This is where the fun starts for the United States. After negotiating their way through the Group of Death with some wonderful performances, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men will take on Belgium in the last-16 knowing there is very little pressure on them whatsoever. Even if the USA were to depart at this particular stage of the tournament, this team has captured the imagination of the nation and already exceeded expectations.
But seeing as they’re in the hat, why not dream a little? After all, Belgium haven’t quite got going in this tournament, that despite their three wins in their three group games. They’ve been well short of the enterprising, attacking outfit that we’ve saw in World Cup qualifiers, resembling a rigid, cohesive outfit instead.
Marc Wilmots’ team do have plenty of qualities though, and if Belgium are set to grow into this World Cup during the knockout stages, the United States will need to be at their very best if they’re to progress at the expense of the Red Devils.
Here’s a full run down of the side that stand between the United States and the quarter-finals, and how Klinsmann might go about getting the better of them:
Strong Goalkeeper and Central Defense, Can Be Exposed At Full-Back
In Thibaut Courtois, Belgium have arguably the outstanding goalkeeper in the tournament, although he’s yet to be properly tested in any of the Red Devils’ three games to date. He has a maturity that belies his years, a commanding aura and a stunning array of shot-stopping abilities. The United States forwards will have to be at their most clinical to find a way past him.
The fitness of skipper Vincent Kompany remains something of a concern for Wilmots ahead of this one, but if the Manchester City man does feature, he’s a hugely commanding and unshakeably influential figure at the back.
There are concerns about the rest of the defense though, most notably in the full-back positions. Typically, Wilmots will use Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen at right and left-back respectively, despite both players being more suited to central defensive berths. With neither player hugely comfortable getting forward on the overlap, it can leave the wide forwards a little isolated and Belgium prone to frustration against deep sitting defences.
They can also be gotten, too. Algeria exposed this in the early stages of Belgium’s opening game with some pacey forays down the flanks, and if the United States can attack the makeshift full-backs with the same raw impetus, then Klinsmann’s side will get some joy.
Struggling For Balance In Midfield
Wilmots started the first game with a midfield three of Axel Witsel, Mousa Dembele and Kevin De Bruyne. Throughout the game, that triumvirate failed to establish any kind of tempo or incisiveness, making the Red Devils look a little blunt in the middle of the park. In the end, they introduced Marouane Fellaini, went a little more direct and it ultimately paid off.
In truth, it’s an area in which Belgium have failed to find rhythm throughout the tournament. Witsel lhas been good in the holding role, and Fellaini added a little more steel to that position against Russia, but again, neither have the vision to cause real problems for opposition defenders with slick, sharp passing.
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More needs to come from Belgium’s most creative player in that area, De Bruyne. He finished the season superbly for his club side Wolfsburg, showcasing real ingenuity and an eye for a killer pass. He’ll be tasked with picking up the ball in those pockets between the United States’ defensive line, and when he does, he needs to make much better use of the ball than he has done in his showings so far.
Wide Areas Are Vital For Belgium Attack
Belgium have great quality in the wide areas, but as is the case with the central midfield, Wilmots doesn’t seem settled on personnel. On the right-hand side, he has a plethora of options, but Kevin Mirallas, Nacer Chadli and Dries Mertens have all started a game each in that position so far.
Chadli started the opener in that role, which would suggest he’s Wilmots preferred choice, but expect him to go for the more direct qualities of either Mertens or Mirallas for the last-16. Their pace from that position will be vital when breaking down the United States, who will sit in deep and look to play on the break.
HEAR MORE — Listen to our Belgium World Cup Preview.
Whoever starts out of the aforementioned duo will need to provide width from the right flank, helping to laterally stretch the American’s back-four and in turn facilitate space for the likes of De Bruyne to influence the game in central areas too.
While the right-hand side remains a topic for debate, Eden Hazard has his place on the left wing sewn up. He’s the crown jewel of this Belgium attack, capable of beating his opposing full-back on the outside or inside; he’s also extremely adept at coming in off the flank and linking up with the central midfielders and the centre forward. Hazard is the player Klinsmann must figure out a way of stopping if his side stand a realistic chance.
How Will USMNT Cope With A Powerful Centre-Forward?
In their three group games so far, the United States defense have been a little inconsistent, and they’ll have to be at their sharpest to cope with a powerhouse of a central defender, of which Belgium have two.
Admittedly, after a stellar campaign with Everton, it’s not really happened for Romelu Lukaku. The Chelsea man is a forward that likes the ball to be played in front of him to run onto, but he’s struggled for room against Belgium’s group opponents so far, who have sat deep and cut off the space for him to run into.
So it’ll be interesting to see whether Wilmots goes with Lukaku for this one, or teenager Divock Origi, who has impressed in his cameo appearances so far. The Lille forward is a lot more comfortable with the ball coming into feet, and against the United States, he may be a better foil for the likes of Hazard and De Bruyne, who can play off him.
Either way, it’ll be a huge physical challenge for the United States central defenders, one that they’ve not faced in this tournament so far. If they fail to get to grips with Lukaku or Origi, either player is capable of running riot.