The giant who idolises Zlatan – Watford’s new striker Obbi Oularé

Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke were (at the time) deemed to have left Belgium for England too early in their careers, but they were veterans compared to Obbi Oularé who has left Club Brugge to join Watford for £6m. The 19-year-old is as raw as they come, having only ever started nine league games under Michel Preud’homme but in his short first-team career, he has also made quite the impression.

Oularé’s imposing 6’5″ frame is striking and at first glance, the Waregem-born attacker has the tools to succeed. He is the son of former Genk striker Souleymane Oulare, who was the leading scorer and Footballer of the Year in Belgium back in 1999. Obbi’s debut came against Genk but it was his first start against Kortrijk when keen observers really began to sit up and take notice as he scored the opener and proved a real threat to the opposition defence with his aerial presence, strength and hold-up play – a dream for their playmaker Victor Vázquez.

As often happens when a youngster breaks through, expectations must be tempered. Oularé was not a regular starter even once Nicolas Castillo went out on loan in spite of continuing to give more than a hint of what could lie ahead in the years to come. In order to understand his limitations and the difficulties he will have to overcome to realise his undoubted potential, we need to consider his roller coaster footballing development.

Long before he broke through at first-team level, Oulare spent many of his formative years in Lille’s highly-reputable youth setup, a common destination for young Belgian players. Even as a teenager, he was physically more advanced than his peers, which ensured he would be promoted above his age-group. However, his technical qualities didn’t match his physical ones and he suffered from inconsistency. His then teammate Moussa Niakhate puts it down to the high standards demanded of him. Beset by injuries as many young players are as they grow, Lille showed Oularé the door and, still determined to reach the top, he tried his luck with Wasquehal. Niakhate told Sport/Voetbalmagazine that he believes it was a blessing in disguise:

“At Lille they focused intently on what wasn’t good but at Wasquehal it wasn’t so serious if you missed (a chance). There was a lot less pressure.

“Had we stayed at Lille then maybe we wouldn’t have succeeded. Maybe it was a good thing that they no longer wanted us. It gave us the desire for revenge and the desire to prove them wrong. Obbi often tells me, it’s a good thing. Maybe we should be thankful to Lille.”

It wasn’t always plain sailing for Oularé in Wasquehal as the end of his time at Lille had left mental scars. He worked on his running style to improve his pace and eventually began to turn the corner. He attracted the attention of Standard and spent a short time there before Club Brugge decided to take a punt on him and he joined their u19 side before graduating to the u21 team. While in the reserves, he took part in a training camp with the first team. It was a shock to the system and his eyes were opened at the step up. Not to be deterred, he was promoted to Michel Preud’homme’s squad last summer.

Nonetheless, the injuries and fitness problems he experienced as a youngster are still evident. He has only completed one full ninety minutes in his professional club career in a 1-3 win at Westerlo in March. The goals dried up for Club Brugge in the play-offs with the absence of the key providers and Oularé did not escape the drought. Nevertheless, he was linked with a move to Borussia Dortmund back in June but the club were determined to hold onto him for at least another season. They knew they could cash in but that ideally it would be better for his development that he remained in Brugge. This season has not been a riproaring success either aside with Oularé’s ability to infuriate trying the patience of many fans.

Watching Oularé in the flesh when Blauw-Zwart came to Old Trafford confirmed my impression from afar. He has the potential but he lacks the finesse to deliver consistently. When he’s not on his game, he can look terrible. It has to be put down simply to a lack of experience. Subsequent to his display at Old Trafford, Oularé went on social media to issue the following apology:

“I want to apologise for my game of Tuesday evening. To my teammates staff & supporters & all the people working at Club Brugge.

“I made a mistake, but I learned a lot. I will work harder and come back even stronger.”

The words of a player who even at 19, has already been dealt many blows. His best display of the season was what turned out to be his last in a Club shirt as he and Abdoulay Diaby destroyed a sorry-looking Standard  – the personal highlight being a thunderous strike from outside the box in a 7-1 demolition. He is part of a cohort of young players in Brugge who supplement the numerous expensive signings of owner Bart Verhaeghe. Stung by the criticism that they are attempting to buy the league (so far without success), there has been a determination to bring on the likes of Oularé, Mechele, Cools and others. Watford have signed a new team since being promoted to the Premier League and understandably their short-term aim is survival but this is not the ideal environment for Oularé to thrive. It is nigh-on impossible for Belgian sides to resist the riches of a Premier League television deal that dwarfs any other in Europe.

There is a lot of belief in the forward, he has the determination to succeed, aided by his father’s guidance. The Belgian u21 international has also been known to take himself off to Paris to watch his idol Zlatan Ibrahimovic in action and pick up tips from the master Swede. There is a sense from his background that complacency will not be an issue but he must go into this move with his eyes open. You can bet his agent, Mogi Bayat, the Pro League equivalent of a Jorge Mendes, has done so.

The £6m transfer fee is a large one by Belgian standards and in excess of the highest fee Club have ever paid for a player. Coach Michel Preud’homme also lost the experienced Tom De Sutter in the transfer window but moved swiftly last weekend to bring Jelle Vossen back to Belgium and Palmeiras striker Leandro Pereira in to complement Diaby. The ex-RMP man, also a summer acquisition, can play wide or through the middle and scored four on Sunday in the 7-1 rout of Standard. Vossen is an excellent finisher and is a proven, prolific goalscorer in the Pro League. However, he is more suited to a 4-4-2 system. ‘Banana’ Pereira arrives with a good reputation in Brazil and may be more suited to 4-3-3 but will need time to adapt as other South American forwards have in Brugge. Club Brugge will contend for the league – they will be fine. Hopefully, Oularé will be too.

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