Resolute Algeria must learn lessons
Algeria will feel dejected having been so close to executing the perfect game plan against Belgium. Their inability to tactically adapt to game-changing substitutions, however, cost them dearly in their 2-1 defeat. To borrow an old cliche, it was a match of two halves in Belo Horizonte, as second-half goals from Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens turned the match around and wrecked Algeria's hopes of an upset.
Their coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, elected to revert to a 4-3-3 formation he recently implemented in a friendly match against Romania in early June, and it seemed to work. For large spells of the match, Belgium looked perplexed as they struggled to break down rows of organised white shirts. They often put 11 men behind the ball, and their staggered lines looked impenetrable.
Indeed, the success of Halilhodzic's defensive system served as an important foundation for Algeria's counterattack. They benefitted from a quick move to release Faouzi Ghoulam just before the half-hour, and the Napoli full-back found a bursting Sofiane Feghouli, who caught Jan Vertonghen out and won a penalty. Such a tactic seemed to have the beating of Belgium, who had earned the curious moniker of "dark horses" prior to the tournament. The term, which suggests an unfancied team could surprise a few people and become successful, is an awkward one.
Ultimately, Belgium are packed full of Premier League talent, and there is nothing unknown about the likes of Eden Hazard, Fellaini or Mertens, among others. Algeria, though, showed no inferiority complex.
When Feghouli scored the penalty, it genuinely felt like Algeria could spring an upset on the Group H favourites. Their resolute defence stood firm, only conceding ambitious efforts from a distance. Opposition coach Marc Wilmots had expected such a dense and unwavering Algerian approach, which is why he opted to start with Mousa Dembele and Nacer Chadli, hoping their technique on the ball would unlock that Algerian defence.
"I wanted a team good on the ball so as to deprive Algeria's midfielders [Bentaleb] of any possession," he said in his post match news conference.
Ultimately, class told in the end. Having been out-thought tactically, Wilmots' frustration reached its apex, and on came the two game-changing substitutions, with Divock Origi and Fellaini entering the action. The switches signalled a change of philosophy. Technique and skill were exchanged for brute athleticism. It would prove to be a profitable transaction.
During the final 10 minutes of the match, Les Fennecs couldn't muster enough energy, drive or intelligence to threaten their Belgian counterparts, but they should be proud of this opening performance. Coach Halilhodzic had a good period of time to stop the match shifting in Belgium's favour with introductions of his own, and although Algeria left with no points, there is optimism for the future -- and lessons to be learned.
Ultimately, Halilhodzic did not react to the introduction of Origi and Fellaini, and that may have cost Algeria all three points. Notwithstanding, Feghouli and co can take solace in the fact that they pushed one of the World Cup favourites to the limit. This match will serve as an important confidence boost ahead of final two matches against South Korea and Russia.