World Cup: Five things we learned from Group H
1. Belgium know how to keep the ball
Belgium had 67% possession compared to Algeria’s 33%. Before you start to applaud their efforts, just consider this fact - the majority of it was in their own half and ineffectual.
The young team was slow in their play, even after conceding. Algeria couldn't believe their luck. All 11 players, including their striker, dropped deep into their half and invited Belgium to have a go.
For the ensuing half hour Belgium had no creative ability in the final third and they struggled to get balls into Rais M‘Bohli’s box.
Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen contributed nothing to the attempts to break down the congested Algerian defence and star players like Eden Hazard were unusually quiet.
This finally changed when Marc Wilmots subbed on Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens.
Fellaini formed a crucial link between Axel Witsel and the attackers, while Mertens provided width and allowed Kevin De Bruyne to come into a No 10 role, where he looked much more comfortable, contributing to dangerous attacks and bringing Hazard into the game.
For Belgium to avoid another slow start in their subsequent matches, it is crucial these two start.
2. Algeria are direct but lack a solid core
Algeria showed they have ability and led the Belgians for the majority of their encounter. The Fennec Foxes were direct with their play and fast in transition with great pace up front. Where they lack power is deep in midfield, with the core of the team not being able to keep the ball long enough to dictate the tempo of the game. Algeria will need to employ a more balanced style of play, especially against the likes of South Korea.
3. Korea Republic are a changed team
Korea Republic have had a horrid run leading to this year’s finals. They lost more games than they won heading into the tournament, including a friendly with Ghana where they were easily swept aside 4-0. That’s why it was so surprising to see the Koreans grow strongly into their first game against Russia and end the first half well on top.
They continued this form deep into the second half in the lead up to their goal. They were strong in defence and held the ball especially well.
The key for the Koreans, which most teams find extremely difficult, is that they knew when to break into attack quickly and went to hold the ball and slow things down. If they can keep this balance, they will be formidable opponents for Algeria and Belgium.
4. Russia need Dzagoev
Russia were overrun by the intensity and skill of the Koreans in the first half. They were able to keep possession well in their own half but they lacked the nexus between their defensive and attacking units. There was no creative presence up front and they struggled to get any balls into Aleksandr Kokorin. Once Alan Dzagoev made an entrance there was a definite shift in the balance. Russia were quicker in transition and could hold the ball in the opposition third. This eventually led to the equaliser they sorely needed. If Russia want to score against Belgium and Algeria, who defend very well, they will need Alan Dzagoev on the field from the start.
5. Group H - the tightest group in the tournament?
The last thing that we learnt from the opening matches of Group H is the realisation that this might well be the tightest group in a close tournament. With a draw and a win (only with a margin of one goal) any one of the four teams can still advance, and a lot relies on the second round of matches which will be extremely interesting.