Nov 17

10 random thoughts from watching Belgium play Wales

Eden Hazard - happy to be the main man. (copyright - John Chapman)

Eden Hazard – happy to be the main man. (copyright – John Chapman)

As an aside, the first thing we learned is that I should stop forecasting. OK, I said it would be a draw but I felt there would be goals. End result: nine shots on target – the total from both teams.

Apart from that, what struck me early on in the game was that Eden Hazard was really up for the game – much more than usual for Belgium – and that this was having the effect of diminishing Kevin De Bruyne’s role.

Here are the 10 things we learnt last night (or at least over a croissant and coffee this morning):

1. Both Hazard and De Bruyne want to be the main man (in attack). This is tricky as they have totally different styles and whoever is the (main) playmaker dictates the way the team plays.
2. In the game last night, Hazard was excellent but by moving into the centre – to take on his responsibilities, as he said – De Bruyne (who achieved little) was forced to plug gaps elsewhere.
3. If Hazard is to be given the number ‘10’ role, or if he takes it, then it would be best to choose two real wingers – from Dries Mertens, Adnan Januzaj, Kevin Mirallas when fit – and that would leave no place for De Bruyne.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)


4. Neither De Bruyne nor Nacer Chadli look particularly happy on the wing – they need to be more involved; in the centre (if selected).
5. Belgium do not yet have an international-class centre forward: Christian Benteke is too static, Romulu Lukaku is limited technically and Divock Origi is a great prospect but raw.
6. Toby Alderweireld looks much happier as a centre back than at right back; unfortunately he will have to go back there when Vincent Kompany returns.
7. Axel Witsel is world-class playing in front of the defence – disciplined, reads the game well, hardly ever makes an error.
8. Marouane Fellaini is a ‘Plan B’ at best; Wilmots has other options for a box-to-box player in a 4-3-3 formation, they include Roma’s Radja Nainggolan.
9. Although Marc Wilmots said five points from nine was not a catastrophe, three of those were against Andorra.
10. Belgium have not improved (‘trained on’ in horseracing terms) since Brazil and Wilmots needs to shake things up. There are young players on the fringes who could come to the fore in the next couple of years, while several of the current squad are there based on reputation.

Nov 15

Brussels – setting for a game of Devils and Dragons

Kevin De Bruyne - seen as Belgium's main man (Copyright - John Chapman)

Kevin De Bruyne – seen as Belgium’s main man (Copyright – John Chapman)

Belgium face Wales on Sunday and you’d expect an air of confidence about a team placed fourth in the FIFA rankings facing one in 34th position. But it’s not quite like that. Although Marc Wilmots’ men defeated Iceland 3-1 on Wednesday, both the coach and the performance were heavily criticised.
Wilmots rested several players (most notably Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli) but the back four was the one that will face Wales and that’s the area that received most of the criticism. And it wasn’t just from the media, with Thibaut Courtois also weighing into his team-mates.

The Chelsea keeper wasn’t happy about certain players relaxing in the second half – even asking Wilmots to make some substitutions. Courtois also accused the full-backs (Anthony Vanden Borre and Jan Vertonghen) of neglecting their defensive duties. The Belgian media weren’t impressed either but it must be remembered that the Iceland game was a friendly and Wilmots was experimenting.

At one stage, Christian Benteke, Divock Origi and Romelu Lukaku were all on the pitch as team-mates – that’s probably never to be seen again. But if Wilmots hadn’t tried something, he would have been criticised for not using the opportunity to look at a few fringe players.

Options for the Belgium team

Jan Vertonghen - captain of Belgium tomorrow Copyright - John Chapman)

Jan Vertonghen – captain of Belgium tomorrow (Copyright – John Chapman)

Central defence used to be the area where Belgium had an embarrassment of riches, with seven seemingly first-class contenders in the squad. Things have changed since Brazil. Daniel Van Buyten, who had a great tournament, has retired, Thomas Vermaelen now spends most of his time in the Barcelona medical room and Vincent Kompany is ‘again’ out injured.

This means a new back four with Zenit’s Nic Lombaerts now in command of the defence. He’s a fine player who deserves a chance but he’s not a proven leader. Alongside him will be Southampton’s Toby Alderweireld; he’s surprised me by adapting so well to the Premier League, but he’s hardly a seasoned international centre back. As a by-product of Alderweireld’s switch, Vanden Borre is the first-choice right back, which could bring its own problems, given his wish to plough forward.

Due to the lack of defensive nous against Iceland, Wilmots has said he’ll move Lombaerts’ club colleague Axel Witsel back in front of the back four – a position in which he is world-class – and De Bruyne will come in as the main creative force. He’s on fire in the Bundesliga with nine assists so far.

For the box-to-box role (no. 8), it’s a toss-up between Marouane Fellaini and Roma’s Radja Nainggolan. The current has never really flowed between Wilmots and the Roma warrior and Fellaini could get the nod, with the latter’s height being seen as a big advantage.

Axel Witsel - will lead from the back against Wales (Copyright - John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – will lead from the back against Wales Copyright – John Chapman)

Chadli had been in excellent form for Spurs and is a firm Wilmots favourite – he’ll come in on the right with Eden Hazard on the left. Hazard has a poor record for Belgium and Wilmots presumably lives in hope that his next game will be the big one.

Up-front, Benteke had a reasonable return to the side on Wednesday and it’s between him and Liverpool’s on-loan to Lille Origi for the no. 9 spot. Again height could play a part and Benteke could stay in the team, even though the Lille man’s speed could be useful.

Wales – thoughts and selection options

For a view on the Welsh team, we caught up with Rich(ard) Evans (@welshric1980) who will be at the game tomorrow and supports both Wales and Spurs. As an aside, in today’s ‘La DH’, Chadli said he’s not Gareth Bale … he’s Nacer Chadli and he has different qualities.

Returning to Rich, although he thinks most Welsh fans would usually regard the team’s chances as ‘dim’, this time he feels things could be different as there’s now “a desire in the team to win every game.” Rich also thinks that the team and fans are behind Chris Coleman, even though his “tactics and style are at times still questionable”.

Another big positive for Rich is that the team has many players from the Premier League and Championship – plus one from La Liga – whereas in previous years, it was quite common for Leagues 1 & 2 (i.e. the third and fourth divisions in England) to be extensively represented. Rich adds that many of those players could be said to be in a “rich vein of form”.

Rich expects Coleman to go 4-5-1 (or some variant). He feels there won’t be much change at the back with Crystal Palace’s Wayne Hennessy in goal behind Reading’s Chris Gunter, Hull’s James Chester, Swansea’s Ashley Williams and club colleague Neil Taylor – rather than Ben Davies, who “hasn’t really done enough yet at Tottenham and is probably low on confidence.”

Obviously the big advantage for Wales is the pairing of Aaron Ramsey and Bale – two world-class players who have rarely played together for the national team. Rich sees Ramsey starting in the middle of the park with Palace’s Joe Ledley and Liverpool’s Joe Allen; Leicester City’s Andy King is out, suspended.

As for the forward line, Rich adds “without there being an obvious or prolific ‘centre forward’ type we may see the front/wide three, i.e. Bale, Reading’s Hal Robson Kanu and Birmingham’s David Cotterill, interchanging a bit.”

Game forecast

Gareth Bale in Real Madrid kit (Picture - Wikipedia)

Gareth Bale in Real Madrid kit (Picture – Wikipedia)

Rich argues that Belgium start favourites and should win even if they are not at their best. However he notes Wales’ “obvious sources of firepower” and thinks the visitors could “exploit some potential defensive weaknesses and indifferent form” and get something from the fixture.
I agree, as I think the newly-formed Belgian back four could struggle. After the World Cup, Wilmots said he would aim to play a more attacking game. He’s changed his mind now and hence Witsel is back patrolling the space (s) in front of the back four.

The form of Belgium’s strikers is also a concern, as is Hazard’s inability to play for Belgium. In the national team, much more of the play goes through De Bruyne, and Hazard sees much less of the ball than he does at Chelsea. Maybe that’s why De Bruyne is no longer at Stamford Bridge. (Ed: He’s joking.)

Given all that, I am going for a draw (2-2) with both Bale and Chadli getting on the score-sheet.

Likely teams:

Belgium

Courtois; Vanden Borre, Alderweireld, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Witsel, Fellaini, De Bruyne: Chadli, Benteke, Eden Hazard.

Wales

Hennessy; Gunter, Chester, A. Williams, Taylor; Ramsey, Ledley, Allen: Bale, Robson Kanu, Cotterill

Nov 09

Big test for the Buffalos

Top cuisine

Anderlecht travel to Gent today and it’s a clash between the top two. These are heady days for the Buffalos, an ambitious club who play in a state-of-the-art stadium, the Ghelamco Arena, which also houses a Michelin Star restaurant.

Hein Vanhaezebrouck (picture - http://www.kaagent.be/)

Hein Vanhaezebrouck (picture – http://www.kaagent.be/)

Gent have never won the title, finishing as runners-up in 1954 and 2010. Things were looking good five seasons ago when Michel Preud’homme was at the helm. He said he wanted to make Gent a top team but only lasted a couple of seasons before heading off to FC Twente.

Since then, Gent have had seven coaches, including Francky Dury – now back at Zulte Waregem – and Bob Peeters, now at Charlton Athletic. No coach as had any success, for any number of reasons. Now, though, things are looking up. In the summer, Gent appointed Hein Vanhaezebrouck.

Coach with a big reputation

Vanhaezebrouck has had a big reputation in Belgium for a number of years, doing an excellent job at Kortrijk on limited resources. He had a blip in 2009 when he moved to Racing Genk and only lasted a few months following poor results. Returning to Kortrijk, Vanhaezebrouck did enough to be elected Coach of the Year in Belgium in 2012.

Vanhaezebrouck has a reputation for being meticulous in his planning and studies the opposition carefully. He probably tried to introduce too many of his ideas too soon at Genk and he’ll have learnt from the experience. He’s not afraid to change tactics during the game and has put together a squad that contains several players who he knew at Kortrijk.

Andrew Gibney, Editor of the French Football Weekly, met Vanhaezebrouck a few years ago and was struck by how approachable he was. Gibney says he was interested in what they were doing – a charity walk – and “gave them all the time in the world.”

The squad

Sacha Kljestan may play centre back for Anderlecht today (opyright - John Chapman)

Sacha Kljestan may play centre back for Anderlecht today (opyright – John Chapman)

Looking at the Gent squad, it has the appearance of being a team without stars. One player who does catch the eye is Benito Raman – 20 a few days ago. I included him in my young players to follow back in 2012 and he’s now showing what he is capable of. He spent his early days on the wing but he’s now assuming more responsibility just behind the striker. Raman has been named in the Belgium U21 squad whose priority is the 2017 European Championships.

Other than Raman, Gent has a top keeper in Matz Sels (22) and a useful playmaker in Swiss/Bosnian Danijel Miličević. Others, such as Sven Kums, were known to Vanhaezebrouck at Kortrijk.

The game

As for the game, if Gent win they will go top. Anderlecht have injury problems, especially in defence. Sacha Kljestan may have to play centre back and this makeshift back four may find it hard to cope with Raman. Anderlecht will also be meeting up with David Pollet, who had a very short and unsuccessful spell at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium.

Anderlecht have a young and talented squad but results have been poor recently. If they still have their minds on the Champions League ‘success’, Gent may be well organised enough to take the points. If that happens, expect Vanhaezebrouck to take a lot of the credit.

Nov 08

Anderlecht – Belgian giant and feeder club for Europe’s big leagues

As Lady Gaga once said, football is a funny old game. Going into their Champions League match with Arsenal on Tuesday night, Anderlecht were seen as lambs to the slaughter. They had won one of their last five league games and would be without Steven Defour and Matias Suarez through injury and Alexsander Mitrovic as he had lost form and gained weight.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Young players like Dennis Praet and Youri Tielemans have already got high-profiles but no one seriously thought that the Belgians would get any mind of result at the Emirates stadium.
In the event, things went as expected for an hour but then Anderlecht decided to turn up scoring three goals in 30 minutes. Being the Champions League, the come-back had the football world talking and they were talking about Anderlecht.

Anderlecht have won 33 titles since 1946, including the last three. The Brussels club has long had a reputation for youth development, although it has to be said that those youngsters are often picked up after starting their careers at other Belgian clubs, i.e. Praet from Genk.

Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku are often cited as the success stories of Anderlecht’s youth policy but others didn’t stay at the club for too long. Adnan Januzaj and Charly Musonda Jr. were two of Anderlecht’s brightest stars but both left for Manchester United and Chelsea respectively before they had signed a professional contract.

Now Tielemans is hailed as the true successor to Kompany, seemingly being of a similar temperament and maturity at an early age.

Following the club’s exploits at the Emirates stadium, it’s of interest to note just how many players have been selected, this week, for the various Belgian international teams.

Vincent Komapny - stayed at Anderlecht for a few years (copyright - John Chapman)

Vincent Komapny – stayed at Anderlecht for a few years (copyright – John Chapman)

Praet and Anthony Vanden Borre, the prodigal son, have been selected in Marc Wilmots’ squad to face Wales. There are five players in the U21 squad, including Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker who both featured at the Emirates.

Four players feature in the U19 squad, one of which is Andy Kawaya who was an excellent substitute in London. Finally, there are three Anderlecht players in the Belgium U17 squad and seven called up for the U15 training camp; and Liam Bossin is in line to keep goal for the Ireland U19 team.

No surprise then that there will be many club scouts turning up at Gent’s Ghemalco Arena on Sunday, when the two top teams in the league meet. Anderlecht will again be suffering with injuries, Chancel Mbemba is now doubtful, but there will probably be at least 10 players aged 20 or under in the squad that travels to Gent on Sunday.

Charly Musonda Junior - one that got away (Copyright - John Chapman)

Charly Musonda Junior – one that got away (Copyright – John Chapman)

Anthony Vanden Borre - Anderlecht's prodigal son  (image: Wikipedia).

Anthony Vanden Borre – Anderlecht’s prodigal son (image: Wikipedia).

Talking to Sport/Foot magazine, Vanden Borre said that the youngsters of today tend to get in your face more than in his day. Knowing his reputation, that’s saying something. He added that as one of the older players, he sometimes has to take one or two aside if they get a bit out of control, and give then a slap or two (said with a big smile on his face).

Vanden Borre certainly overruled Tielemans in London when he insisted he would take the penalty even though the youngster had been designated to take spot-kicks by coach Besnik Hasi. He didn’t go as far as giving Tielemans a slap but he did make his point, adding later, “That was my penalty. No discussion. I wanted to score two goals in that stadium.”

Vanden Borre might be thinking now of a return to the Premier League, while Honduran Andy Najar and Congolese international Chancel Mbemba have also caught the eye this season.

But it’s players like Praet, Tielemans and Mitrovic – who put his name back on the map with his 90th minute equaliser – who will probably be at the top of visiting club’s shopping lists. Anderlecht will get possibly £30-£35 million for those three players alone and then the whole development process will start again.

Nov 03

Dennis and Youri head for the bright lights of London

Just under two weeks ago, with two minutes of official time remaining at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium remaining, Dennis Praet trotted off the pitch to a standing ovation from the Anderlecht fans.
He’d been the standout player in a sparkling display against Arsenal and he’d created Andy Najar’s goal that had given the Brussels side a precious lead.

A young Dennis Praet celebrates the title a couple of years ago.

A young Dennis Praet celebrates the title a couple of years ago.

Within minutes his world, and Anderlecht’s, had collapsed as first Kieran Gibbs and then Lukas Podolski gave Arsenal a win that they hardly deserved.

A close runner-up as Man of the Match had been Anderlecht’s 17 year-old Youri Tielemans. The youngster had been superb in a central midfield role alongside Steven Defour and one long cross-field pass from left to right had been almost worth the admission fee on its own.

Praet and Tielemans have taken different routes to the Anderlecht first team but they are now seen as the two of the team’s brightest talents. As could be expected, big clubs are buzzing around.
Praet is three years older than Tielemans and spent his formative years at Racing Genk. Moving to Anderlecht in 2010, he made his first team debut one year later.

The teams mingle just before the kick-off the last time around.

The teams mingle just before the kick-off the last time around.

He’s long been seen as the ‘next big thing’ in Belgium and Anderlecht put him on a salary pf 800,000 euros per annum a year before he’d established himself in the first team. This astronomical sum, for Belgium, led to Praet being envied at his secondary school by fellow pupils and teachers alike.

When Praet first broke into the first team with the accompanying hype, the rather scrawny Praet looked like a boy amongst men. The then coach John van den Brom tended to play Praet wide on the left and eventually left him out of the side.

When van den Brom was sacked, new coach Besnik Hasi put his faith in youth and placed Praet in his rightful place at number ‘10’. The midfielder has since put on much-needed muscle and gone from strength to strength.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Youri Tielemans warms up before the kick-off against Arsenal.

Praet probably surprised Jack Wilshere by the way he tracked back and disposed him on at least two occasions. He’s a genuine playmaker and with his newly-found stamina, he could soon begin to live up to the hype.

Playing just behind Praet against Arsenal in a 4-3-3 formation were Defour and Tielemans. Tielemans burst on to the scene last season when he became the youngest Belgian ever to play in the Champions League, aged 16 years and four months.

A future leader, on the pitch and in the dressing room, Anderlecht’s Anthony Vanden Borre has said that Tielemans was better at 16 than Vincent Kompany was at that age. Perfectly bilingual in French and Dutch, like Kompany was at that age, Tielemans has had the good fortune – again like Kompany – to have parents who were prepared to put education before football.

Tielemans had the good fortune to have Cheikhou Kouyaté, now at West Ham United, alongside him when he first played in the first team and he has also benefited from the arrival of the experienced Defour this season.

Tielemans has the style, all-round game and personality to go far. Along with Praet, he will be knocking on the door of Belgium’s national team when the European Championships come around in 2016.

Anderlecht ready to go.

Anderlecht ready to go.

It’s unfortunate that Defour will be missing at the Emirates tonight through injury. It’s likely that Hasi will go 4-3-3 and opt for either US international Sacha Kljestan or 19year-old Leander Dendoncker to replace the ex-Standard Liege warrior.

Whatever the side that Anderlecht put out, Arsenal will start favourites. But if Anderlecht can play like they did for 88 minutes on the last time the teams met, it could just be the night when Dennis and Youri take one more step in their journey on to Europe’s bigger stages.

For the rest, Aleksandar Mitrović is still out of favour and Ivory Coast striker Gohi Bi Cyriac is likely to start on his own up front.

Oct 13

Belgium’s midfield options as good as any other country

Belgium play Bosnia and Herzegovina tonight in Sarajevo. On paper it looks like the toughest match in the qualifying group. Last week they easily beat Andorra and now the hard work starts.

Looking at the Belgian squad, the strength lies in midfield. Even though Zenit’s Axel Witsel and Everton’s Kevin Mirallas are missing through injury, there are no less than nine candidates for five places.(Assuming: 4-2-3-1)

Kevin de Bruyne - one of Wilmots' untouchables (copyright John Chapman).

Kevin de Bruyne – one of Wilmots’ untouchables (copyright John Chapman).

A couple of years ago I wrote about six of those: Chelsea’s Eden Hazard, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini, Spurs’ Moussa Dembélé, Napoli’s Dries Mertens, Anderlecht’s Steven Defour and Wolfburg’s Kevin De Bruyne. Since then, the midfield area has been boosted by Spurs’ Nacer Chadli – who moved to the Premier League a couple of seasons ago – Manchester United’s Adnan Januzaj and Roma’s Radja Nainggolan.

If you throw in Monaco’s Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Thorgan Hazard and Anderlecht duo Dennis Praet and Youri Tielemans, you could argue that by the time the 2016 Euros kick-off, the Belgium coach – and it could well be Marc Wilmots – will have 15 candidates for five places. At 27 years and 4 months, Mertens is the oldest of that group.

Steven Defour - back in the team after retruning to the Belgian league - (copyright John Chapman).

Steven Defour – back in the team after retruning to the Belgian league – (copyright John Chapman).

As well as having a high number of players to choose from, several – including de Bruyne, Witsel, Chadli and Defour – can play in a number of midfield positions. De Bruyne is happiest in the no. 10 position but he can also slot in at no 8 or on the wing. Witsel can play in front of the back four and in a more advanced role, as can Defour. Chadli has played centrally and on the flanks for Belgium.

Since the World Cup finals, Belgium’s options have been boosted by the – some would say late – arrival of Nainggolan in the squad. Since his high-profile move to Roma, he’s been a little more on Wilmots’ radar but it wasn’t enough to get him in to the squad for Brazil.

Nainggolan is another versatile midfielder, capable of playing box-to-box or sitting in front of the back four. The Roma team is quite capable of winning the Scudetto and if it does it would not be a complete surprise if Nainggolan was named Player of the Year. But that’s just supposition; the fact is simply that Belgium’s squad is now much stronger with a warrior such as Nainggolan in the frame.

As for tonight’s game, Defour and Nainggolan will sit in front of the back four with De Bruyne in a more advanced role. Despite Eden Hazard hardly ever playing well for his country, he returns on the wing and surprisingly Lille’s Divock Origi, on loan from Liverpool, comes in on the wing. My money would have been on Chadli staying in the team with Origi in the middle.

The team is therefore: Courtois, Alderweireld, Kompany, Lombaerts, Vertonghen; Nainggolan, Defour, de Bruyne; E. Hazard, Lukaku, Origi.

Sep 04

Belgium says farewell to two top men

Club Brugge's Timmy Simons - leading from the front ( Copyright John Chapman)

Club Brugge’s Timmy Simons – leading from the front ( Copyright John Chapman)

Before the match with Australia, two of Belgium’s most-capped players, Timmy Simons and Daniel Van Buyten, will get a chance to say farewell to the fans and for supporters to say thank you for a job well done.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have long been an admirer of Simons. He’s been a great servant for Lommel, Club Brugge, PSV and Nuremburg. He’s captained most of those clubs and is now winding down his career in a second spell at Club Brugge. At the end of the season, Simons will join the coaching staff at the Jan Breydel stadium and it would be no surprise if one day he became a top coach, perhaps of the national team. Simons has played 93 games for Belgium and only Jan Ceulemans has played more.

Daniel Van Buyten - final training before Brazil (copyright John Chapman)

Daniel Van Buyten – final training before Brazil (copyright John Chapman)

Neither Simons nor Van Buyten could be described as particularly gifted players, but both have made the most of their abilities. They always gave 100% for club and country and Van Buyten in particular looked more comfortable playing for the national team at the end of his career than he did at the beginning. It was sad to see Van Buyten often criticised by the Flemish press in his younger days but that is a price that sometimes has to be paid by Belgian players. Van Buyten played for Charleroi, Standard, Marseilles, Hamburg and Bayern Munich and was wanted – as was Simons – by Anderlecht in recent times. Van Buyten played 85 times for his country and was one of the top performers in Brazil.

Both players were in the Belgium 2002 World Cup squad in Japan and South Korea. Both will be missed.

Belgium’s most-capped players

1. Jan Ceulemans 96
2. Timmy Simons 93
3. Eric Gerets 86
4. Franky Van der Elst 86
5. Daniel Van Buyten 85
6. Enzo Scifo 84
7. Paul Van Himst 81
8. Bart Goor 78
9. George Grün 77
10. Lorenzo Staelens / Marc Wilmots 70

14. Vincent Kompany 64
19. Jan Vertonghen 62
21. Moussa Dembélé 59
26. Marouane Fellaini 56
33. Axel Witsel 53
36. Eden Hazard 51

Sep 03

Belgium’s return marred by off-the-field strife

It’s difficult to know where to start when writing about the Belgium team ahead of tonight’s friendly match with Australia. So much has been happening off the pitch since the World Cup, it’s not easy to say much about the forthcoming game that is at all relevant.

For the past couple of years, the Belgium team have been climbing up the FIFA rankings, which are not particularly relevant either, with the result that – certainly at the World Cup – they were many people’s favourite second team.

The performances in Brazil probably lost the team quite a few admirers. Despite reaching the quarter finals, they only showed any semblance of form when they beat the USA in the one match that got people on the edge of their seats.

Captain Kompany - strong man in the set-up but could be missing from the action again.

Captain Kompany – strong man in the set-up but could be missing from the action again.

Marc Wilmots came in for a fair amount of criticism for his tactics, or rather a lack of them, but that shouldn’t have come as a surprise as he’s new to the coaching game. He’s continually refused to admit he needs someone to help him on the tactical side, saying that most of his players are experienced and, for example, don’t need advice on how to take corners or free-kicks.

Since Brazil, however, stories have started appearing in the media about dissent in the camp. It’s said that senior players, not named of course, are not happy and feel they need a more experienced and tactics-savvy man at the helm. At the same time, reports say that Wilmots has the full support of Vincent Kompany. If true, that should be enough to keep him in his job for the moment.

During the World Cup, media stories appeared saying that, again, senior players were not happy that Kompany was being accorded preferential status. The captain avoided appearing at press conferences, always being replaced at the last moment, and was not available to speak to the national press. When he was uncertain to play, no one in the squad knew until the last minute if he would appear and Wilmots said that the decision would be left entirely to the player.

It’s unlikely that Wilmots would say that about anyone else. Indeed, the coach’s great strength has been that he’s not bowed down to ‘stars’, even though almost the whole squad are with Premier League clubs and earning a fortune, far more then Wilmots himself.

Unfortunately, the problems don’t lie solely with Wilmots and the squad. In parallel to the stories about dissatisfaction in the camp, there have been reports about total incompetence off the pitch. The focus has been on the famous hotel reservations for WAGS which, after Wilmots said – before the tournament – that they were not welcome, were not cancelled by the Football Association. The bill came to 300,000 euros. Assuming that there had to be a finite number of wives, that left room for an awful lot of girlfriends.

Then there was the infamous ‘camp’ set up for supporters by the Belgian FA in Brazil. Conditions were said to be deplorable and complaints have been received at the FA’s ‘Glass House’ in Brussels.

Axel Witsel will have more freedom tonight. (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel will have more freedom tomorrow night. (copyright John Chapman)

Furthermore, senior members of the Belgium FA, led by CEO Steven Martens, are apparently entitled to bonuses based on the squad’s performances. Added to that is the speculation that the bonuses were agreed by a committee that included Martens himself.

As for the players, many fans – especially younger ones – will feel let down by the team’s refusal to return home to a hero’s welcome. During the World Cup, support for the team was at a fever pitch and the whole country came to a standstill when the team played. Even before the team left for Brazil, some 20,000 fans had watched training sessions.

One can understand that the players were disappointed not to at least reach the semi-finals but to snub the fans – as they apparently did – in saying no to a ‘welcome home’ party fans showed a lack of judgement at many levels.

In the event, the players made a half-hearted appearance on the balcony of the Hotel de Ville[1] in the famous Grand Place in Brussels; however, that was only after an intervention by Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo. Before Brazil, comparisons had been made with the triumphant scenes in the Grand Place back in 1986, when Belgium had – somewhat fortuitously it has to be said – reached the semi-finals. Back in 1986 though, the players were simply footballers, this generation are multi-millionaires.

Radja Nainggolan - he should get 30 minutes tomorrow at least.

Radja Nainggolan – he should get 30 minutes tomorrow at least.

Against this background, the match with Australia pales somewhat into insignificance. Today’s news was that Kompany has a calf injury and is unlikely to play. That would be no surprise as the captain has only played in four of the past 11 friendly matches.

Prior to that Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, who probably wouldn’t have started, both withdrew from the squad. With Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini out injured and with Daniel Van Buyten having hung up his boots, there will be a few new faces on view – certainly when the substitutes start appearing.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect on the sporting front is Wilmots’ acknowledgement that Zenit’s Axel Witsel will have a freer role. After a couple of seasons keeping guard in front of the back four, Wilmots has said that he will share that duty tomorrow with Anderlecht’s Steven Defour (4-2-3-1). If things go awry though, Wilmots has said he’ll revert to the standard set-up.

Apart from that, it was good to see Wilmots say that Roma’s Radja Nainggolan will get 30 minutes, although he’s worth more than that.

Next Sunday, the Belgian FA have organised a Fan Day … in Ostend.  That’s met with some criticism from those in the south of the country and after the refusal to meet the fans when the team returned from Brazil, there’s a feeling that this is too little, too late.

 

[1] I’ve used Hotel de Ville and Grand Place as Brussels is primarily French-speaking. In Dutch, the equivalents are Stadhuis and Grote Markt.

Jul 25

The Jupiler Pro League is back to little applause

I’ve been watching Belgian football for many years. I don’t like criticising it but with the league season starting today, I’m in a negative mood.

Vincent Komapny - graced the Belgian league for a few years (copyright - John Chapman)

Vincent Komapny – graced the Belgian league for a few years (copyright – John Chapman)

I’ve seen some top players and great characters in the Belgian league: Pär Zetterberg, Walter Baseggio, Gert Verheyen, Jan Koller, Timmy Simons, Vincent Kompany, Axel Witsel, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and many more.

Last year I was concerned when Thorgan Hazard won the ‘Golden Shoe’. He’s a good player, I have no doubt about that; but when a 20-year old with two years’ experience and no international caps (except for a friendly) is the best player in the country, then alarm bells start to ring.

If anything, the quality of the league has dropped compared to last season. Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno had departed, as has Standard’s Michy Batshuayi. Genk’s Jelle Vossen looks likely to follow them, while Club Brugge’s Maxime Lestienne and Thomas Meunier are itching to leave but have no takers – a different kind of worry.

It’s not the clubs’ fault that players want to leave for greener pastures and they can’t be blamed when players like Adnan Januzaj and Charly Musonda Jr. pack their kit-bags and catch the Eurostar aged just 15.

Countries like Belgium do deserve some sympathy as their clubs struggle on with small budgets – 11 of the 16 clubs in the first division have a budget of less than 10 million euros – low salaries that can’t attract even average international players, and the consequential miniscule TV rights.

Anderlecht's Massimo Bruno - has moved to Austria.

Anderlecht’s Massimo Bruno – has moved to Austria.

However, if this was a game of poker, then the Belgian league, while having been dealt some bad cards, has been playing them very badly.

The clubs have been guilty of introducing and prolonging the inequitable playoff system. It’s now being rolled out for the fifth time. This renders the league games prior to the playoffs practically meaningless. All points gained are halved when the classic season ends so a defeat means the loss of 1 ½ points!

It’s universally recognised therefore that the season only gets underway on April 4, 2015, when the top six go into the battle. And it’s not too difficult to forecast who that will be.

Lucas Biglia - went from Anderlecht to the World Cup final. (copyright John Chapman)

Lucas Biglia – went from Anderlecht to the World Cup final. (copyright John Chapman)

Furthermore, as the season has to be extended to fit in the extra playoff matches – 10 games per club – it has to start earlier. Today!

So there will be five weeks of the league prior to the transfer window closing. Almost all of the top clubs have said they are not ready for the season to start and with the transfer window open, any good players are more likely to leave than arrive.

In one sense it doesn’t matter as the clubs are only playing for 1 ½ points for the first eight months – there are no six-pointers in Belgium. April 4th may be a long way away but the feeling is that the local fans are being short-changed. They don’t pay the extravagant prices that exist in the Premier League and perhaps Belgian fans prefer to watch MOTD with a couple of Leffe Blondes at hand.  But when you think back to the days of Enzo Scifo, Michel Preud’homme, Frankie Vercauteren, Robbie Rensenbrink and Luc Nilis, you have to admit that it’s all gone sadly wrong.

Jun 30

Belgium Expects!

Divock Origi - the latest man in the headlines (copyright John Chapman)

Divock Origi – the latest man in the headlines (copyright John Chapman)

Tomorrow, Belgium will play its most important game for 12 years. On 17 June, 2002, Belgium lost 2-0 to Brazil in a match remembered by Belgians for Marc Wilmots’ disallowed goal. Now Wilmots is back and he’s in charge of a group known variously as ‘a golden generation’, ‘dark horses’ or ‘everyone’s favourite second team’.

That’s because half of the squad play in the Premier League and as everyone knows, it’s the greatest league in the World. Well, the most spectacular perhaps but not always with matches of the highest quality. The end result has been, whichever way you cut it, that although Belgium have got maximum points, the performances have not lived up to the (over-hyped) expectations.

The team has not really clicked and so far they’ve managed about 20 minutes of effective football. As for the Premier League stars, the major contributions to-date have come from Axel Witsel (Zenit Saint Petersburg), Dries Mertens (Napoli),  Divock Origi (Lille) and Daniel Van Buyten (unattached).

There was a five minutes cameo from Chelsea’s Eden Hazard against Russia and, to be fair, he had a clutch of Russians watching him closer than the KGB. I am not saying the squad is not talented. It most certainly is, but this young group is inexperienced at the highest levels of international tournament football. They are on a learning curve, as is Wilmots.

As for the latest player to arrive on the back pages, Origi is an interesting character. Aged 19, his Kenyan father played for Oostende and Genk and Divock was born in the former city. Unknown a couple of weeks ago except to his family, friends and Lille supporters, Origi scored against Russia and now Liverpool have offered 10 million euros for the boy. Romelu Lukaku – yesterday’s top teenager – has several points to prove.

Axel Witsel - Belgium's Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

Axel Witsel – Belgium’s Mr. Consistency (copyright John Chapman)

But what about the USA? I spoke to Liviu Bird, who writes for Sports Illustrated and – during the World Cup – the Telegraph, about American ‘soccer’. Asked about expectations, He feels that the fans didn’t think Klinsmann’s men would emerge from a group that contained Germany and Portugal.

There’s a parallel here with Belgium, as most fans felt they would get out of their – relatively easy –group, but would then have problems with Portugal, possibly, and Germany, certainly. So it’s a game that no one foresaw; of the two teams, the US squad has the better form to-date.

Americans are excited about the progress, and Liviu says that’s true even for those who only watch ‘soccer’ every four years. Likewise, Belgians are getting behind Wilmots’ team in a way that has never been seen before. The country is awash with Belgian flags – in a country that is not known for nationalism – and there has been massive merchandising and a spectacularly successful marketing campaign which led to all of the qualification games being sold out.

But that’s where the comparison ends as the USA has 300 million inhabitants while Belgium has 11 million. That makes it the size of Ohio.

Part of the Belgian branding

Part of the Belgian branding

Liviu highlights Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman as USA’s stand-out performers in the group stage. None can be said to be household names – certainly not in Belgium – in the sense that they haven’t had Premier League exposure but they have all been doing the jobs that Klinsmann asked them to do.

He included five German-Americans in his squad and both Johnson and Jones have fathers who were US servicemen. That gives this American team a multicultural feel which is increased when the Icelandic, Norwegian, Haitian and Mexican-Americans are added in. Belgium, of course, has a squad that includes players whose roots can be found in the Congo, Morocco, Spain, Mali and Martinique. The Belgian Football Association was somewhat behind the French equivalent in enticing second-generation immigrants into the fold but it’s paying off now.

Team captain Vincent Kompany - no word on his fitness until tomorrow (John Chapman copyright)

Team captain Vincent Kompany – no word on his fitness until tomorrow (John Chapman copyright)

According to Liviu, the Belgian players getting most of the publicity are Hazard, Lukaku and Fellaini which again takes us back to the power of the Premier League. He argues that USA will play in a defensive mode and hope to breakdown Belgium on the counter-attack. My gut feeling tells me that Belgium might play the same way – even if Wilmots selects an attacking line-up on paper – and that this could lead to stalemate. Tactically, Belgium needs to play to its strengths – on the wings – and bring whoever plays, from Hazard, Mertens, Mirallas and Januzaj, into the game as fast as possible. Belgium’s play has been somewhat laborious to-date and it needs to change.

If it is a stalemate, Wilmots has gone as far as saying he has seven names in his head if it comes to penalties.  As an aside, he mentioned that Hazard, Mertens and Kevin Mirallas are useful penalty takers but, as usual, he’s keeping his cards to his chest.

Tomorrow will be a big game. The USA didn’t expect to get this far and Belgium didn’t think they would be playing the Americans. Both teams will treat the other with respect but don’t expect a spectacular game. And remember, Lionel Messi and his chums are likely to be waiting in the wings.

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