Anderlecht are a club that keep it local, a look back at past managers shows a group of men who have their roots firmly based in, or around Belgian football with the majority of other experience being in the Netherlands, another breeding ground for the stars of tomorrow. Belgian football is fortunate in some respects to have not been invaded by foreign influence quite as much as many of the major European leagues, this makes sure the hierarchies at their major clubs, with the money to fund exceptional youth academies, care about the future of Belgium as a footballing nation rather than caring solely about the current fortunes of the clubs they are associated with.
R.S.C Anderlecht are one of the biggest clubs in Belgium and a major reason for this is their ability to create youngsters who have more than enough potential to become world class. The high transfer fees these players command can help Anderlecht fund their scouting and youth development programs for a few more years until they find their next batch of gems, and the cycle repeats itself.
Two recent graduates to come out of the Anderlecht youth system are Premier League stars Vincent Kompany and Romelu Lukaku, Kompany is arguably at the peak of his career and Lukaku, although still young is certainly showing signs of fulfilling the promise he showed after bursting into the Anderlecht first team at 16 years old. This recent surge of not only players who started out at Anderlecht, but Belgian players as a whole playing in the top leagues in the world is fantastic to see. Belgium went in to last summer’s World Cup in Brazil as 5th favourites and it is easy to see why, they have the captain of the Premier League champions in Kompany, Chelsea’s (who are most likely to take that crown) star player Eden Hazard and plenty of other established top flight players such as Dembele, Chadli and Vermalen to name a few. This golden generation of Belgian footballers will continue to enter major tournaments with high expectations, but what has changed at the heart of Belgian football to suddenly produce these world class stars?
Since 1998 Michael Sablon has had a massive influence on football in Belgian, particularly on youth development. Sablon’s ‘vision’ focussed on technique and playing with freedom which has often resulted in tackling being restricted until U-21 level, this freedom to take on a player has resulted in the majority of Belgium’s midfield being more than capable of taking on more than 1 player at a time (Hazard, De Bruyne, Mirallas etc) and the development of smart defenders who can look for an interception instead of a tackle. Although the majority of focus on the development of Belgian football is on the attackers it is these ‘fit for modern day’ defenders, like Kompany from Anderlecht, that have really impressed me.
Although many Belgian players, like Hazard, left Belgium far earlier than the FA would have liked they all still have been exposed to many of these new principles with the junior national teams throughout their development. If you look through the current crop of Belgian players you can also notice that, excluding Lukaku, many of these players went on to play for lesser teams in big leagues as opposed to making the impossible leap to one of Europe’s giants. Hazard went to Lille and found first team football quickly, aiding his development as did Kompany at Hamburg SV, even De Bruyne who was contracted to Chelsea from 2012 spend most of his days at Stamford Bridge far away at Genk and Werder Bremen. Lukaku had arguably the most potential out of any of the Belgian team at 18 and, although he is now still a fantastic player, I feel his 2011-12 season, spent rotting on the bench, cost him a lot more than he probably realises.
Anderlecht have embraced the new Belgian philosophy of focussing on developing players technical ability, but do so with their own twist. A fine example of this is the way many of their youth teams play a 3-4-3 formation (as opposed to the Belgian FA’s preferred 4-3-3) and aim for 70% possession. Keeping possession in a 3-4-3 is not easy and does not give players chance to knock it around the back and have an easy ride as a 5-3-2 would, techniques like this I feel are key to the development of these players, especially their vast array of ball playing defenders.
Anderlecht are in a constant cycle of almost guaranteed success, they sign the best youngsters thanks to their reputation of successful development, they sell them when they get better, they re-invest and create more of the same. The AEGON future cup, founded in 2010, is a showcase for the best young talent in the world and can give a pretty good idea of which teams are producing the best raw talent. Anderlecht are second only to Ajax, who have been arguably the best breeding ground for great players over the last 20 years, when it comes to winning this competition and these two teams are the only two ever to have won it.
Clearly Belgium are doing something right, and Anderlecht something very right when it comes to creating these modern players who can do a bit of everything, it is difficult to glue any one of the current Belgian national squad to one position which is no bad thing. Although many Belgian players are choosing to leave to continue their development overseas there is still clearly enough of an early influence, combined with influence from the national set ups to mould them into this new breed of Belgian player who light up our TV screens more and more regularly.
The best players are no longer 1 trick ponies, Belgium’s new crop of multi-skilled 20-something’s are certainly worth keeping an eye on.