Following Thibaut Courtois’ summer move from Chelsea to Real Madrid, the Eden Hazard transfer rumours, and most significantly, Leander Dendoncker going to Wolves on a season-long loan, I decided to write about the influence of Belgian players in the Premier League, from 2008 (Kompany to Manchester City, Fellaini to Everton) up until the 2018 summer transfer window. To keep this from becoming incomprehensible, I’ll be going through the key signings year by year. If I’d written this piece as one single article it would be over 3500 words, so I decided to split it into two articles, each covering a five year period.
Vincent Kompany – Hamburg to Manchester City – Undisclosed Fee
Marouane Fellaini – Standard Liège to Everton – £15m
What they achieved:
This was the year when Belgian football slowly started to return to the mainstream. After the golden generation of the 90’s, Belgium hadn’t really produced anyone exceptional; at least no-one who could carry the team. The signing of Vincent Kompany and the subsequent publicity surrounding his move put Belgian football back on the map and brought it back into the public conscience.
Vincent Kompany’s achievements are already well-known: three Premier League titles with Man City (all as captain), one FA Cup and third place in the 2018 World Cup. But beyond the titles, his greatest achievement, I think, will always be the way he stewarded Man City into their current era of dominance and heralded the start of Belgium’s golden generation. He is the single most important player in the last 10 years of Belgian football and despite being injured so frequently that the Belgian media have nicknamed him ‘The Man of Glass’, he delivers when he’s healthy.
Marouane Fellaini gets a lot of stick, whether it’s for his elbow-heavy style of play, his unexciting midfield work or a bleached afro that can be seen from space, but he has achieved more than you’d realise from looking only at the titles he’s won. Whilst one Europa League, an FA Cup and a third-placed finish in a World Cup where he played second fiddle to Axel Witsel aren’t representative of a world-beating career, there’s a reason that he’s stuck with Manchester United through three managers, including Jose Mourinho: a man who would blame the conflict in the Middle East on the performance of his own players.
Fellaini does his job; it’s not pretty, it’s not exciting, but it’s effective. This was especially clear in Russia, his shutdown play in midfield was the key to unlocking Kevin De Bruyne’s attacking play early on, and Martinez’s men were definitely better off for having him there. Interestingly, he originally chose Everton and turned down Manchester United the first time they tried to sign him, staying with the Toffees for five years before going with Moyes to Old Trafford.
Thomas Vermaelen – Ajax to Arsenal – €12m (£10m)
What they achieved:
2009 is still firmly pre-boom in terms of the side’s global image. Thomas Vermaelen was the only signing of note that year. Belgian football is seen as on the rise, but still nowhere near the standards it has set today.
Thomas Vermaelen was always one of my favourite defenders, he had a good defensive style, a real Vlees en Aardappelen centre-back. ‘The Verminator’ was never going to set the league on fire, his greatest achievement at Arsenal was being made captain after the sale of Robin van Persie to Manchester United, but in the current era of Shkodran Mustafi I’m sure there are a couple of fans who miss the more reliable (at least until 2012) defender. At Arsenal, he won the FA Cup as an unused sub and internationally he’s been equally nondescript, coming third in the 2018 World Cup – again as an unused sub, his place being taken by former Ajax teammate Jan Vertonghen.
Moussa Dembele – AZ to Fulham – £5m
What they achieved:
Young Belgian players are started to be recognised. Scouts in Holland and France start to notice some good emerging talent but there isn’t any specific seeking of Belgian players yet.Clubs take notice of this new development and start to pay more attention to the Dutch and Belgian leagues.
Moussa Dembele obviously ended having more success at Spurs. The most notable thing about his time at Fulham is the fact that he wisely chose them over the also interested Birmingham City. Dembele made 62 Premier League appearances with Fulham, scoring five times. He transferred to Spurs for £15m in 2012 but is yet to achieve anything at a club level in the Premier League. He seems to be destined to be little more than a reliable player who is constantly confused with a young French striker of the same name.
Romelu Lukaku – Anderlecht to Chelsea – £12m (£17m including add-ons)
Thibaut Courtois – Genk to Chelsea – €9m (£7.8m)
Thibaut Courtois – Chelsea to Atletico Madrid – Loan
What they achieved:
2011 is arguably the most important overall year for the Belgian explosion. Not only are two talented young Belgian players signed by a major club, but both of them are signed from teams in the Belgian Pro-League. This is significant because it shows not only a higher level of interest in the increasing number of Belgian prospects, but also a recognition of the talent developing in the country.
Romelu Lukaku achieved almost nothing. Big Rom made eight Premier League appearances and three League Cup appearances, scoring no goals, something he was unhappy about having shown an interest in playing for Chelsea since high school. Lukaku never scored a single goal for Chelsea and only ever made 15 appearances in all competitions over two seasons.
Thibaut Courtois managed even less after he was signed, instantly being loaned out to Atletico Madrid. Courtois stayed on loan until 2014, winning La Liga, the Copa Del Rey, the Europa League and coming in as runner-up in the Champions League after letting in a last minute equaliser before Real scored three more goals in extra-time.
Kevin Mirallas – Olympiacos to Everton – £6m
Eden Hazard – Lille to Chelsea – £32m
Kevin De Bruyne – Genk to Chelsea – £7m
Kevin De Bruyne – Chelsea to Werder Bremen – Loan
Romelu Lukaku – Chelsea to West Brom – Loan
Jan Vertonghen – Ajax to Tottenham Hotspur – €12m (£10m)
What they achieved:
The invasion has begun. Kevin Mirallas, already a veteran of the national side, is brought in. Eden Hazard is already seen as the great hope for Belgian football and a transfer target for many big clubs, so him coming to the Premier League is huge for both Chelsea and Belgium. All the players who are brought in this year already have National Team experience and Belgian football is starting to be viewed as a rising giant in the international game.
Kevin Mirallas came to Everton from Olympiacos and holds the distinction of being a player who you just remembered existed. He has never won anything at club level in England and has scored 10 goals for Belgium. However, he has only scored once since 2013 in 18 appearances. He was loaned back to Olympiacos but poor performances and Everton’s high asking price prevented a transfer and he is now on loan with Fiorentina. Interestingly, despite seeming unremarkable, he is seen as a bit of a predecessor to the influx of Belgian players and some consider him, Kompany and Vertonghen to represent the beginning of the current wave of talent.
Kevin De Bruyne, the now Man City player and winner of most sunburnt child at the age of 26, didn’t make a single competitive appearance for Chelsea and was loaned to Werder Bremen. The next season he made nine appearances for Chelsea and scored no goals (28 games and eight goals fewer than Kevin Mirallas) before being shipped off to Wolfsburg in early 2014.
Romelu Lukaku continued his journeyman period, playing 38 games for West Brom and scoring 17 goals (sixth top scorer in the 2012/13 season) in a very good loan spell.
Eden Hazard, one of the only real success stories of this transfer window from a Belgian standpoint, proved immediately effective under Rafa Benitez in the Chelsea team. The team came in third place in the league and won the Europa League (although he was injured for the final), instantly making Hazard a star, with him playing 62 games and scoring 13 times across all competitions – making the PFA Team of the year.
Jan Vertonghen also did quite well for himself – after choosing Spurs over Arsenal (who wanted to play him at CDM). Vertonghen went on to make 49 appearances in all competitions, getting on the scoresheet six times, being named Premier League Player of the Month in March and making the PFA Team of the Year along with Eden Hazard. Since then both men’s careers have continued to rise; Vertonghen has remained one of the league’s most reliable centre-backs and impressed massively at the World Cup, scoring a beautiful looping header from the edge of the box in the Round of 16 vs Japan.
At the same time, Hazard has shown himself to be one of the world’s best wingers, with accolades including two Premier League titles, one FA Cup win, one World Cup Silver Ball, four inclusions in the PFA Team of the Year and one in the UEFA Team of the Year, to name a few. Both men are a mainstay of the Belgium National Team, with Vertonghen making 110 appearances, scoring nine times, and Hazard playing 94 games and scoring 27 times for Les Diables Rouges. Both players were critical to Belgium’s World Cup success.
This article was written and researched by Tom Zacharzewski. Follow him on Twitter @accountofsports or read his previous article on the evolution of Brighton’s managers here.
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