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.
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.
“Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.”
“It’ll be different this time,” I told myself. “Belgium will surely have learned their lessons from the qualifiers.” During both of those matches, Belgium controlled possession without ever really looking like scoring against a compact, disciplined Welsh team. Wales had a plan and executed it brilliantly.
In a soggy Lille, Wales had a similar plan but had simply improved their ability to execute it and their efficiency increases match by match. Tonight they came up against a Belgian defence as porous as the open (perhaps ‘unshut’ is a better word, because it really ought to have been closed) roof of the Stade Pierre Mauroy. Jason Denayer and Toby Alderweireld managed to make Hal Robson-Kanu look like the fat Ronaldo, and Jordan Lukaku leapt for headers as though he was spring boarding from quicksand.
A Belgium XI full of highly talented individuals started the match with pace and aggression and Wales simply couldn’t cope for the first fifteen minutes. Nainngolan scored an angry long range screamer and Belgium looked like outclassing Wales. Three of the Welsh defenders picked up deserved early bookings and it had the makings of a long, long night.
However, almost immediately after scoring, Belgium lost direction, sat back and seemed as rudderless as the Post-Brexit Boris Johnson. This allowed Wales to take the ascendency and discover the fallibility of the Belgian defence. Wales began to control possession – not something that has characterised their success to date – and Belgium, either by instruction or through lethargy, fell out of the game.
Although Belgium’s defensive personnel were inexperienced as a unit, they should have been far better drilled at defensive set pieces. Every ball lobbed into the box was causing havoc. Eventually, Ashley Williams ghosted away from Nainngolan and in behind a holographic Jordan Lukaku to loop a header past a positionally negligent Kevin de Bruyne. It was a defensive horror show.
‘Bring on the Big Man‘
At half-time, having realised that practicing set pieces may have been beneficial, Wilmots’ words of wisdom and tactical adjustments would be vital. After all, since the 20th minute, Wales had been in the ascendancy. Much-maligned, this was the Belgian manager’s time to prove his nous. He did so in the way that he always does. By bringing on Pubic Prince Fellaini for Carrasco and shunting De Bruyne out wide, Wilmots relapsed into his old habit. That I had written about this last August (Predictable Belgium) during the qualifiers illustrates a lack of evolution and improvement.
It is worth remembering that Belgium played in this way against Wales in the qualifying matches and got nowhere. Perhaps Wilmots had forgotten this. It looked like it. His answer to Wales dominating set pieces was not to take control of the match but to send on the big man and resort to the long ball.
I can understand this in the last 10 minutes as a last throw of the dice. An act of desperation. However, I wouldn’t have taken off the guy who scored in the Champions League Final when I needed a goal. When Belgium play De Bruyne on the right, the same thing usually happens. Hazard, in the absence of de Bruyne in the middle, cuts inside to try to make something happen and runs into a wall of Welsh defenders. Wales are set up perfectly to counteract this. It all became so desperately predictable.
Except, that is, from Robson-Kanu’s fabulous turn and strike. It could be argued that his defender should never have allowed him to turn like this but credit has to be given to the forward here. Would Kompany, Lombaerts, Vermaelen, Vertonghen or Engels – all unavailable and ahead of Denayer in the pecking order – prevented this goal? We’ll never know. I’d suggest their presence would have more likely prevented Williams getting a free header though.
Wilmots and Belgium have been unlucky in that nearly all of their unavailable players are defenders. However, his myopia in persisting with an underperforming, uninspiring and generally unhappy-looking Lukaku put together with his reluctance to experiment with defensive shapes in friendlies and his dogmatic adherence to an entirely predictable game-plan reliant on the individuality of Hazard and De Bruyne should be his undoing. Nonetheless, Belgium’s profligacy was again their weakness. They were crying out for a finisher and, in Wilmots’ system, that man is not Lukaku.
Wilmots no more?
I can think of one Belgian coach who would reshape the team so that it plays to its strengths – what Coleman has done with Wales – and that man is KAA Gent’s Hein Vanhaezebrouck. Whether or not he’d take the job or if he’d be seen as ‘not unifying enough’ is another issue. Hopefully the Belgian FA have the courage to thank Wilmots’ for his hard work and then move on. The way he is diminishing his talented side’s potency is paralleled only by Louis Van Gaal at Manchester United.
‘Fouling with Impunity’
However, Belgium were unlucky in other ways. Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Aaron Ramsey continued to foul their way through the match with virtual impunity yet Fellaini’s first challenge was erroneously deemed bookable. When Aaron Ramsey was finally booked, it was for a handball that looked highly accidental. Belgium also had one stonewall penalty claim, one probable penalty and Davies should have been sent off for a foul on Lukaku on the edge of the box. This shouldn’t be ignored. In this sense, Wales were very lucky.
While Chris Coleman may not be the highest profile manager around, he has consistently sent out a Wales team that was slightly better than the previous match. They play to their strengths, defend intelligently, know each other’s roles and run themselves into the ground. I don’t think I saw Axel Witsel break into a jog all night, such was the Belgian lethargy off the ball.
Sam Vokes’ goal summed up the evening in a way. An unexpectedly excellent header from the big forward was allowed to go unchallenged as Alderweireld cantered back. It was a fitting end to the evening.
How far can Wales go? They shouldn’t fear Portugal, or indeed anybody. While I believe the winner will be whoever progresses between Germany and Italy, Wales have a chance if they continue to play to their strengths. They may need a few nice refereeing decisions – they had some tonight – and they must keep Bale fit (Pepe will test that) but they have earned the right to dream.
Belgium’s slogan has been #tousensemble and, while the team look disjointed, they can unify an often-fragmented country. Wales, on the other hand, epitomise #Togetherstronger and after the fragmentation in the UK over the past week, a little bit of togetherness can only be a force for progression.
“You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show, with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he feels he knows”
It seems that just about everybody else can see what Belgium coach Marc Wilmots cannot see, or at least, pretends not to see. The Red Devils’ difficulties against Italy were not unfamiliar to armchair fans. Same old same old. However, more worrying for me is his refusal to accept that Italy, despite ceding much territory and possession, outplayed and outsmarted Belgium. What’s more, it was all so painfully predictable and Wilmots’ XI continue to play with the handbrake on. (Belgium at the Euros Preview)
Why were Belgium so Disappointing?
It is important to acknowledge that, for all that Belgium were disappointing, Italy played them like a Stradivarius. They were everything Belgium were not: fluid in attack, compact (sometimes ruthlessly cynical) in defence and, for all that they played a counter-attacking game, they could have easily won by more.
Luca Vialli mentioned in the build up to the match that he felt perhaps Belgium had “too much freedom and not enough discipline on the pitch”. While I understand this assessment, I believe that the opposite is true. Belgium were frequently rigid and lacked any fluidity. Their dynamism, as a result, is stunted. Marc Wilmots seems to have found a template and he is applying it, no matter what. Even Martin Keown was able to ascertain within 25 minutes that Belgium’s game was too slow and made reasonable comparisons with Van Gaal’s Manchester United. Normally these attempts to frame everything through the lens of England and the Premier League frustrate me but this was spot on.
The lack of urgency of the midfield coupled with the reluctance of the defence to go long to Lukaku who, despite being woefully poor, was frequently isolated, was a key issue. Belgium have this system where they control the game, high up the pitch but fail to support the centre forward. Every time Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne picked up the ball, they were in more or less the same wide position and tried to cut inside to find three centre backs waiting for them. In support, Italy’s midfield arrived to defend the non-existent runs of Witsel and Nainngolan into the box. Instead the two Belgian midfielders were restricted to taking errant pot-shots from outside the box, seldom troubling Buffon.
Hazard, for his part, gave everything but his final pass eluded him. His dribbling was actually very good but this is like shadow boxing unless it hurts teams and is done in and around the penalty box. Kevin de Bruyne, who is the darling of the Belgian media, was simply awful. While I accept that he was not in his preferred position, his passing was dreadful. Wilmots actually lacked backbone by not substituting a misfiring de Bruyne. As we’ve seen so many times before, the substitutions became increasingly desperate.
The static and deep nature of the midfield three has to be addressed as well. That Fellaini was the best of them says a lot. Defensively, he and Witsel worked hard and were fairly effective but this was a game to select players who could be the difference. Nainngolan and Witsel simply lurked around the box once the handbrake was applied to Belgium’s attacks. At no time did they run beyond the ball carrier or Lukaku. Italy knew this would be the case and were prepared to let them shoot from 30 metres. Witsel seems to be in a protected role as Wilmots’ “chouchou” and needs to either play differently (I’m not sure he can) or be dropped. He personifies Belgium’s one-paced game at the moment and unless he is playing instead of Nainngolan, there is no room for him.
Belgium’s shape meant that players were just jogging back into position as soon as possible, as though they had a high-tension bungee cord attached to them. It’s as though the message is “pass and then return to formation.”
Who is at risk of missing out against Ireland?
Well, who is at risk and who should be at risk are two different things. Wilmots spoke after the match that he might switch from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 but, in reality, these are the same thing for Belgium and is like saying that you’re going to wear a scarlet dress instead of a red one. What Wilmots calls a 4-3-3 turns out to be a 4-2-3-1, where the one cuts a lonely, often disconsolate figure.
Defensively, I would not be surprised to see Alderweireld, who was very poor, moved to full back. Completely outmuscled by Pelle in the box and beaten by a defensive clearance for Italy’s opening goal, he looked ill at ease all game. His movement to full back would mean possible inclusions for Denayer or Jordan Lukaku, moving Vertonghen to centre back to accommodate the latter. Ciman did his best at full-back but continues to look like a centre-back filling in.
Wilmots had special words of praise for ‘le retour d’un grand Thomas Vermaelen’. This suggests that Vermaelen will continue to play and he was certainly better than Alderweireld.
I’d expect one of the midfield trio to make way for Carrasco or Mertens against Ireland. Both looked lively when they came on and their directness should be exploited. I’d expect Nainngolan or Fellaini to make way. Eden Hazard, as captain, and Kevin de Bruyne are ‘undroppable’ in the coach’s eyes but what of Romelu Lukaku? He is not as highly regarded in Belgium as he is in England and the swell of disaffection towards him has surely grown in light of his lethargic performance. Divock Origi came on and ran around a lot but really ought to have made more of his chances. You always get the feeling that Origi never really has the ball under control and I don’t see how he can be fully relied upon.
Michy Batshuyai has a very different profile to Lukaku in that he is happy to play with his back to goal – a prerequisite with Belgium’s current stylistic preferences – and may be the alternative Hazard and De Bruyne need. This is a change Wilmots may have the courage to make as he has never settled on a preferred option up front.
Whether or not Wilmots acknowledges privately that Belgium need to do something differently remains unknown but he is publicly defiant and defending his players. While results continue to disappoint, he can expect to find his decisions met with increasing scrutiny. You get the impression that if Wilmots was on a game show with Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough on his team, he’d choose a question from the ‘Sport’ category, because that’s what he knows. Ireland will present a different challenge from Italy so ‘more of the same’ shouldn’t be an option for Wilmots.
I expect that, come Saturday, the Belgian fans will turn out in their numbers expecting a series of ‘quite-near’ misses from the Red Devils. While I don’t expect Ireland to be as slick or smart as Italy, I don’t think for a second that O’Neill et al won’t have a particular plan for playing Belgium and based on their records to date, it’s a tough match to call and a must-win for both.
“The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available. He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus.”
History only repeats itself when we don’t learn lessons from the past. Just ask Marseille bar owners who didn’t buy plastic glasses. The echoes of the 2014 World Cup are whistling through Belgium right now, from the red, yellow and black aisles of Carrefour to the slightly homo-erotic Jupiler adverts and the emblazoning of the ‘Red Devils’ brand on everything from pasta to wing-mirror sleeves. The build up seems so reminiscent of 2014 as to be almost formulaic.
However, as expectations of Belgium’s gifted squad inflate, what has Marc Wilmots done to ensure progression, or evolution, from 2014? It should be remembered that, while Belgium reached the Quarter Finals of the World Cup, the performances in Brazil were less than inspiring: Fellaini to the rescue against Algeria, a late winner against Russia and an extra-time victory against the USA were the oases of joy in a desert of square passes. When up against a genuine contender in Argentina, Belgium came up so short that Romelu Lukaku resembled Verne Troyer.
So what has changed since 2014? Well, not a lot. Belgium still play a very slow, patient, possession-based game. They still play in the same formation. They still have the same lack of quality at full back. They still need around twenty chances before scoring. They still have a positional and equilibrium problem with Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
Yet some things have changed. The emergence of Yannick Carrasco as a genuine match-winner is exciting, Radja Nainggolan has emerged as the preferred anchor to the midfield and is a better ball-winner than any other option and Jason Denayer is emerging into the natural heir to Vincent Kompany, both at Manchester City and for Belgium. And Romelu Lukaku appears to have usurped Benteke as the centre forward of choice, with Batshuyai also leapfrogging the Liverpool forward in the pecking order.
However, the dogmatic adherence to a possession based 4-3-3 is, at best, prohibitive in lieu of the players available to Wilmots. The lack of options at full back – Meunier and Jordan Lukaku are both good players in Belgium but even domestically they are considered to be defensively suspect – coupled with the injuries to Lombaerts and Kompany could have provided Wilmots the perfect platform to experiment with three centre backs in the friendly matches. Vertonghen and Alderweireld either side of Jason Denayer sounds like an excellent defensive base. However, the near religious devotion to having a ‘number 6, a number 8 and a number 10’ means that Belgium, for all their individual creativity, end up predictable and easy to defend against.
I find Marc Wilmots likeable but I remain unconvinced that he is getting the best out of a ‘Golden Generation’ of players. The sight of Toby Alderweireld, one of the best centre backs in the Premier League, marauding down the right-wing acting as the major provider and creative force leaves me frustrated, leaving a past-his-best Thomas Vermaelen gesticulating to Jason Denayer (who he cannot talk to due to the language barrier) in central defence. Denayer was also tried at right back against Finland and looked uncomfortable, unconvincing and like an ill-fitting suit.
A three-man defence may have proven very effective, it may have been a disaster but, in a friendly match, why not try things out? At the moment, Belgium’s plan B is to hook off a defender and put on another forward and hoof the ball up for Fellaini in support.
On Monday night, Belgium’s first opponents are Italy. A recent article in Het Laatste Nieuws outlined the differences in approaches to training Belgium and Italy have. One key point was that Italy do far more tactical and video analysis than Belgium. With this in mind as well as stylistic stereotypes, I’d be surprised if Italy, of all nations, lack the clairvoyance to know how Belgium will play.
The frustration is only heightened when one looks at the abundance of attacking flair, pace and talent Wilmots has available. He has taken the engines and metal from four Ferraris and moulded them into a minibus. His anointment of Eden Hazard as captain in order to make him take more responsibility seems counterintuitive, although I understand the logic therein. It was reported that Vertonghen, who has previously captained his country seven times and exudes authority and leadership, was far from happy. It seems like a move lifted directly from the Van Gaal playbook.
Which leads us to the wild card in the squad. King of the Cranial Pubis, Prince of the Flying Elbow, Lord of the Late Tackle: Marouane Fellaini. Love him or loathe him, the big man is something of a Talisman and has a knack of bundling home decisive goals. He was Belgium’s top goalscorer in qualifying and, while I face-plant as I write this, he needs to start against Italy, assuming Wilmots reverts to type with the formation. He may look like a malfunctioning assembly of spare parts but he adds a level of unpredictability that Italy may struggle to deal with.
If the match pans out as most Belgium matches in recent years have, the Red Devils will be camped in the Italian half against a deep-lying defence. There will be little space which leads to floated crosses into a crowded box. In which case, Fellaini is your man. However, at whose expense is also a big question. Wilmots usually finds a way of playing his best players, even if they are out of position (e.g. De Bruyne on the wing). In order to play Fellaini, and stick to his 4-3-3, he’ll need to drop Witsel (having Fellaini as a central midfielder alongside Nainngolan) or play Fellaini further forward, shifting De Bruyne wide, meaning Carrasco (or Origi or Mertens) will be dropped.
Wilmots’ loyalty is laudable although, perhaps like Jogi Löw, may be his undoing and I’d expect him to start Fellaini against Italy, despite all of his defensive shortcomings. Witsel hasn’t looked particularly sharp in the friendlies and may be sacrificed as Wilmots looks to have De Bruyne, Hazard and Carrasco in behind Lukaku. Carrasco’s form in big matches for Atletico should make him a shoo-in to start, although Wilmots may have seen his impact as a sub in the Champions League Semi-Final and Final and decide to use him that way if Plan-Fellaini doesn’t come off. The presence of Witsel, irrespective of form, is almost a universal constant in the Belgium XI, and Wilmots may take comfort in having him as a defensive ‘axle’ along Nainngolan.
I’d love to see a swashbuckling, pacy and courageous performance from Belgium on Monday but I don’t expect it. A low-scoring caper, perhaps decided by set-pieces, is more likely. When all is said and done, once Wilmots’ white shirt is starched and pressed and Fellaini’s blow-dry has set, let’s hope that when Belgium’s fans ask ‘Waar is dat Feestje?’ on Monday night, those lucky enough to be at the new Stade de Lyon will reply ‘Hier is dat Feestje’, and school kids across this so-often divided country will be wakened by the united celebrations and endless car horns into the small hours.
My Preferred line-up (3-5-2): Courtois; Alderweireld, Denayer, Vertonghen; Carrasco, Nainngolan, De Bruyne, Dembele, Jordan Lukaku; Romelu Lukaku, Batshuyai. (Yes, no Eden Hazard – he’d be an impact sub alongside Fellaini or Origi).
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?
Yes, flying Frank does have a bit of the ‘Jesus Navas’ about him but he does support and provides Anderlecht an outlet where Suarez ghosts around
As I write this, Anderlecht trail early leaders KV Oostende by 5 points with a game in hand. It is early days in a Jupiler Pro League where far more is decided in the last ten games than the first owing to the love it/loathe it play-off system. None of the traditional ‘big’ teams have looked particularly convincing – Standard Liege have already sacked a manager – and typing the word ‘Hasi’ into Google proposes the search term ‘Hasi Buiten’ or ‘Hasi Out’.
However, Anderlecht produced an excellent performance on Thursday night against Monaco when many were pessimistic. It was not flawless by any means but one to give the fans hope. The main differences were the performances of Okaka, Defour, Najar and Praet. Having Okaka in that kind of form surely says to Hasi that he is the man to lead the line. He held the ball up brilliantly and was unlucky not to score himself. The conundrum is how to support him. The diamond/lozenge/distorted square 4-4-2 idea clearly hasn’t worked and its evolution should be filed under ‘failed experiments.’
The decline of Mati Suarez is sad to see. You can see what he wants to do a lot of the time but his body won’t let him do it and consequently his explosivity and danger is greatly reduced. The club has supported Suarez throughout his rehabilitation, even when he has been AWOL or recuperating in Argentina but the player who was to be sold for 15 million euros now looks like a player to be freed. He may still have the odd trick or assist up his sleeve but he looks a spent force.
Defour played in a deep midfield role against Monaco and was back to his best. This is where he should play every week for me. Harrassing, organising, tackling, motivating and carrying the ball from the defence. He played like the leader he was signed to be. The question marks over his fitness have not gone away but he pressed relentlessly until his substitution. Once he went off, the team lost its shape and the match became more of a free for all.
Andy Najar had an excellent game at right back, both defensively and going forward. I personally feel his attacking potential is wasted there though and he should only be played in defence when the opposition’s left winger is particularly quick (someone like Kebano). In fact, looking at the defence more globally, Anderlecht have a winger at right back, a midfielder and marauding left back in the centre and a midfielder at left back. The defence continues to look makeshift and untrustworthy. While Dendoncker filled in well, he is never a centre back, despite what Wilmots may think.
Now onto the Praet Conundrum: its own little sideshow. The assist he provided for Gillet shows you what Praet can do. He works hard and has excellent vision. However, he really doesn’t have the skill set to play wide. Football in Belgium seems obsessed by describing players as a ‘number 6’ or a ‘number 10’. However, these terms only mean anything when certain systems are played. So, to put it into Belgian terms, I’d play without a ‘number 10’ and play Praet centrally with Tielemans with Defour behind them. This would allow the team to play with genuine wide players and stretch the play.
In those wide positions should be Najar and Acheampong. Yes, flying Frank does have a bit of the ‘Jesus Navas’ about him but he does support and provides an outlet where Suarez ghosts around. Failing that, play Ezekiel or Kawaya out wide, coming in from the wings to support Okaka, who surely would like more cross balls. Hasi has options but needs to have the gumption to use them.
I have no idea how Hassan ‘Trezeguet’ fits into all this. I’ve yet to see him play and, to be honest, I’m not sure Hasi will know what to do with him either. Can he play in defence? No? That’s a shame. From what I read, he sounds like a Praet replacement.
So for the trip to the unhappy hunting ground of Charleroi (surely weakened without Kebano and Dewaest?), I’d line the team up like this:
I would have a fit and happy Anthony Vanden Borre at right back but that’s another can of worms that has already been opened. This team though, playing in that setup, should control the match rendering defensive frailties less significant. Are you listening Besnik?
“Paradoxically, the root cause of Belgium’s predictability is also often heralded as one of the main ingredients of its success – the 4-3-3 system”
Belgium’s gradual rise as a force in International Football culminated with the country peaking at a FIFA ranking of 2. Not bad for a country with a population of ten million and teammates who don’t all speak the same language. It’s no accident that the ascension to this lofty position has coincided with a ‘Golden Generation’ of players. Marc Wilmots is spoiled for choice in many positions. And yet, for all the talent on show, Belgium have become boring.
Wales showed the way in how to defend against Belgium in both qualifying matches. It was relatively straightforward. They simply defended deep, flooded the middle and hit on the break with the one thing Belgium couldn’t cope with: pace.
Looking at Belgium’s back line, it’s not the quickest. A dearth of talent at full back has led to centre backs playing there (usually Vertonghen and Alderweireld). This not only leaves the team susceptible to pacy counter attacks but also limits the attacking options due to their reluctance to overlap. I still think Kompany is one of the best defenders around and is a fabulous leader but even he isn’t as quick as he once was. Jason Denayer is one for the future in this position but is too inexperienced at the top level to be relied upon at the moment.
The central midfield also lacks pace. Nainggolan has shone in recent outings for Belgium meaning that he will deservedly anchor the midfield. Then there’s Witsel, who plays a controlled, if a little one-paced passing game very well. However, he offers very little as a goal threat. Other previous regulars like Dembele and Defour have fallen out of favour due to poor club form. Tielemans will play central midfield soon enough and is perhaps more direct than Witsel but, again, he remains untested internationally. That leaves big Fellaini. Wilmots simply can’t leave him out because Belgium look so much more dangerous when he plays and he is a goal threat. His second touch is usually a tackle and his tackling is clumsy but, as much as Wilmots would probably idealogically like to omit Fellaini and play Hazard or De Bruyne more centrally, he just can’t.
Which leads on to another issue. De Bruyne likes to cut inside from the wing into central positions. Hazard likes to cut inside into central positions. All of Belgium’s creativity comes from these two cutting inside. Which basically means, if you can stop them cutting in then you stop Belgium. Chris Coleman worked this out. They very seldom take on a full back and send a cross over which, when you have either Benteke or Lukaku up front, is what would hurt defences. It would be a very bold move for Wilmots to leave either of them out if fully fit but perhaps that’s what he must do.
Belgium go through the same pattern of play time and time again. They control possession, Witsel passes sideways, someone passes to De Bruyne or Hazard and then the wait for one of them to conjure something up, which they often struggle to do because they are outnumbered. Vertonghen and Alderweireld are not great at joining the attack but it is usually when one of them does that something happens because they give the playmakers options although their crossing – especially Alderweireld’s – isn’t the best.
Paradoxically, the root cause of Belgium’s predictability is also often heralded as one of the main ingredients of its success – the 4-3-3 system that is used and coached in Belgian youth football and is embraced almost unilaterally at club level under Belgian FA guidelines. All kids are growing up playing in this way and many believe it has helped global development of young players in Belgium and, looking at the players who have come through in recent years, it is hard to dispute that.
However, the Red Devils are not a youth team. Wilmots needs to integrate some tactical flexibility in his lineups and keep teams guessing. He has plenty options. Origi, Mertens, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, or Chadli are all players who could be integrated into a different formation and all possess pace. Wilmots needs to do something different otherwise the match against Bosnia will finish 0-0 unless a goal comes from a set piece.
It could be argued that, given the team’s excellent ranking, they must be doing something right. However, in order to evolve into a team that looks like being a genuine contender for major tournaments, Wilmots needs to help the team evolve. The World Cup showed that predictability is a major handicap. Everybody knew how Spain would play and look what happened whereas nobody was ever sure how Germany or the Netherlands would line up. Belgium had three narrow wins in an easy group, needed extra time against the USA and were impotent and lacklustre against Argentina. Belgium must dare to better themselves and that means leaving the comfort zone of 4-3-3.
I have woken up today to read speculation regarding Dennis Praet leaving Anderlecht for Wolfsburg. While a lot of idle speculation has been bandied around, this would be the perfect move for all parties.
Why is it good for Anderlecht?
Ever since Praet started to establish himself as a regular in the RSCA starting eleven, the same question is asked: where should he play? Recent abberations in tactics and formations notwithstanding, he doesn’t have the skill set to fit in with the way the team plays. That’s not to say I don’t think he’s a good player – he is a player with talent but Anderlecht don’t know what to do with him. Ten million euros would cover the shortfall from missing out on the Champions League.
Praet has no real pace and seldom dribbles past people (excluding him as a winger), is not a great finisher, often chooses the wrong option (both excluding him as a genuine number 10) and has no physical presence (possibly excluding him from playing central midfield). Yet he has been tried in all of these positions at Anderlecht without ever looking like a good fit.
Recently, Head Coach Hasi has (yes, ‘Hasi has’ as opposed to ‘Hasi hasn’t’) been playing a ridiculous narrow diamond formation with Praet at the attacking tip. This formation has been brought about to accommodate Praet as he is a more talented player than the wingers RSCA have available. However, in doing so, Hasi has nullified the effectiveness of others within the team. In other words, he has compromised the balance of the team to accommodate one of his ‘stars.’ That would be excusable if the said star was performing well but he hasn’t even been average.
Why is it good for Dennis Praet?
Dennis Praet has allegedly stated publicly that he wants to leave the club. Never a good way of endearing yourself to the loyal fans, especially through spells of poor form. The problem for him is that, based on recent form, who would want him? During last season’s playoffs and at the start of this season, he played at number 10 with little success. In the game last week at Oostende, nothing he tried came off (although, to be fair, he wasn’t the only one).
Moving to a club who are not the biggest club in the country (respectfully Wolfsburg, you’re not) will allow Praet to develop in more anonymity. He looks like he is playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Every missed pass, overhit cross and shanked shot seems to add to his misery. He needs new surroundings, new teammates, a different system and a different coach. Praet will learn from playing in a better league with more experienced and talented teammates and could flourish in a way he cannot at Anderlecht.
Even if things weren’t so gloomy for Praet at Anderlecht right now, the problem for me is that he has a coach who clearly values him but is unsure what to do with him. If Praet can develop a little more physically (remember he has only recently turned 21) then he could be a very good central midfielder. However, at Anderlecht, he’ll not get a game there. Not this season anyway. Not while Youri Tielemans is still there. To put it simply, Tielemans is one of the most sought after midfielders in world football (football365.com rated him as the number 1 breakthrough start in Europe). He needs a ball winner (i.e. Defour or Dendoncker) alongside him to allow him to be most effective. So Praet can only play on the wing or at 10 where he is less effective and cannot develop as a genuine midfielder.
Why is it Good for Wolfsburg?
There has been an awful lot of criticism of Dennis Praet given that he is the current holder of the Soulier d’Or (Belgium’s Golden Boot Player of the Year award). Some might argue with some justification – like that guignol Stephane Pauwels – that others deserved it more. However, during a two month spell, Praet played with confidence, scored goals and was dangerous. That player of vision, subtle craft and passing range must still exist.
At Wolfsburg, the new coach can put his arm around him, tell him how much he values him, play him alongside an enforcer like Luis Gustavo and watch him grow. I really don’t see him as a genuine replacement for De Bruyne as I don’t think he has the skill set for it. Somewhere, hidden amongst the angst and strain, a class footballer is waiting to burst out of Dennis Praet.
At a time when Anderlecht are playing the worst style of football I have seen in five years of following them, the coaching staff have decided to punish and demote a player for questioning their omniscience.
Anthony Vanden Borre has always been a controversial and sometimes divisive player. He can be clumsy and defensively negligent. He also, however, is a player who plays with passion. He cares. He can make the difference in big matches and was excellent in the Champions League, particularly in combination with Najar.
I certainly don’t believe that any player is undroppable. Vanden Borre started the season poorly and deserved to be dropped based on his form. No complaints. Whether that was down to his lifestyle, attitude in training, fasting, disagreements with the coaching team or just poor performances is irrelevant.
However, when one has lived the successes of a team, should they not volunteer suggestions to why it is currently failing? Perhaps the smart-arse way it was put over has been Vanden Borre’s undoing. Nevertheless, Hasi et al really ought to see that the collectivity, leadership, fight and general competence of the team is nowhere near the level that it should be given the individuals available. Sending a player to train with the kids for volunteering an opinion is a little militaristic and totalitarian.
Hasi’s insistence in playing a 4-4-2 with 4 central midfielders has been part of the problem. I would add to that the new signings, Obradovic apart, all look unfit. Only Gillet, about whom I have mixed feelings, looks genuinely match fit. There is a malaise at Anderlecht but I genuinely doubt Vanden Borre’s centrality at the source of it. He is an easy target given his troubles in the past. He is also a little bit of a loose cannon or maverick on the pitch making his ‘volatility’ more plausible. But why shouldn’t he be volatile when the coach hands a DVD to players when the coach was clearly tactically inept?
While I agree with Hermann Van Holsbeek’s assertion that ‘no player should be bigger than the club’, I would also make the point that there is a name for an institution where no decisions should be questioned: a dictatorship. Surely given recent performances, the coaching staff should be discussing performances with senior players and seeking opinion as opposed to sending them to train with the youth team if they disagree with a point?
The players don’t play like they are happy with the Anderlecht system and unhappy players play poorly. Take Dennis Praet. Everybody has had a pop at him recently and his performances have been poor. But he looks like a player bereft of confidence and unsure of his role. I can understand why he’d want to leave even though I agree his recent performances wouldn’t win him a move to White Star Bruxelles.
Anybody can make mistakes; players, coaches, journalists and even exalted board members. However, wise people learn from their mistakes. Einstein had a name for people who do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results. Hasi should bear this in mind, otherwise he might end up out the door faster than the oft-maligned Vanden Borre.