Losing sucks! Losing the way the Belgians did, after tearing through five straight wins at the World Cup, some against really excellent teams, before getting blanked 1-0 by France in the semis, really sucks. Getting used to winning via pace and pressure and a series of unorthodox tactical decisions completely flummoxing opponents, and then smashing up against a France side that suddenly allowed the Red Devils basically nothing in the way of chances, really really sucks. So I do not begrudge the Belgians their bitterness.
Bitterness like this:
“France heads a corner and does nothing more than defend,” goalkeeper Thibault Courtois was quoted as saying by Sporza. “I would have preferred to have lost in the quarter-finals to Brazil, at least that was a team that wanted to play football. [France] are just an anti-football team.”
The match was not exactly pretty for viewers, especially not in comparison to what we’d seen from both teams in previous matches. But what it was was an overwhelming tactical victory for France, who contrived to nullify Belgium’s attack while maintaining enough of their own to win. Belgium managed that feat at neither end.
At heart of the win was France’s compact, muscular defense that didn’t allow Belgium much room to breathe, and thanks to France’s conservative approach, was only very rarely tasked with stepping up against attackers with any head of steam. Belgium’s most valuable weapon in this World Cup has been its counterattack, deadly against Brazil and responsible for the tournament’s single best highlight, against Japan.
France’s answer was to avoid getting in a track meet with the Belgians that they might not win, and instead let their forwards hang back slightly. It had the effect of a stuffy, disjointed pace to the match, but France proved justified in sacrificing its own attack to head off Belgium’s counters. With France’s forwards playing safe, Belgium had almost no rushes with numbers.
Courtois hated it.
“It’s their right to play like that, because they know we’re having a difficult time dealing with it, but it is not nice to see,” Courtois is quoted as saying by Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. “This team was no better than us.”
The positioning of his Chelsea teammate, Olivier Giroud, particularly irked Courtois.
“Their striker plays 30 metres from his own goal,” he added to Belgian TV station Sporza.
(That last bit is not precisely true. If Giroud hadn’t airmailed a number of lovely set-ups, the match easily could’ve ended something like 3-0.)
“We didn’t lose to a team who are better than us,” Courtois said (he was really on one), “we lost to a team who play nothing, just defend.” And that’s not fair. France didn’t do nothing, they just accepted doing less in order to allow Belgium even less than that. (France got off 19 shots to Belgium’s nine.) Didier Deschamps utterly outstrategized Roberto Martinez, and Les Bleus’ young players were more capable of forcing Belgium to play France’s chosen game than the other way around.
Eden Hazard, thoroughly stymied on the pitch, is still claiming a moral victory, telling a Belgian paper, “I prefer to lose with this Belgium than win with this France.” I guess both sides got what they wanted, then.