The individuality of the English Premier League has often been questioned with foreign players continuing to progressively flood team sheets as the seasons go by. No matter how much you would like to sugarcoat this, there is no denying that the Premier League has been over infiltrated. Around 75 different countries have had at least one representative starting a minimum of one match in the Premier League; France taking the number one spot with Ireland not far behind.
Among the many teams that have intruded the Premier League, Belgium is one nation that seems to have hit the league pretty hard, in recent times. Even though Belgium is only the 8th most represented nation in the League, the quality of the players the nation has provided and the impact that these players have had on the teams they have played for is thoroughly colossal.
Belgian football enjoyed much of its success in the 1970′s and 1980′s; Anderlecht winning the 1975-76 European Cup Winners’ Cup, reaching the 1976-77 Cup Winners’ Cup final, winning it for the second time in 1977-78, winning the 1982-83 UEFA Cup and reaching the finals of the next one. Club Brugge reached the 1975-76 UEFA Cup final and Standard Liege reaching the 1981-82 European Cup Winners’ Cup while KV Mechelen won the 1987-88 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Over the next two decades, the standards of the Pro League diminished. Constraints such as player wages, infrastructure, medical facilities, youth academies and the economy of the country reduced quality of players coming in to the league and this resulted in the Belgian natives parting the country in pursuit of better football elsewhere.
England found its first Belgian representative in the Premier League in the form of Philippe Albert who played for Newcastle United for a period of 5 years from 1994 to 1999. Since then, many more have crossed boundaries to reach England and none have had a greater impact on the Premier League than the current imported lot.
In goal, Belgium’s representative in the Premier League is Simon Mignolet. Aged 25, Mignolet has created a name for himself in the Premier League as one of the League’s top goalkeepers. Having spent 5 years at Sint-Truiden, Mignolet joined Sunderland in 2010 on a 5 year contract, reportedly worth 2 million pounds.
Mignolet has been a part of the national set up since 2001, as a part of the U16. Mignolet has featured in 38 league games last season and has a total of 90 games in the Premier League. Mignolet has had stiff competition in his first few years at England from Scottish international, Craig Gordon. Having now established himself fully, Mignolet had a number of Premier League clubs after him with the likes of Arsenal and more chiefly, Liverpool wanting his signature and as of 25th June 2013, the Merseyside club got what they wanted. Mignolet has a good 12 years, if not more, left in his him and with talent and age on his side, he has a good career ahead of him.
Dedryck Boyata has been in England for seven years now and is one of the younger imports from Belgium. Aged 22, Boyata was brought to the Manchester City youth team from Brussels. Capable of playing at both center back and right back, Boyata’s physique, standing at 6 feet 2 inches, proves to be one of his attributes he constantly takes advantage of.
Presently, Manchester City seem to lack the time for this young player to develop within their main squad and has hence been loaned out to Bolton Wanderers and FC Twente in successive seasons. Boyata was Manchester City’s Young Player of the Year for the 2009-10 season, his first with the senior team. Although Boyata hasn’t been seen much at both club level and country, it’s only a matter of time before he makes a name for himself.
Next in the list is none other than Vincent Kompany. A product of the Anderlecht youth academy, Kompany made his way to Hamburg where he was brought in to replace the outgoing Daniel van Buyten, who left for Bayern Munich. Kompany was then brought to Manchester City by Mark Hughes, the manager of the club at the time. Vincent Kompany, since then, has developed into one of Europe’s finest defenders. Attaining captaincy at both club and international level, Kompany’s mentality, attitude and leadership qualities have earned laurels from many.
Although a recurring knee injury has haunted him from time to time, throughout his career, Kompany has always come back strong and has made himself a massive figure, both mentally and physically in the team. Kompany has won the Belgian Young Professional Footballer of the Year in 2004 and 2005, Premier League Player of the Season in 2011-12 and has earned himself a spot in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year for the seasons 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Spurs’ latest center back, Jan Vertonghen made himself known in the 6 years he spent at Ajax. Aged 26, and standing in at 6 feet 2 inches, Vertonghen is yet another Ajax youth academy product. Having picked up a bit of the Dutch flair after spending almost 9 years in Netherlands, Vertonghen is one of those centerbacks that have a bit of attacking intent in him. Vertonghen has proved to have the ability to calmly take the ball out of defense, has the eye for a good interception and is able to hold on to the ball really well.
As for that attacking intent earlier spoken about, Vertonghen has a much praised left foot and is a threat from indirect free kicks as well as long range shots. He is capable of long passes, much like the orthodox style of English football. Vertonghen was named Ajax’s club captain following Stekelenburg’s departure to Roma and already has 49 senior caps for his national team.
Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen is the second Belgian to be currently captaining a Premier League club along with Kompany. A path similar to that of Vertonghen, Vermaelen too, was a product of the Ajax youth academy. Vermaelen spent almost 6 years at Ajax and managed to field 99 appearances for the club before finding his way to the English capital where he joined Arsenal. He was named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Year in his debut season in England.
Vermaelen has become an inspiring figure at the Emirates and has become a fan favorite at the London club. He has grown to adapt to the Arsenal style of play and is often an aerial threat from set pieces. Although Vermaelen does lack strength in concentration, his leadership qualities have impressed Wenger enough to name him the club captain, following Robin van Persie’s departure from the club.
This next Belgian made his way to France first before presenting himself in the Premier League. Eden Hazard is widely regarded as one of the most gifted young players in modern football. Hazard spent two years in Lille’s youth academy before making his senior debut at the tender age of 16 for the club. Hazard spent the next five years in France making a name for himself, racking up more than 190 senior appearances, winning the UNFP Young Player of the Year twice in consecutive seasons, UNFP Player of the Year twice in consecutive seasons and a part of the Ligue 1 Team of the Year for three consecutive seasons.
In 2012, he moved to Chelsea after revealing on Twitter that he would be signing for “the Champions League Winners”. Still at 22, Hazard has a breath taking style of play ranging from his quick bursts of pace, dribbles, assists, through balls and key passes. Although having a lack of defensive contribution and aerial threat, Hazard is undoubtedly an asset to any team.
Everton’s key man of last season, Marouane Fellaini played at a number of youth teams (one Dutch and four Belgian) before finally making a breaking through at Standard Liege in 2006. In the next two years, Fellaini made himself known in the Pro League after making 84 appearances for Liege and winning the Ebony Shoe in 2008 (Fellaini is of African descent as his parents are Moroccan, hence his eligibility for the award).
Fellaini then moved to Everton for a fee of 15 million pounds (Everton’s club record) and has been at the club ever since. Under Moyes, Fellaini has experimented in a variety of playing positions from second striker to a defensive midfielder. Known for his heading ability, threat from set pieces, efficiency of aerial duels, defensive contribution and more noticeably, his afro, Fellaini has developed into a proper box to box midfielder that has really come of age.
Half Malian-half Belgian, Mousa Dembele was born in Belgium after his father immigrated to the country. Dembele spent his youth at Germinal Beerschot and broke into their first team in 2004. Dembele spent the next two years in Belgium with one season at Willem II before moving to AZ where he played under the current Dutch national team manager, Louis van Gaal.
In 2010, Fulham bought Dembele for a fee of 5 million pounds on a three year deal. Dembele established himself in the first team, racking up a total of 62 appearances in the two years he spent at the London club before shifting clubs to a different London based club, Spurs, after they managed to activate his release clause of 15 million pounds. Although not as decorated as his fellow Belgian counterparts cited here, Dembele has a lot to offer with his defensive contribution and ability to hold the ball with his eye catching dribbles.
Next in line, a product of the Standard Liege youth team, Kevin Mirallas moved to France where he played for Lille for 4 years and Saint-Etienne for two years after which he left for a Greek outfit in the form of Olympiakos. Mirallas wrapped up three titles in Greece: two Super League titles and the Greek Football Cup and was also the Super League’s top scorer in the 2011-12 campaign.
In August 2012, the Premier League found yet another Belgian coming their way, when Everton decided to bring in Mirallas for a fee of 6 million pounds. Managing 27 league appearances in his first season in England, Mirallas’ true potential is yet to be seen as injuries have restricted him from time to time. Capable of key passes and long shots, Mirallas likes to often cut in when playing out wide. Signs of personal brilliance have been seen from the man with Spanish descent but next season will be able to answer questions on his consistency.
Keeping the trend going, next in this Belgian invasion is Romelu Lukaku. Aged 20, towering at 6 foot 3 inches, and weighing almost 100 kg, Romelu Lukaku is everything you don’t want to face as a defender. Born in Antwerp, Lukaku took after his father, who was a capped footballer for the Zaire national team. Lukaku was a part of three youth teams, Rupel Boom, Lierse and lastly Anderlecht where he broke into the first team in 2008. He made his professional debut for the club at the age of 16 and went on to make 73 league appearances between the years 2008 and 2011, scoring 33 goals. He was the top scorer in 2009-10 campaign when Anderlecht won the Belgian League and won the Ebony Shoe in 2011.
His talent was spotted by many but it was Chelsea who was able to beat any other competitors for his signature. In 2011, he was brought to London for a fee of 10 million pounds (excluding add-ons). Lukaku hasn’t featured much for Chelsea and was loaned out to West Brom for the 2012-13 campaign where he has shown what he is capable of. His physique is largely intimidating, a threat from set pieces, good dribbling skills and is capable of a good finish. Lukaku may be young but if what we have seen of him is anything to go by, you would definitely want him in your team.
Last of this wave of black, yellow and red is Christian Benteke. There’s been a lot of talk about Benteke over the season. Young, strong both physically and mentally, Benteke’s strengths are quite ideal for a striker. Although actually born in Zaire, his family shifted base to Belgium where he adopted citizenship. Benteke spent most of his youth at JS Pierreuse along with a couple of years at Standard Liege and a year at Genk. In 2007, he broke into the Genk senior squad where he played for two years and moved to Standard Liege. There, he faced two loan spells after which he was back at Genk for another term.
In August 2012, Premier League’s Aston Villa came by and took Benteke on a four year deal valued around 7 million pounds. Benteke managed a total of 34 league appearances in which he scored 19 goals, almost 40% of Villa’s league tally, making him the 4th top scorer in the league. Very strong in the air, capable of good finishing and vital passes, Benteke has hit the Premier League running and has stirred a number of big clubs to go after him.
This Belgian flood doesn’t stop here. Chelsea have some excellent talent in the form of Thibaut Courtis and Kevin de Bruyne out on loan, Manchester United have their young Adnan Januzaj and Marnick Vermijl, Swansea with Roland Lamah (on loan from Osasuna), etc.
The Premier League now seems a large pool of immensely talented Belgian players who, if put together into one squad, would give most teams a tough time. The standards of the Pro League doesn’t seem to meet the hunger of these players anymore, so at a domestic level, this doesn’t spell well for Belgian football. Although Belgium have failed to make a significant mark at the international stage, one can suggest, at least on paper, that it’s only a matter of time before they are taken even more seriously.