Should Belgium opt for attacking form over fame after Origi impression?
Holly Thackeray | April 15, 2016
That Belgium stars are hitting football headlines bodes well ahead of Euro 2016 for Red Devils hopes (12/1 to win the lot with Coral), but the emergence of several fresh and in-form attacking threats could give manager Marc Wilmots a real selection headache.
Divock Origi has been inspired for Liverpool of late, netting to help send his team to a Europa League semi-final almost two summers after he took to the 2014 World Cup stage as a wildcard, while Kevin De Bruyne also fired his Manchester City side to the semis of the Champions League for the first time in their history.
Elsewhere, Thorgan Hazard has had fits of inspiration for Borussia Monchengladbach, while Michy Batshuayi’s goal bagging exploits have been one of only a few bright spots for Marseille this term.
Much looks sewn-up squad-wise with the Belgian backline established and experienced, Thibaut Courtois a fixture in net and the midfield anchor positions secure.
Yet, in attack there could be big questions about to be asked, with Wilmots facing daunting decisions over whether to play his most in-form options or biggest names…
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard has had a season to forget at Stamford Bridge, with rumours rife that the mazy dribbler will be shipped off this summer. After scoring just twice in almost 40 appearances, the attacking midfielder’s creative malaise is a key component in the capital club’s poor campaign.
While, his younger brother Thorgan, a former Blues-owned boy himself, is going from strength to strength in the Bundesliga with Monchengladbach. Five goals and six assists for a lesser team in his league is a marked improvement that has catapulted the 23-year-old back into Wilmots’ squad, though he is yet to notch that elusive second cap.
The question is not whether Hazard the elder should start, as the vice-captain almost certainly will, or be benched to give his sibling a shot, but rather if he should be the hub of the Red Devils’ forward thrusts anymore, with a little less pressure perhaps reaping dividends.
Wilmots will probably, and understandably, stand by his man, especially after six goals from the 25-year-old in eight internationals across 2015. Though just one of those strikes, against France in a friendly, arrived versus a potential Euro crown rival.
At the last World Cup, Hazard was not one who stood up to be counted and current form does not suggest he will lead on the pitch now either, armband or not.
De Bruyne to be the trend setter
So, Wilmots should think carefully about instead making rampant Red Devil De Bruyne the central schemer in his plans instead, as his haul of 11 international goals more than stands up to Eden Hazard’s 12 in just over half the same number of caps.
Having shown he is more than capable of shouldering the burden for both Wolfsburg and Manchester City, with 15 goals and 14 assists for the latter in all competitions this season, De Bruyne clearly has the edge with imagination and end product.
Both can, and probably will, play together but it is the Sky Blues inspiration that should be handed freest rein to do damage, with his directness and simplicity to strike from distance or slip a through ball far more effective.
Eden Hazard, on the other hand, should not be beyond substitution, with many a talent clamouring for field time in France.
Merseyside marksmen competing for striker selection
On first glance, the Red Devils have an enviable array of strikers to challenge up top. Yet, on closer inspection few of the forwards have fired regularly for their country.
Many may also expect Romelu Lukaku (16/1 to be top Euro 2016 scorer) to be first pick, but the big Everton man excels much more for his club than country, with Wilmots oft preferring fellow Merseyside-based marksman Christian Benteke in the past.
None of the four main frontmen have successfully staked their claim for the starring role as of yet, despite Benteke’s sharp Anfield decline, as both the Reds striker and usually lethal Lukaku have failed to reach the international 10-goal tally, despite a combined 65 appearances.
Taking club form into account, bruising forward bully Lukaku would be the outstanding candidate, but can look equally as disinterested as formidable sometimes. Though, build-up play and technique are two of the attributes the former Chelsea sharpshooter has improved upon under Roberto Martinez.
Breathing down the Toffees target man’s neck to take the number nine slot, however, is Batshuayi, who has taken to international football like a duck to water after his remarkable ascent. Riding the crest of his Ligue 1 wave, the 22-year-old has two in three for Belgium, the best strike-rate of the lot.
A bench option may be his best shot of stealing the limelight on French soil for his nation, with his dynamism perhaps easier to work in tandem with the adaptable support cast. Still his relative inexperience compared to Lukaku means he is unlikely, rightly or wrongly, to upset the pecking order.
Origi excellence too late in the day?
Latest Liverpool hero Origi has emerged to score four in his last three games, and Wilmots clearly saw something special in the young striker after taking him to Brazil.
Origi proved a potential game-changer back then, causing the Premier League Reds to swoop, but has grappled with life since at Anfield. Only under Jurgen Klopp has the youngster found his feet and, having gone without a goal for Belgium since 2014, he is far from a sure bet despite his recent spurt of development.
What the fledgling forward does bring is fluidity, movement and a frantic burst of pace, meaning he complements the bigger and bulkier attacking options up top rather well, though the lively attacker is no slouch physically either.
A different card for Wilmots to play, Origi’s purple patch probably comes too late to compete for the starting XI, but he also has every chance of travelling to France as an impact sub. If this explosive form continues, however, Wilmots will have to make space for a star on an exciting trajectory.
Old faithfuls or exciting prospects?
There is not enough room on the plane for all of Belgium’s bountiful attacking protagonists, so some tough calls could be made. This may be the Red Devils’ golden generation, but unless Wilmots mixes the correct cocktail of talent and chooses those who are deserving, it could all be to no avail.
Off-the-boil Adnan Januzaj and out-of-form Anderlecht midfielder Youri Tielemans look most likely to miss out, though wingmen Zakaria Bakkali and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco have pinched plaudits in La Liga and could conceivably be called up. Neither boast prolific tallies, but have shown they can act as lightning rods for their respective Spanish clubs.
Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens were the men Wilmots tasked with flank duty last time out, and the pair are stable if not always spectacular. Kevin Mirallas is another of the same ilk, though currently out of favour at Everton more often than not, and all three, whose ceilings have arguably been reached are unlikely to be worried for their plane seats this time around.
Wilmots wary of rocking boat
Belgium (11/10 to win Group E) are a nation that have faced squad harmony problems in the past and disposing of the players that helped him secure qualification for the latest flavours of the month may not paint Wilmots in the best light.
However, there comes a point when you simply have to give the most confident and performing players a shot, with youthful exuberance and unpredictability having been shown to revive many a side this season.
Reliable mid-range performers, especially in the front three or four positions, or relying on a few excellent individuals will rarely win you the trophies, but taking risks can transform a team, especially when complacent stars get too comfortable in their spots.