(Note: click on “World Cup 2014” above to find more
great fairly good articles by yours truly.)
The US has advanced out of the Group of Certain Death, but that doesn’t mean that the job is done. Actually, by definition, it means that the job isn’t done. This is my preview.
Background – basic facts to know.
How will Belgium play? – tactics and lineup questions.
How will the US play? – tactics and lineup questions.
Prediction – totally unbiased prediction by me. GO USA!!!
These teams have played on 5 occasions, with Belgium winning 4. They won the last 2 games; a 1-0 win in Brussels (Nicolas Lombaerts was the goalscorer) and a 4-2 win in Cleveland (Kevin Mirallas, Marouane Fellaini, and a Christian Benteke brace powered the team past goals by Clint Dempsey and Geoff Cameron). The US’s lone win against Belgium came in 1930 (3-0, goals scored by Bart McGhee, Bert Patenuade, and Tom Florie).
How will Belgium play?
A little like this:
There are a few lineup questions. Namely: is Vincent Kompany healthy? Kompany is the team’s captain, and the captain of the Manchester City team that just won the English Premier League, and he’s their best defender. Lombaerts, his probable replacement, is okay, I guess, but I’m not sure that he can match Kompany.
Another position battle is striker. With Christian Benteke injured, Romelu Lukaku is the obvious replacement, and he’s been the one playing. But see, Lukaku is inconsistent. I may be the only one to notice this, but he is. He’s a great player, and he’s really young (I will start rioting if Mourinho sells him) but as of now he’s inconsistent as a starter. Divock Origi, who is even younger than Lukaku (man, this Belgium team will be really good in future tournaments) has performed better than Lukaku in less time playing, although you could definitely make the argument that Origi has been doing good off the bench because Lukaku has tired out the defenders.
One of the biggest talking points about Belgium is their fullbacks: they have none. Similar to Germany, they play center-backs as full-backs. Toby Alderweireld is the incumbent at right-back, while at left-back it’s more of a question between Jan Vertonghen (center-back for Tottenham) and Thomas Vermaelen (center-back for Arsenal). I guessed that it would be Vermaelen, because I’ve heard that Vertonghen has injury issues. I think Vermaelen might have some injury concerns as well, but I’m not sure. If both are healthy and Kompany is injured I’d advise playing one at left-back and the other at center-back. But coaches rarely follow my advice.
I would say that both Vertonghen and Vermaelen are solid defenders, but neither are close to perfect. Error-prone more than the average defender.
In midfield they have Marouane Fellaini, formally of Everton, currently of Manchester United, and notable for the fact that his hair is large enough to make a sizable home for the entire Spain attacking midfield. He can play a destroyer role or play the role of withdrawn forward. Belgium would like him to maintain control in midfield while being an aerial threat on attacks.
They also have Axel Witsel, a defensive midfielder with similar hair to Fellaini’s, Kevin De Bruyne, a creative attacking midfielder who always looks like he’s about to cry (in a way that makes me genuinely feel sad for the poor boy), and Dries Mertens, the skilled Napoli winger.
Oh, and at goalkeeper they have Thibaut Courtois. He’s really good. And young. And, like Lukaku, spent the last season on loan from Chelsea. And he can yell in slow motion really well.
This team has a lot of really good players. It’s crazy.
And I haven’t mentioned their best player, the man featured in the title picture. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard.
He’s really good. Not always consistently good, but if one player has the ability to change games for Belgium, it’s Hazard. He plays on the left wing, and normally cuts inside to his preferred right foot. He’s great at dribbling, he likes to engage in tricky build-up play, and he can score goals himself as well. He’s been called one of the best players in the world by many. This is basically how he plays on attack:
He cuts in from the left and wreaks havoc. Whether it’s a pass to a teammate or a direct shot, when he gets the ball it’s very…dangerous. You thought I was going to say “hazardous” again, right?
Anyway, that zone (shaded in light gray) is where he does his damage. He slips in and creates chances.
As I said, he’s not consistent. He’s only 23, so he hasn’t developed into the player he probably will develop into. But even if he’s ineffective for 89 minutes he has the quality to win a game almost single-handedly in the other minute. The US need to watch Hazard for the entire game and not let him wreak havoc in that space that I highlighted.
It’s not just him, it’s the entire Belgium team. They’re very, very talented, and while they haven’t been all that convincing (while winning Group H they had 3 narrow wins in one of the easiest groups) they’re the favorites to advance to the quarterfinals.
How will the US play?
Probably kind of like this:
That was the same formation they played against Germany, with Bradley and Jones together in the 4-1-4-1. They could revert back to the 4-2-3-1 (doubtful) or some type of 4-4-2, be it diamond or flat (slightly less doubtful, but still doubtful nonetheless).
Let’s analyze this team once more, shall we? We shall.
Jozy’s back! Well, he won’t start, but he’s “available” according to US Soccer. Jozy Altidore is one of the most useful players on the team: he can score goals, but what he’s most useful for is hold-up play. Give him the ball, and he can hold off the defenders and lay the ball off to a teammate, probably Dempsey. He’s the only player on the roster who can do that, as Terrence Boyd and Eddie Johnson were both left off the team. Again, he won’t start. He may not even play, and if he does, it will be limited. But he’s “available.”
Clint Dempsey will probably get the start at striker, and if they play a 4-4-2 of some kind he will be paired with either Chris Wondolowski (simply a lethal goal-scorer) or Aron Jóhannsson (shifty, and natural goal-scorer, but a bit raw). Dempsey, the captain, works better playing just behind the main striker, where he can move around and make runs into the box, although with Altidore out he’s the lone player up top.
On the wings we probably won’t see Davis start again, and as I’ve said multiple times before we won’t see Julian Green. We’re likely to see Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, although perhaps, if Klinsmann really wants to surprise, we could see the fast, young DeAndre Yedlin get the nod from the beginning. I doubt it, although Klinsmann has surprised me many times before.
In the middle we have Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones as the engine of this team. Bradley, as I detailed in the USA-Germany preview, isn’t playing at his best. He’s not doing as bad as some people make him out to be (people like to make the facts fit simple narratives) but he’s done much better. I’m not sure if he’s hurt (in the group stage he ran more than any World Cup player, so probably not that) or if he’s low on confidence, or if he’s too high on confidence, but something is wrong with him. However, he played much better against Germany. He’s improving, and hopefully he can continue doing so.
Jermaine Jones has been the best player of the US team, hence me placing him in the title picture. He’s ran around crushing opposing attacks, and that goal against Portugal was immense.
And it’s all made possible because of Kyle Beckerman. He stays in that #6 position, allowing Jones and Bradley to roam free in front of him. He does the dirty work that people don’t notice so that Jones and Bradley don’t have to. It’s funny how someone with hair so unstable is the stabilizing force in the midfield.
DeMarcus Beasley is likely to again play at left-back. Beasley is playing in his 4th World Cup (only American to play in that many) and while his work at his new position isn’t too flashy, he’s been quite solid.
And at right-back we have Fabian Johnson. He’s a little bit shaky in defense, yet he’s quite good in attack and in both categories he’s the best the US has at that position. Belgium will need to be wary of his attacks. He’s very good with both feet, and he uses them to great effect going forward.
Center-back is a trickier one. Matt Besler, the steady SKC captain, is a lock to start at left-center-back, but who he’s paired with is a mystery. Will it be Geoff Cameron, who has gotten most of the playing time in the last 6 games? Or will it be Omar Gonzalez, who was playing poorly for a while but then shined when inserted into the lineup last game? Only Jürgen Klinsmann knows the answer to that question.
Warning: I’m a US fan.
Belgium 1-2 USA
Dempsey scores early (off a nifty Bradley through-ball) and then the US guards the lead until the 77th minute, not all too long after Belgium wakes up. Eden Hazard slides into space, and then plays a nice pass for Lukaku, who beats his teammate Tim Howard (10+ saves in total) to tie it up. In the fifth minute of added time, with Belgium getting tired, substitute Chris Wondolowski scores the winner. All of the Wondo-Doubters shut up. The day is celebrated as Wondo Day. They even re-name a Dakota after him.
Good night everyone, and Merry Christmas. May your team win, unless you’re Belgian.