Where has it all gone wrong at Anderlecht?
While Zlatan Ibrahimovic rightly basked in the glory of Paris Saint-Germain’s emphatic 5-0 win at the Constant Vanden Stock, in which the Swede scored four (and almost broke the sound barrier with one it was that quick), Anderlecht were left licking their wounds for the third European night a row. 10 goals conceded, none scored, nil points reads a sorrow tale.
Few would have expected Anderlecht to progress in a group that contains the financial powerhouse from Paris, last season’s Europa League runners-up Benfica and the improving Olympiakos, though most of their loyal fanbase probably expected Belgium’s most prestigious side to put up more fight than they have shown currently. Zlatan greatness aside, which no one can really legislate against (though marking him may help), John van den Brom’s side have been out-thought in each game so far, showing the gulf in quality between the current Les Mauves side and everyone else in the group.The 0-3 defeat to Olympiakos was particularly damning, given the supposed parity between the two teams. Although that game was fairly level, the Greek champions gave the Brussels club a lesson in clinical finishing as Ibrahimovic did this week.
But it isn’t just in Europe where Anderlecht are struggling. In the Jupiler Pro League, Anderlecht lie in fifth position and have tasted defeat on no less than four occasions. To put that in perspective, on their walk to the title last season, Anderlecht lost three times before the playoffs.
Even more of a concern is how many chances Sporting have allowed their opponents this season. In Friday’s encounter against bottom club Mons, there were numerous opportunities for Cedomir Janevski’s side to score and Anderlecht rather fortuitously ran out 2-0 winners. Naturally, better sides have exploited the Lucas Biglia shaped hole in front of the centre-back pairing of Cheikhou Kouyate and one of Bram Nuytinck/Chancel Mbemba. Anderlecht have let in 15 goals in 11 games, somewhat masked by three clean sheets in their last five fixtures against mediocre sides. But in 30 regular season games last year, Anderlecht had conceded 27 goals, less than one a game. If truth be told, much of this was down to goalkeeper Silvio Proto, comfortably the league’s best keeper for the past few seasons and very much a calming presence to the defence. His absence hasn’t helped matters.
By this point last season, Anderlecht were joint top with Club Brugge (only second on goal difference), having shipped just 10. Anderlecht’s free-reign in front of goal has helped allay concerns, with Matias Suarez and Massimo Bruno’s strikes earlier in the season helping the side to big wins. However recently, Anderlecht’s victories have been directly followed by defeats, notably the humiliating 4-0 loss to one of their biggest rivals Club Brugge, 4-0, where Les Mauves looked like a shell of the side which lifted the title last season.
Of the newer players introduced to the team this season, Frank Acheampong and Aleksandr Mitrovic look to be shrewd acquisitions, more than capable of providing a threat in front of goal and finishing off moves. But it is the spine of the side that has proved to be the source of Anderlecht’s problems this campaign, both domestically and on the European front. The kids are all right but could well be drowning soon if the experienced heads of this team, such as captain Guillaume Gillet, Sacha Kljestan and Olivier Deschacht (when on the field) don’t shape up quickly.
Although Anderlecht’s board were right to cash in on their prized asset Argentine Lucas Biglia, it is telling just how much he is missed in Brussels. He would often set the tempo for the side, produce simple passes in the centre and provide a useful barrier between defence and midfield. Currently no Anderlecht player looks capable of stepping into his deeper role, at least to the level to which Biglia provided. It is fair to say that Biglia’s rate of turning in stellar performances decreased as the years went by, but the familiarity he provided to the side was always a comfort and his influence on other players cannot be understated. So far, it looks like Demy De Zeeuw is just another battler in midfield not capable of under the radar comfortable performances Anderlecht sorely need. They need someone who provides rhythm, not stops it.
Anderlecht were financially savvy in the summer, getting shot of the deadwood festering in the team as well as selling on players for handsome and actually realistic profits, most notably Dieumerci Mbokani, who had regressed rapidly at the club in 2013 following 12 months of excellence. However, not enough players were signed to cope with the demands of European football, nor the calibre who can play in it.
To be clear, there is an awful lot of promise in the youngsters currently coming through at the moment. The arrival of 16-year old Youri Tielemans this season has been a breath of fresh air, a player who has strolled out of the academy into the first team with little more than a sweat. His passing has been exceptional at times, equivalent of a ten-season veteran, but he cannot be relied upon so heavily so early on in his career. Much was expected of Dennis Praet when he arrived on the scene in 2011/12, but he has also needed more time to find his feet. Giving him the No. 10 shirt might have seen like a symbolic gesture but truthfully is a big position to fill. While Praet’s performances haven’t been terrible, it is fair to say he hasn’t hit the heights expected of him and has gone missing on occasion. Yet, to expect him to provide the spark at this point is really asking a lot, giving the performances of others around him.
John van den Brom is definitely under threat at Anderlecht. His admission that the Champions League is a step too far for his side at this stage was correct, but an acceptance that his plans made over the summer are not playing out as envisaged. The Dutch coach has placed faith in his fledglings, as have the board in their strategy moving forwards, but perhaps both have expected the rewards to be reaped almost immediately, with the guidance of those more experienced alongside them.
After a midweek mauling, Anderlecht return to Jupiler Pro League against their greatest of foes Standard at weekend, another young team, except one brimming with confidence after their impressive league start, in which they have lost just once. Guy Luzon’s penchant for Europa League rotation makes the game even more difficult for Anderlecht, facing what should be a fresher side. Standard’s poor showing in the competition has taken the gloss off a tremendous run of form though.
Should Anderlecht lose they will be 10 points off the pace, not enough to be out of the title race so earlier given the ludicrous point halving in the playoffs, but a defeat that would certainly worsen team morale further. It could also trigger the end for van den Brom. Win or keep Standard’s strikers at bay and Anderlecht’s self-belief may just be on the road to recovery. We’re set for a fascinating contest on Sunday.