It seems that having a Belgian player amongst your number is in vogue in the Premier League. The already-established names of Marouane Fellaini and Mousa Dembélé have begun this season, garnering critical acclaim, with the latter commanding a £15m transfer fee from Tottenham Hotspur. Even Romelu Lukaku looks to be over his nightmare year at Chelsea, beginning life at the Baggies brightly.
For more than a few years now, Premier League scouts have graced the Pro League in search for gems, but only this summer has it become more apparent that there can be some bargains available if you look hard enough. It’s also become painfully obvious that some clubs will quite gladly take a punt on unproven talent, just because other Belgians are doing well. Let’s have a look at some of the new names from the Belgian Pro League and what some English fans can expect for their outlay:
Let’s start off with the transfer that shocked me the most on Deadline Day™. After Aston Villa’s fairly poor start to the season, Paul Lambert was looking to if at all possible, add some much-needed firepower to his newly inherited side. Much has been made of Randy Lerner’s tightening of the purse-strings but this move doesn’t half strike of desperation. I understand that Lambert, especially at Norwich, likes to nurture young players, but does he have time to do that at Villa, when they could be set from a relegation dogfight for another year?
To clarify, I’m a huge fan of Christian Benteke’s even if I don’t think he deserves a Premier League move yet. The Congolese-born Belgian has flitted between Standard and Genk (with quick stops in Kortrijk and Mechelen too) in his fledging career and the reason for that is his petulant and abrasive attitude. He’s brash and has courted controversy many times (search Benteke and carjacking on Google and you’ll see why). But last season, he looked to have turned a corner with a string of impressive performances at Genk, most of which were in the Playoff phase.
The 21-year old’s consistency up front for Racing rightly secured him a starting berth in the recent friendly against neighbours Holland. New national team coach Marc Wilmots clearly rates him and he grabbed himself a goal, making a mockery of Joris Mathijsen at the back, with a very smart finish. As that goal shows you, his best aspect of his game is his positioning. The amount of times he finds space is frightening. By the same token, his worst aspect is his finishing, in the sense that he’s never really been clinical. In his last game in Belgium against Zulte-Waregem, he missed at least 3 gilt-edged chances right in front of goal. Once he got going with Genk last season (and the start of this one), he does find the net with some frequency but his lack of a predatory instinct had dogged him at previous clubs. Perhaps his head had been turned by the purported English interest last week.
As some remarked to me on Twitter, he has an air of an Eredivisie striker in him. He reads the game quite well, but I’m not sure just he can be relied upon straight away. Benteke has already talked up a partnership between him and Bent (Villa fans can stick an extra ‘eke’ on their shirts if he’s in form). I think that his arrival does lift the pressure of Bent, but Villa fans shouldn’t expect Benteke to hit the ground running. He’s a raw talent and I’m still convinced this move is too early for him. He could be the sort of player to let the heavy heights of the Premier League go to his head, so it will be down to Lambert’s iron fist to make sure his new striker keeps his feet on the ground and integrates him into the squad. That’s more down to him though.
For Genk, a reported £7m was too good to turn down (their record sale), but the way Benteke/his agent facilitated the move left a sour taste in the mouth. He claimed to have a mysterious illness, when he was in fact looking for a way out. He’s been booed throughout his career as many fans haven’t taken to him and I don’t think Villa will buck the trend, as they need leaders in the dressing room. Benteke is not that.
By complete contrast, this is a wonderful piece of business from David Moyes, should FIFA ratify the move. The 23-year old has been one of my favourite players to watch in the Pro League for a few years now, mainly for being the architect of anything that Club Brugge did last season and the year before. Originally working his way up the ranks at Anderlecht (alongside Vincent Kompany as John Chapman alludes to here), Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe was touted as one of the leading lights of that side. It never really worked out for him at RSCA, nor at Hamburg where he again had trouble stepping out from the now-Manchester City captain’s shadow. It was a big move and he didn’t have a chance of ousting anyone from that midfield.
Returning to Belgium at Club Brugge, Odjidja-Ofoe quickly became a mainstay of that side, and incredibly reliable in both defensive and offensive midfield roles. His best role is sitting deeper however, often starting the move for the Blauw-zwart. He’s an exceptional reader of the play, shows boundless energy can be relied upon for a crunching tackle and also a very good passer. It might sound like I’m building him up as having it all, but especially in 2011, he was one of the best players in the league. If you want to what he’s all about, 3:00 in the video below. The motor of that Club Brugge team
Things have taken a turn for the worse under new coach Georges Leekens, and Odjidja-Ofoe has been looking for a way out. Still quite young, but now commands much more experience than his previous trip abroad. Vincent Kompany was right when they said Everton were onto a winner. He should fit in well with Fellaini and Mirallas as all three featured in the Beijing Olympic squad in 2008.
As for Mirallas, he’s began life very well at Everton contributing massively to their CapitalOne Cup victory over Leyton Orient. I think he’s exactly the sort of player Moyes likes for work ethic and should bang in a few goals.
Although both these two were enlisted way before the window, I felt it was worth touching on briefly.
So he’s not new to the league, but it sure feels like it. A season to forget for Romelu Lukaku last year, as he spent more time in the reserves. This year it appears to be different now he’s joined an ideal club for his development. Steve Clarke’s tenure at West Bromwich Albion has began well, with some impressive performances from his team in the early going. And more importantly for this blog, the same can be said of Romelu Lukaku. Clarke’s role at previous clubs suggest he’s the right manager to harness Lukaku’s abilities better than those at Chelsea last year.
Although he’s been unable to displace Long and Odemwingie, the former Anderlecht prodigy’s impact from the bench this season has been noted duly. He ran international teammate Jan Vertonghen ragged at White Hart Lane last week, and grabbed a long overdue Premier League goal against Liverpool on the opening day. Continue in this manner and Lukaku should force his way into contention for the national team once again. The move would have happened a year ago but he’s finally doing something to suggest he won’t be a flop.
Yassine El Ghanassy is probably an unknown to many, unless you’ve read transfer gossip columns over a year or so ago. The Gent winger was certainly their most prodigious talent in years, capable of playing on either side or even centrally on occasion. El Ghanassy is quick, nimble and incredibly skilful on the ball and was known at Gent for pretty much taking games into his own hands. He found the back of the net quite a lot for a winger, but was renowned for his delivery to teammates too.
My only concern with him is that he’s a bit lightweight for the Premier League, but if he’s up for it, he could turn out to be an exceptional loanee for West Brom, which they ought to make permanent. A goal in his first start against Yeovil Town in the CapitalOne Cup, and reports from others said he performed well in flashes. He did that a lot at Gent, so with time, he could be turning in great performances. A run of games against some of the perceived weaker sides in the Premier League might spark something.