England fans who can remember the 2006 and 2010 World Cups will know all about the pressures a national side faces when the media dubs it a ‘Golden Generation’.
In this year’s World Cup, England’s group rivals Belgium will now come under this weight of expectation; Eden Hazard, who will captain the affectionately-named Red Devils, seemed fully aware of the pressures this label can have: ‘The golden generation you had in England, 10 years or 15 years ago, won nothing. Now I think the fans, journalists, all of Belgium, the country just want to win something.
‘We have a golden generation.’
Under the stewardship of Roberto Martinez, Belgium’s qualifying record points to strong success: on the road to the Group G seeding, they set a team record by going 12 games unbeaten. Belgium finished their UEFA qualifying group with 28 points and a staggering 43 goals from ten matches; only Germany were able to achieve more points from the ten games. Paddy Power, amongst other bookmakers, have Belgium 10/1 to win the tournament, when four years ago the Red Devils were unable to get past the quarter-finals, beaten by eventual finalists Argentina.
In the 2014 World Cup, Belgium won all their games with slim, often late, one goal margins. Martinez will be encouraging his team to be more free-scoring, particularly with such a mouth-watering attack: Hazard, who struggled to perform at the last World Cup, will once again be expected to turn on the magic on the wing. The Chelsea man will feature alongside Romelu Lukaku, who has been in hot form for the national team, and Dries Mertens, who finished the Serie A this season with 18 goals for Napoli. Expect the trio to be linking up well, with Hazard and Mertens playing slightly behind or on the flanks of Lukaku to give him the service, or end up driving forward to get a goal of their own.
Play will ultimately revolve around Kevin De Bruyne in central midfield. After a stunning season for Manchester City, De Bruyne will take on the pitch responsibility of dispersing excellent passes and forcing the team to press up with him; in a more talismanic sense, he will embody the promising ability of the Belgian side, and on his broad shoulders a nation’s hopes may rest. With Radja Nainggolan left out of the 23-man squad, we might expect veterans Moussa Dembele or Axel Witsel to play alongside him; Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker may also feature in the centre.
Martinez prefers to field a 3-4-3, as used for recent friendlies and during the qualifying stage. Worryingly for the Belgians, however, this formation appears to be lop-sided. The Red Devils lack a strong left-wing back, with Dalian Yifang’s Yannick Carrasco instead playing on that flank, and PSG’s Thomas Meunier on the right side. Notably, Carrasco is much more attacking, being a natural winger, and exited former side Atletico Madrid under a cloud, never quite able to fit in with their demanding, defensive style. With Meunier a more typical right-back (who also enjoys getting forward) this may leave Belgium vulnerable defensively, putting strain on the back three and Courtois in goal.
Similarly, we may worry about how Belgium will perform in the bigger games; despite cruising to victory over Egypt and Costa Rica in the June international friendlies, Belgium eked out a 0-0 draw against European champions Portugal. Whilst Panama and Tunisia should not be too great a problem in Group G, the England game may end up a torrid, if not dull, affair. Martinez will have to ensure that Belgium can keep the momentum up to get the goals, willing his front three to produce in the final third.
On paper, the ‘Golden Generation’ can achieve greatness; with a squad filled with league winning players, the emphasis for Martinez will be to make them realise they are a team, not just a collection of superstars. If the Belgians gel and produce fantastic football, then there is no reason why the hype would be unjustified.