DOHA, Qatar — First, it must be said that it’s not over yet as Belgium can still make it to the World Cup round of 16 with a win against Croatia on Thursday, but it still feels like something has come to an end. Regardless of what happens for Belgium, it feels like the end of a cycle and with that, the end of their famous “Golden Generation.”
Following their 2-0 defeat against Morocco, the atmosphere inside and outside the team’s dressing room at the Al Thumama stadium on Sunday was heavy — almost too heavy after a shock result that came four days after a lucky 1-0 win against Canada in which their CONCACAF opponents dominated. Defender Jan Vertonghen had just spoken on TV, only to reveal that he would rather not say what was on his mind. The 35-year-old centre-back did express one thought, though. He hit back at Kevin De Bruyne, who told the world’s media that the squad was “too old,” and captain Eden Hazard, who claimed that “our defenders are not the fastest and they know it,” ahead of the match.
Vertonghen was quick to respond: “I guess we attack badly because we are also too old up front. We didn’t create enough chances.” The dig was so obvious that you could imagine the mood, and the impact of those words, within that dressing room.
To explain the decline of the No. 2 men’s team in the world (according to FIFA’s latest world rankings), it starts with what Vertonghen was willing to say. While the players denied any reports of a rift within the team, there are clearly some problems on the pitch that have their origins off it.
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To name just a few things: there’s tension between some players in the squad, questions over why some were brought to Qatar (namely forwards Michy Batshuayi and Dries Mertens) or are in the starting XI (Hazard, Axel Witsel), interrogations over Roberto Martinez’s tactical choices, fitness issues for key players (like striker Romelu Lukaku) and clear frustration from others like goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois (who smashed the side of the bench with his fist on his way back towards the tunnel) or De Bruyne.
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It has suggested that the loyalty shown by Martinez towards certain players is costing him and the team dearly. This Belgium squad is one of the oldest in the tournament — the average age of their starting XI against Morocco was over 30 — so where is the young talent? Cracks appeared during the training camp in Kuwait before the team arrived in Doha, but the issues have been there going back to Euro 2020, when they won their three group games and defeated Portugal in the round of 16, only to lose to eventual champions Italy in the quarterfinals.
After the Morocco defeat, only a handful of Belgium players — Vertonghen, Courtois, Hazard, Amadou Onana and Timothy Castagne — stopped in the mixed zone to speak to journalists and they couldn’t agree as to what the issue was holding the team back.
Onana said that “there are no reasons to be worried, the only thing that was missing against Morocco were the goals.” For Castagne, on the other hand, it was far more negative. “We need to wake up. We haven’t seen the real Belgium yet,” said the Leicester City defender. “Maybe we need a final to play, like the one against Croatia to kickstart our tournament.” [His point about a ‘final’ refers to the state of Group F: Belgium will definitely qualify with a win vs. Croatia, and will top the group if Morocco draw/lose. If they draw and Morocco win/draw, Belgium are out.]
Despite all their veteran players, there is a clear lack of leadership within this Belgium team. The injury to Lukaku, who played just 10 minutes against Morocco on Sunday, has been a big blow on and off the pitch. Hazard has been a great attacking leader, but not the kind of vocal presence they need, not least because his fitness levels mean he can barely play an hour before losing his influence on the game. De Bruyne is supposed to now be that leader in his stead, but the midfielder’s body language isn’t good and it’s clear he is frustrated. He gave away possession 28 times against Morocco — an incredible amount for a player of his skill and caliber.
Former Belgium captain Vincent Kompany said recently on ESPN’s Gab & Juls Meet: “[De Bruyne] needs a plan. Then, he will be the director and execute the plan to perfection with the players around him.” The problem is that there is no plan, which means no blueprint for De Bruyne. He doesn’t link up well with Batshuayi ahead of him, he struggles to connect meaningfully with Hazard next to him, as the latter is way past his best, or with Thomas Meunier, who is an inferior option at wing-back down the right flank.
The bigger problem for Belgium is that if De Bruyne is absent there is no creativity elsewhere in the side and, therefore, they offer little threat in the attacking third. “We almost don’t create any chances offensively, it’s not enough. We are creating nothing up front. We were lucky to beat Canada and [on Sunday]we didn’t have the luck. We deserved to lose,” Vertonghen added.
Eden Hazard speaks on rumors about changing-room turmoil and reacts to Kevin De Bruyne’s comments on the Belgium team being “too old” to win the World Cup.
It also comes down to tactics. Martinez is out of contract after the World Cup and the mood right now feels like everyone has accepted this will be the end of his tenure, which began in 2016. The fact that he changed players or formations at half-time in both group games so father shows that his initial tactics have been wrong. Belgium are too flat and predictable when in position, while Martinez can’t make up his mind between a three or four-man defensive shape either.
Several of the players don’t understand why Martinez persists with a back three, which requires three central defenders. They find it dated and not suited to the personnel Martinez brought to Qatar, particularly with Alderweireld and Vertonghen in it. Belgium don’t have real wing-backs, either — another requirement for that formation — especially on the left, so why does Martinez insist on using players out of position?
Making any succession planning trickier is the fact that Martinez is also the technical director of the federation, and any potential exit would leave two big holes to fill. However, if Belgium are knocked out on Thursday, he will have no choice but to go. He would probably have to go if they are eliminated in the round of 16 too, should they make it.
When asked directly about his future with Belgium, Martinez has avoided the question, while sources have told ESPN that the federation will look into it after the World Cup. But right now, there is no plan B for the team moving forward, while no-one knows what the prognosis is for their current set-up.
Prior to Sunday’s defeat, Belgium had not lost a World Cup group game since 1994, when they were upset 1-0 by Saudi Arabia. It is a sad state of affairs for a nation that has produced some of the best individual players of the past 15 years. But how will their story end in Qatar? That’s up to the players to rally and get a result against a robust Croatia team at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Thursday.