Vincent Kompany absence for Belgium may be blessing in disguise
Jamie Clark, Sports Editor | May 8, 2016
Eagle-eyed punters will remember the Belgium team that reached the World Cup quarter-finals in Brazil two years ago had a back four entirely made up of centre halves.
Marc Wilmots seemed forced into it by the form of key defensive quartet Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen.
Crocked Kompany out of Euros
The recent news that Manchester City captain Kompany will miss Euro 2016 may mean a tactical change for the rearguard.
Couple Kompany’s absence with a major downturn in form from star player Eden Hazard, and you can’t help but wonder if Belgium are worthy of their 12/1 price with Coral to win the Euros.
Only tournament hosts France, World Cup winners Germany, dual defending European champions Spain and – take the betting with a pinch of salt – England are more fancied than the Belgians to reign supreme at Euro 2016.
Is this Belgian Golden Generation going to deliver the kind of trophy success that many of their players have individually enjoyed at club level? Doing it without leader Kompany could be tough.
Spurs provide answer to plug gap
Only Vertonghen has more caps from among the defenders recently called to Red Devils rosters, while half-centurion Vermaelen still endures a torrid time with injuries despite his switch from Arsenal to Barcelona.
What this amounts to for Wilmots is a major test of the strength in depth for Belgium at the back, and there is still plenty of that. One major benefit that can come of out Kompany’s loss is the inclusion of proper full backs, who are prepared to cross the halfway line in open play.
The Belgians must surely now select Tottenham centre back pairing Alderweireld and Vertonghen in those positions on international duty. Wilmots would be wise to do that, because they boast the best defensive record in the Premier League.
Backed up by the likes of Vermaelen if fit, experienced Zenit St Petersburg player Nicolas Lombaerts and the up-and-coming Man City-owned Jason Denayer (with Galatasaray), Belgium still have formidable central defensive options.
Chance to add a new dimension
Taking full backs who lack the high profile of their national teammates may be beneficial, because it is less obvious to opposition countries about what they can do.
Jordan Lukaku has a notable footballing name, but unlike big brother striker Romelu there has been no move abroad at a young age for the left back.
Down the other flank of defence, meanwhile, there’s cases to be made for picking Thomas Meunier – another domestically based player – and Angolan-born Luis Pedro Cavanda.
There was certainly merit to Wilmots’ tactical approach when all his natural centre halves were fit. Having so many with natural instincts to stay back allowed the forwards to express themselves, but ultimately support was lacking.
Group looks hotly competitive
Belgian balance wasn’t quite right. Wilmots now has an opportunity in adversity to address this.
Drawn in a tough-looking Euros pool (Group E) where they can take nothing for granted, the Red Devils are narrow 11/10 favourites to finish top.
Playing alongside Euro 2012 finalists Italy, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-led Sweden and a plucky Republic of Ireland outfit under Martin O’Neill means Belgium have to earn their passage to the knockout phase.
The Azzurri may not look like a decent vintage on paper, but cannot be underestimated; meanwhile, this may be the international swansong of superstar striker Ibrhaimovic and the Irish took four points off Germany in qualifying.
Change of captain?
Out of form Hazard often skippers Belgium when Kompany has been previously absent, yet it is hard to justify selecting the Chelsea attacker from the start after a hugely disappointing campaign.
Wilmots has the same dilemma as England counterpart Roy Hodgson with captain Wayne Rooney in this regard, but will either be bold enough to drop their leaders on the field?
Belgium do not look short of candidates to take the armband. Vermaelen led Ajax and Arsenal, while Vertonghen followed suit in Amsterdam before signing for Spurs.
If selected among the midfield options, Steven Defour of Anderlecht has previous leadership experience with Standard Liege – even if his move abroad in between backfired because he became dogged by injuries.
Magnificent midfield and flying forwards
The engine room is another area in which the Belgians are enviably strong. Defour could miss out on the Euros because of Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini, Radja Nainggolan and Axel Witsel all playing well abroad.
Further forward are fearsome options with Hazard a mere tip of the attacking iceberg. Kevin de Bruyne has excelled for Man City, then there’s direct flank threats Nacer Chadli, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas to consider.
Up front, there probably isn’t enough room to take all of Michy Batshuayi, Christian Benteke, Romeu Lukaku and Divock Origi, though it remains to be seen if either of Liverpool’s striking options get the nod because of poor form and injury.
All this adds up to provide plenty of evidence that Belgium can compete at Euro 2016 without captain Kompany.
Visit our Euro 2016 page for more features like this one.