After narrowly avoiding what would have been a deeply disappointing draw at home to Cyprus, Scotland’s UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying campaign led them to the home of the world’s number one ranked team, Belgium. The Red Devils were heading into this game having picked up maximum points in their first three Group I fixtures, conceding only once and scoring eight times.
Unfortunately for Scotland, this dominant start was to continue, as Belgium dismantled Steve Clarke’s men on their way to a 3-0 victory, which stretched their lead at the top of the group, as well as casting major doubt over Scotland’s chances of automatic qualification for the finals. This tactical analysis will highlight how Belgium were able to weave their way through an organised Scotland side and further analysis will also explain how Scotland’s defensive tactics restricted their ability to cause problems for the Belgium defence.
Roberto Martinez’s side set up in their familiar 3-4-3 formation and made two changes from the side that had defeated Kazakhstan three days earlier. One of the goal-scorers from that match, Timothy Castagne, was replaced at right wing-back by PSG’s Thomas Meunier, while Youri Tielemans replaced Dries Mertens in the starting eleven, allowing Kevin De Bruyne to take up a more advanced role on the right side of the front three. Thibaut Courtois started in goal with a back three made up of Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany, and Jan Vertonghen. Axel Witsel and Youri Tielemans were deployed in the middle of the midfield, while Thorgan Hazard and Thomas Meunier started in the wing-back positions. Romelu Lukaku led the line with skipper Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne operating either side of him.
Scotland made five changes to the starting team that had defeated Cyprus, perhaps the most notable of which was at left-back, where injured captain Andy Robertson was replaced by Kilmarnock’s Greg Taylor, in what was the young left-back’s first cap for his country. A change of shape from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 saw the inclusion of Scott McTominay in centre midfield, who had impressed after coming on in the previous game. He replaced John McGinn, while Johnny Russell came in for James Forrest at right midfield. Stuart Armstrong replaced Ryan Fraser, starting in an unfamiliar centre forward role with Oliver Burke, whose match-winning performance against Cyprus had earned him a start over Eamonn Brophy.
Scotland’s early success in the low block
Throughout the match, Belgium unsurprisingly controlled possession and managed to dictate the tempo, and Scotland seemed content in allowing this. As seen in the images above, Scotland were not intent on pressing the opposition, but instead were focussed on sitting deep and preventing players such as Hazard and De Bruyne from receiving the ball between the lines or in central areas.
The image above illustrates Scotland’s game plan. Belgium right-back Meunier is in possession and has few options to play forward, a situation caused by the compact Scotland block. Hazard, although operating between the lines, is unable to create passing lanes due to the positioning of McGregor and McLean, who are both preventing penetration through the middle of the pitch.
The image above is another example of Scotland’s compactness. It shows De Bruyne in possession having moved out from within the block to receive in a position where he can play forward. However, with eleven men behind the ball, Scotland are again successful in preventing Belgium from entering central spaces in front of the penalty box, instead, forcing them to switch play.
Belgium finding ways around the low block
With the central areas difficult to access, Belgium were able to use their width, as well as clever rotations to get into the final third. The first image above highlights centre-back Kompany in possession, and again shows the Scotland block making it difficult for Belgium to play through. Kompany plays into Witsel, a pass which is designed to narrow the Scotland shape, freeing up more space in the wide areas.
The second image highlights Tielemans, who has moved into and received the ball in the fullback area, which has been made more accessible by Burke, who was drawn to press Witsel. Concurrently, wing-back Thorgan Hazard is moved off the line into the half-space behind the Scotland midfield, while left centre-back Vertonghen is moving out to the touchline.
Tielemans’ position causes an issue for Russell, who is caught in two minds over whether to jump and press the ball, or to track the run of Vertonghen. The Scot decides to stay put and force Tielemans to play wide. However, Russell seems unaware of the problem caused by Thorgan Hazard, who by coming off the line has been able to pin the Scotland right-back, O’Donnell, preventing him from defending wide against Vertonghen. The third image then shows Vertonghen in enough space to receive and eventually cross, while Russell is attempting to track back and cover O’Donnell, who is forced to stay narrow due to the position of Thorgan Hazard.
Similarly, in the instance above, Kompany has the ball, and Tielemans moves wider to allow Vertonghen to move higher and wider. Meanwhile, Witsel’s position is occupying Burke and Armstrong meaning that neither of them can jump and press Kompany.
The second image shows the pass having been played out to Vertonghen, however, this time Russell is able to move across, preventing Vertonghen from playing forward to Thorgan Hazard, who has again moved inside to pin O’Donnell. Nevertheless, Witsel’s position drags Armstrong over to the Belgium left side, which opens up space for right centre-back Alderweireld to exploit the right half-space once the play has been switched.
This third image highlights Alderweireld’s opportunity to drive forward into the Scotland half and play wide to Meunier. De Bruyne is highlighted here and is performing a similar role to Thorgan Hazard on the other side of the pitch by pinning the Scotland left-back, Taylor, to allow space for Meunier to receive in the wide area.
The image above once again highlights the roles played by Tielemans and Thorgan Hazard to enable Belgium to play around the Scotland block. Kompany starts the play with a bounce pass into Witsel, whose position again is forcing Armstrong and Burke to stand off the Belgium centre-back. The positions of Hazard and De Bruyne, behind the Scotland midfield line, are also key in forcing McLean and McTominay to hold their positions and not get dragged towards Witsel and Tielemans.
The initial bounce pass narrows the Scotland strikers, which creates space for Tielemans to move into, allowing Vertonghen to advance high and wide, while Thorgan Hazard moves inside between the lines. Tielemans can receive in a position to play forward and does so effectively. Russell seems to be expecting the pass out wide to Vertonghen, while McTominay is slow to slide over, creating space for Tielemans to break the line. Thorgan Hazard’s position means that his brother Eden has space to receive and turn, eventually winning a free-kick deep in the Scotland half.
Belgium’s crossing issues
Despite their effectiveness in entering the wide areas and playing around the Scotland block, Belgium encountered difficulties when crossing from wide areas due to organisation of the Scotland backline and midfield.
The example above shows Vertonghen crossing from the touchline, which in itself is not ideal, with Belgium usually looking to penetrate the sides of the box to create cut-back opportunities. Thorgan Hazard’s movement inside actually allows right-back O’Donnell to take up a good position to defend the cross, which in turn means that Mulgrew can stay more central than he would have done if O’Donnell was to press Vertonghen. Vertonghen’s cross, despite beating the first man, is easily cleared by Mulgrew and Belgium are forced to rebuild the attack.
Here, a similar situation is seen, this time with Thorgan Hazard in possession on the Belgian left side. On this occasion, the Borussia Dortmund man is pressed by Russell and McTominay, however, he is still able to get a cross into the box. Despite this, as the image highlights, Scotland’s back four are once again well positioned and Mulgrew can attack the cross and clear the danger.
The same issues were apparent on the other side of play, on this occasion with right wing-back Meunier. Similar to Russell on the right, left midfielder McGregor can recover to a position which prevents Meunier from entering the sides of the penalty box, while the position of left-back Taylor means that De Bruyne is unable to make a penetrating run into the area. Meunier is forced to cross from deep, which like those from the left, lacks quality and is unable to beat the first Scotland centre-back.
This image paints an almost identical picture to the one described above, and once again Scotland centre-back McKenna can clear the cross. In addition to this, McLean and McTominay are well-positioned to prevent passes into the feet of Hazard and De Bruyne, which results in Meunier forcing a cross from an unfavourable position.
Issues in transition for Scotland
Despite the success of Scotland’s low block in the early stages, it did cause some issues for them when transitioning to attack, which continually led to them conceding possession straight after winning the ball. This allowed Belgium to maintain control, as well as opening up spaces in the Scotland shape for them to exploit upon winning possession.
The images above provide an example of the difficulties Scotland faced after winning possession on the edge of their penalty area. In this instance, left-back Taylor has regained possession and as a result of Scotland’s low block, there are few forward passing options for him to find.
Passing lanes to Russell and McGregor are immediately blocked by the Belgium counter-press, while central players McLean and McTominay are positioned deep, meaning that if they were to receive the ball, they would immediately be pressed by the Belgian forwards. This lack of options causes Taylor to send an aerial pass up towards Burke who, as seen in the second image, is able to knock the ball on, but with no runners ahead of the Scotland forward, possession is once again handed back to Belgium.
The above example shows Scotland central midfielder McTominay having regained possession on the edge of the Scotland penalty box. Similar to the example shown above, McTominay has few passing options ahead of the ball. Russell is the player furthest forward for Scotland, but a pass to him is not possible given the pressing position of Tielemans. In addition to this, Fraser is facing his own goal, meaning that if passed to, he would not be in a good position to play forward. It should also be highlighted that with Belgium’s effective counterpressing, in this case through Tielemans and De Bruyne, also means that McTominay has very little time to get his head up and play a pass before being pressed by two players.
The second image shows that having been unable to play a forward pass, McTominay must attempt to dribble away from the pressure, which allows Tielemans to force him wide. In addition to this, Russell and Burke have both made movements away from the ball, while Fraser is now marked by two Belgium players, making it even more difficult for McTominay to play forward.
The third image then shows McTominay, having been forced wide and counter-pressed by two Belgium players, losing possession and allowing Belgium to counterattack from the middle of the Scotland half.
This next example above, again shows McTominay having recovered possession on the edge of the Scotland penalty area, and once more, with his three fellow midfielders behind him, the Manchester United man opts to dribble out of pressure. Immediately, Lukaku applies pressure from behind and Witsel and Meunier are recovering to McTominay’s left.
The second image once again highlights the effectiveness of the Belgium counter-press. Witsel, Tielemans, and Meunier have been able to surround McTominay, causing him to lose control and hand possession back to Belgium.
This example of Scotland’s inability to build possession was perhaps the most damaging, leading to Belgium’s third goal. Here, Taylor has won possession in the left-back position and looks to play a quick forward pass to McGregor to start the Scotland attack. However, the second image highlights again, that Scotland’s block has prevented players from receiving behind the Belgium midfield, allowing them to counter-press and apply immediate pressure to the player in possession. In this instance, McGregor is pressed by Hazard and Witsel, who between them can turn possession over and play forward, eventually leading to a Belgium goal.
Belgium’s structure in possession
As mentioned above, Scotland’s low block enabled them to restrict Belgium to the wide areas, however, as the game developed, Belgium’s structure and movement off the ball enabled them to enter the areas of the final third where they could create more clear-cut chances.
In this example, Kompany is able to find Hazard between the lines, which is helped by the positions of both Witsel and Tielemans. With both players operating behind the Scotland forwards, this causes both McTominay and McLean to put themselves in a position that prevents both players from playing forward should they receive the ball. In addition to this, Russell and McGregor are unable to narrow due to the positions of both the right and left side central defenders, as well as the Belgium wing-backs.
These images above show the moments after the penetrating pass from Kompany, where the positions of Hazard and De Bruyne allow Belgium to exploit the central area of the final third. De Bruyne’s clever run across the face of McKenna into the space behind Mulgrew unbalances the central defenders and allows Hazard to slip a pass through to the Man City player, who should have put Belgium 1-0 up.
This image shows Burke pressing Kompany, which causes an issue for Scotland as there is now space for Belgium to start the attack on the left side in front of the Scotland midfield. Witsel bounces a pass back into the path of Kompany who is now able to step forward with the ball under no pressure.
The second image shows De Bruyne operating in the space behind the midfield where Kompany is able to find him with a pass between Russell and McTominay. The latter is in a difficult position which sees him unable to press Kompany due to the threat behind him, however, if he does not engage then Kompany can advance into the Scotland half.
Finally, this example of Belgium’s ability to penetrate leads to their second goal, where once again Kompany is able to carry the ball forward and break two lines finding Hazard and De Bruyne behind the Scotland midfield. Once more, the positions of both Witsel and Tielemans are causing the Scotland strikers to split and block the passing lanes, while McLean and McTominay are ensuring they are unable to receive with time to turn.
Similar to the situation shown previously, De Bruyne and Hazard are operating behind the midfield line and Kompany can step forward with the ball and find Hazard who links expertly with De Bruyne.
Once into the feet of De Bruyne, Lukaku’s forward run causes the Scotland backline to retreat and enables the Belgium number 7 to drive to the edge of the box. A combination with Hazard leads to a shot at goal which is parried into the path of Lukaku, who is able to finish into the empty net.
Scotland unable to play through midfield
Scotland’s 4-4-2 shape restricted them in the build-up phase, and this was in part due to the Belgium press. The narrowness of the front three, coupled with the tight marking of Tielemans, prevented the Scotland central midfielders, McTominay and McLean, from picking up the ball in positions that would allow them to play forward.
Here, Mulgrew has possession at the edge of the penalty area, and while the press from Lukaku is not overly aggressive, the Belgian’s position makes it difficult for Mulgrew to play forward into midfield. The Scottish centre-back opts to play wide to O’Donnell, who is immediately pressed by Hazard, while McTominay, who has dropped to support O’Donnell, is tightly marked by Tielemans, leaving the Kilmarnock right-back with no option but to play long up towards Burke, who is unable to get on the end of the pass.
This theme continued in the second half, and the first of the two images above once again illustrates the narrow Belgium press, who are able this time to ‘trap’ the two Scotland central midfielders and prevent them from getting on the ball. Hazard’s body position means that the pass to O’Donnell is not on, meaning that Mulgrew’s only option is to play long up towards Burke and Russell. The second image shows that Belgium’s defence were more than comfortable dealing with these aerial balls, allowing them to regain possession and start the attack.
Scotland’s problems in the attacking half
As mentioned above, Scotland’s ability to build attacks from deep positions was hampered by their low block. However, when they were able to establish possession further up the pitch, a lack of forward support prevented them from playing into areas of the final third from which they could create chances.
The image above highlights this issue and shows Burke in possession on the Scotland left. Taylor has arrived to provide width while McGregor is offering support behind the ball. The issue, however, is the space highlighted in front of the Belgium back three, which shows no Scotland player threatening the defence or causing them any problems. This means upon turning, Burke has no forward passing options and opts to play wide to Taylor, who is immediately pressed by Meunier and forced to play backwards, halting the Scotland attack.
Here, similar to the example used previously, McGregor is in possession and is advancing into a position to play forward on the Scotland left side. However, the space in front of the Belgium back three is vacant and McGregor has no forward runners to play into. There is also no option to play into the channel, again due to the lack of length in the Scotland attack. McGregor was left with no option but to turn back and rebuild the attack, allowing Belgium to regroup and reorganise.
Scotland’s attacking issues during this game are summed up in the two images above. When they were able to enter attacking positions, there were few attackers to aim for, which resulted in crosses being dealt with easily by the Belgium defence.
Belgium entering cut-back positions
Belgium’s dominance was most apparent during the second half, where their ability to create in the wide areas caused Scotland major issues. Much of Belgium’s attacking success can be attributed to their ability to get into more effective crossing positions. They were able to do this through the movement of the forward players, whose positions and movement off the ball allowed them to pin the Scotland full-backs.
In this example, wing-back Meunier is providing width, while De Bruyne is tucked inside, occupying left-back Taylor. This creates space and time for Meunier who can receive the ball in a position to play forward. The second image shows the problem caused by De Bruyne’s position, with the Belgian forward now able to exploit the space vacated by Taylor, who has decided to press Meunier, and deliver a dangerous cut-back.
In this second example, Meunier is able to deliver a cross from a narrow position, from which Lukaku puts a header just over the crossbar. De Bruyne’s position should be referenced as he is once again causing Taylor to avoid pressing Meunier immediately after receiving the ball. Unlike the situation above, Taylor opts to stay with the run of De Bruyne, however as the second image shows, this allows Meunier to drive into the penalty area and cross.
This theme persisted throughout the second half and continued to cause Scotland problems. Here, substitute Mertens is pinning Taylor, once again allowing Meunier to drive to the touchline and deliver a dangerous low cross across the face of the goal.
In the end, Scotland will be relieved to have come away with only a 3-0 defeat, considering the dominance Belgium exerted throughout the game. Scotland’s problems in possession, similar to those against Cyprus, will have been a cause for concern heading into a crucial run of qualifiers towards the end of the year.