Roberto Martinez surprised Brazil by using a system that he’s never used before and changed the positions of his key players. It took the five-time world champions an entire half to just figure out Belgium’s tactics and by the time they did, it was too late. Here’s how Martinez masterminded the win over Brazil and guided Belgium to its first-ever World Cup semifinal since 1986:
Throughout the tournament, Belgium have used a 3-4-3 formation. Against Brazil, he changed to a 4-3-3 system with a false nine. The consequent change in positions of their key players further gave Belgium a head-start — Romelu Lukaku was used as a right-sided forward instead of playing through the centre.
It’s a position he has played under Martinez at Everton and was highly successful. That meant Eden Hazard, who troubled Fernandinho the whole evening, had to play wide on the left and Kevin de Bruyne played in the centre. This extracted the best out of the front three.
Lukaku, the wide target man
De Bruyne would often receive the ball just outside Belgium’s area, turn his man and play it quickly to Lukaku on the right wing, sometimes without even bothering to look up. Lukaku, with his pace, would exploit the gaping hole on that wing as Marcelo, Brazil’s left wing-back who habitually ventures forward, was caught out of position. It’s a tactic from Martinez’s Everton days, when he employed Lukaku in a similar position. Lukaku was initially used in the centre but here, he started on the right and moved to the middle channels, drawing defenders with him. His pass that led to De Bruyne scoring Belgium’s second goal was world-class.
Quick on counters
The counter-attacks, in fact, was where Belgium’s system truly worked wonders. De Bruyne was left unmarked on multiple occasions during turnovers. With Hazard getting the better of Fagner on the left and Lukaku running rings around Marcelo on the right, this was a perfect scenario for Martinez. But there was a method to what Belgium did. Without possession, Belgium had a four-man defence with Thomas Meunier falling back on the right. When they would win the ball, Belgium would switch to a back three and Nacer Chadli and Meunier moved up to exploit the wide areas.
Lukaku, who would drag Marcelo inside with his runs, would create space for Meunier to make over-lapping runs on the right. That would leave the Brazilian left-back with a lot of tracking back to do. Eventually, that resulted in De Bruyne being left unmarked and scoring the second goal.
Belgium could’ve scored more, in fact, but failed to convert from promising goal-scoring opportunities.
Costa stretches defence
The only time Belgium looked in real danger was after Tite brought on Douglas Costa in place of Gabriel Jesus. Tite has favoured Jesus throughout the campaign, one of the rare decisions he has made that’s been criticised. But Costa gave Brazil the width which they lacked when Jesus was on field.
Costa dragged Belgium’s defence wide, which created space between the two central men. They took advantage of it, and also scored their only goal as Renato Augusto slipped between the central defenders and headed home.
Costa constantly snuck behind the defence from the right and created a lot of scoring opportunities for his teammates. Belgium were forced to switch to a five-man defence for the last 10 minutes (5-3-1-1), which eventually saw them through.