De Bruyne or bust for Belgium vs FRANCE as Arsenal, Man City stars’ flaws as clear as Lukaku’s

Will Ford
Tedesco De Bruyne Trossard
Domenico Tedesco's Belgium looked short of ideas against Ukraine.

Watching Belgium feels a lot like watching England. A team made up of underperforming Premier League players – past and present – features a striker whose limitations stop them from pressing, a midfield that promises more than it delivers and is far too easy to play through if the oppositon have anything about them, and a questionable defence that has in fact been the most functional part of their team at Euro 2024.

Like England, they look like they don’t know what they’re supposed to doing. Domenico Tedesco’s baffled looks on the touchline as Amadou Onana, Kevin De Bruyne and Youri Tielemans all gave their two cents in the first half doesn’t suggest he’s the greatest of in-game managers, which is very familiar. And while Get The Ball To De Bruyne is an understandable ploy which worked against Romania, even someone of the Manchester City star’s extraordinary ability will on occasion need a teammate or two to help him win a game of football.

Romelu Lukaku, Jeremy Doku and Leandro Trossard are all more than capable of being those accomplices, but none of them managed to keep their distinct and obvious flaws at bay in the key moments for Belgium.

Doku was typically slippery and beat various Ukraine full-backs for pace, as he always does, but was snuffed out on at least three occasions having jinked inside and never thought of picking out Lukaku in the box on the multiple occasions he got to the byline, either firing it aimlessly across the six-yard box or a long way out of play. After the bursts of acceleration and pieces of skill to beat defenders, which Doku does with impressive regularity, he needs to take a beat, slow the heart rate and consider options, because he invariably takes the wrong one. He’s infuriating.

As was Trossard, whose daddy won’t be happy after his boy was replaced by Yannick Carrasco after an hour. The Arsenal forward returned to the starting lineup having been dropped for the win over Romania, after which his father insisted “Tedesco isn’t a good coach for Belgium” (we don’t disagree) as he kept moving Trossard “from one position to another”. He looks lost, and that’s on the coach but also on him. It’s significant that the confidence built up in a brilliant season under Mikel Arteta is so brittle and so easily extinguished. He may as well not have been playing.

Lukaku held off and bullied defenders to set up Carrasco for two decent chances and to make one for himself, but scuffed that shot and hit another timidly at the goalkeeper when played through by De Bruyne. 85 international goals is a ludicrous tally, but he’s always needed multiple chances to score, and inΒ thisΒ team, with just the last remnants of the Golden Generation, those chances aren’t as frequent.

They were fortunate in the end. Ukraine grew in the game as they’ve done through the group stage and Shaktar Donestsk’s next great export Georgiy Sudakov should have scored in injury time having surged through Belgium’s soft centre, having done more De Bruyne-like things than the man himself in the second half. Artem Dovbyk spurned two half chances he’s been gobbling up in La Liga. Koen Casteels was very nearly caught out at his near post from a wonderfully speculative effort from Ruslan Malinovsky direct from a corner.

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Ukraine needed to win to progress in the end and can feel very hard done by having been dumped out of the tournament on four points. Goal difference put paid to their Euro 2024 by virtue of Romania and Slovakia drawing 1-1 to ensure all four teams in Group E ended on the same number of points for the first time in European Championship history. As things stand five of the teams to have made the knockouts finished on the same number of points, it could be as many as seven, and at least two teams – Denmark and Slovenia – are through to the last 16 despite winning just three points. It will be very hard to take.

The silver lining, not so much for Ukraine but for those of us who had to endure Belgium, is that Tedesco’s side have been punished for their turgid performance and fortunate progression with a last 16 meeting with France, who we would also suggest deserve being put to the sword by a so-called Big Team after their less than inspiring performances in the group stage.

It looks as though it will have to be De Bruyne swinging the blade though, because the flaws of his teammates are making collaboration as difficult as their path through the competition.