It would appear that Belgium has become one of the best sources of talent in recent years and English clubs are reaping the rewards of it.
The English Premier League has been infiltrated by a foreign substance of skill, vision and creativity. This substance originates from Belgium. In the past several seasons there has being a steady influx of players from Belgium arriving in the England. It would appear that Belgium has become one of the best sources of talent in recent years and English clubs are reaping the rewards of it.
Although only early in the season, we are seeing the impact that Belgian's are having on the performances of sides like Chelsea, Everton and Fulham. Eden Hazard, Fellaini and Demebele have shown in just a few games their quality and influence. Hazard has assisted six goals and scored one himself to put Chelsea top of the league. His performances have been mesmorising, his movement with and without the ball are splendid to watch and his vision and creativity have had defenders caught in knots.
Fellaini has been at Everton for several years now and yet his movement into a forward position has brought out best of him. He finished last season strongly, notably costing United the title in a 4-4 draw and this season caused more upset to United by simply outmuscling and outclassing the Red Devils. Michael Carrick must be dreading his next encounter with him. If his performances continue to this level then he could put Everton into contention for a top four spot.
And since Moussa Dembele's arrival at Fulham in 2010 we have witnessed an ever improving and impressive player. Arguably one of the best attacking midfielders in the league he has been in need of moving clubs in order to progress his development. Although he could have benefited any of the top sides, it is Spurs who have made the move to bring him to White Hart Lane. His ability to play in central midfield or in a more forward position gives Spurs good options and I believe AVB has found a very impressive replcacement for the departed Modric.
Dembele joins another new Belgium international to arrive at Spurs Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen has been highly sought after for a couple of seasons and his expected arrival in England came this summer. Spurs again seeing the value in the new generation of top quality products from Belgium.
Added to these players the Premier League already has the impressive Thomas Vermaelan and world class Man City captain Vincent Kompany. Also Sunderland's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and Chelsea's £20m signing Romelu Lukaku, who is on loan to West Brom this season; his cameo performances so far indicating that comparisons to Drogba are not far off the mark. And there is also the newly signed Everton forward Kevin Mirallas. The list of Belgium internationals is constantly growing and it will undoubtedly grow further next season due to the impressive performances from these players and the link between Beglium's top clubs and England's top sides.
If you can't buy them then develop them
The idea of "feeder clubs" has been around for many years and it has seen sides like United build links with sides like Sporting Lisbon enabling them to bring in the talent of Ronaldo and Nani. In the past year Chelsea have linked up with Genk in Belgium in their quest to sign the brightest talent in Europe. It has led them to sign the winger Kevin De Bryune and goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, both who are currently on loan yet who will seen playing for Chelsea this time next year.
Why are we seeing more Belgium players playing for Europes top sides? As with all these cases, it comes from the foundations of youth development.
Ten years ago the Belgium FA decided to improve their standards of youth development. Introducing and implementing their “philosophy” they sought to produce technically strong and intelligent players who could improve the standards of the national side and enable Beglium's top sides to compete with the financial might of Europe's top sides.
As seen in Spain and Germany in the past ten to twenty years has been the implementation of an idea to improve the quality of youth players being developed. The Belgium FA as well as the top sides like Anderlecht, Standard Liege and Genk sought to develop their "style" of play, most commonly a 4-3-3 and seek to develop attacking sides with technically excellent players.
If you want the best then seek intelligence
An important key factor they sought in their youth players was decision making, their intelligence. They wanted to see which players could read the game and anticipate opportunities. Decision making was thought to be the difference between an average and good player and so they sought to educate the coaches to “see” the players who understood the game. When they found and saw those with intelligence, they moved them into the schools and development programs in order to give them the quality coaching required to take them to the top of the game.
They also importantly educated the scouts to know what to look for also. A big issue and failing of English youth development is the scouting of players, who for too often have been selected on their physical attributes over their intelligence and skill.
Interestingly players in Belgium are identified at U14 level. This is in stark contrast to England where players are being scouted and judged from as young as 6 or 7. The Head of Belgium’s national teams makes the strong case that “it’s so difficult to say who is talented. Sometimes the later you start the better it is”. An interesting viewpoint and one which has clearly being beneficial due to the success of talent coming through.
England could also learn from Belgium's development model where they cater for late developers, those who in England are deemed “too small” are most often released. In Belgium they have two sides from U14 upwards. One of these sides is for the late developers; either physical or mental lateness, enabling them to receive the high quality coaching and hours which in England is terminated when early judgements are made on players.
Effectively more players are in the system, meaning the pool of talent is higher and thus the law of averages should mean there is more potential for more players to get to the professional levels. The intention is to get more boys from the youth level to the professional game, based on the players on show in England, it would appear they are succeeding much more than in England.
With no money comes greater reliance on youth
Another aspect of note is the standard of the league. The clubs admit that it is hard to buy players and attract them to the league. The Belgium pro league is not one of Europe's top leagues and thus sides have less money for transfers and wages. Thus the clubs see the value and importance in developing their own players.
In recent years sides like Anderlecht, Genk and Standard Liege developing players like Kompany, Lukaku, De Bryune, Defour, Witsel and Fellaini. The problem is that although top players are being developed, these clubs and the Belgium league cannot sustain these players and thus they depart the league.
The clubs therefore become feeder clubs for Europe's top sides, which although financially rewarding means these clubs will not be able to benefit on the pitch from these players. It is a difficult situation for the club therefore to stay competitive when losing their top players and Belgium football has suffered due to the loss of its star players.
The problem for Belgium football will only intensify as the reputation of Belgium's youth development grows with the ever impressive stars performing across Europe. Lukaku was bought to Chelsea at just 18 (in all honesty it did not benefit him as he spent most of the season on the bench). However, the trend will increase as Europe's top clubs will seek to rob Belgium's clubs of its burgeoning talent.
It has been seen already, Jan Vertonghen has been at Ajax since he was 19, Lille picked up the striker Kevin Mirallis at 17. Eden Hazard arrived at Lille at 14.
The national team must be benefiting then?
Although the clubs in Belgium are not benefiting on the pitch from their youth development investment the benefits that Belgium’s youth development drive will have on their national team is sure to make them a dominant force in the coming years. Or will it?
With the talent that Belgium clearly possesses, one would be of the opinion that a new generation is about to match that of Spain and Germany. Yet although talents like Steven Defour and Alex Witsel along with those in England are showing their talents in Europe's top leagues, there are clearly issues with the national team itself.
An article in the Guardian looked into the issue why this talented side did not qualify for the Euro’s this past summer. It remarked that there are issues with the "talented" players in the side which is holding the national team back.
Marc Goossens, who had been the national team doctor for 26 years. "The mentality of some of the players is deplorable ... we got fed up with the many intolerable things that made it impossible for us to do our jobs ... they are pseudo-stars ... with the sick attitude of childish snobs."
Throughout the Euro campaign stories seeped out about players asking to be declared injured so they could skip training and go carousing instead; of players refusing to travel unless allowed to carry their gear in Gucci manbags; of a fight in a nightclub after the 5-0 defeat in Spain; of high jinks in a nightclub a few hours before the 2-1 defeat in Bosnia-Herzegovina; of substitutes refusing to play; and of an experienced player being dropped after turning up for a match without any boots.
"The dressing room is divided into clans," claimed 'a source close to the team' to the newspaper La Dernière Heure. "Vincent Kompany used to be considered the brat of Belgium football," says the journalist Joost Houtman. "But he seems to have matured and now there's a whole load of guys coming through who behave far worse than he ever did. They seem contemptuous of everyone but themselves, and they don't seem to see anything wrong with that."
In my opinion it comes down to the fact that Belgium's stars are simply not developing together. As they develop they are being poached too early and are moved away from their compatriots too soon, which prevents them from developing the relevant cohesion required for top nations to be successful. Whereas Spain have the Barcelona connection and Germany have the Bayern link, Belgium are a disjointed group of individuals with little team understanding. Perhaps in the coming years this new generation can develop and become a more unified side yet the signs are not all positive for Belgian football.
Belgium's new golden generation has a chance to achieve something not seen since 1986 when Belgium reached the semi finals of the World Cup, their greatest ever performance. Yet having talented individuals means little if they are not a united team. With the maturity of Kompany and class of Hazard in the side, Belgium may impress these coming years and get to Brasil. If not, it would seem a waste of such precocious talent.