Belgium, De Bruyne and the changing face of football

It's not catenaccio by any stretch of the imagination but defensive and counter-attacking football is well and truly back in business if this extraordinary FIFA World Cup is anything to go by.

de bruyne

Kevin De Bruyne celebrates his goal against Brazil Source: Getty Images

Possession football as practised by Spain and Argentina has been dealt a savage blow and both teams crashed out of the tournament in the round of 16.

In the evolving world of international football tactics, Russia 2018 has signalled the return with a vengeance of a system of play that was rendered ineffective by total football four decades ago.

In earning their rightful place in the semi-finals, Belgium have shown what rewards await those teams that are prepared to put nine or 10 men behind the ball when the opposition are in possession and initiate swift and deadly breaks in transition.

Kevin De Bruyne's Belgians are the epitome of a modern, multi-functional football team. They can defend, they are imaginative in midfield and they score goals for fun.

They were so complete, if a touch lucky, in their victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals that they resembled any strong defensive team of the 1970s but at double the speed and athleticism.

The team coached by Roberto Martinez are pretty versatile in terms of playing style but they showed what they can do in turnovers in their epic 3-2 win over Japan in the round of 16 and their 2-1 defeat of the five-time world champions in the quarter-finals

Having come back from a two-goal deficit against Japan, Belgium won the match with so quick and direct a counter-attack that the Japanese did not know what had hit them until the ball was nestling in the back of the net.

Some suggested that the stunning goal from Nacer Chadli in injury time was due to the Samurai Blue's tactical naivety but Belgium also cut through experienced Brazil in the same way several times in the quarter-finals.

Master craftsman De Bruyne finished a quickfire move with breath-taking accuracy in the first half to stamp himself as the leading attacking midfielder in the competition.

Big striker Romelu Lukaku showed how central he is to Belgium's game in two key moments.

His clever running off the ball created Chadli's clincher against Japan and after winning the ball in his own half against Brazil he burst through down the middle and played in De Bruyne.

Without any hint of negativity, Belgium defended magnificently and stubbornly in the second half when Neymar and co. furiously threw everything at the 'Diables Rouges'.

Yet even when put under extreme pressure, the Belgians were always ready for a quick break especially since Eden Hazard and Lukaku were in an inspired mood and just about unplayable by a ponderous Brazilian defence that missed the protection of suspended holding midfielder Casemiro.
Belgium's approach in the World Cup is not isolated but perhaps a reflection of the pattern of this tournament, at least as far as some of the more successful teams are concerned.

Flamboyant France have many strings to their bow that give them multiple avenues towards goal but they seem to be at their most dangerous during transition which is when speed merchants Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann come alive.

Les Bleus are quite happy to sit back and concede possession when they need to and some of their best moments came when lanky midfielder Paul Pogba drove forward in his gazelle-like style to serve his strikers.

The success of these two wonderful teams, who will meet in a mouth-watering semi-final on Wednesday (AEST) that many outside Croatia and England might regard as the real final, would suggest that pragmatism is not necessarily a bad word or an ugly side of football.

When played with organisation, intelligence and with an eye for a break, counter-attacking football can be as entertaining as all-out attack.

And if Belgium become the newest and ninth country to win the World Cup they would prove that the counter-attack is also just as rewarding.

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4 min read
Published 8 July 2018 at 1:24pm
By Philip Micallef