Belgium grabbed a late winner against Sweden to secure their berth in the Round of 16 in the European Championship, but it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk through the group stage. Their shocking loss to Italy left head coach Marc Wilmots open to many questions about what his team should be doing.
Then a single change unlocked everything.
Kevin De Bruyne is one of the most gifted attacking midfielders of his generation. He’s the key to Belgium finding both balance and guile once it starts going forward. Wilmots moved him centrally against Ireland and that was all Belgium needed to wake up. For the Red Devils’ golden generation to fulfill their potential, they must go through De Bruyne.
For all the talk of Belgium being a favorite in the European Championship, the team is slightly disjointed. They’re missing their captain, Vincent Kompany, and have no truly great, natural fullbacks. Wilmots favored Radja Nainggolan over Mousa Dembélé in midfield against Italy, a questionable decision at best. De Bruyne was pushed out to the right to allow for Marouane Fellaini in the middle. Needless to say, it didn’t work. De Bruyne is crafty enough to try and create on the wing, but he’s most comfortable in central areas, where he can have enough space to take on defenders and have the passing range to pick the back line’s pocket. Fellaini has basically none of those skills. Wilmots paid dearly for the error.
Belgium thrashed Ireland next, and it mostly had to do with getting De Bruyne in behind Romelu Lukaku. He now had the ability to receive the ball in space and dribble on the counter, lay off for natural wide players Eden Hazard and Yannick Carrasco, or thread to Lukaku. De Bruyne was rewarded with an assist for his efforts.
Little changed against Sweden. Granted, Zlatan Ibrahimović and the 10 other guys weren’t going to put up too much of a fight, but once again De Bruyne was the best player on the pitch by a mile. He even headed a shot off the goal line! (Since Ireland beat Italy, a Swedish goal and victory would have eliminated Belgium from the tournament.) Between the final two group games, De Bruyne created 13 chances.
There’s no question that Belgium is spoiled for talent at the Euros. Dembélé’s injury is worrisome, but Nainggolan is a perfectly acceptable replacement to sit in front of the back line and get stuck in. They don’t have any fullbacks, but Jan Vertonghen is technically gifted all the same. The attack is maybe the most complete attack in the tournament outside of France, Spain or England. What the group stage made abundantly clear, however, is that Belgium lives or dies by Kevin De Bruyne. He is now their talisman, and he has the potential to put this team on his back all the way to the final.