With the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to football activity for the foreseeable future and postponing Wales’ upcoming matches, I decided to take a look at back that night against in Lille in 2016. For readers from elsewhere who require context, Wales met Belgium in the quarter finals of EURO 2016. Belgium were the highest ranked team in the tournament, were the favourites to win the competition and were playing this match around fifteen miles away from their own border. Yet Wales came from behind to claim a 3-1 victory that has never got the credit it deserves outside of Wales itself. This blog will outline the tactics of one of the most underappreciated games in recent international football history. Apologies for the fuzziness of some of the images – it was the best stream of the match that I could find!
Both teams began in their usual shapes. For Wales, this was a 1-5-4-1 with a box midfield (Hennessey; Gunter, Chester, A. Williams, Davies, Taylor; Allen, Ledley, Ramsey, Bale; Robson-Kanu). Belgium began in a 1-4-2-3-1 (Courtois; Meunier, Alderweireld, Denayer, J. Lukaku; Nainggolan, Witsel; Carrasco, De Bruyne, E. Hazard, R. Lukaku).
The line-ups at kick-off can be seen here.
Wales in possession/Belgium out of possession.
Throughout much of the tournament Wales were more comfortable in possession than they were given credit for and this was definitely the case in this match. When building-up play from deep positions, the Welsh centre backs were happy to play 1-2’s with the double central midfield pivot in front of them in order to encourage the Belgian defensive block slightly higher. An example of an effective passage of play is described here.
Chester passes back to goalkeeper Hennessey, which makes Belgium move across in order to prevent Wales from playing across to the left.
This passage of plays shows how effective Wales were at circulating possession and using midfield rotation to open up passing lanes if given the opportunity.
If they did not have sufficient options to safely retain possession between midfield and attack with short passes, Wales looked to release either Hal-Robson Kanu or Gareth Bale into the halfspace and wide channels, particularly Robson-Kanu. This would give Wales time to move up the pitch in a structured manner – the ballside wingback would provide a supporting option behind while in the middle their shape remained undisturbed. This protected them centrally against potential turnovers of possession, while also giving licence to the midfielders to make runs into the box should genuine crossing opportunities arise. The below photo is an example of Robson-Kanu running down the wide right channel and beating the full back. Notice the runs made from midfield and by the farside wingback, Taylor. Taylor had a great chance to score here with a shot from around the penalty spot.
As the lone striker, Hal Robson-Kanu often targeted Belgium’s left centre-back – Jason Denayer. Denayer was in as a replacement for the injured Thomas Vermaelen and was lacking match sharpness, so it made sense for Robson-Kanu to work him more than Alderweireld. Also, Robson-Kanu’s positioning meant that he was often close to Ramsey – who operates well in tight spaces and has excellent link-up play – and was at a a diagonal to and further away from Bale, creating more space for the Real Madrid man should he need it to drive at the Belgium defence.
Wales were also effective at using long goal kicks to protect against turnovers of possession to Belgium – the one time it went wrong and Belgium won the ball was because of a misplaced pass after Wales had successfully retained the ball to begin with.
In terms of how Belgium set-up off the ball, they used a 4-2-3-1 shape when pressing Wales’ deep build-up and fell back into a 4-4-1-1 midblock, as shown below.
Belgium in possession/Wales out of possession.
Belgium had kick-off and began the match by patiently circulating the ball in order to try and create openings in the compact Welsh defensive shape. Wales were happy to force their opponents out wide to try and get them to play crosses into the box because Wales’ formation made it easy to overload centrally (shown below). Notice how when Belgium get into a situation like this, Wales react by having one centre midfielder cover the penalty spot, with the other man-marking to stop a short cut back. Meanwhile, Ramsey man-marks on the edge of the area.
As right back, Meunier stayed deep in order to leave the wide right space free for Carrasco to attack. This also meant that he could pick up second balls from long clearances directed back out wide as a way of sustaining attacks. It made sense for Belgium to set-up their right-hand side in this way as it provided balance with the left-hand side where Hazard would roam inwards and Jordan Lukaku would look to overlap from left back.
Belgium had the capacity to be extremely dangerous on the counter-attack. When Wales took throw-ins on the right (taken by Chester, the RCB), Romelu Lukaku would begin centrally then drift out to the right if Belgium won the ball. Simultaneously, De Bruyne would move inside. This created a passing triangle to quickly break the Welsh midfield line and unleash Lukaku into space – as shown below.
From goal kicks, Belgium looked long and tried to isolate Wales’ side centre-backs – Chester and Davies. This avoided aerial battles with the physically strong Ashley Williams.
In order to combat Belgium’s transitional threats, Wales committed a number of “tactical” fouls before their opponents could get ahead of steam, which made sense considering the potency of the Belgian attackers. The referee made things difficult for Wales in this respect – within 25 minutes of play three of the Welsh back five were on yellow cards due to fouls committed to stop counter attacks.
When the two sides met in qualifying in Cardiff, Wales manager Chris Coleman employed the risky tactic of having his two wingbacks press high and man-for-man on Belgium’s fullbacks. This minimised the pressing distances for Ramsey and Bale. In this match, Gunter at right wingback pressed high onto Jordan Lukaku, Belgium’s left back. Gunter’s task was to stay in line with the Welsh midfield before beginning to press J. Lukaku as the ball travelled out to him from the left centre back. He then had to show J. Lukaku back inside, where Wales could force him to play backwards (see below).
On the other flank, Carrasco maintained height and width and R. Lukaku regularly pinned B. Davies at left centre back – this prevented Neil Taylor from pressing out to Meunier, which meant more work for Bale, Robson-Kanu and Ramsey to get through in covering across laterally.
When in a deep block, Wales often assumed a 5-4-1 shape with a narrow and asymmetrical midfield 4 with Bale on the left and Allen or Ramsey on the right (this shape will be shown in the analysis of Belgium’s goal).
Goal – Wales 0-1 Belgium – Nainggolan, 13′.
The analysis of Belgium’s goal will start here – with the clip of Belgium’s defensive shape shown previously. The positioning of Carrasco and the compactness of Witsel and Nainggollan invites the ball-carrier, Joe Allen, to attempt a switch of play to Aaron Ramsey in the left halfspace, but the pass is inaccurate and is intercepted.
I have spoken already about the Belgian desire to release Carrasco on the right wing in quick transitions and Belgium achieved this here.
Goal – Wales 1-1 Belgium – A. Williams, 30′.
Wales scored from a corner taken from their right-hand side, taken by Aaron Ramsey. It was a second consecutive corner, the first of which went short to Bale, who was tackled. In the centre of the box, Wales had four players lined up as shown below, with Belgium man-marking to create a 4v4.
Meunier was tasked with marking Ashley Williams, however he rushes forward and leaves Williams free to score with his header. It is possible that the first corner was used to make Meunier do this – maybe Williams went near post for it as a dummy run – but I could not get footage of the box for that corner. What is good from Williams is that he heads the ball hard and low into the ground, making it harder for De Bruyne to try and block.
Half Time – 1-1.
With the scores level at the break, it was safe to say that Wales went in at half time as the happier side. In the 15 minutes after Belgium’s goal, Wales had 64% possession. It was vital to score when they did in order to capitalise on this dominance.
Belgium made a substitution at half time, with Marouane Fellaini replacing Carrasco. Fellaini came into central midfield alongside Witsel, with Nainggollan moving into the “number 10” position and De Bruyne playing on the right of the attack.
Belgium used this change to try and get Hazard and De Bruyne working more effectively in opposite halfspace and to allow Meunier to advance further forward from right back. The photo below shows Hazard dropping to receive off J. Lukaku after starting high to bring Chester in with him as the ballside CB. Nainggolan moves into the space vacated by Hazard/Chester to pull Allen away so that Hazard can turn inside.
With R. Lukaku farside and slightly deep, he was able to move into the centre to receive a through ball from Hazard, who is of course very comfortable receiving the ball with pressure from behind.
De Bruyne’s run would drag Taylor inwards as the farside wingback, providing space for Meunier wide right.
Off the ball, Fellaini was used as an aggressive marker of Bale and Ramsey, depending on who was ballside. He received a yellow card for a tackle on Bale which prevented a Wales counter attack. Bale had a couple of promising runs into space in the first half after turnovers of the ball, so it made sense for Belgium to counter this. He was also useful in the air for long goal kicks from Hennessey. Fellaini also took up the job of marking Ashley Williams on corners after Meunier’s mistake for the goal.
Wales swapped Bale and Ramsey over, so Ramsey was now the left sided attacking midfielder with Bale on the right.
Goal – Wales 2-1 Belgium – Robson-Kanu, 55′.
Wales’ second goal originated from a Belgian throw-in. Meunier took it and threw it long to R. Lukaku who tried to flick it on to De Bruyne, which was a poor decision considering that Wales had three centre backs ready to win the second ball, which they did with Chester (shown).
Belgium had overloaded ballside for the throw-in, so the distance was too far for Hazard to move left and pressure Gunter as he received the ball. Bale dropped from the right-sided attacking midfield role to receive a short pass from Gunter. He received with no pressure on the ball due to the absence of Hazard and the failure of Witsel to press (shown).
You can see here how as soon as Bale receives the ball, Ramsey sees the chance of a direct ball in-behind. The decision to swap Bale and Ramsey over had the chance to work almost instantly.
Robson-Kanu makes an excellent dummy movement that sidetracks Aldeweireld and buys Ramsey some space in-behind Denayer (who is also flat-footed and late to react to the possibility of a ball over the top).
The direct ball from Bale is fantastic, as is Ramsey’s control. Both centre backs follow Ramsey, leaving Robson-Kanu 1v1 in the box on his first touch.
Denayer and Fellaini recover but Robson-Kanu beats all three defenders with a single Cruyff turn before slotting the ball past Courtois. Just YouTube it. Words will never do it justice.
As the pressure built, Wales appeared to temporarily change to a 1-5-3-2 when defending in their own half, with Ramsey dropping and Bale defending in-line or just behind Robson-Kanu (shape shown below). This change made sense – Belgium were continuously building down their left in order to either switch the ball to the right or allow Hazard to dribble infield – it allowed Bale to stay higher for a bit and having a middle three instead of a two meant that the midfield line would find it easier to cover laterally.
Wales then appeared to change back to a box midfield with Bale as the left-sided attacking midfielder and Ramsey on the right – as they’d started the game. Fellaini was playing as the right-sided centre midfielder for Belgium and Bale was able to match him phyiscally. Bale could pin Fellaini and win fouls off of him (he’d already been booked) to relieve pressure as Belgium relentlessly attacked down that side.
Wales made their first substitution after 78 minutes, with Andy King replacing Joe Ledley in a like-for-like swap. King added fresh legs in place of Ledley, who was still recovering remarkably from a broken leg suffered just before the tournament. King’s energy helped him track Nainggolan effectively, becoming an auxilliary centre back at times as Nainggolan made runs into the box.
The second Welsh substitution came after 80 minutes, with a swap of strikers as Robson-Kanu was replaced by Sam Vokes, a target man capable of battling aerially and holding the ball up well.
After falling behind, De Bruyne and Hazard began to swap wings more often. When De Bruyne was over in the left halfspace, R. Lukaku positioned himself opposite him (around Ben Davies) so that he was a crossing option for De Bruyne to cut inside and try to look for. Meunier would hug the right touchline in order to provide space for Hazard to start wide and make inward runs. The fluidity of De Bruyne and Hazard also made it harder to track them off the ball.
As time wore on, R. Lukaku moved central for crossing opportunities so that Fellaini could be the target of crosses with late runs to the back post, targeting Chester or Davies and avoiding Williams. He had a couple of great chances to equalise from such situations – one excellently defended by Ben Davies.
After 75 minutes, Belgium gambled by replacing J. Lukaku with Dries Mertens, who came on at left back. Below is an example of Belgium’s attacking shape after this change. Mertens is inverted to help overload the left halfspace in front of the Welsh midfield line as Belgium build-up, with Hazard high in-front of him. R. Lukaku is off-screen and high – forcing the Welsh back line deeper with Hazard. This creates a great deal of space between Wales’ midfield and defensive lines for De Bruyne to move into. Mertens was also used to make dummy runs forward to occupy Gunter and Chester while Hazard dropped back in his place to receive the ball with space to dribble into.
Soon after, Belgium changed to more of a 1-4-4-2 with a box midfield and R. Lukaku and Fellaini up front. De Bruyne was at the right tip of the box with Hazard on the left – again operating in opposite halfspace to each other, while the fullbacks provided the width. This became a 1-4-2-3-1 off the ball, with Fellaini behind R. Lukaku. After 83 minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced R. Lukaku in a like-for-like switch.
Goal – Wales 3-1 Belgium – Vokes, 85′.
Wales’ third goal was simple, but executed brilliantly. Belgium had been ramping up the pressure before Ramsey won a free kick to eat up precious seconds and give Wales some respite. The narrowness of Belgium’s formation allowed A. Williams to play the free kick freely out to Chester at RCB, who could quickly play a ball out to Chris Gunter, who was beyond the inverted Dries Mertens gambling as an an attacking fullback (shown).
From there, it was all about a wonderful cross from Gunter and a brilliant header to the far corner from Vokes, who gets in front of Alderweireld to win the aerial battle.
As the clock ticked over to 90, Wales responded to the flood of Belgian bodies advancing forward by replacing Ramsey with a fourth centre back in James Collins and adopting a 1-6-2-2 shape for the remainder of the match.
Belgium were the favourites to win the tournament and had a squad littered with superstars. They threw an awful lot at Wales, but the latter stood strong under pressure and capitalised on key moments to secure their greatest ever win. The tactical effort put in by both managers has never been fully discussed and appreciated, the game is always portrayed as nothing more than a plucky David vs Goliath story.
It was much more than that. On the 1st July 2016, Wales were the best team in the world.
Thanks for reading/diolch am ddarllen.