Belgium struck early and held off a late Brazil comeback to send the five-times champions tumbling out of the World Cup with a 2-1 victory in an end-to-end thriller that earned the Red Devils a place in the semifinals against France.
A Fernandinho own goal and a brilliant Kevin De Bruyne strike gave Belgium a spot in the last four for the second time after 1986 and sent Brazil home at the quarter-final stage for the third time in the last four World Cups.
Brazil had to replace Casemiro who couldn’t play due to his second yellow card against Mexico in the Round of 16. Therefore, Tite brought in Fernandinho to cover the space before the back-four. Furthermore, Marcelo was back in the starting line-up. Besides those changes, Tite selected the same starting eleven as against Mexico. In their common 4-3-3 Neymar, Willian and Jesus attack in the first line while Paulinho and Coutinho supported them out of the midfield. Thiago Silva and Miranda were the two centre-backs while Fagner defended on the right-side, for Belgium he was a potential weakness of Brazil’s defence.
Martinez had decided to swap his go-to 3-4-3 set-up for a bold 4-3-3, with Romelu Lukaku pushed out to the right flank, Eden Hazard on the left and Kevin De Bruyne through the middle as a false nine. This switch allowed De Bruyne to play further forward than he did in the previous match against Japan, where he was often too far from goal to create openings. Nacer Chadli and Marouane Fellaini, after their great super-sub performances in the round of 16 victory, started in place of Yannick Carrasco and Dries Mertens respectively. Where Fellaini played in a familiar #8 midfield role he’ll usually play for club and country, Chadli started left midfield position often tucking into central midfield when Belgium was in defense. But when the Red Devils transitioned to attack, Chadli moved forward in support out wide as an overlapping full-back.
The front three were positioned in ways to prevent and close down passing options through the center, while Chadli and Fellaini man-marked Paulinho and Coutinho respectively and Witsel provided vertical compactness. Chadli’s performance in particular must be acknowledged because his man-oriented focus and shadowing of Paulinho’s movements from midfield limited Brazil’s attack variability as then Selecao tended to overload on the left in possession.
Though this could’ve proved to be a robust structure that prevented Brazil access to the final third, the front three defended passively and allowed the opposition to progress play through rotational shifts that eventually targeted the flanks. It was only after Brazil got near the box that Belgium’s defensive shape sprang into action, as the luxury of an extra midfielder allowed Martínez’s squad to compress their defensive shape and overload their right flank, making difficult to even find passing options between the lines. Now that still didn’t prevent Belgium to be susceptible to Coutinho finding open space centrally for Brazil, when the Belgian midfield dropped too deep into the box, making it easier to switch or shoot from distance.
The Red Devils defended in a deep block 4-3-1-2 with De Bruyne positioned just ahead of three midfielders. His role was to cover and close the space occupied by Fernandinho in order to deny any switch of play as result of Brazil circulating the ball while in possession. Interestingly Martinez instructed Hazard and Lukaku to regularly stay up the field and positioned wide, not given tasks to take part defensively. In fact they never pressed aggressively or higher up the pitch, but always in anticipation of a quick counter once Belgium won the ball back deep. Primarily their roles were to stretch Brazil’s defensive line shape as the Selecao had only a back three as Marcelo was allowed great freedom to surge forward and join in overloading on the left with Coutinho & Neymar.
In addition to that, Brazil’s offensive build-up was bad structurally in being able to win second balls and continue ball circulation within the build-up. Often there would be a gap between Fernandinho’s holding midfield position relative to Paulinho, who in particular was positioned too high as Coutinho would move forward left to create passing triangles with Neymar and Marcelo on the right. It didn’t help that Willian had a subpar first half in his forays to create versus the slower Belgian left fullback, Jan Vertonghen. Ineffective in crossing into the box and no support from the Corinthians right-back Fagner as he was responsible for Hazard’s higher position was ripe in eventually leading to many counter-attack opportunities by the Red Devils.
The main objectives in Roberto Martinez’s counter-attacking strategy was to allow Lukaku De Bruyne or Hazard to receive the ball and dribble into central space to hold possession until the very last second and send through balls to their teammates on the ball-far half-space. Belgium played these counter-attacks perfectly as De Bruyne would at times play the pass to the wingers very late which forced Brazil to stay compact in the centre. Consequently, Belgium received space outside, to Lukaku and Hazard. Brazil´s defenders had to defend the attack and full speed by moving backwards and simultaneously observing the ball carrier and their man which were in different fields of vision. Therefore, Belgium´s attackers had an advantage as soon as they could start the counter-attack and move into the central space. Interestingly Martinez even had Lukaku positioned up high in defending against corner kicks and it was taking possession of a header out from Belgium’s box and dribbling through central space that led to his outlet pass to De Bruyne on the right, leading to the Red Devils second goal in the first half.
Brazil did make the necessary structural changes in the second half to sway the match back in the favor. Roberto Firmino came on for Willian and played in his customary false 9 and combined in the center with Neymar. Gabriel Jesus was allowed to occupy a more exclusive right-sided forward position versus Vertonghen. Eventually Tite brought in Douglas Costa for Gabriel Jesus and was able to cause more trouble on that slower left hand side of Belgium’s defense. Coutinho’s deeper central position allowed for greater ball retention and circulation. It was from here that when Coutinho did advance near the box that he was able to chip into the advancing run of substitute Renato Augusto’s run into the half-space to score on a glancing header past Thibault Courtois.
The improved structure helped Brazil to prevent more counter-attacks of the Red Devils. Belgium did manage to counter-attack quickly at times, particularly on Eden Hazard’s near miss from the left hand side of the box from a wonderful pass from De Bruyne. In the last minutes of the second half the Selecao was quicker in counter-pressing while Belgium was running out of gas to really push forward to exploit any counter-attacking chances.
By the end of the second half, it was the will of Belgium’s XI and Thibaut Courtois making save after save that preserved the win. In hindsight, the early 8th minute miss on a free header by Thiago Silva could have led to a much different outcome. But the subsequent own goal error by Fernandinho on a near post corner flicked header by Vincent Kompany set the tone and allowed Belgium to employ their daring counter-attack strategy for most of the game.
By: Victor Charnetsky