The last time RSC Anderlecht appeared in the Champions League in 2014-15, they were a disharmonious collective of talented individuals who lacked the mental toughness, cohesion and game-management to fulfil their potential. Losing late goals away to Galatasaray and at home to Arsenal ensured that glass ceiling of the Europa League was once again the Mauves’ destination when progression beyond the Group Stages was a real possibility. However, given a group of Arsenal, Dortmund and Galatasaray, third really wasn’t a disaster.
A toxic dressing-room containing characters such as Anthony Vanden Borre, Steven Defour, Alexander Mitrovic and Silvio Proto – all big personalities – showed large fissures, and was being loosely bound by emerging talent such as Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Leander Dendoncker and Chancel Mbemba. Besnik Hasi, since of Legia Warsaw and, now, Olympiakos, had found himself parachuted into the position of Head Coach following unlikely success during the previous season’s playoffs after the departure of John van den Brom. Hasi guided the team to seven wins from ten matches as Standard Liege blew a massive lead to earn the job permanently.
The RSC Anderlecht of today is everything that the team of 2014 wasn’t. Unlike Hasi, Rene Weiler has a plan. The Swiss Head Coach, recruited from FC Nürnberg in 2016, sets the team up in a very defined 4-1-2-3 or 4-2-3-1, depending on the opponent and players fit into this system and not the other way round. Although Weiler experienced a slow start at Anderlecht, he persisted with his team’s short-passing build up and reliance on crossing from wingers and overlapping full backs until it started to work. The team became far greater than the sum of its parts and an equilibrium had been reached, ensuring Anderlecht became Belgian Champions for the 34th time in 2017.
As the transfer window approaches, Anderlecht will be hoping that they can hold on to their most valuable first team assets in Dendoncker, Kara and Spajic. Last year’s top goalscorer in Belgium, Lukasz Teodorczyk, is currently enduring an horrendous run of form. The tall centre-forward scored 30 goals in total last year, but only 6 since January. He is physically imposing but lacking in confidence and Anderlecht desperately need him at his best to have any chance of even reaching the Europa League.
Capacity crowds (around 21500) will cram into Stade Constant Vanden Stock for these fixtures in hope more than expectation: the days of the late seventies and early eighties when Anderlecht won the Cup Winners Cup twice and the UEFA Cup once are long gone in these days of teams being measured as a function of their country’s TV deal.
The departure of Youri Tielemans to Monaco leaves a gaping hole in the Anderlecht midfield. Tielemans contributed 18 goals from central midfield last season and was the team’s main creative outlet; he was the one midfielder who could destabilise defences and conjure a decisive pass or goal from nothing. Weiler has already tried Hanni and Trebel in Tielemans’ “roaming playmaker” position but neither looks able of filling his boots.
Tielemans left with the good grace of the Anderlecht faithful: he had earned his move having given the club four good years. However, those expecting another home-grown player from the club’s Neerpede Academy as his replacement probably didn’t envisage that it would be 29-year old Sven Kums. The wonderfully named midfielder spent ten years as a youth team player at Anderlecht and was loaned to Lierse and Kortrijk before finally being sold. His journey back to Brussels has gone via Kortrijk (who signed Kums permanently after his loan), Heerenveen, Zulte Waregem, KAA Gent (where he was voted Best Player in Belgium two years ago) and Watford (who immediately loaned him to Udinese, that well-trodden Pozzo passage) where he never played a game.
Kums is a tidy player but his arrival has slowed down the midfield and his tendency to take up the same positions as Dendoncker has left Weiler looking through his squad to solve this dilemma. Unfortunately for Weiler, an increasing number of Anderlecht youth players are being developed by the club but then leaving before they turn 18, meaning Anderlecht cannot keep them. In the past few years, the Neerpede Academy has developed talent such as Adnan Januzaj, Charly Musonda, Ismail Azzaoui, Orel Mangala and now Mile Svilar only for them to be poached with negligible compensation by richer clubs looking to add to their ‘home grown’ contingent. While some of these names are not yet ‘household’, they almost certainly will be. This has increased the need for the club to ensure they buy enough Belgian players, making Kums all the more attractive a proposition.
Profile of Anderlecht’s Current Squad
Since the departure of Silvio Proto a little over a year ago, the goalkeeping position has yet to have an established and top-class replacement. It was thought that Davy Roef, who had played deputy to Proto for a few years, would now be given his chance to shine but his form at the start of the season was poor, meaning that Franck ‘The Tank’ Boeckx, signed the year before on a free as a 3rd keeper, was suddenly Number 1. In a bizarre move, Roef was loaned to Deportivo La Coruna and Anderlecht loaned Ruben Gonzalez from the same team. Boeckx would play league games and Ruben the cups.
The expected emergence of hugely rated 17-year old Mile Svilar meant that Anderlecht only really wanted another experienced keeper in for a year until Svilar was ready, explaining the loan of Newcastle’s Mats Sels. The former Gent keeper has looked short on confidence though and many fans remain unconvinced. However, with Boeckx perhaps lacking the level required for the Champions League (not to mention recovering from a summer operation), Roef having been shipped off on loan to Waasland Beveren and Svilar shafting the club by joining Benfica, Sels will be Anderlecht’s ‘keeper this season. Hopefully he can recover the level achieved at KAA Gent, although I’m still not convinced he’s even as good as an ageing Proto. Time will tell.
The centre of Anderlecht’s defence will undoubtedly be Kara and Spajic, who developed an excellent partnership in the second half of last season, provided Kara’s head isn’t turned again by thoughts of the money available in the Premier League. Veteran club legend Oli Deschacht will provide cover here, and at left back, although as time catches up with him, his legs are going, and another centre back is seen as a priority in the transfer market.
The left back position will be filled by Ivan Obradovic; an excellent outlet going forward and sorely missed during a long injury layoff last season. He will be heavily involved in much of Anderlecht’s build up play and has the pace to cope with the likes of Robben or Di Maria, even if he can be a little gung-ho positionally at times. The biggest concern defensively is on the other flank. Andy Najar has been at Anderlecht for four full seasons, mostly playing right wing, but has had horrendous luck with injuries. In the second half of last season, he was deployed as a full back and, similarly to Obradovic, is excellent on the ball. However, at the business end of the season he acquired yet another injury, excluding him from the League Playoffs and the latter stages of the Europa League. As popular as Najar is, most fans know that he cannot be relied upon to be fit, which brings us to Dennis Appiah.
Appiah is an earnest player with pace to burn but is frequently bullied and exploited by opposition. His distribution and tackling need work and he has yet to convince Weiler, as indicated by the fact that just last weekend, Alexander Chipciu (a winger) was selected at right back ahead of him. Chipciu is sometimes said to be Weiler’s pet (Chouchou Chipciu) but his inexperience in the position was painfully illustrated by Sint Truiden, leaving fans to wonder what Ribery or Neymar might do to him. In Chipciu’s defence, he has never been a right back and so can’t be expected to simply slot in seamlessly.
Three years ago, Anderlecht had Gillet, Vanden Borre, Maxime Colin and Marcin Wasilewski as options at right back – I’m sure Weiler would gratefully take any of them now (except maybe Vanden Borre, last seen riding through DR Congo like King Baudouin).
The midfield conundrum alluded to earlier depends on whether Weiler deploys Kums as a Regista, with Dendoncker pushing on in a more box-to-box role, or Dendoncker plays his familiar “Makelélé” holding role with Kums in a more advanced position, or a more cautious double pivot. In any case, both are highly likely to play. Dendoncker, like Tielemans, has been heavily linked with moves to wealthier leagues but it seems he will give Anderlecht one more year, which he probably needs for his own development. While parallels are frequently drawn between Dendoncker and Tielemans, mostly due to their emergence at the same club around the same time, Dendoncker is technically far more limited than Tielemans and is not a match-winner in the same mould. He does, however, possess a ferocious shot, is far tougher defensively and remains a key player.
The third central midfielder is likely to be one from captain Sofiane Hanni (who also features on the left as required), Adrian Trebel – perhaps the most defensive option – or Nicolae Stanciu. Stanciu is Anderlecht’s record signing at 7.8 million euros, plus add-ons, but he has been frustratingly poor and his role has been increasingly peripheral.
Stanciu is without doubt a hugely gifted player with the capacity to split a defence but his output for Anderlecht has been, at best, erratic. With a style of play similar to someone like Coutinho, he could play wide or as a number 10 but his defensive work is comparable to Özil and Weiler seems unprepared to accept this.
The candidates for the left wing position are the aforementioned Hanni and Henry Onyekuru, on loan from Everton. Hanni is technically competent and had the highest number of assists in Belgium last season. He frequently drifts inside from the left wing, which can be effective, although he lacks the physical attributes to burn a defender in the way that Henry Onyekuru can. For me, Hanni is a harder working but less gifted version of Stanciu. He will, however, always find a way into Weiler’s team and, based on his consistency and attitude last season, he deserves to play.
Twenty year-old Onyekuru is the wild card in Anderlecht’s attack this season and provided he avoids injury, continues to learn and is consistently selected, he will score and make a truckload of goals this season. He is the one genuinely pacy player still at Anderlecht, following ‘Flying’ Frank Acheampong’s loan move to China, meaning he simply has to play.
On the opposite flank, Alexander Chipciu and Massimo Bruno (former Anderlecht youth product being loaned back to the club from RB Leipzig for a second consecutive season) will probably compete for the starting position. Neither were particularly convincing last season, although Bruno’s ability to score goals in big matches cannot be lost on Weiler. Chipciu’s arrival, shortly after Stanciu’s, seemed like he was signed to keep the main man happy, but it didn’t work out that way, with the former being far more integral to Weiler’s plans than the more lauded Stanciu.
Anderlecht only ever play with one up front and, excluding sudden transfer activity, that’s likely to be Lukasz “Teo” Teodorczyk. Teo endeared himself to the fans with his no nonsense physicality, tireless running and his eye for goal. Capped 13 times by Poland as a centre forward in the era of Lewandowski, and only 26 years old, much will depend on his ability to find the net. However, his form is a huge concern to the club and he is playing like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Signed after his successful loan for just over 5 million euros from Dynamo Kiev, thanks to a pre-agreed clause, Teo’s was expected to be signed and then sold for over double this amount in the summer. However, since January he has the footballing equivalent of a surly drunken giraffe, cutting a frustrated figure as opposed to the intimidating totem Pole of a multi-faceted attack that he had been.
Teo is, however, Anderlecht’s best striker by quite a distance and Isaac Kiese Thelin, returning on loan from Toulouse, seems to have been brought back for his willingness to play second fiddle to Teo and is very much a team player.
How will Anderlecht fare this time?
Being realistic, it’s going to be an enormous shock if FC Bayern and Paris Saint Germain do not qualify from this group by some distance. Anderlecht’s best hope seems to be creditable performances against the two favourites and to ensure that they do not lose either match against Celtic. Anderlecht do have a habit of raising their game in Europe and exceeding expectations in terms of results but finishing third would constitute success for the club and its fans.
The key games are undoubtedly those against Celtic. Since Brendan Rodgers took over, the Parkhead club have improved beyond recognition, even if they were champions before. Last season’s Champions League games were too much, too soon and I’d expect Celtic to pick up points at home, perhaps against PSG and Anderlecht. Game Two of the group sees Celtic visit Brussels and Weiler has one month to iron out the glitches in Anderlecht’s recent performances. His hitherto preference for stability hopefully won’t exclude the team’s most creative players from the side, especially with the ticket prices appearing to start at 75€ for those without season tickets.
“Strength” and “Stability” were the soundbites used by the UK Conservative Party in their recent pyrrhic election victory: Weiler has a squad and a system that is capable of finishing third in this group, but only if their attack shows more of its ability, a little unpredictability and less of its stability.