After a horrid performance against Italy, Belgium rebounded in strong fashion with a 3-0 win over Ireland. The Red Devils looked much less than the sum of their parts in their opener, but they improved drastically in their second game because of a simple change. All coach Marc Wilmots did was play his best players in their preferred positions.
Against Italy, Wilmots started four of his players out of position. Center backs Laurent Ciman and Jan Vertonghen started at right back and left back, respectively, while Marouane Fellaini started ahead of Kevin De Bruyne as the playmaker. Meanwhile, De Bruyne was placed on the wing. Additionally, Axel Witsel and Radja Nainggolan were redundant in the middle. The result was not pretty — Ciman was in part responsible for the first goal Italy scored, while the Belgian attack looked stifled despite all of their big-name players.
While Wilmots left Vertonghen at left back against Ireland, he made other important fixes. Ciman was changed out for natural right back Thomas Meunier, Mousa Dembélé came in for Nainggolan, De Bruyne was moved to his preferred position behind the striker, and a natural winger, Yannick Carrasco, was put in his place as Fellaini was sent to the bench. The result was a comfortable win.
Meunier was easily one of the best players on the field for Belgium, doing his job in defense and in attack. Making five clearances, four interceptions, and winning all five of his duels, the right back contributed to a strong defensive performance by his team. In attack, he was just as effective, making runs up and down his flank. Meunier ended his dominant day with the assist on Witsel's goal.
Belgium's attack was poor against Italy, but with De Bruyne feeding striker Romelu Lukaku, the Irish defense was kept busy. The team in total managed 17 shots in total, with seven being on target. De Bruyne was Belgium's most important playmaker on the day, recording seven key passes.
Wilmots stopped overthinking his lineup choices in this game and just kept it simple. The obvious choices for his starting lineup brought out the best in this golden generation of Belgian talent, who were more than just individual talent against their opponents. Belgium may have already put themselves in a position to not win the group as previously expected, but before they play Sweden for their Group E finale, Wilmots has already figured out how to lead his team to success, especially important against an upcoming opponent that is desperate for a win. As long as Wilmots sticks to the same simple formula going into the Sweden match and beyond, Belgium will be just as difficult to beat as expected.
Who would have thought that allowing incredibly talented players to play in their natural positions would be such a good idea?