Euro 2020: Big Pressure for Belgium’s Golden Generation

Time is pressing for the Belgian “golden generation” to clinch its first trophy in international football. Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup could be the generation’s last chance to do so. At present, the key players of the best generation of Belgian football have passed or are approaching their thirties. Belgium itself welcomes the European Cup with a fairly flashy history. The Red Devils have consistently been ranked first in FIFA since September 2018. In the 2019 qualifying round, Eden Hazard and his friends made the best record: winning all matches, scoring 40 goals, and conceding only three.

In this European Cup, Martinez is clearly still relying on the gold squad which contains Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne, and Thibaut Courtouis. The progress of these senior players is worth waiting for. Can they bring the European Cup trophy to Brussels?

Martinez has not made many changes since managing the Red Devils after Euro 2016. He still relies on a three-back scheme with Romelu Lukaku being a vital point in attack. Lukaku’s presence is supported by an attacking midfielder (Kevin De Bruyne) and an inside forward (Dries Mertens or Eden Hazard).

The former Wigan Athletic coach emphasized a dominant approach and tended to be patient in possession of the ball. Thanks to a series of capable offensive talents, Belgium is able to create a varied attack pattern and tends to produce quality opportunities. This can be seen from their record in the 2020/21 UEFA Nations League. Kevin De Bruyne and his friends have an average of shots per game (11.17) which is not too many. However, the opportunities generated were quite good and converted effectively. At UNL 2020/21, Belgium recorded the best goals per shot (0.21) average.

In addition, although they tend to dominate possession, Belgium often sends direct passes that bypass the opponent’s midfield or back. This is supported by the profile of defenders such as Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld who are comfortable on the ball and capable of sending long passes. They are 34 and 32 respectively but still play an important role in the Red Devils back line.

Belgium also has a feeder figure who can serve the strikers with sharp passes into the penalty box. Kevin De Bruyne is good at it. The Manchester City midfielder is the player with the most passes into the penalty area (3.56 per game) in the 2020/21 Premier League. Other Belgian midfielders such as Youri Tielemans and Axel Witsel also have excellent passing abilities.

The Belgian players can be counted on to realize Martinez’s vision of playing. The coach also managed to bring Belgium to be the best team in the FIFA rankings for almost three years. The Red Devils’ record in the last two years is quite consistent. Belgium have nine wins, three draws and only one loss in the last 13 matches.

Belgium Squad Profile: Senior with Interesting Backup

In the European Cup this time, Roberto Martinez did not make a surprise in the selection of the squad. Compared to their squad at the 2018 World Cup, only eight new names were brought in. For the record, this year’s tournament allowed the national team to bring 26 players instead of 23. So, compared to 2018, Belgium only replaced five players in its squad.

The senior players still dominate. The current Belgian squad bagged over 1,000 caps combined. Jan Vertonghen is the most senior player with 127 caps. His tandem at centre-back, Thomas Vermaelen became the oldest player, aged 35 years 7 months. 10 Red Devils players aged 30 years or over. Seven other players aged 28-29 years. The average age of the entire Belgian squad is 29.2 years.

Belgium only brought one player under the age of 23. He is Jeremy Doku, Stade Rennais winger who just entered 19 years ago on 27 May. Doku has just won eight Belgian national team caps. Besides Doku, Martinez also brought a number of “new” players as qualified backups. Leandro Trossard was called up after impressing with Brighton & Hove Albion. The Spanish coach also called up Hans Vanaken, who has faithfully filled the bench since 2018.

At Euro 2020, the most striking Belgian players are still Lukaku and De Bruyne. These two players were both named the best players in their respective leagues in 2020/21. De Bruyne won the PFA Premier League Player of the Year award. Meanwhile, Lukaku has been named the best player in the Lega Serie A version.

In addition to these two names, the gait of stars that should be listened to is Eden Hazard. Despite being hit by injuries throughout the season and struggling to appear consistent when fit, the former Chelsea striker was still brought in by Martinez. The coach still has hope in him. Hazard himself has not played with the national team for a long time. Before being revealed in the test match against Croatia, last Sunday, the 30-year-old player last played for Belgium in November 2019.

“I’m sure we will see the best of Eden Hazard in the European Cup. He hasn’t played much lately, but that can also be an advantage. He will join the squad as a newer and younger player,” Martinez said of Hazard. It will be worth waiting to see if Hazard is fully fit when the group phase begins. Apart from him, Martinez is also still waiting for Axel Witsel’s readiness in the group phase. The Dortmund midfielder has been sidelined with an Achilles tendon injury since January 2021.

Witsel may not be ready when Belgium play their opener against Russia on June 13. The same goes for Kevin De Bruyne. The Man City midfielder has just undergone surgery and is expected to be ready for the second match against Denmark. To replace Witsel, Martinez can rely on Leander Dendoncker to accompany Youri Tielemans. Meanwhile, to coat De Bruyne, the coach is likely to pair Lukaku and Mertens with Yannick Carrasco as he did in the latest test match.

Belgium certainly wants to talk a lot in this tournament. After years of being stuck being the dark horse of Europe, the Red Devils have a real chance of winning with Lukaku and his friends. Being able to reach the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup is indeed an achievement. However, of course Belgium do not want to part with the best players in their history without an international trophy.

ASL

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