of a central midfield presence invited them to continue building in the channels, because their wing-backs gradually moved higher. With Dries Mertens and Hazard both remaining in the inside channels, however – and often moving deeper and thus behind their wing-backs – both failed to actively provide fluid attacking combinations in the final third.
Belgium had to weather heavy pressure from Japan for a period, and despite briefly converting into a low block, they were failing to manage their switch of play. Mertens and Hazard remained narrow, and both wing-backs recovered back to form a defensive back line of five. Japan therefore sought to build via switches of play, avoiding the congested central lane to create two-on-ones against Belgium’s wing-backs. Despite their initial progress, Belgium's defence remained solid, and comfortably dealt with crosses into the penalty area.
Belgium’s best chances of the first half came from Japan's errors in midfield rather than inventive attacking play. This continued early in the second half, but it was Japan who took the lead with a flowing counter-attack. This was quickly followed by another finish, when Takashi Inui’s superbly finished from 25 yards.
Belgium were trailing for the first time in Russia, and the frustration of Witsel and De Bruyne grew against an extremely narrow midfield. With Belgium not using the crossing potential of either wing-back, their central play became predictable, and Japan were happy to congest the central lane. Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli were introduced midway through the second half. Fellaini naturally provided an additional aerial presence in attack, as well as an additional number in central midfield, releasing De Bruyne to link with Hazard and to create numerical overloads along the left inside channel.
Belgium’s directness was immediately noticeable. They soon scored, when Jan Vertonghen fortuitously headed in from a near-impossible angle. A second direct period of play, during which Belgium had finally started to send crosses into an unsettled central defence, ended with Fellaini heading in from close range. With only seconds remaining, a lightning counter-attack – which started when defending a corner – completed their comeback. Chadli provided the finishing touch after Lukaku had expertly teed up his chance with a perfectly timed dummy in the penalty area.
Japan set up in a 4-2-3-1 structure and unexpectedly applied an aggressive high-pressing approach. Coupled with a very high defensive line, they squeezed Belgium into their defensive half.
When in possession and while Belgium’s attacking trio remained narrow, both full-backs played diagonal forward passes into the feet of Shinji Kagawa and lone striker Yuya Osako. Through Belgium setting up with only two central midfielders, central access was relatively open for Japan, and they began to build lengthy periods of possession.
They struggled throughout to penetrate the final defensive line, however, because of a lack of runs in behind and, most importantly, disguise in possession. The majority of their attacking combinations, although fast, were largely predictable against an experienced defence. Japan’s full-backs continued to overlap, and Belgium’s wing-backs struggled to deal with the two-on-ones they were encountering. Despite their progress in possession, they failed to test Thibaut Courtois in the first half.
Similarly, to towards the end of the first half, Japan continued with a seemingly reduced tempo in the opening exchanges of the second, and were happy to decrease the intensity of their high press by dropping into a congested mid-block. Although they initially reduced their pressure on to Belgium's defence, they increased their attacking threat when the ball entered the midfield third.
They took the lead with a wonderfully incisive breakaway. Gaku Shibasaki’s slicing through ball was missed by the stretching legs of Vertonghen as Genki Haraguchi surged forward. A nimble feint moved Courtois ever so slightly across to his left, inviting Haraguchi to shoot back across and into the opposite corner.
Remarkably, Japan doubled their lead less than five minutes later. Kagawa latched on to a loose second ball before setting it off to Inui, who launched a devastating low rocket into the bottom corner from 25 yards. Japan's midfield then remained comfortable in possession under pressure, and strategically retained the ball to reduce the threat of an immediate attacking response.
It was only tactical changes that meant that Belgium began to threaten, when Marouane Fellaini and Nacer Chadli came on. Sensing more attacking intent, Japan again reduced their pressing intensity, and withdrew into a mid-to-low defensive block. With Belgium adding an extra central midfielder, Japan’s counter-attacks became less frequent and less effective. A reduction of spaces combined with an increase in numbers within Belgium’s central lane halted their progress during transitional moments.
Belgium secured two goals from direct play to draw level, owing to Japan struggling to resist their direct approach. Japan regardless forced a corner with seconds remaining, and risked pursuing a winning goal. Courtois comfortably claimed that corner, and released possession to start the attack that concluded with Chadli producing the winning goal.
Author: Tony Hodson