Buidling Dreams Together


Belgium: Golden Age looks set to be ending…

The question is, are they about to enter another?

At the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Belgium failed to qualify from their group. One of the most controversial points surrounding the team’s failure was Kevin De Bruyne’s comments, who claimed the team are “too old”.

We have a good team, but it is ageing. We lost some key players.

After their premature exit, captain Eden Hazard retired from international football. Romelu Lukaku notably disappointed at the tournament, missing a host of important chances that could have given the side a chance to progress. It signified the end for many of their ‘Golden Generation’s’ remarkable players.

2018 stars Alderweireld, Vertonghen and Mertens are all now in their mid to late 30s. Even KDB might consider career options after sustaining yet another injury recently.

However, De Bruyne did make one comment which alluded to a positive future for Belgium:

We have some good new players coming.

So, how did Belgium get to this point in the first place?

After crashing out of the 2000 Euros (which they co-hosted with the Netherlands) in the group-stage, the football federation realised that changed was needed.

Michel Sablon, technical director for the Belgian FA at the time, devised a strategy with other members of the technical team. The aim was to revitalise the nation’s youth system. As co-hosts of the tournament, the profits gained from this were able to be used to rejuvenate this.

One change was the investment into eight special top sports schools, attended by the most elite talent in the country. As noted by Werner Helsen, a sports scientist, the country’s best young talents weren’t able to train enough, needing 20+ hours a week at least but only achieving 10-12. Players aged between 14 and 18 would receive 3 hours of training 4 times a week during school time, in addition to their academy training. They were now able to reach the 20+ mark. KDB was a graduate of these such schools, as well as Thibaut Courtois, and Moussa Dembele.

The Leuven Report

However, the most important change came from the Leuven Report. After analysing 1500 games of youth football, they deduced some key findings:

  1. Coaches were too focused on winning for their own career progression. The best players played, and those on the bench fell out of love with the sport.
  2. Physical attributes took precedence over skill sometimes, leading to the biggest players receiving the greatest share of minutes.
  3. Some of the least talented players in 11v11 training games could receive less than 10 touches.

What did Sablon do about this?

  1. Scrapped league tables from u8s to u14s, with coaches being assessed on player development.
  2. Forced progression meant if a player moves up an age-group, they must stay there to improve and break into the higher group.
  3. To increase touches, 11v11 is only played from u12 upwards.
  4. Training became more game-focused to increase confidence making complex, match-related decisions.
  5. Forced every academy to play 4-3-3, so that players knew their roles when coming together.
  6. Youth groups were split into the first and second half of the year in terms of birthdays. This gave younger and typically smaller players the chance to still play.

While their most successful generation to date may be coming to an end, there are certainly some bright prospects making a name for themselves in Europe. Here are some of the brightest:

Romeo Lavia (19)

Lavia is a product of Anderlecht’s youth system, refined by City and further Southampton. An excellent ball carrier with great agility and balance, but is also great at unlocking defences from deep. His defensive attributes are among some of the best midfielders around, taking to men’s football very well at such a young age. He best summed himself up when speaking after joining Chelsea, saying that:

My job really is to protect my back line and make the job easier for the guys in front of me.

At Chelsea, he would be able to do just this, with players ahead of him like Enzo Fernandez that he could facilitate to progress further up the pitch. He provides defensive nous, able to sniff out danger and then kick-start transitions himself with superb distribution.

Loïs Openda (23)

Openda recently moved to RB Leipzig in a club record deal just shy of £40m. He notched 21 goals and 4 assists in Ligue 1 last season, firing Lens to a second place finish, 1 point behind PSG. Hailing from Club Brugge, he is a lightning quick striker, a great finisher with both feet, and an intense presser. He has a knack for keeping the ball, using his frame well to nick the ball off a player or knock it past them at the last second. He likes to run the channels a lot, typically the left, either running onto chances or taking the ball and creating them.

Lukaku is of course aging, and out of favour in club football. With the heavily relied upon striker’s decline, Openda could be the perfect replacement.

Julien Duranville (17)

Another Anderlecht product, Duranville recently moved to Borussia Dortmund, one of the best homes for nurturing young talent. A fast, tricky winger who loves to run at defenders and put himself in 1v1 situations, finding ways to bypass his man. Playing down the left, he is comfortable at getting to the byline and cutting balls back into the box. At Dortmund, he will likely be nurtured into an inverted winger, and his ability to cut inside will go from strength to strength. He certainly has the finishing technique to grow into a goal threat too.

Julien is clearly at a level beyond what his age would suggest, with Dortmund boss Edin Terzic stating that:

Seeing his dribbling skills, his one-on-one abilities, you have to remind yourself he was still 16 at that time, now 17.

Jeremy Doku (21)

Following the theme of Anderlecht products, Doku joined Rennes in 2020. An electric winger, capable of beating most defenders, making a name for himself and piquing the interest of many top clubs at the 2020 Euros. He is also starting to find his feet as a goal threat, with 7 of his 10 Ligue 1 goals coming in his last 9 games. After the departure of Mahrez, it looks like he could be on his way to Man City, where the sky would be his limit under Pep Guardiola.

For Belgium, he is more than capable of bringing the flair and aura once provided by Eden Hazard.

Maarten Vandevoordt (21)

Vandevoordt looks set to be the nation’s Courtois replacement when the time comes. Similarly to Courtois, he is a product of Genk’s youth system. He recently signed for RB Leipzig, joining the Germans in 2024. His save percentage is impressive at 73%, and he also looks to be a solid short distance distributor of the ball. As he grows and matures, it is likely his passing will go from strength to strength, and that he will become a model modern goalkeeper.