Preview: U.S. v. Belgium
The United States squares off against Belgium in its round of sixteen clash in Salvador on Tuesday, July 1. After playing all three group games in the bruising heat and humidity of Northern Brazil, the United States is sure to find Salvador’s milder (though still tropical) climate a welcome change.
Belgium emerged from Group H without dropping points, logging victories against South Korea, Russia, and Algeria. Meanwhile, the United States had a far more difficult time in Group G, finishing in second place despite losing to Germany in the final game of the group stage; a victory against Ghana and a tie against Portugal just enough to see them through.
Getting to Know Belgium
Though Belgium may be better known for its chocolates and beer, the country also possesses an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young footballing talent. Despite its pedigree, however, Belgium has yet to hit top form, looking disjointed and unconvincing in its three wins. Belgium’s most dangerous player is the diminutive Eden Hazard, who finished runner-up in player of the year voting in England after an impressive second season at Chelsea. Hazard is an extremely deceptive and quick dribbler, who will have no qualms taking on and beating U.S. defenders. Hazard will most likely line up on the left side of a front three in Belgium’s 4-3-3. The U.S. will set up its defense to deny Hazard service. Once Hazard has the ball, he is sure to attract at least two defenders.
But Belgium is hardly a one-man team. Coach Marc Wilmots has a number of dangerous attacking options to choose from when filling out his front-line, including the imposing striker Romelu Lukaku and pacey wingers Dries Mertens, Adnan Januzaj, and Nacer Chadli. The midfield trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel and Marouane Fellaini will most likely start, with De Bruyne as the most attack-minded of the three. Moussa Dembele is another option for Wilmots, though the U.S. is more likely to see him as a second-half substitute. Witsel and Fellaini are each physically imposing ball winners. If both start, the Yanks may find themselves out-muscled in the middle of the park for the first time in this World Cup.
The Belgian defense is anchored by captain and center back Vincent Kompany, one of the top defenders in the world. Kompany is currently struggling with a groin problem and his absence (though unlikely) would be a big blow to the Belgium backline, particularly as the versatile Thomas Vermaelen is also a question mark for Tuesday’s encounter. In goal for Belgium is 22-year-old shot-stopper Thibaut Courtois, who many now consider the best goalkeeper in the world.
The U.S. is sure to come out more attack-minded against Belgium. Expect to see the Yanks abandon the defensive 4-1-4-1 employed against Germany and set up in a 4-2-3-1, with Clint Dempsey as the lone striker and Michael Bradley as the attacking midfielder. Alejandro Bedoya should return to the starting lineup for left midfielder Brad Davis, who struggled against Germany. Center back Omar Gonzalez saw his first World Cup start against Germany and will likely retain his place, with Geoff Cameron again relegated to the bench.
Clint Dempsey was isolated upfront against Germany, as coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped Bradley back next to Jermaine Jones, ceding much of the field to Germany. Dempsey should have more support against Belgium, with Bradley positioned higher up the pitch. Klinsmann may also consider relieving Bradley of at least some defensive responsibilities. Bradley has run himself into the ground in the first three games, with Klinsmann asking him to defend alongside holding midfielders Jones and Kyle Beckerman, while supporting Dempsey in attack. Bradley’s stamina is the stuff of legend, but to get the best out of Bradley, Klinsmann may need to ask less of him, at least at the start.
Jozy Altidore remains the sole injury concern for the U.S. As Altidore continues to train on his own, it would seem that he is not quite ready for action on Tuesday, though may be available as a substitute.
Three Keys To The Match
Possession: While Belgium will likely see more of the ball, the U.S. cannot cede territory and possession to Belgium like they did against Germany. The U.S. needs to press Belgium high up the pitch, denying service to Belgium’s dangerous wide men. And when the Yanks have the ball, players need to get forward, particularly on the wings. If Belgium’s possession creeps towards 55-60%, it will spell trouble for the U.S.
Battle on the Flanks: Belgium’s exceptional wingers (Hazard and likely Mertens) will run at the U.S. outside backs all game. U.S. right back Fabian Johnson has had an exceptional tournament, solid on defense and dangerous going forward. Klinsmann will need more of the same from Johnson, particularly as he will be matched up against Hazard. Given Johnson’s strengths, Germany, Portugal and Ghana predominantly attacked the left side of the U.S.defense, and U.S. left back DaMarcus Beasley will likely see his flank targeted again. Johnson and Beasley will need support from their outside midfielders (most likely Graham Zusi and Bedoya). While the Belgium wingers are fantastic on attack, they don’t particularly enjoy defending. This should give the Yanks an opportunity to create 2 v 1 situations on the outside if Johnson and Beasley can get forward.
Supporting Dempsey: The U.S. needs to find a way to give Dempsey more support. That means a change in mentality from the last game against Germany, where the U.S. set out to defend. While the U.S. will still set up to absorb pressure, they will need to get numbers forward quickly when in possession. Bradley will position himself much closer to Dempsey than he did against Germany, and outside backs Beasley and Johnson will look to join the attack whenever possible.