Royal Excel Mouscron v RSC Anderlecht, Jupiler Pro League
Stade Le Canonnier, Saturday 18th November
Provincial. Mouscron is provincial. If ever a word was weighed heavy with connotation, it’s provincial. The cafés were, provincial. The people looked, provincial. The shops, provincial. It’s a word that people from the ‘big smoke’ use to describe smaller towns and their inhabitants, with sneering superiority. Well, I like provincial. Provincial is not homogenised. Provincial is unique. Provincial is what prevents proper football leagues becoming like the MLS or, if UEFA or Sky get their own way, the Champions League. Provincial is Kilmarnock, Darlington, Eindhoven or Duisburg.
Mouscron, however, is very provincial. As I slalomed between the potholes, drunkards and banjoists, I found a parking space just visible through the smog of coal and chip-frying oil, not far from the Grand Place. The depression was tangible and the centre seemed like a giant electromagnet, attracting weeping iron clouds from afar. However, such environments are often fertile ground for passionate football fans.
The Hotel de Ville is a fine building and is completely surrounded by a moat of death to catch any stray child cyclists or elderly residents of unsteady footing. Instead of filling it with crocodiles however, the municipal minds have gone for the puddles, cabling and sand approach, coupled with the forlorn illusion of running water and electricity.
The glowing filament of a nearby bulb, incandescent, attracted me like a violet glow to a bug in a hotel kitchen, and I ended up in a bar that had that alluring musk of fresh Stella and damp dog, and parted with 1.80€ for my only drink of the day.
It took around 15 minutes to speedwalk through the perpetually condensing air towards the stadium. My print-at-home ticket in hand, getting soggier by the second, the turnstiles were negotiated with the dexterity of R2-D2. I then advanced to the humanoid at the other end, whose “patting down” was a tad too lingering and caring for my comfort: any less brusque and he’d have slipped me the finger.
The stadium has an organic feel to it and clearly is modernised (or not) when any moderate success comes to town. This hand-to-mouth existence is honest and is the model UEFA wants the little guys to adopt: prudent, cautious and remembering your place. Mouscron have flirted with European competitions in the past but their caste is very much in the lower echelons of the Pro League. Nevertheless, there is something trustworthy and community-centred about the feel of the place, which is exactly what a provincial club should be.
Dampness engulfing, I dashed for cover under the Main Stand and saw that the beer purchasing system was a card-charging caper; scourge of the groundhopper. Proceeding directly to the other end of the stand, past the club shop and various beer filling points (quite plentiful and frequent for a stadium of this size), I found a burger van. Scouring the graffitied menu for my delight, I decided upon the Braadworst. That was, until I saw them. If this sausage didn’t have cancer, it was surely carcinogenic. The hotplate wasn’t up high enough and a watery foam from the frozen meat was suffocating the sausage, poaching it until it looked like liquified liver cirrhosis. All things considered, I had a spongy burger instead. Yum.
The ‘kop’ behind the goals has a few toilets and a beer stand and the die-hards were dusting down their club flags from a recess therein. I figured, as the enemy in the midst and not wearing club colours, that anonymity would be maintained by hiding up near the back. The view is decent enough, and the nets through which I would view parts of the game were needed to shield Boeckx from assorted missiles in the second half.
The pre-match procedure was, well, provincial. The club mascots (there seemed to be two) looked like a couple of hardy souls who had cobbled together something from the dressing-up box: Mario and Luigi tributes evidently. Then there was the man introduced as “President of ze United States, Donal Tramp”. My squint and raised eyebrow were in overdrive, matched in intensity only by my confusion. The MCs were trying their best to get the fans involved, but the majority who had taken their places were apathetic towards the rallying cry: more “peace be with you” than “death to the infidels”.
Once the teams came out, the visiting fans were still not allowed to take their places. This has become a recurring theme in matches I’ve seen recently and, frankly, it’s a really poor show from the police. Fans pay a lot of money to follow their team and the least that the police could do, given the money brought in to the local economy, is to ensure that they are allowed in on time. Both PSG and Anderlecht have suffered this fate in the past few weeks thanks to this inconsiderate heavy-handedness.
When the match kicked-off, a couple of nice little red flares were set off to my right and the Megaphone Man and his barmy army of around 40 were in full song. The Mouscronnois are not huge singers, and the edginess I had expected was somewhat spherical. The atmosphere was, nevertheless, entertaining and family friendly but the majority of the noise came from the visiting fans (once they were allowed in).
In a match which was dominated possession-wise by Anderlecht, it was correct that they led 1-0 at half-time through a Massimo Bruno sclaff. Mouscron were resilient on the pitch however, and a deflected shot gave them a (perhaps) deserved equaliser early in the second half. Anderlecht’s amorphous setup and cautious passing meant that, for all their dominance, they didn’t look like scoring, a few Logan Bailly saves notwithstanding. When it looked like the match may fade out into a draw, a fabulous one-two between Onyekuru and Hanni played in the former for an excellent finish. It was the undoubted highlight of the match and the latest instalment of the topsy-turvy thriller that is The Onyekuru Paradox.
As the final whistle blew, the Mouscron fans could applaud (and some did) their team who gave their all but were simply beaten by a collection of better players. As the locals went home to kick the ferret and drink some hydrocarbons, I scuttled along towards my car – the drenched rat in the away end – hoping that my internal sat nav wouldn’t guide me into some barely-illuminated ditch.
One heart-warming feature of the journey can be found on the road between Gent and Waregem en route to Mouscron: that of a giant sculpture(?) of a naked middle-aged man, complete with overhanging belly and gravity-enslaved scrotum. Provincial Belgium at its finest.
Quality of match: ***
Stadium character: ****
Stadium atmosphere: ***
Ease of access: ***
Things to do around the stadium: **
Verdict: Provincial football doesn’t get much more authentic.
Another weekend, another stodgy Anderlecht performance against weaker opposition. This has become a thing. Yet, optimistically, I stood in line outside the stadium this morning to get my tickets for the Champions League matches against Celtic, Bayern Munich and Paris St Qatar. As I left the ticket office (bag slightly heavier, wallet much lighter), I had a perhaps unjustifiably hopeful spring in my step.
However, I had barely walked a hundred metres when the news had broken online: René Weiler had left Anderlecht by mutual consent. At first, I felt slightly deflated and, to be honest, a little shocked. Anderlecht have had a habit of hanging on to managers much longer than they should have in recent years, priding themselves on continuity and development. And here they were, sacking their Championship-winning manager six weeks into the season, a week before a huge Champions League tie against Celtic.
I’m still not sure how I feel. Weiler’s Anderlecht won the title last year a little by default, getting it together when in mattered and in the absence of a genuine challenger. Nevertheless, after two barren years, he had achieved his objectives and got the the last eight of the Europa League, where Manchester United needed extra time to get through. Surely he has bought himself some leverage, some time?
Well, yes and no. For Celtic fans reading this ahead of next week’s match, I have two words that will rationalise today’s move: “Ronny” and “Deila”. Deila won the league with Celtic playing a rather blocky, sometimes unnecessarily defensive system and generally underwhelming their fans. Weiler’s Anderlecht won the league via drilled performances and relied heavily on the goals of Tielemans (now at Monaco and hugely missed) and Teodorczyk, who can’t hit a barn door at the moment. The fluidity and attractive football the fans crave was ditched for a pragmatic, results-first approach.
However, when results do not go to plan, as has been the case recently, turgid victories become disheartening defeats and, as Weiler found out much to his annoyance, the criticism is fierce. In recent weeks, Weiler’s normal “safe and boring” press conferences have become a thing of the past with Mourinho-esque huffs being thrown if he doesn’t like a question and responses were becoming abrupt or corrosive.
This deterioration also found its way onto the pitch with key players such as Dendoncker, Obradovic, Kums and Teodorczyk underperforming. The slope became slippier when key players were being played out of position and systems changed from match to match, none of which were characteristics of Weiler’s successes.
Against Lokeren last weekend, 4-2-3-1 became an amorphous game of shooty-in after an hour. Against Bayern, the now infamous back 5 with Sven Kums at “libero” was an ill-fated and bizarrely timed experiment. Away to Kortrijk this weekend, it was 4-4-2 with two big centre forwards and two out of form wingers, and it was ugly, ugly stuff.
After the match on Saturday, Weiler did a post-match interview flanked by the Chairman and the Sporting Director, and was then televised (without sound) giving them some kind of debrief in the Kortrijk canteen. It was either an overt show of support or, as we have now discovered, the behaviour of a group of people who expected to part ways.
I still feel disappointed for Weiler: I trusted him and his methods but the team have had an awful start to the season and the past week has been PR suicide and there were few glimmers of sunlight on the horizon. So, in spite of last year’s successes, the sacking was justified. I’m sure he won’t be out of work for long and that he’ll do a decent job wherever he goes next, provided he remembers that journalists are only doing their jobs.
So what’s next for Anderlecht? Many fans would be happy to see Nicolas Frutos, current youth team boss, be given the top job. He has the previous playing pedigree at the club but his lack of top-level experience as a coach could count against him, as well as his role under Weiler – will a clean break be for the best.? The club have some talented young players out on loan, as well as the gifted but unhappy-looking Stanciu.
Whoever does take over has a cup game, a league game and the most important game of the Group Stage of the Champions League for Anderlecht coming up in the next week, so they’ll have to get to work quickly. They’ll inherit a group of players who, for all their shortcomings in recent weeks, have worked tirelessly for Weiler – even against Lokeren, the players were certainly fighting for their coach. The time has come for them to stand and be counted; to act like Champions and to regroup quickly, uniting behind the new coach and restoring faith amongst the Anderlecht fans. Three wins in the next week would go a long way to doing just that.
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.
Anderlecht, Hasi, Vanden Stock and the Nitrogen Cycle
“At the moment, Anderlecht resemble a WAG so caked in makeup that she can’t remember what she looks like. And deep down, under the façade, lies the real beauty”
RSC Anderlecht qualified for the Champions League. It should have been a battle with players running over broken glass to achieve what has become the equivalent of winning a trophy. Yet, Hasi’s XI whimpered over the line in a half-empty stadium with a lethargic, joyless performance. The fans (who turned up) protested with flares at the start of the match and some diffused out into the Parc Astrid perimeter more quickly than the smoke.
The game was played under the cloud of rumours of departure once the fog of protest had lifted. Players who brought the good times like captain Silvio Proto and fan-favourite Mati Suarez are expected to leave. Others like Defour and Praet will almost certainly move on to further their individual careers. Expect a massive clearout at Anderlecht as fringe players are moved on too. Loan signings like Buttner, Djuricic and Ezekiel will not return. All in all, the team will be unrecognisable.
However, perhaps most significant of all will be the departure of Head Coach Besnik Hasi. His popularity has been in gradual decline since the unlikely title win of 2014 due to inconsistency and defensive sloppiness and few at Anderlecht are likely to miss him. His typically brusque and staccato post-match responses and failure to confirm his position suggest the winds of change will be blowing through West Brussels.
To be honest, I’m not convinced the fans have a shortlist of realistic prospective replacements to hand. What may be more pleasing to Mauves’ fans is an ideological reboot. Hermann Van Holsbeek, Anderlecht’s Sporting Director, is responsible for the club’s transfer strategy and his record is very mixed. Some feel that a Head Coach who accepts the players he is given is not the model for the club. Club Brugge and KAA Gent both have large characters in their dugouts in Preud’homme and Vanhaezebrouck. Neither are shrinking violets and both have control over who comes in and who leaves. There is a belief that chairman Roger Vanden Stock doesn’t want such a character, such is his faith in Van Holsbeek.
Most of Anderlecht’s success comes from promotion from within. The fans want to see Anderlecht return to this model, having drifted away from it during Hasi’s reign. A team consisting of academy players like Dendoncker, Tielemans, Roef, Lukebakio, Leya Iseka, Kawaya etc is what the fans want and it makes sense financially too. John Van den Brom was appointed on the basis of his ability to work with young players and, to some extent, he did bring through Praet, Tielemans, Mbemba etc.
A situation where the man in charge of the first XI is also responsible for identifying targets and oversees recruitment is essential to reinvigorate the club. The disharmony amongst fans, the players and the negativity emanating from Anderlecht this year has been one of the constant threads of a self-destructive season. Who or what is responsible for the lack of unity has been the source of much discussion. Vanden Borre and his outspoken condemnation of team mates? Defour reliving his youth and carrying an air of fear around, stifling others? Proto or Deschacht, as senior players, not organising the defence properly and then pointing fingers? Praet constantly fuelling the fire of transfer rumours?
At the moment, Anderlecht resemble a WAG so caked in makeup that she can’t remember what she looks like. And deep down, under the façade, lies the real beauty. With one of the most successful academies in Europe, Anderlecht have created and maintained something to be proud of. They must play to their strengths and maximise this asset.
New signings will need to be made but personality and compatibility should rank as importantly as talent and ability. Jurgen Klopp recently stated that the most important thing in bringing a player to his club was that he ‘mustn’t be an asshole.’ Whoever comes in should have these wise words at the back of his thoughts when considering agents touting their wares.
The Anderlecht job should carry immense appeal and could attract excellent candidates provided it is made clear to them that they, and not Hermann, are in charge. A team in the Champions League qualifiers; a passionate support desperate to unify behind a united team; a Youth Academy the envy of many a richer club and some genuine talent waiting to be honed and used properly.
The fans want to be able to cry ‘We are Anderlecht’ with pride, defiance and unwavering loyalty but they deserve to see that reflected on the pitch and around the club. The Stereophonics once said ‘it only takes one match to burn a thousand trees’. However the Welsh Gravelmongers didn’t mention anything about the effect this has on soil fertility. By clearing out the deadwood and with the correct maintenance, Anderlecht could harvest an incredible crop of players. The question about Vanden Stock remains: ‘Hasi’ the courage to start again?
‘Dull? Limp? Lifeless?‘ asked Cheryl Tweedy-Cole-Fernandez-Versini (sounds like the Sunderland back four) whilst tugging at her perfect hair extensions promoting some overpriced shampoo with super ingredients you’ve never heard of such as ‘elephantjizzium’. ‘Sparse, greying and prickly’ would be my follicular response.
The words of the Geordie singer-socialite echoed in my mind after witnessing the second instalment of this Thursday’s Europa League (the Hipster’s Champions’ League), and they pertained to the not-so-horny Manchester United’s performance. While Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool (as inextricably linked as Gary Neville and Valencia) bullied and harassed like evil Duracell bunnies on speed, Van Gaal’s United cowered in the corner, asking not to be punched in the face because their first communion was at the weekend.
Van Gaal’s post-match declaration that Fellaini had been one of the best players on the pitch was as ludicrous as his dive only a few days previous. Playing Fellaini in the holding role proved that the eight months of research Moyes did in playing him there was completely wasted: the only holding Fellaini ever does is on the opposition’s jerseys. The continuous formation switching coupled with the fluidity of defensive positioning – Chris Smalling has had more partners this season than Noah did in his big boat – made for a kaleidoscope of confusion.
Van Gaal’s masterplan, or ‘philosophy’, seems to be to make lots of unorthodox decisions, hope one comes off (like Dirk Kuijt at right back or picking Marcus Rashford) and then claim all credit for being a tactical wizard, absolving him of all previous sins and underachievement. His team are currently one very good goalkeeper away from being mid-table also rans. In 6th position in the league with nine games remaining, practically out of the Europa League and hanging on in the FA Cup (remember when Man Utd dismissed its importance?) like a stubborn dangleberry, difficult games will fly in more quickly than Paul Scholes’ soundbites.
The worst thing about the performance was that, for all that Liverpool played well, there is an obvious way to play against the high pressing team. Diagonal balls over the top would have had Lovren and Sakho back-pedalling against Martial, Memphis and Rashford (MMR – the injection of pace) with space to be exploited. However, all viruses need a host cell to bind to in order to flourish, and the antibody came in the form of the patient passing game, attempted with hexagonally-booted Fellaini as the playmaker.
Before this maul on Merseyside, I was torn between two games: Borussia Dortmund v Spurs or Shakhtar Donetsk v Anderlecht. That was until I saw Pochettino’s starting XI. Harry Kane was rested for the game away to one of the best teams in Europe to keep him fresh for the crunch match against Aston Villa, a team who cannot beat its own reserves.
So my attention was divided three ways, between watching Anderlecht continue to disappoint, occasionally peeking at Dortmund v Spurs on my delayed stream and engaging in a vociferous Facebook debate about Pochettino’s team selection. While Dortmund inexorably battered Spurs like a pizza in a Glasgow chippy, the social media debate arrived at an impasse that stated “if Pochettino wins the league, he’s a genius and if he doesn’t, he’s a fanny”.
Anderlecht meanwhile were a little outclassed, despite Flying Frank Acheampong’s away goal, and their ineptitude at set pieces remains depressingly recurrent. For the return leg, I’d quite like someone with more technical nous than me to do a heat map plotting the movement of Anderlecht coach Besnik Hasi, whose histrionics and gestures make Klopp look like one of those people who paint themselves silver and want money for standing still. They should fit a dynamo to his flailing right hand and he could power the floodlights for the entire match.
Finally, I really enjoyed that all of the Europa League ties were played on the one night, back to back. This diffusing the Champions’ League matches over 4 weeks for the same round in order to maximise the number of adverts shown is less organic and makes you lose sight of who has played who, or even what round it is.
The Europa League, much derided by the English establishment because Thursday to Sunday is deemed a shorter recovery period than Wednesday to Saturday, has proven to be a sweet filling to the stale bread of the predictable and repetitive Champions League this year and is fast becoming the tournament of the discerning football fan. Roll on Thursday!
While, on paper, Tielemans and Defour look like a complimentary pairing, Defour’s presence diminishes Tielemans to the extent that the latter looks fearful.
In the January transfer window, RSC Anderlecht shored up their midfield with the addition of Badji and Djuricic. Badji seems to have been brought in to provide more defensive solidity and athleticism whereas Djuricic has floated around either as a supporting striker, winger or ‘number 10’. So where does this leave homegrown talent Youri Tielemans?
Tielemans now finds himself the 4th choice central midfielder behind Defour, Dendoncker and Badji. All three of these players offer more defensively than Tielemans but none of them possess his passing range or ability to contribute with goals. He is frequently lauded as one of the most sought after midfielders in the world and yet he is way down the pecking order at an underperforming Anderlecht. He does not have the pace or skill set to play in a more advanced position so what does his future hold?
The disparity between his expected and actual level of performance is unparalleled. This was supposed to be his big season: the year Anderlecht get the best out of him before some big club with more TV money than sense sends a bank transfer to Belgium larger than the Congolese GDP for his services. Last season, Tielemans looked stressed and tired. However, if people looked at the human aspect of his downturn in form, they could have concluded that completing his Baccalaureate in school and managing the expectations of a full time player at Champions League level are major stressors for a seventeen year old.
However, since his eighteenth birthday when he signed a long-term contract and his subsequent graduation, his form has, if anything, declined even further. He clearly feels the pressure and expectation that may have been absent in his breakthrough year when he had the likes of Kouyaté and Gillet alongside him. His performances this season have simply not been good enough to keep his place in the team. The question is ‘why?’
When Steven Defour joined Anderlecht 18 months ago, he seemed like the ideal replacement for Kouyaté despite his Standard Liege past. He is tenacious, determined and works hard on the pitch. This can be seen whenever he is substituted: Anderlecht are much more fragile and vulnerable when he isn’t playing. However, he is not a midfield anchor man who just sits and plays the simple pass. Defour is a dynamic box-to-box battler who provides assists and likes to have a shot himself. While, on paper, Tielemans and Defour looks like a complimentary pairing, Defour’s presence diminishes Tielemans to the extent that the latter looks fearful.
However, watching Anderlecht when Dendoncker and Tielemans play central midfield is very different. Dendoncker does sit and anchor the midfield playing a ‘Makelélé’ role and Tielemans becomes much more free to play. They look happy playing together as a pairing, are complimentary and have come from the same place – Anderlecht’s Neerpede academy – meaning neither has an inflated ego. Egos and personalities seem to be dominating the Anderlecht performances more than team spirit and cohesion. Anthony Vanden Borre has already been ‘banished’ and the balance of the rest of the squad doesn’t seem right. Senior players like Deschacht, Proto, Defour and Okaka don’t look like they are pulling together even if their individual performances have been acceptable.
From the outside looking in, it looks like Head Coach Hasi could do more to encourage Tielemans and support him. Tielemans is the future of Anderlecht, either in terms of playing or financial stability. There is a real lack of cohesion and spirit about the Anderlecht squad just now. Academy graduates like Praet, Tielemans and Lukebakio look unhappy. Why is that? Why are they not progressing as they should?
Hasi has a responsibility primarily to win matches and, as much as I’m not his biggest fan, there is no way he could play Tielemans instead of Defour on current form. However, Hasi and Managing Director Van Holsbeek should bear in mind what has made Anderlecht successful in recent years. It has been the development of players like Kompany, Lukaku, Mbemba, Praet and Tielemans from the academy (not to mention Charly Musonda and Januzaj) far more than speculative punts on well travelled players like Djuricic, Rolando, Marin, Nuytinck and Badji.
So, to those scouts who have read the hype and are wanting to come and see Youri Tielemans play, you’d better pick your match carefully as Hasi isn’t picking him. Instead you will see a head coach whose tactics are incoherent, whose composure is lacking and whose idea of Anderlecht’s future is diametrically opposed to that of a growing number of Mauves fans.
It is with a heavy heart and a soulful sigh that Anderlecht fans lament the departure of Matias Suarez – El Artista – from the club. However, it was a decision that should have been made some time ago by those running Anderlecht. As a fan, the heart can rule the head but, as a Chairman or Managing Director, the opposite should be the case.
As I write this, I cannot help feeling that Suarez’s departure is just the tip of the iceberg; that something is inherently wrong at the core of Anderlecht. Whether that is a few players carrying too much influence in the dressing room, a problem with the coaching team or something else, I’m not quite sure. The players no longer look like a cohesive unit. Praet, Tielemans and even emerging players like Lukebakio are no longer playing with a smile on their faces and look burdened by something. Something from which Suarez seems happy to leave.
Since Suarez’s first serious injury, which happened just before a proposed transfer to CSKA Moscow, has clearly left both mental and physical scars which have since blighted his performance, he has never recovered to be the daring, unpredictable and pacy forward he once was. After his first recovery, a provisional 10 million euro transfer to the middle east was proposed and the club, in their short-sightedness, rejected the bid. A second major injury followed and the player exiled himself for what seemed like forever in Argentina during his recovery. When he was scheduled to return to the club, Suarez remained in Argentina. Whether this was down to his mental state or his physical condition, I do not know, but the club fined him 2 weeks wages so clearly they saw no justifiable reason for delaying his return.
This should have marked the end for Suarez. The club could have maintained the moral high-ground, off-loaded a large salary for a player they couldn’t select, benefitting Suarez in that he could resume his career in his native Argentina, which seemed increasingly what he was trying to force.
However, back he came. Again, the second rebirth showed a decay of fitness and confidence. While the latent ability and talent is clearly still there, the physical means to carry out what he wants to do has deserted him. He no longer has the pace to get away from central defenders which renders him ineffective.
There is a lot of affection for Suarez among the RSCA support based on his performances around 2011 and 2012 when he was awarded the Golden Boot. This was deserved. Was. Unfortunately, these past glories are no longer attainable but that won’t prevent a supporter backlash for somebody who became an icon in the eyes of the faithful.
In a sense, there are parallels between the fate of Suarez and the club. Glorious and in their pomp three or four years ago, there was a swagger and confidence about their performances. Since then, a number of false dawns and barren spells of underachievement. However, despite these parallels, Suarez is not the problem at Anderlecht. Something else is. If the smallest of pathogens go unchecked, they spread. Something is spreading at Anderlecht and and isn’t unifying. It is isolationist, destructive and is dissolving bonds. It may be Hasi, Defour, Proto, Vanden Borre or Van Holsbeek or whoever. It may be something else.
Suarez’s departure, while necessary, will thrust the club under the interrogation light of the fans and the media. Expect measured statements declaring unity, togetherness and teamwork, while the performances on the pitch – the true language and measure of a team’s inner strength – continue to contradict these words.
“Mourinho has even criticised John Terry, despite never having had played at the level of Robbie Savage. Surely the sack beckons?”
Who’s for Santa’s Sack this Christmas?
It has been a tough few weeks for some high profile managers at underachieving clubs. Messrs Van Gaal, Mourinho, Monk, Hasi and Delia have all either had calls for their heads or, in Monk’s unfortunate case, have been decapitated.
I’m not convinced about the reasons or legitimacy of sacking Ronny Delia at Celtic. His objective is surely to win the SPL comfortably. The inexorable procession towards this has begun as Celtic build up a lead that already looks unassailable. For Scottish clubs, European Football has become a bonus. It is an almost annual event to lament their performances before the first snottery nose of Autumn has been blown. Given that the clubs receive a tray of pies and a slab of watery beer for the rights to show their games, it’s not that surprising.
The others are less clear cut. With every passing game, Mourinho looks increasingly pained. His title-winning squad haven’t become poor overnight and no real first-team players have departed. Yet, they are exactly where they deserve to be in the league. When and why did it start to go wrong?
It can’t be a coincidence that Hazard (not scored all season), Costa, Oscar, Fabregas, Matic, Terry and Ivanovic have all been rotten since Mourinho threw his hissy fit at the club Doctor for helping an injured player. He looks a lonely, forlorn and isolated figure on the touchline nowadays. Add, for me, therein lies the problem. Mourinho has ‘lost the dressing room’ and the unwavering player support he once had. He created a siege mentality and the players responded to that. He protects and defends them publicly, taking the criticism himself or blaming the referee. It was the world against Chelsea/Porto/Inter/Real Madrid. That is (was) the Mourinho method.
However, he has run out of excuses. The players and club staff have been publicly lambasted at different times by Mourinho, he has behaved in a ludicrous fashion and it appears a critical mass of his staff have swung against him. Mourinho has even criticised John Terry, despite never having had played at the level of Robbie Savage. Surely the sack beckons?
So who do you get in? Someone who will work with the players there, be liked and get the best out of them. Someone who can’t be trusted with a large transfer budget but has an excellent track record as a coach. Someone who has been at the club before but has not been sacked by them. Brendan Rodgers would get that team fighting and believing again. I’d be amazed if José can.
Moving north to the Philosopher of the Pennines, the Locke of Lancashire, the Sage of the Stretford End; my pal Van Gaal. What is left to say about him that hasn’t been said. He can’t seem to fathom that Schweinsteiger was sold by Bayern because he can no longer cut it. In a previous article, I referred to him as ‘An Amiga in a World of iPads‘. He is no longer the same Schweinsteiger that Van Gaal had at Bayern. It seems everybody knew this except from Van Gaal.
His team looks confused, scared and without leadership. If you try to win ugly, to be efficient if not pretty, then you need to win. That’s the bottom line. However, when you overhaul the playing squad at great expense, progress is to be expected. The much vaunted ‘philosophy’ seems to be understood by precious few people. The team look slow, without dynamism and solidity has come at the expense of creativity. The squad is strong. They could be title contenders but they don’t look like they believe it or believe in themselves and almost seem to win games by accident. They have sold Welbeck, Hernandez, Van Persie, declined Falcao and loaned Wilson. Some of those decisions were clearly necessary. However, who has replaced them? Only the talented, but hardly prolific, Martial.
He has made some strange tactical choices but that is part of his Modus Operandi. Over the years he has specialised in either playing unusual formations or selecting players in unfamiliar positions and claiming credit for their performances if it works (World Cup 2014 v Spain for example). However, Manchester United at the moment are not a well mixed cocktail but more a mucky puddle of everything in the drinks cabinet flung in a glass: if it works then it is more by chance than by design.
That said, the club have been very quiet and supportive and they are only six points away from Leicester. The Champions League exit, while hardly a massive surprise to anyone familiar with football beyond the inward-looking goldfish bowl of the Premier League, should act as a wake up call for the club. The suggestion that the club would rather let him see out his contract than try to lure Guardiola must be a disappointment to the fans. Should the club sack him? Quite probably, the team are barely better than the Moyes XI. There is a ready-made replacement at the club in Ryan Giggs, who will surely be the next Manchester United manager provided he remains patient.
Van Gaal’s story has many parallels across the Channel at Anderlecht. Besnik Hasi – a man whose pint you really wouldn’t want to spill – doesn’t come with a reputation like Van Gaal. Nor does he have any overt ‘philosophy’. However, when a manager does have a vision, it is important that he shares it with the players and they can see it too. There is little evidence of that at Anderlecht. There is an awful lot of huffing and puffing but the house hasn’t been blown down. However, unlike the Big Bad Wolf, Hasi may be ‘buiten’ (sorry, Dutch for ‘out’).
The team were rudderless and completely lacking in creativity and direction against a superior Oostende. The 1-1 draw itself was not the major bone of contention; it was that the team were second best in every area and were completely outplayed. Individually, Hasi has easily the most talented squad in Belgium. However, a lot of these talented players are cooking their own soup and eating it themselves. Were Hasi to look west at Gent, he’d see a squad of players who know exactly what their coach wants them to do and they have clearly bought into the vision. Gent have become the benchmark in Belgium. Last year they swiped the title in the second half of the season due to Club Brugge and Anderlecht managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when it really counted. This year though, Gent are the best team in the league by some distance and they have a very shrewd coach.
Anderlecht do have a fantastic youth setup and there are a lot of talented players on the periphery who could step up to the plate e.g. Lukebakio and Kawaya to support those out of form like Tielemans or Praet. These players need to be given more than 5 minutes at the end of a match. While the unexpected bonus of a fit-looking Mati Suarez was an undoubted positive, the performance was grim. If you’re going to be ugly, you have to be effective. Anderlecht are, at the moment, only the former. Perhaps, given his previous flirtations with novel tactics, Hasi might want to consider a 3-5-2/5-3-2 style formation given the that the full backs are fast but can’t really defend and the wingers/wide midfielders look desperately like fish out of water. That way, he could play most of his best players, retain Suarez and Okaka, and give the strong but positionally negligent Kara and Deschacht an extra body.
While Anderlecht are underachieving, they have qualified for the next round of the Europa League from a tough group. However, they are struggling domestically against teams they should be beating comfortably and performances have been scrappy and turgid. Players like Tielemans and Praet are playing well below their potential and the fans are fed up. Hasi needs to do something different to get the public back on side but I’m not convinced he is capable. Do I want to see him get the sack? No. Does he deserve to get the sack? Not yet. Will Anderlecht need to sack him to have any chance at becoming champions? Unfortunately, yes.
Sometimes ‘failure’ can help build future successes. By learning what does and doesn’t work, one can evolve. Anderlecht were excellent but flawed against Spurs on Thursday night. Okaka was a beast for about 20 minutes, Defour was omnipresent and even the much-maligned N’Sakala turned up for the first time this season to put in a performance. However, a great many eyes are currently focused on Youri Tielemans, Golden Boy Nominee and, in all probability, a future record transfer for Anderlecht. How good is he? Where will he go? What is he worth?
The answer to all of those questions is surely heavily dependent on Anderlecht working out how best to use him. Tielemans sprung to prominence shortly after the sale of Lucas Biglia to Lazio. John van den Brom gave him his debut two and a half years ago in a deep-lying central midfield role. He continued to excel in this position under Hasi, in partnership with Cheikou Kouyaté, keeping the established Gillet and Kljestan out of the team. However, thereafter, things have been a little more inconsistent for Tielemans. Oft cited reasons include his exams (justifiable) and general fatigue. What often seems to be ignored is that his manager perceives him as more polyvalent than he currently is.
Tielemans was deployed as a ‘no 10″ in a 4-5-1 formation against Spurs. I have been crying out for Anderlecht to play this way all season and they were excellent against Spurs. It took a wonder goal from Dembele to separate teams whose budgets are incomparable. Yet Tielemans, often regarded as Anderlecht’s prize asset, was conspicuous only in his ineffectiveness. In a way, this shows that the team are not reliant on him. After all, he hasn’t been an automatic choice in the past month. This, coupled with the return to form of Defour, has given the manager selection problems.
Tielemans does not have the skillset to play in such an advanced role. His talents lie in his ability to pick out a pass, keep the game flowing and finish from the edge of the box. He is not gifted in playing with his back to goal and he doesn’t have the trickery or pace to beat players. In terms of established players, Tielemans has similar (but less developed) skills and talents to Xabi Alonso or maybe even Pirlo. He is a dictator of play from deep and never a number 10.
He is currently being deployed in this position in Dennis Praet’s injury-enforced absence and has played here before but never with any great success. Anderlecht have an excellent collection of midfielders but so far this season, there have been a lot of square pegs in round holes – Tielemans at number 10 being one.
The manager needs to have the conviction to follow through on playing Tielemans alongside Defour in midfield, dropping Dendoncker or playing him at centre back. Dendoncker is an honest player with good defensive qualities, discipline and a decent shot but he is not of the quality of Tielemans or Defour. Against Tottenham, the 4-5-1 shape gave the best team performance of the season. It was riddled with individual errors but it was undoubtedly a fine choice by Hasi.
Some old deficiencies flared up in the game mind you: Acheampong’s wastefulness and the lack of support for the centre forward – although Okaka is perfect for this role. In Praet’s absence – he is the obvious number ten if Hasi sticks with the shape – I would suggest playing Gillet (who surely must be given a new contract) in a supporting role with Najar at RB and Dodi Lukebakio in the right wing position. Lukebakio has shown enough in his substitute performances to suggest that he has the pace and unpredictability to support Okaka and torment defenders. I’d like to see him do that against Standard this weekend.
There were so many encouraging things about RSCA’s performance against Tottenham. So much that could be built upon. I still think that Hasi makes a lot of ‘wrong’ calls like leaving Acheampong playing left back and taking off N’Sakala when Acheampong was cramping. He brought on Conté at 1-1 who has never shown a defensive gesture in his frustratingly poor time at Anderlecht.
Kara and Deschacht both had good games individually against Spurs but still don’t look like a partnership to the detriment of the team. Do they talk to each other? I’m still not convinced by either of them playing together – work must be done on the training ground with them. Hasi likes Dendoncker as he diligently performs a role but his ceiling is much lower than that of Tielemans. Only by playing Tielemans in his best position will he and Anderlecht truly flourish. For all you Football Manager fans out there, that is DLP-S and not AP-S as Hasi has deployed him.
Should he be the ‘Golden Boy’? On current form, no. On talent, perhaps. He features in every lazily-written misinformed ‘top 10’ the Twittersphere has ever seen but he needs to be properly deployed to ensure he becomes the player he can. On Sunday, I would like to see Anderlecht line up like this:
‘Gillet had become ‘persona non grata’ under the Hasi regime, stripped of captaincy and dignity.’
It has reached that time of year again when the fleeces, gilet and winter clothes need to be unpacked. There are always a few pleasant surprises: that big woolly jumper you forgot you had and the deer stalker that your wife hates. I will undoubtedly supplement my wardrobe with a few new items but it’s the old favourites that I will wear and enjoy most. It makes sense to buy what you need once you look into the winter clothes and not before you have established what you have.
However, while fashions fade, quality remains. The first time I went to watch Anderlecht, three players stood out: the blond defender (Deschacht), the long-haired midfielder who controlled the game (Gillet) and the tall winger (Jovanovic). Deschacht remains an integral part of the Anderlecht defence, partly because there are no better options. Despite his advancing years and occasional lunge, he is the best defender at the club. Quality remains. Jovanovic was probably in the twilight of his career then and has subsequently retired.
Last August, I found myself sitting in the Parc des Princes watching PSG v Bastia. While Pastore and Cavani starred during the game (and Brandao in the tunnel), the Bastia number 6 had a good game. I recognised him. Gillet didn’t have much of the ball but when he did, he was solid and when he didn’t, he worked hard and was positionally disciplined. Gillet had become ‘persona non grata’ under the Hasi regime, stripped of captaincy and dignity. He was loaned to Bastia to get him off the wage bill and in the hope that a permanent transfer would be completed.
Gillet, understandably, thought that there were worse places to live than Corsica and subsequently went on loan. By all accounts he did well and played almost every game for Bastia but financial difficulties prevented them from making the transfer permanent. So, Gillet returned to Anderlecht and was reluctantly accommodated by the club.
Gillet’s form – he has, for the most part, been the club’s best midfielder this season – has left Hasi with some options. He has recognised that Gillet is performing well and has tinkered with the team’s formation to include him. His adaptability makes him an excellent asset for a coach, although I don’t think right back is his best position. He has a knack of scoring important goals in big matches but this seems to go unnoticed.
There seems a general reluctance at the club and amongst fans to acknowledge his importance and contribution. This leads me to think that there must be some personality clash between Gillet and either another senior player or Hasi himself. The club should be telling him how important he is and convincing him to sign a new contract; not to walk away for nothing.
Another player who has fallen out of favour under the Junta is ‘Flying’ Frank Acheampong. His introduction as an out and out winger against Tottenham completely changed the game in Anderlecht’s favour, producing one assist and several other chances from the left wing. Not only did he give the right back, Trippier, a torrid time but he pinned him back as an offensive threat.
Against Club Brugge, Acheampong as a left winger would occupy Meunier and nullify his offensive threat. It would also allow Obradovic to be a defender. Anderlecht have conceded several goals from his poor positioning but I believe this is due to the burden of creative responsibility that he has in the absence of any other genuine wide player.
Furthermore, it seems criminal to have a centre forward like Okaka and not supply him with crosses from dangerous zones. Going back to 4-3-3 with genuine wide players i.e. not Suarez and Praet would allow Anderlecht to stretch teams and would allow our central midfielders more space to be expressive and play. Ezekiel could play on the right wing (since Najar is pinned at right back in the absence of Vanden Borre) but needs to involve himself more.
To use the clothing analogy, Anderlecht are lining up with three jumpers but no underwear or shoes. To redress the balance, Hasi must equilibrate the team by reverting to a shape that works. He must ensure that the team have shoes that match the hat and scarf and, importantly, a warm Gillet.