Belgium’s defeat to Italy in their opening game highlighted coach’s lack of strategy

18 June ~ It’s open season on Marc Wilmots in Belgium. The Red Devils’ inept display against Italy highlighted the national coach’s tactical frailties – nothing new there – but, to make matters worse, Wilmots doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with his strategy, or lack thereof. “I don’t think Italy won a tactical battle,” he told national broadcaster RTBF.

Yet it was plain for all to see that Antonio Conte’s team, largely regarded as the weakest Italy side in living memory, made Belgium run a lot, instead playing a patient, intelligent – if unspectacular – game. Wilmots’ substitutions came too late and smacked of desperation.

In the coach’s defence, several players were below par – something that every single Belgian media picked up on. Kevin de Bruyne, so influential for Manchester City last season, looked exhausted right from the early stages. Romelu Lukaku missed a glorious opportunity to level the game and appeared low on confidence. Radja Nainggolan made an impression of sorts with a couple of long-range efforts but was otherwise underwhelming. Divock Origi, meanwhile, had an absolute shocker when he came on.

Another mitigating factor is the under-rehearsed defence. It was a lack of communication between Toby Alderweireld and Laurent Ciman which led to the opening goal. The latter, recalled from Montreal Impact following a spate of injuries, hadn’t played for Belgium since 2011 (save for 12 minutes in a friendly against Australia in 2014). He acquitted himself reasonably well at right-back, but his partnership with new "defence boss" Alderweireld hasn’t yet gelled.

Still, playing Marouane Fellaini directly behind a lone striker proved ineffective, while not using the in-form Marseille forward Michy Batshuayi surprised many. Dries Mertens, coming on at the hour mark, made a strong case for being in the starting XI and most pundits are calling for changes to the line-up.

The offensive-minded Thomas Meunier may come in for Ciman, and either Nainggolan or Fellaini could face the axe. Christian Benteke may well replace Lukaku. Wholesale changes, though, will only send the wrong signal – what is required is adaptability in the team tactics. Ireland don’t have the same waiting-game approach to football as Italy. They do, however, have a proven tactician in Martin O’Neill.

For Wilmots, Belgium’s tactics are sound and the problem lies elsewhere. “We’re world champions at not picking up yellow cards; we need to be more aggressive,” he told journalists on Wednesday. That’s as may be. A less rigid strategy would help, too. PM Doutreligne

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