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.
“Then there is the flying Acheampong. He is probably the fastest player and best dribbler in the team and could be a terrific player. However, wingers are expected to be good at crossing and provide the occasional goal.”
Since moving to Belgium in 2011, I have supported RSC Anderlecht. They were, after all, my local team. In the first year, they were managed by Ariel Jacobs and the team was exciting. We had attacking talent like Jovanovic, Mbokani and Matias Suarez (when he was fit). Biglia, recovering from a bad injury, marshalled the midfield and the team looked established and everybody knew what they were doing. They, deservedly, ended up champions.
The following year, Van den Brom came in and we looked laboured but made a great start in the league before stumbling over the finish line. The team declined until the playoffs last year until the board said enough was enough and Van den Brom was out and his no. 2, Besnik Hasi, promoted to manager. He got the team fit, motivated and hungry again. The Anderlecht of the playoffs last year were impressive. 4-4-2, high pressing, Kouyaté and Tielemans forming an unlikely but effective midfield partnership, Cyriac supporting Mitrovic and Vanden Borre and Najar combining excellently on the right, and Bruno making excellent contributions.
In 2014/15 however, things haven’t gone quite right. 3rd in the league, defeat in the cup final offset by a decent Champions League performance in a tough group that they were unlucky not to advance from. The most disappointing aspects for me were:
the concession of so many late goals; Arsenal and Galatasaray in the CL, Brugge in the cup final and numerous times in the league.
the predictability of the build-up play
the lack of a killer touch from the supporting midfielders and over reliance on Mitrovic.
I will analyse the performances of the players individually and collectively and outline the lessons we can learn from 2014/15.
I have been a big fan of Silvio Proto in goals. He is passionate and has performed to an excellent standard over the years. However, this year, he has been culpable on a number of occasions. He has suffered too many personal calamities as well as organising and co-ordinating a defence that has leaked goals at set-pieces. With the possible return of Kaminski from loan and the emergence of Davy Roef, Proto is no longer guaranteed to be the RSCA number one. I feel his Anderlecht future is in doubt, especially after his recent public (deserved) criticism of his teammates.
Davy Roef has been outstanding when called upon in big games and may well be the new number one. On verra. Kaminski will not stay unless he is told he will be the number one, whereas Roef might be content to play backup for one more year. Mile Svilar, in the U-17s, is already being courted by a number of big clubs so he seems a propect for a few years time.
Right Back: Anthony Vanden Borre had a storming end to last season but he has never looked properly fit this year and has been defensively negligent in some big games. That said he is a wild card option and could, and perhaps should, play in midfield. Maxime Colin has been consistent and unlucky to cede his place to Vanden Borre. He is less of a maverick and perhaps more the player Anderlecht need in defence.
Left Back: Well, Oli Deschacht has been outstanding all season. He played the first few games at left back. Yes, he isn’t that quick but he is an excellent defender who adds a bit of height and his forays forward are usually quite effective. However, he has perhaps been best in central defence so I’ll mention him more there. Fabrice N’Sakala is, for me, the type of player that many a British coach would love. Fast, reasonable tackler, bags of stamina. He is, however, positionally negligent all to often. He does do a lot of good things but he makes too many mistakes as well. And then, the player who could well emerge as next year’s left back, Frank Acheampong. Very much a winger in his skill set but, with coaching, he could be a fantastically quick left back where his inability to finish or produce assists is less important.
Centre Back: This position has been frequently disrupted all season, especially with Nuytinck’s injury and Mbemba going to the AFCON and getting injured. Chancel Mbemba has continued to perform fantastically. I would have him in my team for next season but he’ll go to a bigger team or a bigger league. He is ready. His absences have harmed Anderlecht. Oli Deschacht started the season as a left back but played most of it in the centre and he has, deservedly, been nominated as Anderlecht’s player of the year. He has been collossal in so many ways and is a leader in a team that lacks big individiuals. It’ll be interesting to see if he plays centre back next season or not. His call-up for Belgium, despite being well into his thirties, is entirely deserved.
Then there’s the others. Bram Nuytinck definitely has a top class defender waiting to burst out of him but his positioning and commitment have come under question. He has recently, however, signed a new long term contract – and I’m sure he is being well paid – suggesting that Hasi and Van Holsbeek see him as part of the future of the club. I see ability but wait to be convinced. Michael Heylen is still young and needs more time to develop. Maybe next season will be his time? Unconvinced at the moment though. Rolando was never going to stay. He has looked composed and is a top class player but I’m not sure his heart was in it.
Central Midfielders: I wasn’t sure about the signing of Steven Defour but he is a beast and the kind of player every team needs. However, there are massive question marks over his fitness. He has missed a significant part of the season and is frequently subbed at half-time or early in the second half to keep him for the next game. That said, he is a leader, he has drive, he does the dirty work and he gets forward and chips in with goals. I see him as the type of player who would bring a lot to an Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool. They all need a winner like him. However, since coming to Anderlecht, he has won nothing. Yes, he is temperamental and volatile (in French, de four would mean ‘of the oven’ and quite a few have had their fingers burned) but he was exactly the right kind of signing for Anderlecht. In order to succeed next year, they need him firing on all cylinders.
Youri Tielemans has had a difficult season but he has all the makings of a top class player. While I see Marc Wilmots’ logic in bringing him into the Belgium set up, he is not quite ready yet and is still nowhere near Defour’s level. I do think, however, next season will be his year, having left school and signed a secure contract. In a year’s time, big clubs will come crawling but he needs another season at Anderlecht and the club need him to play his natural game. He has been guilty of trying too hard and has lost his place as a result of that this season. Leander Dendoncker should be very pleased with his season, where he went from a developing fringe player to a full first team player. He has been effective although I’m not sure if his limited ambition on the pitch is due to his skill set, fear or tactics. I don’t think he is ready for Belgium either and, while I think he has done well, I don’t think he is in the class of Tielemans.
Dennis Praet was the 2014 Golden Boot winner. He was voted as the best player in Belgium. He had a good play-offs last year, stuck out on the left, but he worked hard and was effective. He then had an outstanding period around October and November, playing as the number 10 in a 4-2-3-1, when he started converting nice flicks and clever passes into goals and assists. Whether he deserved the Golden Boot or not, I’m undecided. However, injury and inability to recover this form have stunted his progression and, most likely, prevented him from getting his big move. He probably wants to go and feels he is good enough but he has been poor since his return. Praet is a bit of a conundrum for Anderlecht. He is a skilled player who doesn’t score enough, isn’t that quick, is quite lightweight, often chooses the wrong option and wins little in the air. Yet, he is clearly a gifted footballer who, with the right coaching, could be a real top player. The problem is where to play him. He disappears too often in an advanced position and is anonymous for large parts of the game. He does work hard and the wide positions may well be his place to grow.
Wide positions: For me, this has been the area that has disappointed most. Andy Najar has had a mixed season. He was excellent at the end of last season and started the champions league well this year. However, and I’m not sure if this is tiredness from the World Cup, he sometimes looks disinterested. He is the one wide player we have though who can produce an end product. Ibrahima Conté is the one that really gets me. Hasi seems to like him but I have yet to see him do anything that impresses me. The occasional nice touch but never in a dangerous area. Wingers like him should be able to beat a man and cross well: that is their raison d’etre. When he refused to score an open goal at Zulte, I lost faith in him and I feel completely justified. Then there is the flying Acheampong. He is probably the fastest player and best dribbler in the team and could be a terrific player. However, wingers are expected to be good at crossing and provide the occasional goal. His return is feeble given how many games he has played this year. He used to excite me when he got on the ball but I’m used to no end product now. That’s why I’d play him at left back. He’s like a cage fighter who has 120kg of pure muscle and osteoporosis. Marko Marin arrived unfit and it looks like he’ll leave unfit. It was a bold move by the Anderlecht board and I completely understand the logic but he doesn’t look like the answer and looks like a flop at the moment. Maybe he just needs a good pre-season and a run of games but he disappointed if truth be told. Kabasele played a few games earlier in the season but seems to have fallen out of favour. He always seemed tenacious enough but hasn’t, as yet, shown the magic. Andy Kawaya may establish himself next season. He has generally been an 80th minute substitute and it has been difficult to appraise him properly.
I could just write Mitrovic and we’d be done. Honestly. Since the early part of the season, Hasi has gone with one up front and has made it clear that Mitrovic is his first choice. To be fair to Mitrovic, he has improved a lot this year. He has worked much harder for the team and his finishing has been clinical. He gives defenders a really rough time and is constantly fouled. That said, he is no stranger to a yellow card himself and needs to keep his discipline better. The biggest problem for Mitrovic has been lack of support. Whenever he gets a good cross, you’d back him to score. He is going to be a divisive character wherever he goes but he has proven himself this year, ending up top scorer in Belgium by some distance. In previous seasons, Anderlecht had a number of scorers getting 7-10 goals per season but this year it really has just been Mitrovic. Praet and Defour scored 6 each. And that says it all about the other forwards.
Cyriac, who started the year up front with Mitrovic, is a willing worker but he came out and publicly criticised Mitrovic. Hasi burned him after this and he has fallen behind Leya Iseka, an emerging player who is not quite ready but may have potential, in the pecking order. Idrissa Sylla was signed injured in January. Personally, I thought that was crazy. Why sign an injured player and pay his wages when he is unavailable? He therefore cannot be judged yet.
Then there is Mati Suarez. Undoubtedly talented, yet the saga leaves you wondering what is going on there. There must be more to it. I remember two seasons back when CSKA Moscow offered 15 million euros for him and he looked like leaving. Good player but a lot of money. Then came his first bad injury. He recovered and then Suarez pulled out of the deal. A big offer came in from the Middle East but the club refused it. I’d bet they wished they hadn’t. His recovery from the second injury has been incredibly prolonged, including his two-week fine for having an extended break, and I wonder if his heart is in it or if he has given up in Europe and wants to go back to Argentina. ‘El Artista’ would have undoubtedly made a difference this year if fit. The question is, will he ever be fit and will his face fit?
Hasi was the reason Anderlecht won the title last year. Him, and a choking Standard Liege. He probably exceeded expectations in the Champions League and deserves credit for that. However, the number of lapses, especially from set pieces, is a criticism he must accept partial responsibility for. He tried playing 4 central defenders against Standard recently and the team were lame. However, he accepts responsibility. He changes systems and players when he sees something isn’t working. He doesn’t have blind loyalty to certain players. And, perhaps most of all, the players are clearly still playing for him and he is, without doubt, the boss. He encourages his players constantly, is always giving instructions and wears his heart on his sleeve. He deserves to be given more time.
Who Will Leave and What do we Need?
Definitely leaving: Mbemba – either EPL or La Liga. FC Porto also heavily linked. Cyriac – end of contract and he wants to play. Rolando, Marin (technically still at Chelsea) and Gillet will also be looking for new clubs. A goalkeeper will also leave; probably Kaminski but possibly Proto.
Probably Leaving: Mitrovic – A Premier League club will buy him. Anderlecht may wish to keep him another year but, if a bid of over 12 million Euros came in from Swansea or Newcastle, he’d be off.
I think Praet and Tielemans will go at the end of next season. Nobody is likely to bid for Defour as his fitness is questionable, as good as he is. Andy Najar probably hasn’t done enough to earn a big move.
We desperately need more of a killer touch up front. If Hasi wants to play the 4-2-3-1, then Mitrovic, or his replacement will need supply and support. A player like Massimo Bruno who chipped in with plenty of goals from out wide. That type of player is needed again. I can see Nuytinck and Deschacht as the central defence next year, with Heylen and one other from the youth setup providing cover. If Mitrovic leaves, I’d like to see him replaced with a goalscorer. I haven’t seen enough of Sylla to have confidence and we cannot rely on Suarez.
Otherwise, the philosophy of promotion from the academy at Neerpede has to be the way forward. Expect to see more of Kawaya and Leya Iseka next season, although I’m not sure to what extent.
Finally, in a year without champions league football, a good European run playing pressing and intense attacking football would keep the fans hungry and excited. A club like Anderlecht should be able to make an impact in the Europa League.
So, let’s get back to the aggressive pressing attacking that was our signature at the end of last year and abandon the deliberate build-up with flooded flanks and overlaps with only Mitrovic to aim at. Let’s build on the excellent foundations we have. Teams need to be afraid when they come to our place again – afraid of the intensity, atmosphere and passion. We can bring this back. We are able to rediscover this hunger. We have the appetite. We are Anderlecht!