There are two different ways of playing football: proactively and reactively. Rarely have they seemed so discrete as at this Euros. Perhaps it's to do with the disparity of talent inherent in a 24-team tournament, but there have been hardly any games so far in which both sides have wanted the ball. Again and again, one team has sat off, allowed the opposition possession and waited to hit them on the break. It will happen again on Friday when Wales face Belgium in the second quarter-final.
Wales are a side set up to counter. It would be easy to disregard Chris Coleman – missing training at Real Sociedad after going to a student night and missing a flight to Macedonia FYR after forgetting your passport are difficult gaffes to place a positive spin upon – but he has shown his tactical acuity with Wales. In part, a lack of alternatives has made his job simpler, but for a manager who used a back three only once in his entire club career – the final game of the 2005-06 season, when Fulham beat Middlesbrough 1-0 – it was a bold and laudable move to adopt that system with Wales.
They sit deep, often with two spare men at the back if they're playing a side with a lone central striker. The midfield three then also drops off, Joe Ledley scurrying, Joe Allen rotating possession, and Aaron Ramsey always looking to launch a forward surge. There is, essentially, a platform of eight outfielders always looking to resist and then spring Gareth Bale forward, using Hal Robson-Kanu's runs to drag defenders out of position and create space.
Bale, explosively quick and prodigiously talented, is critical, the player who can transform Wales from plucky triers into a genuine threat. Of Wales's 11 goals in qualifying, he scored seven and set up two; at this tournament he has scored three as well as delivering the cross that led to Gareth McAuley's own goal in the game against Northern Ireland. "Bale is playing in a free role and is a bit everywhere: on the wing, and in the central attack," said Belgium coach Marc Wilmots this week. "But I will not put one marker on him, we will collectively deal with him."
The one real tactical doubt about Wales is that they need to play reactively. Their worst performances in qualifying came against Andorra and Cyprus. Having gleefully picked off a sluggish Russia team that was forced to attack them, they struggled at times against Northern Ireland, unused to being asked to break down a massed defence. Happily for them that's not going to be an issue against Belgium, nor in any possible games beyond. In qualifying, Belgium twice failed to break Wales down, in a 0-0 draw in Brussels and a 1-0 Wales win in Cardiff. Wilmots has perhaps learned from those games, but in both Belgium struggled badly for rhythm and threatened only intermittently.
Belgium have won their last three games, scoring eight goals without reply. The talk of mutiny that followed the 2-0 defeat to Italy has abated – for now, at least. In the 4-0 victory over Hungary there was even a good international performance from Eden Hazard. There were some signs in that game of an internal coherence and a balance that has been lacking from almost every previous Belgium performance under Wilmots. Could it be that he has finally found a line-up that gets the best out of his squad of supremely talented individuals?
Maybe. Certainly the Radja Nainggolan–Axel Witsel partnership at the back of midfield has looked as though it could be the right blend. That area is vitally important, because of the one glaring Belgian weakness: somehow, in this golden generation, there are no full-backs. Before the injuries to Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Lombaerts, Wilmots had planned to use the best central defensive partnership in the Premier League last season – that of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld – as his two full-backs. Circumstance has brought Alderweireld into the middle. There will be another change on Friday with Thomas Vermaelen suspended, but Belgium's full-backs remain remarkably unattacking.
In the first four games Vertonghen and Thomas Meunier – who is in the midst of completing his move from Club Brugge to Paris Saint-Germain and who replaced Laurent Ciman after one game – have between them completed three crosses. If they're not getting forward then the usual modern way of breaking the lines and varying the depth of attack is simply not there. That in turn places additional pressure on Nainggolan and Witsel to support the attack, but to do so in such a way that the centre of defence is not left exposed. There is a real danger, one that Italy exploited, of Belgium becoming a team broken between its front and back halves. If that happens again, there should be plenty of room for Bale to exploit.
Belgium have the better players but Wales look to have the more coherent structure. And while Belgium are clear favourites, this has been a tournament in which the team has tended to overcome the individual.