Belgian football has undergone a revolution in the past decade and the country that haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 2002 are now considered genuine contenders for next summer’s tournament in Brazil, with qualification from Group A all but secured.
Following their unimpressive 2002 World Cup showing, the Belgian FA technical director Michel Sablon pioneered a radical 10-year plan for the younger generation, which focused on smaller, less competitive games and the introduction of a high-tempo 4-3-3 system across the board.
Since then, Belgium and national team boss Marc Wilmots haven’t looked back. On course to qualify for their first World Cup for almost a decade, Wilmots has an array of exciting, young talent at his disposal.
From Marouane Fellaini to Eden Hazard, Thomas Vermaelen to Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke to Romeleu Lukaku. Belgian talent now dominates the Premier League and Fellaini’s £27.5m summer transfer to Manchester United exemplified the high transfer fees now being demanded by Wilmots’ players who are currently ranked as the sixth best team in world football.
The never-ending conveyor belt of Belgian talent looks set to continue with the arrival of Anderlecht youngster Youri Tielemans.
16-year-old Tielemans is an Anderlecht boy through and through. He joined the club as a schoolboy at the age of five and worked his way up through the Brussels-based side’s increasingly impressive youth system, which has seen the likes of Chelsea swoop for its up and coming starlets in recent seasons.
Indeed, Tielemans’ efforts haven’t gone unnoticed in the Belgian national team ranks after he scored a magnificent hat-trick for the under-16 side against Germany in May. His record of eight goals in 10 games persuaded van den Brom to blood him in pre-season games, one of which was against German giants Schalke.
Tielemans, who has been capped at U15, U16 and U21 level for Belgium, made his long-awaited first team debut in July against Sporting Lokeren after replacing injured midfielder Sacha Kljestan with just 25 minutes gone. He didn’t look out of place in John van den Brom’s side and dazzled Anderlecht supporters with his superb ball distribution and attacking intent.
Following an assist within his first three league games against Beveren, the level-headed Tielemans played several times for the Anderlecht U21 side before being handed a record-breaking surprise start against Olympiakos in the Champions League.
Tielemans became the third youngest player to have appeared in Europe’s elite competition at 16 years, 4 months and 25 days, while he remains the sole 1997-born player to have been involved in the tournament – an unbelievable rise for a player who only made his domestic league debut just three months previous.
Arsenal’s freshly recruited scout Ty Gooden has already identified him as a standout prospect in Belgium’s Jupiler Pro League, while north London rivals Tottenham are the most recent Premier League side linked with a move for Anderlecht’s highly-rated midfielder.
However, it was Manchester City who came closest to landing Tielemans’ signature in the summer following a recommendation from captain Vincent Kompany. The youngster’s parents immediately blocked the move, as they want him to finish his education in Belgium – which is the same route Kompany himself took during his time at Anderlecht.
Tielemans’ versatility is one of his biggest strengths and perhaps the underlying reason he has attracted so much interest at such a young age. He can play in the holding role, further up field and as a more box-to-box midfielder – the latter seems to be his most natural position.
Given the responsibility of taking set pieces at 16-years-old, the pressure on Tielemans’ shoulders doesn’t seem to have affected him and he looks at home playing in Anderlecht’s vibrant, young squad led by attacking giants Matías Suárez and summer acquisition Aleksandar Mitrović.
In terms of other qualities, Tielemans possesses the nous to get himself in the right positions and bring his team-mates into play with terrific square passes. The way he lofts the ball and dominates play in midfield is a very rare quality for a 16-year-old to be blessed with.
Tielemans’ concentration levels are the main feature of his game he will need to work on and with more games this will eventually come. Being caught in possession against Olympiakos was an example of how challenging top-level football is and how quickly you can be punished for the smallest of errors.
Overall, Tielemans is a terrific talent who has the potential to blossom into a top central midfielder. He still needs at least another couple of seasons in Belgium to aid his development but you can be sure that when he eventually does become available for transfer, the Premier League will be the first destination on his list.
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