The Belgian invasion, in all its irony, of the Barclays Premier League has been waiting in the wings for a while now, with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini, Thomas Vermaelen and Mousa Dembélé gaining world wide recognition. Yet it seems this season they have launched a full scale attack with the introduction of top class members of the international team into the league, whilst those already gracing the Premiership continue to improve in terms of stature and also ability.
THE INITIAL SETTLERS
When considering the first Belgian settlers, although dipping in performances for Arsenal of late, Thomas Vermaelen impressed in his first season with his tenacious defending, ability to strike the ball sweetly and goal scoring threat. He was perhaps the first sign that this small nation was capable of producing world class talent, and with the benefit of hindsight, it appears those who believed so were 100% right.
In more recent seasons, avid viewers of the BPL have marvelled in the performances of Marouane Fellaini. Displaying a tenacious, verging on aggressive, approach to the game, Fellaini excelled in his role as a holding midfielder by providing not only a menacing physical presence but an unrivalled aerial prowess. However, the same poise that Arsenal’s centre back displayed at times has become more evident in recent months as Fellaini has been as effective, if not more so, in an attacking position. Not only has he continued to dominate aerial duels with even the largest of defenders, this attribute has become a devastating weapon in terms of assists and goals. In his 23 Premier League appearances he has scored 11 goals, an impressive ratio that most strikers would be happy with. He has contributed to, surprisingly only 4 assists, however his presence in the opposition’s penalty area contributes massively to Everton’s success, although in a more indirect manner. Even more impressive has been his mastery of control, although sometimes appearing unorthodox, with all parts of the body, as well as his ability to strike the ball with venom, especially on the volley. Like most of the players I will look at in this piece, the fact Fellaini is showing ability and an attitude beyond his years of 25, only bodes well for what we can expect to see of him in the future, and I have no doubt that even if he does make a big money move this summer, he will continue to show us his immense ability as a footballer.
Although being signed by Sven-Goran Eriksson many years ago, we have only recently begun to see Vincent Kompany’s proficiency as a centre-back. He began his career in the mould of a holding midfielder and was occasionally deployed in this role in his early years at Man City, but, with great emphasis on his performances last season, we are now witnessing possibly one of the best central defenders in the game week-in week-out. Kompany proved as Man City’s title winning captain that not only is he one of the best centre backs in the world, but he performs at this level consistently and thus is considered, along with Yaya Toure, one of the key components in Man City’s superstar team. Last year he was a rock at the heart of City’s defence and displayed leadership qualities well beyond his 26 years. Strong in the tackle, relentless and intelligent in terms of marking, and committed to every header, there is no doubt that again Belgium can lay claim to a player who would be a prize assest to any team in Europe. Also, despite that Kompany is perhaps of a different mould to Vermaelen mentioned earlier, it is in fact proof that Belgium are not only able to develop fantastic players but are able to do so without conforming to any particular footballing stereotype. Unlike the ‘small and technically gifted’ Spanish players or the ‘clinical and efficient Germans’, this country does not necessarily produce players of one particular style, more so an array of varying talent that alone is cause for Belgium’s enormous potential as a successful nation. If they are able embrace the versatility amongst their best players, I am sure they will pose a threat to their opposition in so many different ways, and with the levels their players are already at as well as the rate they are improving, this could be as soon as Brazil 2014.
Mousa Dembele is without a doubt one of my favourite players in the game. His impressive performances for Fulham last season in the heart of their midfield earned him a move to Tottenham, at a ridiculously cheap price for someone of his immense ability. Considering his performances over the last season and a half, it is hard to believe that Dembele began his career much higher up the pitch, operating as second striker or even the focal point of the attack. Yes, he has the technical ability, pace and power to be a striker, but his role at Fulham last season and at Spurs this season allow these attributes to flourish, opening our eyes to someone who I consider the complete midfielder. Despite being an Arsenal fan I often watch Tottenham play, and even saw a fair share of Fulham games last season in which I have never been short of in awe of Mousa Dembele’s performances. Firstly, he is deceptively quick, he is deceptively strong and he is deceptively skillful. The combination of these three atributes alone mean that despite his deeper role in midfield, he has the necessary skill set to not only dictate play, but play the entire game at his tempo. Furthermore, I rarely see Dembele get tackled, his ability to turn a defender and run between opposition lines means he always maintains possession, but more importantly takes players out of the game. These abilities have also improved his defensive side of the game. He can beat opposition players to a loose ball, and has the necessary poise and agility to retain the ball and his balance afterwards. He often shrugs advancing attackers off the ball and many a time provides excellent cover if the opposition manage to escape one of his teammates. I really find it hard to express how good I think Dembele is, but i sincerely believe he is a world class midfielder. His passing and dribbling, in conjunction with his physical atributes means he is a match for any type of opposition, whilst also posing a dynamic threat, wherever he is on the pitch. Mousa Dembele will only improve due to again being only 25 years of age, and in my opinion will not only be pivotal to any success Tottenham are to have in the future, but also encapsulates the immense talent within Belgian football today and excitement surrounding their potential.
WHAT WE CAN LOOK FORWARD TO
Many of the new Belgian arrivals to the Premier League season have been of a young age, but even before seeing them play we had some idea of their talent, due to the hefty fees their services commanded. Sir Alex Ferguson said that £34 million was too much to pay for a player of such a young age, but considering that player in question had won consecutive Ligue 1 Player of the Year Awards, and consecutive Young Player of the Year Awards before that, gave us some idea that Eden Hazard was going to be something special, and in my honest opinion he has even exceeded expectations.
His impact this season has been instantaneous, taking no time at all to settle in to the pace of the English game. With an inherent sense of balance, uncanny agility and exceptional dribbling ability, Hazard has not been victim to the high-speed tempo of the Premier League, and to some extent has flourished in it. We have seen him make a mockery of numerous players with his direct and proficient dribbling style, yet this is far from his only talent. His intelligence and composure in the final third are a hallmark of his playmaking ability and we have witnessed glimpses of these through his ability to pick out a pass as well as a natural understanding of where he, and other people, should be, or will be, on the pitch. His intelligence however is also matched by his proficiency as a winger, a role in which he is direct, skillful and fast. This deadly combination has resulted in 14 Premier League goals (26 appearances), split evenly between assists and individual goals, but even those impressive stats do not tell the whole story. With the focus placed on Juan Mata, who is another player taking the Premier League by storm, Hazard’s contribution is in some ways subordinated. Yet, he has been equally as impressive due to not only the fact he is playing in wider areas, whereas Mata is deployed as the lynchpin of Chelsea’s attacking threat, but contrary to prior reports of Hazard’s character, he has shown a great maturity about his role in the team and never appears to try and put himself in the spotlight. What’s more, he is only 22 years of age, which in itself is a frightening prospect for everyone other than Chelsea and Belgium fans. The level of quality he is showing us now is only going to become more regular and of an even higher order, thus Sir Alex Ferguson’s qualms about spending £34 million on a player will seem more and more ridiculous as Hazard develops. Not only will this personally make me extremely happy to see Ferguson proved wrong, but with all subjectivity aside, surely no one can deny that even at this very early stage in Hazard’s career, he is already showing the potential to be a truly world class player, which in today’s footballing climate is a priceless asset. (Unless of course you’re Arsenal…)
The final pair I am going to give specific focus to is the extremely, and equally as exciting prospects of Christian Benteke (left) and Romelu Lukaku (right), who this season have been revelations for their respective teams.
The reason I have to decided to speak about these players collectively is that they share pretty much the same impressive qualities, blessed with both an immense physicality, as well as gifted technical ability (that may have gone unnoticed to some), making them nothing short of the complete forward in my opinion. Lukaku’s edge over Benteke in terms of pace is immediately countered by Benteke’s slightly superior technical ability, yet they both share a frame and stature that would strike fear into any centre back around the world. What is even funnier however is that they have both shown the pinnacle of their ability and physique against Liverpool this season. Benteke gave us a glimpse of the perfect marriage between strength and guile with his goals and extravagant assist; whilst Lukaku epitomised the target man role by not only holding the ball up when receiving it on the rare occasions he did, but by putting Jamie Carragher on the floor with his superior strength, or leaving him for dead in what can only be called an extremely one-sided foot face, on every occasion the two of them were pitted against each other.
Romelu Lukaku, despite being younger (19) has had much more attention due to his big move to Chelsea and the hefty transfer fee he commanded. However despite a nervous start to his Chelsea career, which was surely to expected from such a young player, he has shown at West Brom this season that not only is he blossoming into a wonderful talent but has only strengthened the claims that he could be Chelsea’s new Drogba in years to come. He has typified West Brom’s success this year with 12 goals in 25 games, as well as two assists, again showing that even at such a young age he has the ability, as well as the confidence, to play at the highest level. I have no doubt that Romelu Lukaku will becoming a leading Premiership striker in the future and his progress will be avidly followed by many that have recognised his ability this season, and due to his completely professional attitude in conjunction with his imposing stature and the electric pace to match, his future genuinely excites me, yet, similar to Eden Hazard mentioned earlier, this can only be good news for fans of Chelsea and the Belgian national team, especially if he becomes the world beater he is suggesting he can be.
With regards to Benteke, his explosive impact has been somewhat understated and overlooked due to the fact, despite his telling influence, Aston Villa find themselves fighting to stay in the league. You may argue that Lukaku’s development is not a surprise due to the hype surrounding him from such a young age, but no one can deny that upon Benteke’s arrival in the summer, no one expected the immediate impact he has had and that although his performances this season have come as a complete surprise, they are no less impressive than those of his national teammate. With a similar record of 11 goals in 25 games, but a slightly greater tally of four assists,for a team much worse off than West Brom, Benteke is also giving us food for thought in terms of whether Paul Lambert has treated us to a potentially world class talent. On watching Benteke this season, despite flashes of brilliance it is clear that his talent is still very raw and is perhaps why at the age of 22, we are only beginning to take notice of his talent at all. Yet despite this, it would be a complete injustice not to give him specific mention in this article as, again like Lukaku, his combination of physicality, technical proficiency and clinical finishing has been a delight to watch this season whilst because of his performances, increasingly more and more people are beginning to join the Christian Benteke fan club, something I am a staunch advocate of.
Overall, I think these two strikers will both become supreme talents in the Barclays Premier League, however the only thing that disappoints me is the unlikelihood they will feature together in the national team, due to an inherent fixation of all football teams on a 4-2-3-1 formation. But saying this, I am optimistic that both will get the chance to justify my opinions about their current ability and potential on the national stage because to have either one of them on the bench is far from a bad option and strengthens the underlining argument of this article that Belgium are going to have one hell of a team in the years to come.
As I have said numerous times in this article I am nothing short of ‘a kid in a candy shop’ when it comes to the potential of the Belgium national team, and their individual stars. It is also important to say that despite concentrating on the Premier League, I have (due to wanting to finally publish the article) omitted some other exciting talents not only from world football, but from the league itself.
For example, there is a lot of excitement surrounding the progress of both Chelsea’s on loan midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, as well as their young goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. Also, Simon Mignolet has been one of the best goalkeepers in the league this season, whist Jan Vertonghen has been equally as impressive for Spurs and even Everton’s Kevin Mirallas has shown signs he is a potentially useful player.
Around the world, the likes of Dries Mertens for PSV deserve some attention as he seems to be scoring regularly and exepmlifying his technique through the art of scoring some incredible free kicks. Moreover, Zenit’s Axel Witsel not only seems to have a lot of buzz around his potential but the fact Zenit paid such a huge amount for his services suggests he must have some degree of talent.
All in all, without writing too much more, it is clear to see that not only are we blessed with some magnificent Belgian footballers in the Premier League, many of which I am eager to see improve, but there are many more players who have yet to catch our eyes. However, I think the most important point to take away is that this small European nation may indeed enjoy a prolonged period of success in the future, especially if they are able to incorporate the massive pool of ability into one united team.
I can only imagine there is a constant level of excitement surrounding Belgian football at the moment, and I for one share that excitement and my only wish is that I could have the same degree of optimism for the future of England. But I suppose that’s just greedy…