Youth development in Belgium: How good is it actually?
The last couple of years Belgian football has been marching on. While Belgium finished number 1 in FIFA’s international rankings, it was highly dubious to be fair. Youngsters like Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker from Anderlecht are on the radar of the biggest clubs in Europe and Belgian title holders KAA Gent have been excellent in their group in the Champions League, beating Valencia and Lyon to proceed to the last 16. Anderlecht did the same in the Europa League in a group with AS Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur.
Belgium’s positive vibe is a moment to cherish but the question is how long can we maintain this situation? Looking forward is the only way to keep this vibe alive. The only solution is developing Belgian youth because Belgian clubs will never be able to buy “top” players from one of the five biggest leagues in Europe. The youth academies of Racing Genk, Standard Liège and Anderlecht are already well known in Europe but how good are we actually doing in Belgium concerning youth development?
I did some research on the squads of Belgium’s 2016-2017 title candidates. With some statistics I’ll try to show you how many players have come through the youth system. (based on Transfermarkt.com)
KAA Gent won the title last season and is the biggest candidate to win the title again this season, although you never know with our complicated Play Off-system. Coach Hein Van Haezebrouck did not lose any of his best players and the club even gave him some budget to buy new players this transfer period. The club have around 29 players in their first squad. Only 12 of these players have the Belgian nationality. If we go a bit deeper we see that only Benito Raman and Hannes van der Bruggen come from Gent’s youth academy.
The least we can say is Gent doesn’t benefit from their youth development, yet. International and national scouting is much more important now but also much more unstable in the long term. Investing their Champions League money into a new youth academy would be a big step forward for the club. Gent’s biggest goal of the last ten years was building their beautiful Ghelamco Arena. Next step is to build a brand new youth academy. The future looks promising but still a lot of work for Belgium’s current biggest club.
Another title contender is one of the most known Belgian clubs in Europe, RSC Anderlecht. They have won the most titles in the last ten years and are known for producing a lot of Belgian talent, one of them Vincent Kompany. Anderlecht also have around 29 players in their first squad, 16 of them have the Belgian nationality. The difference with Gent is that Anderlecht have 10 players in their squad from their own youth academy. Players like Olivier Deschacht, Dennis Praet, Youri Tielemans and Leander Dendoncker are the most famous ones.
Anderlecht are doing more than their best and changed their youth policy some years ago. They want to stop buying tons of foreign players to hope they’ll get one good player. Their main focus now is to produce good players at their academy and to buy two or three players a year to strengthen their team, like they did with Steven Defour.
Club Brugge have never got credit for having a splendid youth academy. Nevertheless I know from my own experience that Club Brugge improved a lot over the last years. They made a lot of progress and are among the best teams for their under 14 to under 21 teams. They are known, together with Racing Genk, Standard Liège and Anderlecht, as one of the biggest representing clubs in the Belgian national youth teams.
Club Brugge have 32 players in their first squad. 18 of them have the Belgian nationality, 7 of them come from their youth academy. The Belgian club will keep on investing the next couple of years. Besides a new stadium their president Bart Verhaeghe also wants a new youth academy.
KV Oostende is the only club at the moment without a player from their own youth academy. KV Oostende is an outsider for the title but they’ll need to invest more money into their youth academy if they want to play Top 6 every year. We need to give the club some time though. They only promoted back to the highest division in 2013. Marc Coucke, KV Oostende’s president, has a long term plan with the club.
Sint-Truiden is the club with the fewest players with a Belgian nationality. Though they still have 4 players from their own academy in their first team sqaud.
KV Mechelen is the club with the most players with a Belgian nationality. They have 20 Belgians in a squad of 29 players. They have a strong U21-side this season and already have 4 youth academy players in their first team squad now.
Anderlecht, Standard Liège and Club Brugge have 7 or more youth academy players in their first team squad. Surprisingly Racing Genk only have 5 despite having an excellent youth academy. Players like Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne both have been formed most of their time in Genk.
World Cup Chile U17
Belgium ended 3rd in Chile with a good balanced squad. They didn’t really stand out in the whole tournament like Mali did but they finished every game at the right moment. Most of the players are formed in Belgium, some of them in the Netherlands. Racing Genk brought 6 players to the World Cup, Anderlecht and Club Brugge both 4 players. Only one player played abroad but was developed at Anderlecht.
Belgium is a good student concerning youth compared with other countries but there are still a lot of important steps to make. Belgian clubs should invest more in youth and most importantly give them playing time. When coaches are under a lot of pressure they seem to choose experienced players instead of coaching and developing their youngsters during that difficult period. The gap between the U21 squad and the senior squad is too big at most Belgian clubs. Clubs tend to keep on thinking on the short term. When clubs are buying players when they already have an overfilled senior squad they forget that all the players who don’t fit into the coaches plans need to play with the U21 squad. These players block the development of younger players – but nobody really seems to care too much at the moment.