Pro League Revelation Number 1: Lokeren’s Hans Vanaken

So the BeNeFoot Top 10 Revelations comes to and end… After counting down from ten to two, we end our travels here.

Article written by Chris Mayer with contributions by Luke Harvey, and Gary Niblock.

Every season in Belgium even the biggest and best teams have to shuffle their deck constantly, the best players are snapped up by bigger teams and so everybody down the food chain needs to readjust accordingly. So to be voted the biggest revelation in the Belgian Pro League is a big deal. To have beaten the likes of Alexander Scholz and Youri Tielemans to the prize after the mammoth seasons they have had is fantastic, so congratulations to BeNeFoot’s number one Belgian revelation of the 2013/14 season Hans Vanaken.

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What Vanaken brings to the party is seemingly what every young Belgian star is doing right now. He’s flourishing in the number ten role on the pitch, dropping into the spaces between the opposition’s defence and midfield and he guile to find the openings when they present themselves. The influx of Belgian players who all adapt in the same role can only be the years and years of training as youngsters where they are encouraged to play with the ball at their feet, create neat passing triangles and looking for the open man.

Vanaken seems to be the whole package for Lokeren and was a major reason for their success in the Cofidis Cup, which they won this season. It was the 21-year-old’s first taste of silverware after finishing runners up in the second division with previous club Lommel United and you figure it may not be his last. To say Lokeren have thrown their attacking maestro in at the deep end is an understatement, Vanaken has started 46 matches for the side this season in both the league and cup and doesn’t seem fatigued one iota – it must be his youth.

His rise to prominence this season caught many by surprise – only those who followed Belgium’s lower leagues would have caught a glimpse of Vanaken. Originally learning his craft alongside many other Belgian prospects at PSV’s youth academy, Vanaken returned to home soil join second tier side Lommel United, featuring alongside his older brother Sam. It was clear that the younger sibling was above this level, excelling in his last two seasons scoring 10 goals in each campaign for Lommel. His consistently excellent performances caught the eye of Lokeren boss Peter Maes in 2013. Maes, who had played at Lommel alongside Hans’ father Vital, had seen enough to warrant bringing Vanaken to the Tricolores.

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Given the reasonable step-up in quality between the first and second tier in Belgium, you could forgive Vanaken for taking time to adjust to new surroundings. His league debut for Lokeren came against the reigning champions Anderlecht at the Constant Vanden Stock. Some youngsters would be overawed by the challenge laid down in front of them. However this No. 10 had other ideas, causing panic for the Anderlecht defence with his cultured feet. Vanaken headed in the opener just 20 minutes in, combining with fellow Lokeren newcomer Jordan Remacle to stun the home faithful. He gave Lokeren the lead a second time with a fierce half-volley, helping Maes’ side to a memorable opening day win over Paars-wit.

Making his inaugural appearance even more impressive was the fact that he had stitches in his foot on the day, caused by stubbing a toe on stone with flip-flops.

Vanaken’s double set the tone for Lokeren’s season, scoring 11 times in 44 appearances for the club in his rookie year. The calibre of opposition he found the net against is also impressive – Anderlecht and Genk numerous times, as well as Standard and Zulte Waregem. His presence arguably aided Lokeren’s Tunisian front man Hamdi Harbaoui on his way to the Golden Boot in Belgium, playing in great final passes for him and many others. His distribution is second to none, something which was overlooked on his debut due to the arrival of Youri Tielemans on the field, a fellow revelation of the season.

Former coach Franky van der Elst didn’t take long to heap plenty of praise on Vanaken after this game, stating it was no surprise to him that he’d made such a quick impression. Just not that quick.

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“He is physically strong, has good vision and when you see his technical ability in terms of his movement and his shooting, it really can’t be faulted,” the former Belgian international said. “Nevertheless, the speed with which he has made the position his own has surprised me a little.”

Vanaken’s stellar contribution to Lokeren’s season was acknowledged with his nomination for Player of the Year. Though he lost out to Zulte Waregem’s Thorgan Hazard, Vanaken can claim his first foray in the Jupiler Pro League has been a rousing success. His international career is in rude health also, with a solid appearance for Johan Walem’s U21 side against Israel.

It’s no surprise to see other suitors swarming, with rumours of Club Brugge closing on a €5m deal for him. Peter Maes hopes Vanaken will stay put for a while, hinting at club stability but Club Brugge and Michel Preud’homme look set to break open the coffers to land their target, after another championship near miss. It’s a story that could run and run for much of the summer.

Vanaken wouldn’t look out of place at either team next season – competition for places at Club Brugge shouldn’t him back. Lokeren does feel like a stepping stone to something greater in the long-run for Vanaken – his ability with either foot, his creativity and goalscoring from midfield should see him become one of Belgium’s brightest stars in seasons to come.

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