JPL Preview: Anderlecht – Four in a row?
Statistics can sometimes be misleading. Thirty-three league titles rightly point to Anderlecht being the foremost club in Belgian football. Three consecutive league titles for the first time since Johan Boskamp’s side of the mid-nineties indicate that Anderlecht are the dominant force today. Three different title-winning managers takes us somewhat closer to the truth.
When long-time assistant Besnik Hasi took up the reins in March with one regular season game remaining, Anderlecht were twelve points behind leaders Standard. They had become stale under John van den Brom, forcing the hand of president Roger Vanden Stock, who called for a reaction from the underperforming players. Anderlecht lost nine games in the regular season for the first time since their annus horribilis in 1998 but once the points were halved for the play-offs, they were still in play.
Where van den Brom had no longer been able to effectively communicate his message to the players, Hasi was able to lift the morale in the dressing room and the quickfire nature of the play-offs lent itself to injecting some impetus into Anderlecht’s campaign. Despite an opening loss to Standard and a further defeat to Genk, they won their last five games to secure an improbable triumph. After just eleven games in charge as a manager, Hasi had managed to bag the biggest domestic prize in Belgium. In a way, Paarswit had come full circle in once again winning three in a row as Hasi played under Boskamp at Genk and also achieved the enviable task of being able to decipher the fun figure’s Rotterdam accent.
Hasi of course remains a very inexperienced manager and this time will have to navigate the league, cup and most importantly, the Champions League. He finds himself shorn of some of his key lieutenants from last season as we approach the start of this. Cheikhou Kouyaté finally managed to broke his move to England, joining West Ham. He leaves a big hole and not just because of his imposing physique. Having begun as a midfielder but operated as a centreback for most of his Sporting career, he partnered the young Youri Tielemans in Anderlecht’s run to glory. Hasi wants a replacement and famously contradicted his former boss when he said that ex-Standard man William Vainqueur had the profile he was looking for.
Guillaume Gillet felt that the time was right for him to seek a new challenge abroad and after more than 300 games in purple and white, joined SC Bastia on loan. A utility man who played rightback, right wing and central midfield, he epitomises the real divide in Belgian society – those who love Anderlecht and those who hate them in equal measure. He has however often stood up to be counted with vital goals and his loss accompanied with the injury to Anthony Vanden Borre leaves the side short at rightback with Fabrice N’Sakala filling in for the moment.
Red Bull Salzburg pulled off something of a coup in signing forward Massimo Bruno in a deal that will see him join their sister club in Leipzig once they have gained promotion to the Bundesliga. Anderlecht simply could not turn down the offer of more than €5m and are now on the lookout for a left-sided player with Dennis Praet operating there in the Supercup. After the chaotic and ultimately unsuccessful bid to sign Thorgan Hazard in January, there have been no major summer additions to the squad at the time of writing. Herman van Holsbeeck was on his holidays and is in no hurry to open the chequebook – a consequence of the play-offs and automatic qualification for the Champions League. Adding experience to the youngest squad in the league is rightly the priority.
Anderlecht do retain a great deal of individual quality however with two goalkeepers who would be first choice at almost every other club, an excellent young centreback in Chancel Mbemba, two young players coveted across the continent in Tielemans and Praet who should only improve this term and two exceptional forwards in the fit-again Matias Suárez and Aleksandar Mitrovic. Belgian football’s record buy returned from pre-season overweight after indulging in his mother’s home cooking but he’ll be looking to feast on a diet of more goals this time around. Both strikers don’t intend to stay after this season and their success will depend quite a bit on Andy Najar who has come back from the World Cup in excellent shape and the Honduran looks set to be a key man over the coming months.
Hasi has been openly expressing his disquiet at the lack of transfer activity but he is not alone among the managers of the traditional top three and despite his title win, his public outcry will have little impact on the Anderlecht hierarchy. As it stands, Anderlecht will start the season as favourites to become the first side to win four consecutive titles since les Mauve et Blanc did it in the 1960s. If they do pull it off, will Hasi be around to celebrate?