Why big European clubs should target Zenit’s Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel
Axel Witsel is probably in Marc Wilmot’s top 3 of players who are irreplaceable for the World Cup in Brazil; he’s the regulator of the Belgian team and dictates when tempo goes up or down. Recovering balls, tackling, aerial duels, passing, dribbling and technique are all things he excels at and which can take his opponents out of the match, and yet he plays in Russia for Zenit Saint-Petersburg.
At home in Belgium, Axel Witsel was part of the golden midfield trio with Marouane Fellaini and Steven Defour and despite his huge talent, Axel Witsel always stood in the shadow of his compatriots. Experts thought that both Steven Defour and particularly Marouane Fellaini were destined to become world class midfielders in Europe and move on to bigger and better things. At the time Witsel was a youngster who needed to control his aggressive style of play should he want to be lauded like Defour and Fellaini and we should not forget that Witsel is also one year younger than both of the others.
After winning 5 trophies with Standard Liège and the Golden Shoe in Belgium, Axel Witsel wanted to make that next step in his career. Former Standard bigman Luciano D’Onofrio promised his three midfielders a money making transfer. Fellaini went for a huge amount to Everton, Steven Defour to FC Porto and Axel Witsel moved to Benfica, all three deserved that transfer but were lucky to have D’Onofrio to arrange everything for them.
While in Belgium Axel Witsel played more as a box-to-box midfielder or a number 8 and it was Steven Defour who was the boss of the midfield; deciding when his team could attack or defend, the job Witsel has now come to flourish in. It was during Defour’s absence that Witsel showed that he was also able to play in that position and despite fighting for the same position in the team, their comaradarie was perfect in that they also fought for each other.
When Witsel arrived in Benfica he had to play in several positions; Jorge Jesus, coach of Benfica, tried him as a winger, attacking midfielder, a number 8, a defending midfielder and even as a right back and it was this flexability that lead Jesus to say that Witsel was destined for big things because he’s so versatile. He didn’t need much time to adapt and it became clear that Axel Witsel was made to have a big career in football. The lieutenant of Steven Defour became a General in his own right.
Not only did he become an important player for Benfica but also for the national team of Belgium. Vincent Kompany is a natural born leader but Axel Witsel is the one who takes control during the matches. He’s a master of keeping possession and, maybe even more important, a master of disturbing the opponents ball retention too and it only took one season for him to convince the big European clubs of his enormous talent.
Real Madrid and Manchester United were linked with the midfielder but eventually he would choose Russia and Zenit Saint-Petersburg. To be honest, I don’t mind players choosing for Russian clubs. Money is important in life. It’s just a pity that we can’t see Axel Witsel fight for a Champions League title against the bigger clubs in Europe. While Zenit Saint-Petersburg were close to becoming an elite European club it’s because of several reasons that mean Witsel’s transfer can be irksome; because of time-zones, weather conditions and many other things it will be very unlikely to see Zenit ever become as big as other monied clubs such as Manchester City or Chelsea.
Zenit bought Axel Witsel for €40 million and also brought in fellow Portugal based player Hulk too. A lot of discussion, and ire, was raised between the players of Zenit when Denisov and Kerzakhov said that Witsel and Hulk earned too much money; most of the Russian players didn’t earn that much and Zenit’s captain even had to play a while for the B-squad because of this incident. Zenit performed badly in this period and media said that this was due to a bad relationship between the players. Another issue Witsel had to cope with is racism; Zenit fans prefer to see native football players instead of coloured players and have been rather vocal on this issue.
Some months ago, Axel Witsel was linked with Champions League semi finalists Atletico Madrid, and this could mean the start of a big Axel Witsel-alert in Europe. Once Witsel said that he was jealous of the Belgian players who play in the Premier League, a further warning to English clubs that Witsel could soon be ready to make another big money move. The Belgian midfielder is still only 25 years old so he still has a bright future in front of him. His trip to Russia is likely to have strengthened his mental side of the game, an area that was deemed lacking while he was still in Belgium.
A word for David Moyes or Manchester United in case they sack him: “If you want a great midfielder you should buy Witsel. It will also be beneficial for the Fellaini-transfer.”