Belgium have been international media and fan darlings long before this World Cup began. With a young core of exciting players fans were looking forward to seeing this side make its mark on the international stage. Belgium is a country with divides not only between immigrants and natives, but also French and Flemish speakers. The nation is represented by a united multicultural team, which has not always been the case in the past. More importantly, the team has been playing good, attractive stylistic football with considerable depth in most positions.
Of course as England fans can tell you, having a golden generation of players is not enough, you need an astute man-manager with a good sense of timing and tactics to truly turn a talented and skilled group of players into a side capable of going deep into tournaments. Marc Wilmots is undoubtedly a skilled motivator, a Walloon with a Flemish wife who could get the best out of a diverse group of players. But surprisingly for someone with very little actual managerial experience outside of the Red Devils, (his previous Head Coaching job ended in 2004 with a small Belgian club and was followed by an unsuccessful stint in politics), his substitutions and reading of the game have also attracted considerable praise.
Belgium have scored six goals in four games so far in Brazil, and four have been recorded by substitutes, including late equalizers and winners against Algeria and the USA. But, have his super subs been the result of fortune or acumen? For example against the USA he never relieved Axel Witsel or Marouanne Fellaini despite both being overrun and tired in midfield. Wilmots preferred instead to first bring on a striker in a like for like swap and then remove Eden Hazard to help his side sink deep into their own half and protect a lead.
But it is not so much about who Wilmots has selected and how they have done individually, although his knack for choosing the right players, especially in the case of Divock Origi who only scored five league goals for Lille last season, should be commended. It is more about how Wilmots uses his substitutions to achieve a shape and style of play that he wants.
Against Algeria, facing a packed, narrow, and deep defense Belgium took a great number of shots from long range, and did not effectively utilize the space on the flanks. Bringing on the tall and powerful Fellaini for the final half hour helped give the team an extra target in the box and a greater incentive to put crosses in. He used his substitution to initiate a Plan B, and Fellaini scored from one crossed set piece and almost had another through a cross from the right wing.
Against the USA, his use of Lukaku helped set the team up to play on the break with pace, knowing that the US was committing lots of men forward, and advancing slowly gave them time to retreat. Lukaku was constantly given the ball into space and allowed to run to the edge of the American penalty area before slipping in a winger. The substitution was of course also about fresh legs after Origi played 90 minutes but the fact that Kevin Mirallas, another player skilled at driving forward replaced Dries Mertens, a more creative player adept at keeping possession and playing slide rule passes, at the hour mark was also instructive as to how Wilmots wanted his side to play. Despite playing only half the match, Mirallas created the fourth most chances on the team and completed the second most dribbles, emphasizing that his role was to run forward at pace against the Americans before they could reset the defense.
This style could prove useful against Argentina, who push their fullbacks high and often just have Javier Mascherano protecting a fragile center half pairing. They have not looked comfortable against teams who look to break against them and Wilmots might use Lukaku and Mirallas as a Plan B again.