Since Phillipe Albert became the first Belgian to appear in the Premier League in 1994 for Newcastle United, a total of 40 Belgians have gone on to appear in the competition, with 15 currently plying their trade in England’s top division this season.
The influx of Belgians in the Premier League, particularly in the last five to six years, has been remarkable both in terms of the sheer volume of players setting foot in the country around the same time, as well as their footballing ability. After all, it is a league already enriched by players of the quality of Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku among others.
Given the enormous success of Belgians in the Premier League in recent times, here are five more that could add value to the most watched league in the world.
1. Axel Witsel (Zenit St. Petersburg)
The 26-year-old is arguably one of the most important members of Marc Wilmots’ Belgium national side — his combination of athleticism, tenacity and technical ability is hugely important in the Red Devils’ midfield. Primarily a central midfielder, Witsel is also capable of playing in a defensive midfield role, and has been used extensively at the international level at the base of a midfield three.
The Zenit St. Petersburg midfielder has been a constant for the Russian side under André Villas-Boas, and although he has primarily been used in the double-pivot alongside Javi García by the Portuguese, he has also played in more advanced midfield positions. Witsel is not a goalscorer, but his ability on the ball means that he is able to contribute to the team’s attack.
The two Manchester clubs seem to have plenty of midfield options at the moment, but there are few teams in the Premier League that Witsel wouldn’t strengthen. Arsenal, for instance, could make use of a strong central midfielder like him to support Frenchman Francis Coquelin, while Liverpool and Chelsea will be looking for replacements for the likes of Lucas Leiva and John Obi Mikel respectively in the near future.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for potential suitors is Zenit’s asking price for the midfielder (considering the Russian side bought him for €40 million), as well as interest from Serie A giants AC Milan and Juventus. Witsel’s playing style suits English football perfectly however, and given his vast experience in the biggest tournaments for club and country, as well as the fact that he is entering the best years of his career, he would be well worth a gamble for a top Premier League side.
2. Radja Nainggolan (AS Roma)
Often the most distinctive player on the pitch with his tall blonde mohawk and tattooed arms, Radja Nainggolan is the definition of an all-action central midfielder. Although his greatest strengths arguably lie in recovering the ball from the opposition and his tenacious tackling, il Ninja’s passing ability makes him a useful player when he finds himself in the attacking third of the pitch.
Belatedly brought into the Belgium national team squad by Wilmots, Nainggolan has now cemented his place in the starting line-up alongside Witsel, and will more than likely remain in it when the Belgians open their EURO 2016 campaign against Nainggolan’s adopted country Italy.
What the 27-year-old lacks in stature, he makes up for with his aggressiveness and leadership on the pitch, making him another midfielder perfectly suited for a switch to the English Premier League. As with Witsel, Nainggolan’s versatility would make him a valuable addition to many a top English side, including the likes of Chelsea, for whom he is a near-perfect fit.
If there is a criticism of the Roma midfielder, it is his occasional rush of blood during a tense game — a propensity to cross the line and pick up silly bookings. However, Nainggolan has fewer bookings than team-mate Miralem Pjanić and Juventus’ Paul Pogba this season — 5 in 17 appearances thus far — and his disciplinary record is unlikely to be a consideration for potential suitors.
The aggression in his play and his palpable commitment on the pitch would endear him to football fans in England, and there is no doubt that the Ninja would be a massive hit if he were to join several of his international team-mates on the British Isles.
3. Michy Batshuayi (Olympique de Marseille)
The 22-year-old striker has attracted a lot of interest from Premier League sides recently given his hugely impressive form for Marseille in Ligue 1 this season. Marseille president Vincent Labrune earlier revealed:
“There is not a single top 15 world club that is not interested in Batshuayi. He is one of the most wanted players on the market.”
The youngster has scored 11 times in France’s top division, behind only Paris Saint-Germain’s Zlatan Ibrahimović in Ligue 1’s goalscoring charts. Although still very raw, Batshuayi is an excellent finisher with the ability to dribble with the ball.
Comparisons to Chelsea’s legendary striker Didier Drogba are inevitable, but the Marseille forward is a very different type of player. Batshuayi relies more on playing off the shoulder of the last defender and looking for space in behind the defence rather than acting as a target-man in the mould of international team-mate Christian Benteke. In that sense, his playing style aligns more closely with Everton’s Romelu Lukaku.
A move to the Premier League seems a fait accompli at this point, but the striker will need time to adapt to the physicality of English top-division football — particularly if he signs for a top club, and has to play against defences that sit deep in their own half. His ability with his back to goal needs to improve, as does his technique in terms of holding on to the ball and bringing team-mates into play.
In that sense, he would do well to listen to advice from Lukaku, who has faced similar hurdles. Wilmots only recently called up the Marseille man for an international friendly against Italy, and Batshuayi did no harm to his chances of securing a spot in the squad for EURO 2016 with a well-taken goal and something of an assist for Kevin De Bruyne’s fortuitous finish.
Tottenham Hotspur have been looking to sign a striker to provide competition for Harry Kane, and Batshuayi could well be the man to fill that role. Whether or not the move materialises in the coming months, football fans in England will almost certainly see the Belgian in action up close at some point in the future.
4. Yannick Ferreira Carrasco (Atlético Madrid)
The Atléti wide-man is arguably the most exciting new talent in the Belgium national team. Indeed, his performances for Diego Simeone’s side of late have borne that out — both because of his prodigious skill on the ball, but also because of the increasing maturity in his game in terms of his decision-making and his desire to work for the collective cause.
Still only 22 years of age, Ferreira Carrasco is making rapid progress, adjusting to the tactical requirements of Simeone’s counter-attacking, pressing system while still retaining the flair and technical quality to dribble past defenders and pose a threat in front of goal.
In the absence of Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas, the youngster has excelled for Belgium playing on the right of an attacking midfield three with Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne, and his extraordinary ability on the ball was highlighted in his assist for Batshuayi against Italy.
Although the Premier League is not short on attacking midfielders, Ferreira Carrasco would be a superb addition to the league, and would fit in well at any of the top Premier League clubs. Manchester United in particular lack a quality right-sided winger, with Juan Mata often used in that position by Louis van Gaal. A dynamic, explosive player that can take on defenders is exactly what the Red Devils need to liven up their attack.
The 22-year-old has made great progress since making the move to the Spanish capital from AS Monaco, and if there is one club in Spain that could prepare him for the rigours of the Premier League, it is Diego Simeone’s Atlético.
5. Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht)
Anderlecht’s academy has already given the Premier League the likes of Vincent Kompany, Romelu Lukaku and Adnan Januzaj, and 18-year-old central midfielder Youri Tielemans could well be next in line.
Anderlecht youth coach Mohammed Ouahbi said of the teenager:
“We have always known Tielemans was a super talent. Whenever anyone asked me who I thought would go far, I would mention his name first.”
Incredibly, the 1997-born midfielder has already racked up more than a 100 senior appearances for Anderlecht, and after becoming the third youngest player in UEFA Champions League history (and the youngest Belgian in history), is it of little surprise that Europe’s top clubs are tracking the starlet.
Tielemans primarily operates as a central midfielder, and although used a deep-lying midfielder in the past due to his hugely impressive passing range, the Belgium U21 international has shown he can contribute goals from midfield if deployed as an attacking box-to-box midfielder.
Given his pace and ability on the ball, that is perhaps where Tielemans’ future may lie. What makes him so special, however, is his uncanny ability to keep the ball under pressure — the composure and calmness rarely seen in footballers of his age.
Although yet to be called up to the senior national team by Marc Wilmots, there is no doubt that Tielemans will be a key player for the Belgium national team for years to come. The likes of Manchester United have already been linked to the midfielder, but other Premier League clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City could also become interested given Tielemans’ potential, as well as the desire of the two clubs to recruit younger players.
Belgium’s supply of quality young players does not appear to be running out any time soon, and the English Premier League could well see more Belgians strutting their stuff in front of the hundreds of millions watching around the globe in the near future.