According to Marc Wilmots, his criticism of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku after the match against Italy was a bluff. The players were aware of his intent, as Wilmots claimed to have talked to them privately. Whatever the truth of the matter, the manager’s tactic seemed to have worked. Belgium burst out of the blocks against the Republic of Ireland, sustaining the pace to become only the second team of the finals to score three goals in a match.
De Bruyne was at the heart of everything good in the first half, as his carefully calculated through balls sliced through the Irish defense. He almost managed to put Yannick Carrasco through in the 24th minute with a beautifully precise chip, but the Atletico Madrid winger was offside when he scored. He finally earned the reward his play deserved early in the second half, when his tremendous run along the right wing directly contributed to Belgium’s, and Lukaku’s, first goal. Lukaku would go on to score a second as a result of a similar counterattack, assisted by Eden Hazard, twenty minutes later. The young striker’s performance seemed to be a return on his immense potential, following both a disappointing match against Italy and an underwhelming season with Everton.
Following an impressive 2013/14 season on Merseyside, where Lukaku scored 16 goals and led Everton to 5th place, the unwanted Chelsea striker decided to make his loan deal permanent. Despite another 45 goals in the intervening two seasons, Everton’s dismal form under previous manager Roberto Martinez meant that his achievements were tainted. Add in a growing, and slightly unfair, reputation for a lack of impact and composure in important games, and Lukaku’s stock has dropped dramatically. Despite only turning 23 last month, he is viewed as a senior player for both club and country, and as such is judged as one. Thus, his struggles at the highest level of the game, including his dismal performances at the 2014 World Cup, have been viewed as proof of his inability rather than growing pains.
The 2016 Euros has been viewed as his chance to set straight the record, as well as an audition for a move to a bigger club post-tournament. In this context, his opening salvo against Italy was a complete and utter shambles of a performance. Of course, this was not just because of him but rather an example of Belgium failing “technically and tactically,” as brutally analyzed by Thibaut Courtois. Just as Alvaro Morata fluffed his lines in Spain’s first match, Lukaku had failed to do justice to his talent against Italy. Consequently, his two-goal performance against Ireland, much like Morata’s against Turkey, seemed to be redemption of sorts. The critics seem to agree with this viewpoint, as Lukaku was named the Man of the Match by the famed statisticians at WhoScored. Conversely, his Irish counterpart, Shane Long, received the lowest rating of any player, seemingly indicating the gulf in class between the two teams.
On the surface, this difference was obvious. Aside from his rating, Lukaku was also dominant in almost every relevant statistic. He attempted 24 passes at a success rate of 88%, to the Irishman’s 17 at 53%. Long lost the ball seven times because of a poor touch, compared to Lukaku’s perfect control and zero losses. While both players won two aerial battles, Lukaku only competed in 6 compared to Long’s 8. Most importantly, Lukaku scored two goals from two shots to Long’s no goals and no shots. Technically, that does mean both strikers had a perfect conversion rate. In short, Lukaku was the star of the night, while Long was hooked for Robbie Keane as the Irish desperately looked for a goal.
The problem with this argument is the overreliance on statistics and the failure to understand the Irish tactical system. While Belgium had a star-studded front four that was constantly on the attack, aided by the marauding runs of the fullbacks and the irrepressible Axel Witsel, the Irish were determined to not just park the bus, but take the wheels off and burn them. Even Wes Hoolahan, depicted as playing off the striker in the pre-match illustrations, largely screened the midfield like an oddly advanced sweeper. On the few occasions he deigned to go forward, he usually drifted to the wings to provide an alternate pass for the beleaguered Irish backline, thereby leaving Long isolated. This is not to imply an Irish element of panic or desperation, but rather a perfectly executed tactical plan, at least in the first half.
Long’s movement and speed was an absolute nuisance to the Belgian backline. They were unable to control him with a simple two-on-one marking system, and as such were forced to curb their attacking instinct and their high offside line. On more than one occasion it was obvious the work Martin O’Neill had drilled into the Irish midfield, as their forward passes were almost always within touching distance of the Southampton front man. In turn, Long worked his socks off to provide those brief moments of respite that helped his defense get back into position. His match-high count of four fouls is testament to his tenacity and work rate in impeding the Belgian juggernaut. As an avid viewer of Manchester United in the post-Ferguson era, I can assure you that this seemingly simple act is incredibly difficult to execute with the regularity the Irish managed in the first half.
While Long was futilely annoying the Belgian defense, Lukaku was struggling to make an impact on the other side of the pitch. The Belgians were targeting the center and right as they pushed, whether through design or as a response to Stephan Ward’s initial brilliance, which meant that De Bruyne’s passes largely sought out either the striker or Carrasco. The winger was proving himself a menace as he combined with Meunier on the Irish left, but Lukaku was unable to force a break. This was due to both a personal sloppiness, as evidenced by three dispossessions during the match, and an Irish tactic of doubling up on him.
At the start of the second half, the Irish were reasonably happy and hoping to knick a goal. However, two moments of Belgian brilliance on the counterattack changed the dynamic of the match. As the Irish appealed for a penalty, de Bruyne surged past a sloppy tackle on the right, and set up Lukaku on the edge of the box. The Everton striker took a touch and rifled the ball into the goal’s bottom right corner, beyond Randolph’s despairing dive. Now trailing, the Irish were forced into a more aggressive form of play, thus creating the space that Witsel and Lukaku would be able to exploit later in the match.
Surprisingly, with more support, particularly from the sparkling Robbie Brady, Shane Long withdrew into his shell. Prepared for a counterattacking battle against Belgium, he was completely inadequate in a more dominant tactical system. A series of sloppy passes and bad positional awareness led to his substitution, despite the Irish need for goals. Meanwhile, Lukaku was slowly growing into the game, as the introduction of Dries Mertens created the rapid movement and options that Belgium were missing in the first half. While Long faded in the second half, it must be remembered that his first half performance was vital in keeping the Belgians at bay. Though Long lacked the quality to take advantage of the minimal chances that came his way, his work rate and application was a manager’s dream.
This is in direct contrast to the frustrating performance put in by the two-goal hero. While Lukaku’s quality eventually showed through, he was facing Ciaran Clark and John O’Shea. Rather than being the beacon of inspiration that his potential demands, he was a talented follower to the outstanding play of De Bruyne. Although this match is definitely cause for optimism, it must be tempered with the reality of his performance. If we fail to recognize Lukaku’s mistakes today, we only continue to build him up before breaking him down following an inevitably poor performance. Instead, we should see him for what he is; a young man who is continuing to impress at an incredibly regular rate, with a relative scoring record that is only contemporarily bettered by Neymar. We may live in a culture of immediacy due to our overwhelming access to information, but patience may be the best lens with which to view Lukaku. After all, if handled well, he could become a genuinely world-class striker in a few years.