A dark horse isn’t a dark horse if everyone believes that they are a dark horse. That’s exactly where Belgium is and this is the reason why I’m doing an article on them as favorites. Over the last three or four years, several brilliant young players have come through to bring Belgium back to the international spotlight.
Where they were in 2010
Since Belgium did not qualify for the World Cup in 2010, I’m going to focus more on their qualification results (which in hindsight, I realize I could have done this for the other teams too) and how quickly they’ve progressed in the past few years throughout qualifying under Marc Wilmots
Marc Wilmots Era
Wilmots took over as national team coach in 2012 after being an assistant. In Group A for qualification Belgium won 8 and drew 2 of their 10 games in a group with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Wales, and Macedonia. Not a very strong group but they did overcome Croatia who are in the World Cup right now. Here are some tendencies
- Belgium can play a more powerful team if they go with a 4-3-3, but it makes more sense to put many creative players behind the main striker due to their recent form. Utilizing the potentials of Kevin Mirallas, Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens, or Adnan Januzaj would be preferable than using the out of form Dembele or Fellaini with one shielding player.
- Defour, Simons, and Witsel all make for effective defensive midfielders in front of the back 4. Only 1 or 2 will play depending on the system. Decent tacklers, but better going forward.
- Belgium has many top quality center backs: Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, and Jan Vertonghen are all strong central defenders.
- Belgium doesn’t have any natural fullbacks so Alderweireld and Vertonghen play there and that means Thomas Vermaelen has to partner Kompany. That’s like downgrading from Godiva to Cadbury. Yes that chocolate reference was intentional
- Thibaut Courtois, who has made his name as the giant between the posts for Atletico Madrid, would be the favorite to play in goal, although Simon Mignolet is a better shot stopper for a more defensively suspect Liverpool.
Similarities to Argentina 2010
This Belgium side is remarkably similar to Argentina 4 years ago: Great attacking options, a decent midfield core, but a questionable back line with not so natural fullbacks. Many of their attackers are young and not yet near their peak but they’ve been given a manageable group with South Korea, Russia, and Algeria.
The biggest weakness, similar to Argentina 4 years ago, is a lack of cohesion among these talented individuals. They’ve scored goals almost in spite of their tactics and can be vulnerable to defensively organized teams with talented wingers. On the bright side, Marc Wilmots isn’t quite as crazy as Diego Maradona so they’ve got that going for them. An organized, talented side would be the biggest threat to them like Portugal or Germany in the Round of 16 or Argentina in the last 8.
World Cup Chances
I hinted earlier that Belgium’s “dark horse” status isn’t really a valid assessment of their ability. There might be more deserving teams of the favorites tag, but Belgium has a better route than say the Netherlands, France, England, or Portugal. Uruguay…maybe but they were poor in qualifying.
In terms of difficulty, Group H is somewhere in the middle. Russia will be a solid defensive unit which could pose problems, but you’d expect Belgium to get a draw there and win their group with a superior goal difference. Going from there though, the road gets pretty difficult no matter how you slice it. Golden generations don’t always pan out (ask Cote d’Ivoire or Portugal) but they’re worth keeping an eye on. Ultimately I think Belgium goes out in the round of 16 but they’re definitely on the rise.