I’ve been to Belgium. I’ve sat in a cafe in Bruges staring up at the Church of Our Lady, wondering about life’s ephemerality, humanity’s majestic attempts to inspire religious beliefs through architecture, and whether I had enough Belgian Francs to afford a third Liege waffle. It was a pleasant experience. And the reason I’m telling you that is because I don’t envision having any more pleasant Belgium experiences any time soon, unless the U.S. plays extraordinarily well today. We’ll get to what the USMNT has to do in order to win, but first, a brief primer on the Belgians:
It’s perhaps easiest if you think of Belgium as a young German team with not-quite-as-strict parental guidance. This enables more frequent individual acts of creative genius (“Awww, look at Eden Hazard’s adorable spinning back heel!”), but means they’re not as organizationally savvy.
Attack: The Red Devils play with the same 4-3-3 attacking style as the Germans, but there is less pinging the ball around and testing for holes in the defense, and more “get the ball to Hazard, let him take on guys individually, beat them, draw other defenders, beat them, and pass the ball to strikers so they can score.” The real question will be who plays up top alongside Hazard, and likely Dres Mertens: will it be the physically imposing Romelu Lukaku—whose stunning season at Everton has been overshadowed by a poor run of form on the international stage—or the young 19-year-old phenom Divock Origi, who found the net against Russia? My old Belgian Francs are on Lukaku to start, with Origi coming on in the 65th minute.
Midfield: Yes, Belgium has Sideshow Bob party-wig-clad tall person Marouane Fellaini. They also have the smaller—yet equally impressively haired—Axel Witsel, and the multi-talented and extremely dangerous Kevin De Brunye, who masks his attacking mentality with a face that looks like it come off of casting for the younger, gentler version of Prince Harry in a Disney biopic. Except for Witsel, who tends to stay back (Belgium's version of a Jermaine Jones-style, defensive center midfielder), the other midfielders like to move around frequently to confuse and torment defenses.
Defense: Belgium’s defense is normally one of its cornerstones, but this World Cup it’s been seriously vulnerable at times. This is mostly due to an injury to captain Vincent Kompany, easily one of the top center backs (and most most aptly named players) in the world. Thomas Vermaelen, another quality centre back, is also out. This leaves their line—already resembling the Germans, thanks to Belgium’s decision to only bring center backs—pretty shaky. They do, however, have a fantastic keeper in Atletico Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois, so that’s annoying.
How To Beat the Belgians
Though political strategists might argue to “pit the Flemish north against the French south, and the ethnic Germans against both,” beating the country’s soccer team isn’t quite as straightforward. But I am going to make it seem that way:
1. Attack the wings (even more than against Germany): Remember when I made those jokes about how the German backline was all made up of giants with no pace, who don’t want to follow wingers up and down the sidelines? Well, the Belgians are like that, except they’ve got second string center backs filling those positions. Beasley and Johnson should be running and gunning as early and as often as possible to draw them out. If Kompany and Vermaelen are both out of the squad, Jurgen may even want to go to Yedlin or Zusi early to exploit that weakness. If the Belgian defense is the Death Star, the wings of the field will act as our trench to the thermal exhaust port, where Clint Dempsey (or even Jozy? Maybe?!) can fire his proton torpedoes at…sorry, where was I?
2. Contain the Hazard: Eden Hazard is really, really, really good. I actually didn’t even mean to add that third modifier but I’m keeping it, because it’s so damn true. Like any game-changing, elusive, soccer wizard, you can’t just throw one person on him and shut him off. Unless Kyle Beckerman attempts to ride him piggyback—but that is against the rules, and not a great long term strategy. So what the USMNT can do is a) make Hazard defend by running those wingers down the lines and forcing him to occasionally get back, and b) at least prevent him from cutting in. Like the Netherlands’ Robben, Hazard LOVES to cut inside, and then do annoying magical things people write about in breathless prose. Keeping Hazard on the wing, and forcing him to beat you with in-swinging crosses rather than darting runs, is going to be key.
3. Exploit Belgium’s lack of organized pressure: When Germany attempts to pressure the ball up the field, they tend to move as one frustrating unit, systematically shutting down the closest players around the ball and making the other team beat them with fantastic over-the-top crosses. Belgium kind of does that too, but their pressure tends to be much less organized, and sometimes looks as if it is a mass of shoppers swarming around the one set of heavily discounted ceiling fans left at Target on Black Friday. This is another weakness the U.S. can exploit, so long as it readily recognizes the pressure is coming and looks for the quick relief pass and cross to switch the field. Against Germany those passes are almost always impossible. Against the Belgians, Zusi, Bedoya, and any of the backs should be able to get them off if they stay vigilant.
4. Maintain composure: One of the most impressive things about this U.S. team has been the infrequency with which they completely fall apart. So far, they just don’t often suffer from prolonged mental lapses like many younger teams. Belgium is undoubtedly talented, and have an entire roster filled with players whose names you’d recognize on the back of Champions League jerseys. They have the trendy (and kind of intoxicating to watch) sidewalk hustler stylings of Hazard, and the big-haired tall person vertical prowess of Fellaini, and the bulky force of Lukaku. But they are just starting to come into their own.
We might one day tell tales in hushed tones of the feats achieved on the backs of this Golden Generation of Red Devil players. But it doesn’t have to be this year, and it doesn’t have to be against the United States. I’d be perfectly content if my most recent pleasant Belgian experience involved watching them walk off the field shocked and upset while I make hilarious Hazard puns on social media. And if the U.S. execute their game plan, it can happen.