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Why Belgium Manager Marc Wilmots Must (And Probably Will) Be Fired

Wilmots and Witsel in happier times. Image: La Libre

The Belgium manager’s reluctance to experiment may be his greatest flaw.

Was it a moment during Belgium’s first qualifier against Wales, when the Belgian FA should have realized that Marc Wilmots needed to go? Or was it before that? Was it during the World Cup when, for all their dominance, they were a shanked shot away from going out to the United States in the Round of 16, then limped out with one shot on target against Argentina in the quarterfinal? Surely they’ve realized it now that an organized, but mediocre Italian team counter-attacked their way to a 2-0 win in Belgium’s European Championships opener. 

Wilmots has a fantastic competitive record — 19 wins, four draws, and three losses — but he spent two qualification cycles drawn in relatively easy groups and was unable to show the difference in quality between his ”golden generation” Belgium side and a solid, if unspectacular, Welsh team fuelled by Gareth Bale. In World Cup and European Championships qualification, Wilmots’ Belgium had 1 win, 2 draws, and 1 loss against the Welsh. Was that when they should have noticed? Or maybe they could have figured it out by watching the team. Seeing how he managed the squad like a virtuous valet at the wheel of Lamborghini, refusing to open up the engine and have a little fun. 

And that is the crux of the problem with Wilmots. He’s pragmatic to a fault; in the match against Italy, he chose to clog the midfield with the slow-paced physicality of Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini and use heavy players like Jan Vertonghen and Laurent Ciman in the fullback positions—removing the team of all dynamism. He’d be perfectly fine as manager of a team like Czech Republic or Hungary, but he’s ill-equipped to man the helm for a team with the skill of Belgium—he treats champagne and caviar like it’s bread and milk. 

It does not suffice to just say this without evidence, however. As mentioned, Wilmots’ overall record is genuinely fantastic and he led Belgium to the No. 1 FIFA ranking in the world for the first time in its history. It’s easy to take those accomplishments at face value and think that the criticism he’s faced is overdramatic, or unfounded. This being the case, let’s take a look at the points of contention during Wilmots’ tenure and a few alternatives. 

The Slow Tempo Of Axel Witsel


Axel Witsel is one of the best midfielders in the world. The first thing that you notice in a game that he’s playing in is, well, him. Witsel is 6‘1”, sports an afro, has underrated strength, and long, telescopic legs, he has the perfect profile (along with his fellow countryman Marouane Fellaini) to dominate the game physically. But it’s his fantastic technique, which separates him from other dominating midfielders. He has command over the ball that is rare to see at the top level; once it comes under his spell, it’s unlikely that you’re going to get it back. Witsel is the platonic ideal of a player that can hold the ball, allow the team to regain shape, and get other players involved in the game, as demonstrated in the clip below. 



Players like this are immensely valuable. Witsel with the ball at his feet is an effective clearance in and of himself, able to carry the ball from defense to the midfield while ghosting past challenges. But he’s not exactly a pass and release player, he takes his time to read the defense and exploit holes. The benefit of this, as alluded to above, is that he can decide the tempo of a match: slowing the build up, composing his team, and methodically exploiting holes in the opponents’ defense. For this reason, Wilmots absolutely loves Witsel—his presence basically guarantees the lion’s share of the ball and he has the technique to do something with it. 

The drawback, however, is that he stunts the speed of the build up. This has been well publicized in both Belgium and Russia (where he plays for Zenit St. Petersburg), as it’s frustrating for teams that dominate the ball the majority of the match and have few opportunities to get forward with pace. Witsel is not a 40-yard passer, and he generally reverts to a methodical build-up, looking incapable of quickly dispatching the ball, and rarely passing forward. 

This is clearly a tactical feature of the team, with Fellaini, Witsel, and Nianggolan the Belgians dominate the midfield with physicality and control the tempo of every match that they play, leaving the duties of creation to Hazard and De Bruyne. But the concern is that this focus on midfield control results in sharp divisions between the defenders, midfielders, and forwards, without the fluidity, attacking instincts, or quick tempo to get behind opponents’ defenses. The idea is to bludgeon the opposition to death instead of slice through it. 

Most of the time, and especially against mediocre opposition, they can use their advantage in size, possession, and technique to grind out a result, but they’re largely unconvincing in their dominance. Excluding matches against Cyprus and Andorra, they had a goal difference of +4 in their qualifying group of Wales, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Israel and the majority of their six matches against these teams were decided by one goal. So, too, in the World Cup where they won all of their games en route to the quarterfinal, but never won by more than a goal. You never get the feeling that the opposition are out of the match entirely. 


Fellaini Behind The Striker


Along those lines, putting Marouane Fellaini at the helm of the midfield is supposed to add physicality to their attack. When he’s alongside Romelu Lukaku, the theory is that no one in the world will be able to handle the pair in the air. And, theoretically, it should work. Fellaini, if you’re unfamiliar with his work, is all hair, head, and elbows, cutting down opponents and putting himself into uncomfortable positions for the opponent. But he absolutely does not have the technique or the creative instincts to play in an attacking position for a team as talented as Belgium. He lacks the pace or trickery to take on a defender, the mind to see through the defense, and isn’t skilled enough a passer to make up for either of those deficits. 

Lest you take me for a Fellaini hater, he definitely has some attractive features. He is probably one of the ten best midfielders in the air in the world, can save a match with a last ditch tackle, and is excellent at winning possession and mucking up play by elbowing, jockeying for possession, and getting a touch on the ball with his long legs. Fellaini is an ideal 70th minute substitute, but starting him in a creative position means that his loose touch and proclivity for playing away from the goal prevent forward progress from being made. One of the most technically gifted teams in the world is using a battering ram to unlock defenses when they could be using a key. 

A double effect of this is shunting De Bruyne and Hazard out to opposite wings, where they cannot pass to each other or interchange. The clip below—which is designed to highlight the Italian’s defense, but is as much about the Belgians’ failings—should be generally illustrative of the way that putting Fellaini is the midfield fails to produce incisive attacking play against an organized defense. 


Belgium tries to interchange and manipulate space, but the Italians keep track of De Bruyne and Hazard and prevent them from getting into advantageous positions. They control the sides of the pitch (easier said than done), get them to recycle possession through the middle to Fellaini, Nainggolan, or Witsel, and then one of the Belgian midfielders passes backwards and the dance starts again. 

This recycling of possession is why the Belgians regularly command 60% of the ball, but it’s also why they have so much trouble unlocking elite, or even average, defenses. The easiest ways to prevent this recycling would be to either put a player that can unlock defenses in the middle of the pitch or use overlapping fullbacks. Wilmots has done neither. 


An Obsession With Center-backs


Let’s get this out of the way: Laurent Ciman should unequivocally not be playing, but it’s not like he’s Marc Wilmots’ first choice. In their final qualifier the Belgians played Nicolas Lombaerts and Vincent Kompany in the middle and Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen out wide. As we’ll discuss in a second, I have a few issues with this strategy, but the first choice defense would have been one of the most solid and well-rounded in the sport, with a wealth of experience. Injury issues with Lombaerts and Kompany have forced them out of the lineup and Wilmots inserted Ciman and Thomas Vermaelen in their stead. 

So the communication issues against Italy, where neither Ciman nor Alderweireld tracked Giaccherini (who, admittedly, may be hard to keep track of) can be at least partly excused.

But Wilmots has a first-choice defensive pairing that’s currently in his team. Alderweireld and Vertonghen were the core of the best defense in the Premier League (Tottenham were tied with Manchester United with 35 goals conceded). Their combined pace, strength, positioning, and most importantly, communication and mutual understanding, should have made them the starting pairing for Wilmots. Instead, he elected to keep Vertonghen out wide, play Vermaelen (who’s made just 11 club appearances since moving to Barcelona in 2014) and Alderweireld in the middle, and insert Montreal Impact center-back Laurent Ciman on the right. Meaning that there’s still four center-backs in the team, they’re just no longer all good ones. 

Look at this heat map from the match against Italy:

Image title

Heat map of Vertonghen and Ciman (right half is attacking half). From whoscored.com

If you’re going to play a midfield that’s massive and controls the game, you do not need big center-backs. Ciman and Vertonghen camped out near the halfway line almost the entire game and had little to do, involving themselves enough to be an outlet, but not much more. If you watch that Italy defensive positioning video above, you know what they never needed to fear? An overlapping run or cross from a full-back. They just aren’t natural attackers. 

And when they actually got forward, their lack of agility and attacking nous prevented them from getting dangerous balls into the box. 

Image titleImage title

Cross charts via Opta.

As you can see in the image above, they got off a total of 11 crosses, only one met a target in the box. It was a lesson in how to design a lineup to neutralize every positional advantage that you have. Which brings us to some possible…

Solutions


Defensively, Wilmots has a couple options. First, Ciman should be out of the team. The Impact defender is mediocre in defense and offers nothing going forward. This being the case, there’s a couple of options: If Alderweireld stays in the middle of defense, Belgium have Jason Denayer, Thomas Meunier, and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco who could credibly fill in.

Image title

Yannick Ferreira Carrasco runs after the ball / John Thys - Getty Images

Denayer is the most solid defensive option and the most in-line with Wilmots mentality, as the member of the Manchester City loan armada is a center-back that can fill in across the back four. Meunier, on the other hand, is a converted winger that is a bit lost defensively, but can certainly get forward. But the most intriguing option is Atletico Madrid winger Yannick Ferreira Carrasco. 

While his long-term future is up the field, it’s hard to imagine Carrasco dislodging Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, or Dries Mertens in Wilmots’ pecking order. This being the case, they could use him as an auxiliary full-back. In his season at Atletico Madrid, Carrasco demonstrated a fantastic work ethic for a winger and was able to win tackles like a defensive midfielder before sprinting up field. He’s a tremendous player with a terrific engine and should be in the team over Ciman if you believe he can fulfill the tactical duties of the position.

After Wilmots made the inspired decision to bring Carrasco on for Ciman against Italy, the entire game opened up for the Belgians. Carrasco was free to make overlaps against tired Italian legs and arrow crosses into Divock Origi, who was disappointingly wasteful. If you start the match with three midfielders who can control the game, you don’t need four center-backs, you need players like Carrasco who can offset the midfields’ lack of exuberance with their dynamism.

To that end, if Wilmots decides to go with a more defensive option at right back or gives Ciman a reprisal of his role, he could move Vertonghen infield and give Jordan Lukaku, Romelu’s little brother, a shot. Jordan’s not just in the team because his brother looks to be a star for the foreseeable future, he has some legit skills, including a ferocious finish for a left back. 



Like Meunier on the other end, he provides much more going forward than he does at the back, but his top-end speed is fantastic and he can stretch the opposing full-backs, which is more than Vertonghen, who was largely stationary in the attacking third, provides. Lukaku is currently plying his trade in Belgium for Oostende (which is in a beautiful Belgian beach side town and, I’ll admit, I’d never heard of), but bigger clubs are sniffing around; a move to Watford may be on the cards.

Regardless of which change Wilmots elects to go with, it’s clear that the current composition isn’t working. Playing with four center-backs, one of whom is Laurent Ciman, and three holding midfielders, just doesn’t cut it when the opposition will be parking the bus and counter-attacking. If anything, it’s playing into their hands. 

Building upon that, there are a few changes that could be made to make the team more dynamic in midfield. If Wilmots chooses to play Denayer at right-back, he could move Carrasco up the pitch to right wing, De Bruyne into the middle, and Fellaini to the bench. Carrasco’s ethic on the wing would allow him to support Denayer and De Bruyne, in the middle, could unlock Hazard as they’d be free to interchange, create space, and pick passes for each other. 

Alternatively, he could move Dries Mertens, who was excellent against Italy into the starting lineup, put Hazard behind the striker, and move Fellaini to the bench. As compared to the previous lineup, this would have more attacking punch: Hazard operating as a second striker, could run off of Lukaku and latch onto headers, freeing the big Belgian from double marking. One potential downside, though, is that with the tiny Mertens on and Fellaini off, there’s much less weight and power in the team. Mertens is a fantastically skilled attacker, but he is pretty much useless outside of the attacking third.

If there’s a common theme here, it’s that despite the issues with Witsel, Fellaini and Ciman should probably be the odd men out. To put Witsel in a more appropriate role where he has less attacking responsibility would involve playing him in Radja Nainggolan’s spot or converting him to a center-back. Nainggolan is flat out better and the second option, while intriguing, sounds more like a video game strategy than something tenable in real life—Witsel does not have enough time or experience to make that happen. 

Fellaini, on the other hand, is absolutely in the incorrect spot for a team that’s dominating the ball and is the weakest player out of he, Witsel, and Nainggolan. Bringing Fellaini off of the bench makes too much sense not to be done. He can come in late and do what he does best: attack tired center-backs in the air, defend set pieces, and chop up the game. Substitution-wise, Wilmots could bring him on for Nainggolan if he was chasing the game, or on for one of the attacking three if he was looking to close out a lead.

But the reason why Wilmots must, and likely will, be fired, is that he’s not going to do any of this. 

He has stubbornly stuck with this system despite middling returns and abided by a safety first philosophy throughout his tenure. After the match with Italy, he said that they were not beaten tactically and that the Italians did not show up to play. Not only is none of this true, it reveals the stubbornness that is his greatest failing. Wilmots can’t admit that he’s wrong or needs to make changes, instead he suggests that it is his tactic which is effective and the other teams ‘refusal to play’ which rendered it ineffective. This may be true to a degree, but ‘refusing to play’ is a legitimate tactic and, if you’re one of the world’s best teams, you need to figure out a way to taking the parking brake off the bus. Wilmots’ lineups have only made things more difficult for his team. 

He can get results against mediocre teams, but against the world’s best, a manager needs to take risks and find incisive combinations. You can’t just pass the ball from side to side and aim a cross at one attacker, as they’ve done for the past four years. Unless he makes the necessary changes, they’ll never have the attacking ideas that it takes to become part of Europe’s elite—which is to say, that if history is any barometer, they won’t be part of Europe’s elite as long as Marc Wilmots is in charge.

Edited by Joe Sparacio, Emily Greitzer.

SQuiz
When was the last time Belgium qualified for the European Championship?
Created 6/14/16
  1. 1996
  2. 2000
  3. 2004
  4. 2008

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