Belgium vs France: Slow squad replenishment has Red Devils running out of time
Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?
Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.
But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.
Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.
At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.
But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?
Red Devils awaiting replenishment
Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.
But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.
Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.
Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.
Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.
It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.
Young Lions setting the example
Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.
The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.
But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).
Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.
Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.
The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.
While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.
So, what of the next generation?
Belgium's next hopefuls
Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.
Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.
Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.
Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.
Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).
His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.
While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.
Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.
But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.
Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.
He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.
Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.
Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.
Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.
While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.