Hail Wales!

Marc Wilmots, a star of Belgium’s 1986 World Cup squad, failed to find a solution to counter Wales' threat and inject a sense of purpose in his team’s play. It was proved once again that being a manager has nothing to do with being a great player — managing is completely different.

Ashley Williams (left) celebrates after scoring the equaliser for Wales against Belgium in a quarterfinal match of the EURO 2016 at the Pierre Mauroy Stadium in Villeneuve d'Ascq, near Lille, France. Joining in the celebration is Gareth Bale.   -  AP

People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society.

Vince Lombardi, legendary American football coach

Belgium learnt it the hard way in its EURO quarterfinal clash against Wales. A team studded with a plethora of attacking talents lost to a small nation from the British Isles, which is making its first appearance in a major competition since the World Cup in 1958.

 

The defensive frailties of Marc Wilmots’ squad have already been well documented and a well-drilled Wales made the most of it. Skipper Ashley Williams was left completely unmarked, as he headed in the equaliser for Wales in the 31st minute. Radja Nainggolan, who had put Belgium ahead with a dipping strike from 30 yards out in the 13th minute, failed to stay with the Swansea centre-back.

Defenders are always a threat from set pieces, using their physicality and aerial prowess to disturb the opposition, and the Belgian players’ inability to mark the strongest header, Williams, in the box was a glaring mistake from a team ranked No. 2 in the FIFA charts.Marouane Fellaini was brought in the second half to address this problem.

Belgium, however, had started with gusto with skipper Eden Hazard pulling the strings in the midfield, combining with Kevin de Bruyne and Yannick Carrasco to cut open the rival defence. Wales’ three-man central defence was stretched wide and Belgium looked good to add more misery on its opponent. But strangely, Hazard and company took their foot of the pedal, with the midfield at least falling a good 25 yards back. I suspect the early goal did more harm than good for the Reds, with the team looking to defend its narrow lead rather than playing attacking football, which is its strength.

 

Hazard and Carrasco disappeared as Romelu Lukaku was left isolated in the front with Wales opting for a direct approach to raid the opposition defence. Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, experienced campaigners in the English Premier League, used the ball well, holding play to introduce their wide partners Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor into the game.

Chris Coleman, much like Italy’s Antonio Conte, has brought the 3-5-2 structure back in vogue again. The system expects a lot from the wider players on the flank — the wing-half when the team has the ball and the wing-back when it loses possession — and Coleman has found two tireless runners in Taylor and Gunter to do the job for him.

Hal Robson-Kanu, rightly getting a chance to partner Gareth Bale, used his physicality well to bring down and shield the long balls from the wide centre-backs, Chester and Davis. His doggedness was difficult to handle for an inexperienced Belgian defence, with an average age of just 23. The 27-year-old, currently unattached, will surely find his suitors after the end of the event.

Robson-Kanu capped his selfless display with a brilliant finish to put his team ahead in the 55th minute of the game. Jordan Lukaku was caught out of possession as Bales found Ramsey with space behind the defence. The Arsenal man’s chip from the left found Robson-Kanu in the middle and a ‘Cruyff Turn’ from him flummoxed three Belgium defenders, as he rasped his shot past an exposed Thibaut Courtois.

The Chelsea goalkeeper was rightly critical of Wilmots’ tactics at the end of the game. The manager, a star of Belgium’s 1986 World Cup squad, failed to find a solution to counter the threat and inject a sense of purpose in his team’s play. It was proved once again that being a manager has nothing to do with being a great player — managing is completely different.

Being a good player does help in your understanding of the game. But, while managing a team, understanding of the game is just a small part of the job. Conducting training sessions on the basis of your knowledge, reading other teams and their formation, thinking about 23 different players, their strengths and weakness and to bring them together, to mange big egos (in a team like Belgium) are equally, if not more, important. Wilmots, in my assessment, has failed in that task. Teams like Belgium come to a tournament to win and the manager has twice — 2014 World Cup quarterfinal versus Argentina and now — failed to find an answer for his team. There was no moment of inspiration in Lille, as he failed to make a tactical or a personnel change to alter the fortunes of the team.

The 2-1 deficit failed to ignite a fightback in the Belgian players, as they looked more and more desperate. Hazard was twice caught dribbling the ball from the left to the right without threatening Wales’ play. There was shift, shift, and more shift but no danger, as Wales was happy to allow its opponent to pass aimlessly in the middle third of the field.

Later tonight, Conte will be hoping to use his tactical acumen to stop the German juggernaut in Bordeaux. The encore will be tougher than his victory over Spain. The Italians had, tactically as well physically, dominated the Spaniards in their Round of 16 game. Germany, however, will not allow its opponent to physically dominate them. Joachim Loew will like to see his target-man, Mario Gomez, deep in the rival box, drawing in Bonucci, playing in the centre of the three-man Italian defence. One of Chiellini and Barzagli will have to drop in narrow to support their Juventus team-mate. The narrowing of the Italian defence will open up space for Julian Draxler (left) and Thomas Muller (right) to exploit, forcing the Italian wing-backs to sit deeper to offer protection to their defence.

The likes of Darmian and Mattia De Sciglio, otherwise, will add numbers to the Italian attack, which will be direct in nature. The centre-backs will try to release the ball early for Pelle and Eder to run behind the German defence.

This promises to be a battle of two different football philosophies, a final before the final, where two of world’s best teams clash to ascertain their superiority.