Belgium 2-1 USA: Belgium dominate but take ages to make the breakthrough

July 3, 2014

The starting line-ups

USA put up a brilliant fight in extra-time, but Belgium had been the superior side for the majority.

Marc Wilmots selected Divock Origi upfront, rather than the underwhelming Romelu Lukaku.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought Alejandro Bedoya back into the side, and made the surprising decision to select Geoff Cameron rather than Kyle Beckerman in midfield, supposedly because of his greater mobility.

This was a tremendously entertaining game, but Belgium should have put it to bed much earlier – only a tremendous goalkeeping display from Tim Howard kept USA in it.

USA midfield very open

The key factor was a direct result of the most surprising selection decision. Beckerman and Jermaine Jones had worked excellently as a duo throughout this competition, and bringing in Cameron in a (relatively) unfamiliar position didn’t make much sense.

The game was played at great pace, with both teams attempting to play high up the pitch and dominate. Belgium were so much quicker on the counter-attack, however, and they continually found oceans of space in the centre of midfield, often both in front of, and behind, the USA midfield.

Cameron simply seemed unnatural in that zone, positioning himself too high up the pitch and getting drawn to Belgium’s midfielders, rather than sitting back and protecting his defence – as Beckerman does so well. Cameron’s booking, on 18 minutes, for a terribly cynical foul to break up a Dries Mertens counter-attack suggested that, frankly, he didn’t know how to play the holding position.

De Bruyne influence

The major beneficiary was Kevin De Bruyne, who constantly uses space so effectively, drifting laterally across the pitch to collect the ball on the run. His end product, was consistently extremely disappointing throughout the game, with too many wayward passes and blocked shots. But USA never really got to grips with De Bruyne, and he created a stream of half-chances and almost-chances.

The best example was after seven minutes, when Michael Bradley was on the left just inside the Belgium ‘third’, and played a lateral pass towards both Jones and Cameron making late runs to the edge of the box. The ball reached Jones, but his touch was poor and possession was conceded. Now, Jan Vertonghen led a counter-attack with USA’s three midfielders all in advance of the ball, and De Bruyne with 20 yards of space to himself, running into the opposition half. De Bruyne received the ball and overhit his pass to Origi, with Matt Besler closing in to put him off.

There were other examples – on 22 minutes Zusi was caught in possession and De Bruyne ended up with a counter-attacking goalscoring chance, cutting inside and pulling his shot just wide.

These moments epitomised the problems USA had throughout this contest – no-one was holding in midfield. It’s difficult to remember another side at this World Cup leaving their defence so open throughout the game, and there were so, so many examples of dangerous Belgium counter-attacks. They were incredibly wasteful once they got into the final third, although the USA defence deserves credit for a frantic last-ditch response.

Origi was partly responsible for the Belgiaun wastefulness, but he nevertheless contributed much more than Lukaku in Belgium’s previous games – his movement into the channels was better, and his link play with the attacking midfielders was also more effective.

Belgium’s dominance did produce a brilliant goalkeeping display from Howard, though – maybe the best of the tournament. Although a few of his saves looked comfortable, his positioning throughout the game was excellent, often moving forward into advanced positions to close down the angle of the shot.

This is something Howard has worked upon over the last couple of years and has been particularly obvious in this competition. It was particularly useful considering Belgium’s attacks often flowed very quickly and involved breaking directly towards Howard – he had plenty of time to move forward from his line and anticipate the shot.

It shouldn’t be inferred that USA were completely battered, and their bravery in midfield did put pressure upon Axel Witsel, who was sometimes overwhelmed in the holding role.

The major zones of strength for Klinsmann’s side were down the flanks, however, where both DaMarcus Beasley and DeAndre Yedlin (on for Fabian Johnson, who picked up an early injury) sprinted forward energetically to create overloads with USA’s wide midfielders. This pushed Eden Hazard and Mertens back into uncomfortable positions – neither are good defensively.

Belgium gave as good as they got in this respect, though, with Jan Vertonghen – who has overlapped well throughout this tournament – storming past Zusi a couple of times and getting in behind the defence. As ever, the final ball was lacking.

Pattern continues

The funny thing about this game was the lack of early changes from the bench, despite USA being so open and Belgium being so frustrating in the final third. Both managers seemed happy enough with the situation of the game. The tempo slowed after half-time and this probably suited Klinsmann’s side, but the broad pattern of the first half continued.

Substitutions played a key role, though, in the closing stages and extra-time. Klinsmann throwing on Chris Wondolowski in place of Zusi was a staggeringly bold move in such an open game, although the striker did get himself into a great goalscoring position shortly before the end of normal time. Still, it further opened up the pitch for Belgian counter-attacks, and through some high-profile replacements, Wilmots finally got his side ahead. Belgium have continually struck late throughout this World Cup.

Kevin Mirallas had already replaced Dries Mertens to introduce sheer speed, and in extra-time Lukaku added even more pace upfront, in place of Origi. Wilmots also switched De Bruyne and Hazard, which was probably just an attempt to try something different rather than a calculated tactical switch.

Either way, Belgium finally made the breakthrough with Lukaku teeing up De Bruyne on the break, before De Bruyne returned the favour for Lukaku ten minutes later. The opportunities hadn’t been any more presentable than in the first half, Belgium were simply more efficient in front of goal.

Then came an inspired USA fightback. Substitute Julian Green, on for Bedoya, scored a consolation goal and his side rallied. Those final 13 minutes were extremely impressive, with the goal seemingly giving the USA another gear and simultaneously making Belgium even more tired.

Bradley, Jones and Cameron, so frustrating in the first half because of their collective insistence on running high up the pitch and leaving space in behind, were now perfect for the situation – a desperate fightback. Witsel and Marouane Fellaini looked exhausted, and Wilmots’ refusal to bring on another midfielder, or even strengthen his defence, was remarkable. He left his side open to constant attacks, and few other sides have exited the competition with such an impressive late rally as this from the United States.


Belgium made hard work of this – USA afforded them so many counter-attacking opportunities, that it’s difficult to work out how they needed 120 minutes to win. It’s worrying that a side took so long to score against an opposition that completely played into their hands.

Perhaps the major lesson from today, with Di Maria and then De Bruyne making the breakthrough in their sides’ victories, is that teams are much better off with a heavily involved but constantly frustrating player, than someone struggling to get into the game. Both Di Maria and De Bruyne made some very poor decisions over the course of 120 minutes, but eventually got one right.

USA have shown some glimpses of real quality, and this game fits into the pattern from throughout the competition – they’re best when they need a goal.

However, they’re rather fortunate to exit this competition as battling, narrowly defeated heroes – they should have been at least 2-0 down by half-time, and Klinsmann’s tactics would have been much more heavily criticised. The decision to drop Beckerman seemed strange on paper, turned out to be counter-productive on the pitch, and there was no attempt to solve the problem. Howard was absolutely fantastic, but if your goalkeeper has to make a record-breaking number of saves, something has gone wrong higher up the pitch.

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