Belgian football is currently experiencing a golden era, with the senior national team top of the FIFA world rankings and an impressive number of talented young players waiting to announce themselves on the world stage. TheHardTackle takes a look at five of the most promising Belgian talents aged 21 or younger.
For all the criticism Marc Wilmots may receive for being unable to get the best out of some of his star players in the Belgium national team, he deserves a huge amount of credit for putting together and nurturing a team of burgeoning young talents — most of whom were in the nascent stages of their football careers — who have only recently matured and begun to play with the authority that comes with that added maturity.
Among others, the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois have all cemented their place in the senior squad, and the experience of playing in a World Cup will no doubt hold them in good stead for the challenges of the 2016 Euros and those beyond.
One of the most impressive aspects of Wilmots’ management — even though it is likely part of a concerted strategy of the Royal Belgian Football Association — is his willingness to draft young players into the senior side and give them opportunities to showcase their ability.
That bodes well for the immensely talented young players who are likely to play a big role in the national team in the future. TheHardTackle takes a look at five youngsters who are destined to have an influence on Belgian football in the next decade.
1. Adnan Januzaj (Borussia Dortmund, on loan from Manchester United)
Position: Attacking Midfielder
The Manchester United starlet isn’t currently on the good books of Belgium U21 manager Enzo Scifo, for choosing to stay behind to train with Borussia Dortmund instead of reporting for international duty with the U21s for an important qualifier against the Czech Republic.
Marc Wilmots is unlikely to be impressed with that attitude, but it is clear that the 46-year-old rates him highly, not only giving Januzaj his d but prior to the 2014 World Cup, but also including him in the final 23-man squad for the tournament in Brazil. Quite simply, the 20-year-old is one of the biggest talents of his age in European football at the moment, and more likely than not, will be a regular in the national side over the next five years.
The attacking midfielder got his first real break under David Moyes at Manchester United in the 2013-2014 season, making a real impression on the Old Trafford faithful with his skill and composure on the ball. Januzaj has acknowledged that he prefers playing in the no.10 role, which makes sense given his skill-set is best suited to that position — a good first touch, quick feet to get out of immediate pressure, ability to thread a ball through to the strikers, as well as the ability to score goals himself.
Given the senior side has a plethora of wide players and wingers and no real no.10 with the exception of Kevin de Bruyne, who is himself employed on the right fairly regularly, Januzaj can be the understudy to the Manchester City playmaker, and eventually take over that role some time in the future.
With intense competition at Dortmund from the likes of Gonzalo Castro and Jonas Hofmann, along with the usual suspects — Shinji Kagawa, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marco Reus — Januzaj has seen little game time at the German club, meaning a return to United before the end of the season is on the cards. Belgium will certainly be hoping the youngster gets as many minutes on the pitch as possible.
. 2. Jason Denayer (Galatasaray, on loan from Manchester City)
Position: Central Defender
Jason Denayer is the very definition of the modern centre-back. In fact, what is arguably most impressive about the Manchester City youngster is how well-rounded a defender he appears to be already, at the tender age of 20. City’s expenditure of nearly a 45m to bring in NicolA?s Otamendi necessitated a loan move away from England for Denayer, who would otherwise have found game time very difficult to come by.
The centre-back hasn’t cemented his place in Galatasaray’s starting XI, but has made huge strides in terms of his national team chances. Wilmots handed Denayer his senior team d but in March this year against Israel, but it was his performance in a friendly against France in June that really stood out.
Belgium won the game 4-3 and although Denayer had to be substituted because of a knock, the win highlighted just why the 20-year-old is so highly rated. The former Celtic loanee is strong, relatively quick, very composed on the ball — occasionally striding out with it into midfield and finding a team-mate on the wings — and most importantly, has a defensive discipline that belies his tender years. Those very qualities were on display in Paris that night, and Wilmots compared Denayer’s cool collectedness to that of superstar Eden Hazard.
As such, Jason Denayer is the quintessential modern centre-back, and with the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld likely to continue as full-backs for the senior side, the youngster has the opportunity to challenge the likes of Nicolas Lombaerts and the oft-injured Thomas Vermaelen for a starting berth alongside captain Vincent Kompany at the heart of the Red Devils’ defence.
3. Zakaria Bakkali (Valencia)
Position: Attacking Midfielder/Winger
Bakkali made his senior d but for Belgium in October 2013 against Wales in a World Cup qualifier, but has since found opportunities hard to come by given the sheer volume of talent the Red Devils possess on the wings. Even so, the 19-year-old finally appears to be in a settled environment at Valencia, and given his ability, it will not be long before he is a regular in the Belgian senior squad.
The former PSV Eindhoven youngster prefers to play from the left flank, allowing him to cut in and operate with his favoured right foot. At just 5 ft. 5in., Bakkali is hardly a physical specimen, but makes up for it with his searing pace and outstanding dribbling ability. The 19-year-old is a good passer of the ball, and has the vision to drop deep, receive the ball, and thread it through to a teammate making a run ahead of him.
Bakkali is also a significant goal threat, possessing a sweet right foot. At PSV, he became the youngest player in the history of the Dutch Eredivisie to score a hat-trick — aged just 17 years and 196 days. His ability to accelerate away from his marker with a sudden burst of pace is reminiscent of Eden Hazard, as is his balance when running with the ball. It is no surprise that comparisons have been made between the two, but Bakkali has a long way to go before threatening the Chelsea FC star’s position in the senior national team.
Encouragingly, the young Belgian is receiving significant game time at Valencia, despite having to compete with the likes of Pablo Piatti, Sofiane Feghouli and teenager Santiago Mina Lorenzo among others. If Bakkali can hold down a place in the starting XI and continue to impress, it won’t be long before Wilmots gives him another senior international call-up.
4. Charly Musonda (Chelsea FC)
Position: Central/Attacking Midfielder
Musonda Musonda (or Charly Jr. as he is known) is arguably Chelsea FC’s best-kept secret — or was until recently, with the likes of AS Monaco, Manchester United and Arsenal FC now reportedly chasing the youngster. That in itself is an indication of how highly he is rated by those whose duty it is to watch him on a regular basis.
Musonda is an extremely versatile player and has played at central midfield for the Chelsea FC youth teams, as well as further ahead as an attacking midfielder. The 19-year-old is superb technically, has the ability to glide past opposition players with his pace and skill, and possesses a ferocious shot. He is an excellent passer, and has the ability to deliver a mean cross from a set-piece, as also the ability to score from one directly.
His greatest strength however, is arguably his work-rate. Although it seems almost absurd to say that given how good he is as a footballer, Musonda’s willingness to track back and help out defensively for the full 90 minutes is impressive — particularly for a player of his age. The midfielder is never afraid to put in a crunching tackle in midfield when needed, and this fearless attitude has seen him dominate some of the biggest games for Chelsea FC at youth level, including the UEFA Youth League final against Shakhtar Donetsk.
That the Blues have not loaned him out as yet is a travesty, and the stories in the media about his supposed unhappiness are thus not surprising. The midfielder has cemented a spot in the starting XI of the Belgium U21 side, but the domestic U21 level is already far too good for Musonda.
The diminutive midfielder is likely to have a stellar career, and Blues’ fans will be hoping it is at Stamford Bridge. If he sees regular game time at a senior level, a call-up to the senior Red Devils will not be too far away.
5. Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
Position: Central Midfielder
If there is one player from the list who is certain to cement his place in the senior Belgium side in the coming years, it is Youri Tielemans. The 18-year-old is arguably one of the most exciting young prospects in Europe at the moment, with several top Premier League sides believed to be monitoring his progress at Anderlecht.
Tielemans is a deep-lying central midfielder, usually tasked with protecting the defence and initiating attacks from deeper positions. The teenager’s calmness and composure on the ball is uncanny for his age, as is his passing range and ability to escape opposition pressure with jaw-dropping turns, and at times, Zidane-esque roulettes.
The Anderlecht midfielder is also an adept free-kick taker, and has the ability to chip in a few goals despite playing in defensive midfield. What is truly exciting about Tielemans, however, is that he combines his composure on the ball with graceful movement in midfield, giving the impression that he could well be the sort of player that is able to control the tempo of a football match.
Euro 2016 will probably come too soon for him, but it won’t be long before he makes his bow for the senior team. Aged 18, he already has two full seasons of domestic football in Belgium as well as UEFA Champions League football under his belt, and Tielemans is unlikely to stay in the Belgian Pro League for much longer.
There will be no shortage of takers for the immensely talented midfielder, and given he is mature way beyond his years, Tielemans will have no problems adapting to his new surroundings when he does choose to make the move.
Belgium’s much talked about golden generation is now ranked No.1 in the world, and Red Devils’ fans will be happy to know that the nation seems to be routinely churning out supremely talented footballers to help keep the country at the top of world football for years to come.
The challenge ahead is to ensure the development of these young stars and to oversee their transition into regular professional football at the highest level, and ultimately, to integrate them into the Belgium senior national team.
The future of the sport has never been more exciting for Belgium.