World Cup – Group G, June 18 2018
Lukaku (69, 75)
Belgium were patient in their opening game of the 2018 World Cup, with their three goals to beat debutants Panama all coming in the second half at the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi. It was goalless at the break, but Dries Mertens broke the deadlock soon after the restart before a brace from Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku – one made by Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, the other by Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard – sealed the three points. Here, our team of professional coaches have their say on the Group G meeting.
14 / 6
SHOTS / ON TARGET
6 / 2
Passes / Accurate
17 / 3 / 0
Fouls / Yellow / Red
18 / 5 / 0
Belgium set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Kevin De Bruyne joining Axel Witsel in the deep-lying midfield position, albeit with a more creative role. Thomas Meunier was chosen for the right-back position and frequently roamed forward, while Jan Vertonghen on the left tended to stay back with his central defenders to form a back three. Yannick Carrasco, Eden Hazard and Dries Mertens played just behind Romelu Lukaku and mainly operated between the lines.
Belgium, as anticipated, saw the majority of the ball, while Panama were content to stay in a compact block in the hope it would make them difficult to break down. Roberto Martinez’s side experimented with a few different methods to combat this in a frustrating first half.
A typical tactic was to position De Bruyne between the lines, where he often plays for Manchester City, with the other three attacking midfielders – but this didn’t trouble Panama. Alternatively, Lukaku regularly made runs in behind to try and vertically stretch their opponents, while Mertens, Hazard and Carrasco tried to take advantage of the newly created space between the defence and midfield units.
Belgium started to enjoy success when Meunier got forward and provided the width on the right side, thereby allowing Mertens to move into a more central position with Hazard. This posed a real problem for Panama, as they had to choose between tracking Mertens and trying to nullify the threat he and Hazard posed centrally, or trying to limit the time and space Meunier had to pick out a cross for Lukaku.
Panama didn’t impress in defending either situation, and Belgium’s intelligent attacking movement eventually led to their opening goal. The Panamanian defenders were too busy tracking the run of Meunier on the outside and failed to deal with Mertens in the half-space. The goal was worth the wait, as the 31-year-old superbly volleyed home from wide right of the box.
Out of possession, Belgium tended to drift between a 4-4-2 with Hazard joining Lukaku, a 4-3-3 with De Bruyne joining the attacking two in front of Witsel, or a 4-1-4–1 where the two wide attackers, Carrasco and Mertens, would join Hazard and De Bruyne in a compact line of four behind Lukaku.
Belgium had little trouble in regaining possession. Their only real weakness was arguably the needless compactness of their back line, considering the minimal numerical threat they had to contend with. On two occasions, Panama took advantage of this with a deep and/or wide run in behind – but Belgium weren’t often put under pressure.
Hazard stood out, with his work rate out of possession and desire to regain the ball as high and quickly as possible relentless throughout the game. The captain won possession back on 16 occasions – comfortably more than half of which were in their attacking third.
Panama set up in a 4-3-3 formation with Gabriel Gomez as the holding midfielder in front of a back line that consisted of Michael Murillo, Roman Torres, Fidel Escobar and Eric Davis. Anibal Godoy and Armando Cooper played just in front of Gomez, while Edgar Barcenas and Jose Luis Rodriguez supported Blas Perez in attack.
Panama were disjointed throughout the whole match. They only ever looked to play the long ball over Belgium’s midfield, particularly from goalkeeper Jaime Peneda, who completed only one short pass by contrast with 21 long balls.
Experienced Belgium defenders Toby Alderweireld and Dedryck Boyata were happy to defend any long passes, with Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne similarly comfortable to pick up the second ball and retain possession under pressure.
When Panama did sustain a spell of possession, they tried to create overloads around the ball, but rarely with a threatening out ball. Their possession, therefore, was largely meaningless.
Belgium were happy to defend in the compact area that Panama were playing in. As the game progressed and Belgium scored, Panama lost their structure in attack and seemed to move freely but without much thought – often leaving them vulnerable to the counter-attack. Romelu Lukaku capitalised on this vulnerability to score Belgium’s third and his second of the match.
Out of possession, Panama operated in a 4-1-4-1 formation, but could sometimes be seen in a 4-5-1, as they desperately tried to deny Belgium any space. In having only one holding midfielder to deal with Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and De Bruyne, they inevitably ran into difficulty. Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Meunier also pinned their full-backs, while Lukaku occupied the two centre-backs, which created plenty of space in central areas.
The four ahead of their holding midfield would try to screen passes into Hazard, Mertens and De Bruyne, but they were largely unsuccessful in doing so. Besides one promising chance to equalise in the second half, they never looked capable of getting themselves back into the game.