Is the Premier League witnessing a Belgian revolution?

Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke

I’m sure it hasn’t gone unnoticed this season that there has been a wealth of Belgian players, and in fine form too.  More than any other season, we have seen such a huge impact from the bullish, goal scoring bunch.

Out of all the goals that have been scored this season, 66 goals have come from Belgian players, with 43 assists coming from their boots too.  Only English players have topped this figure due to the large amount that play in the Premier League.

Christian Benteke is leading the way with a superb first season at Aston Villa with 19 goals.  Eden Hazard has 14 assists and 9 league goals to accompany yet another fine first season.  Elsewhere new debutant this season Jan Vertonghen has had a resounding first term for Tottenham Hotspur.  He has been somewhat of a rock at the heart of the Spurs defence, leading them to a top five finish.  For the same club, Moussa Dembele has shown signs of becoming a world class midfielder, his raw strength and battling presence have presented many opponents with a difficult problem.  Spurs have only lost three league games when Dembele has played this season.

On Merseyside, Everton midfielder Marouane Fellaini has had another solid term.  With his height, strong build and intricate ball skills, he has been a catalyst in the centre of the Toffees midfield.  When Manchester United came across Everton in a defeat earlier in the season even Sir Alex Ferguson made a comment about the Belgian:  “Fellaini is a handful. He is a big, tall, gangly lad and they just lumped the ball forward to him.

“That’s all they did. They worked from that base all the time and they got a goal from him, so it’s justified.” (BBC).

Both of these central midfielders have been at times something Manchester United have been missing – someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck and be that engine in the middle of the park.  And with the arrival of David Moyes and Fellaini saying he wants out, it’s something that could very well happen.  For the same team Kevin Mirallas has had a scintillating end to the season and again, this is his first season in English football.

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Further inland there is of course the man mountain that is Vincent Kompany, Manchester City captain and last Season’s Premier League Player of the Year.  Since arriving in 2008 Kompany has become a key figure in the Manchester City first team and was key to their Premier League success last season.  Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku has experienced life on loan at West Brom this season, netting 14 goals and grabbing seven assists.  From that list there have been four Belgian players who are new to English football but have taken it by storm.  Overall you can make a starting 11 from Belgian players in the Premier League:

First Team: Simon Mignolet (Sunderland), Dedryck Boyata (Man City), Jan Vertonghen (Spurs), Vincent Kompany (Man City), Thomas Vermaelen (Arsenal), Marouane Fellaini (Everton), Moussa Dembele (Spurs), Eden Hazard (Chelsea), Kevin Mirallas (Everton), Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea), Christian Benteke (Aston Villa) Subs: Roland Lamah (Swansea), Kevin De Bruyne (Chelsea), Steve De Ridder (Southampton).

A starting 11 which I’d wager would compete for a Champions League spot in the Premier League.  The youngest of this team being 20 and the oldest being 27, leading to an average age of just 24.  This is a team with youth and talent that could grow into a formidable force.  A force we are now seeing on the bigger stage with the Belgian national team.

In 2007 Belgium were 71st in the FIFA world rankings, now they lie in 15th.  With an impressive squad, full of youth and skill Belgium are currently top of their World Cup qualifying group.  Unbeaten in 6 games Belgium are flying high, with only two games left they have guaranteed a top two spot.  A stark contrast to two years previous when they failed to qualify for Euro 2012.  So what’s changed?

In 2000 after a dismal display at the Euro Championships which they co-hosted with Holland, the Belgian FA decided that their youth system needed a serious change.  They were very right to think that the modern game had evolved and that it had become much faster.  So they implemented development into those specific areas.  This however wasn’t enough, the FA sought out the help of the biggest clubs at the time such as Anderlecht, Genk and Standard Liege to implement a new philosophy.  They decided to use the 4-3-3 formation as a template for footballing strategy.  It allowed players to grow up within all the same framework and make them understand not only their position but their team mates too.  It eliminated the confusion of position responsibility as it mean’t wide players wouldn’t be sucked in to help their full-backs.

We see this on many occasions in a 4-2-2 formation when the wide player is left to cover and doesn’t do so, by taking the cover option away it leads to less confusion.  This also led to the central striker, who was raised from an early age, to hold up the play more and get his forward counterparts involved.  This all led to an improved team cohesion and Belgian players found their foothold in a team playing 4-3-3 formation.  It wasn’t what was best for the player, it was what was best for the team.  Since this, we have seen Belgian players enter the Premier League such as Lukaku who can still get seven assists as a forward or the likes of Hazard with 14 while also bagging nine goals.

As well as many players breaking through into the Premier League, there has been a change in the Belgian Pro League.  Reshaping it at the beginning of the 2009/10 season, teams were reduced from 18 to 16 and the league ended in playoffs.  This meant higher competitiveness between a smaller amount of clubs and gave other clubs a chance to win and therefore invest.  In the 2010/11 season Champions League spots were increased, not only the winner of the league but the runner up would enter the 3rd Qualifying round.  This meant whoever won the Belgian Cup, would qualify for playoffs for the Europa League.  This gave a greater opportunity for Belgian clubs to play globally and a chance for their players to show off.

What we are expecting to see is a young Belgium side come through and do very well for the foreseeable future.  Don’t be alarmed if Belgium make it past the quarter-finals at next years World Cup.  I strongly expect a Euro Semi-Final in 2016 also.  So scouts watch out, the Belgians are about.

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