Connect in the back of the net

The fee of Christian Benteke’s move to Liverpool may have raised eyebrows, but the £32.5 million is reasonable value for the 42 goals he scored from 88 appearances over three years spent in the Premier League.

It represents a £25 million profit for Aston Villa who signed the striker from Racing Genk of the Jupiler Pro League, who also sold Thibaut Courtois and Kevin De Bruyne to Chelsea. While Courtois is now installed as the long-term goalkeeper for the champions, De Bruyne has been a revelation since moving to Wolfsburg.

The success of Belgium’s exports in Europe’s main leagues, where Romelu Lukaku, Marouane Fellaini and Simon Mignolet have all enjoyed success in England since moving directly from their home country, while Eden Hazard, Vincent Kompany, Toby Alderweireld, Kevin Mirallas and Thomas Vermaelen have all impressed after arriving in the Premier League via other destinations.

It is therefore no surprise to see more English clubs turn to the Belgian Pro League for talent, with Newcastle adding Chancel Mbemba to their signing of Aleksander Mitrovic from Anderlecht who have also had to place a price tag on midfielder Dennis Praet with Aston Villa and Everton both interested.

So who is Praet and can he be the latest product of Belgium’s domestic set-up to come good in the Premier League?

 

Background

It was with Genk where Praet started his career, joining the club’s academy at the age of 8 and quickly establishing himself as one of their most promising young players. After a series of impressive displays at youth tournaments, the likes of Arsenal, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Barcelona became interested, with Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger even taking the 15 year old midfielder on a tour of the Gunners’ training facilities.

However Anderlecht won the chase for the youngster, signing him in May 2010 and immediately inserting him in the under-19 side. With them, Praet was named as the best player of the 2011 AEGON Future Cup, a youth tournament that included Ajax and Bayern Munich. The following September he was handed a first start for Anderlecht, coming in the Belgian Cup against Lommel United.

He notched his first goal for the club in the next round against Rupel Bloom FC and at the end of October 2011, he would make his debut in the Belgian Pro League as a substitute against Lierse. His early promise was rewarded with a new contract in March 2012, which Praet extended in early 2014 to take him up to 2017.

From the start of the 2012/13 onwards, the midfielder would play a significant role in Anderlecht’s dominance of the Belgian top-flight, winning two straight titles and two straight Belgian Super Cups. In his time with Anderlecht, Praet netted 20 goals in 132 games; 8 coming in this most recent season as he blossomed into a dangerous attacking midfielder.

Having represented his country at all age groups from under-15 upwards, in November 2014 Praet received his first call up to the Belgium squad for matches with Iceland and Wales, making his debut in the 3-1 win over the former. His form in 2014 was rewarded in January with the Belgian Golden Shoe, the award given to the league’s best player across a calendar year.

With Praet’s stock up and Anderlecht having failed to make the Champions League for the first time in three years, the midfielder could finally be prized away with both Everton and Sevilla being quoted £10 million for the 21 year old.

 

Style, strengths and weaknesses

Mostly at home as a scheming midfielder operating between the lines, the midfielder Praet has often been likened to is Andres Iniesta. Not the strongest physically, Praet utilises his comfort on the ball and impressive balance to move away from markers. “Above all it’s important that I retain my qualities, which are speed and acceleration. Lionel Messi and Iniesta aren’t exactly big either…” the midfielder once said.

Praet possesses a gifted first touch and is capable of neatly guiding the ball away from challenges in crowded areas. The midfielder lacks pace but he does have an initial burst of powerful acceleration which, in combination with his sharp control and sense of balance, often allows him to progress forward with the ball firmly at his feet.

As an attacking midfielder who is often stationed out on the left but allowed to move into his favoured central position, it is what Praet does in the final third that counts and even though he is a clever mover of the ball, he is often criticised for choosing the safe option on too many occasions. He finished last season with 9 assists but given his impressive technique and vision, there is a feeling he can rack up many more if he played through balls to the attackers more frequently.

From his position on the left however, he can be a danger when latching onto through balls from others, often using well-timed darts across the defensive line. His use of the width of the pitch is suggestive of Praet’s intelligence and acute use of space. A quick run into the inner-right channel earned him an assist against Arsenal in the Champions League back in October.

Though mainly used as an offensive asset, Praet has had to adjust his game to the growing importance of defending from the front in modern football and can now commonly be seen tracking back to help his midfield once the opposition has broken the first wave of press.

Though he may not always be strong enough to win the ball back, he can get stuck in and harry his opponent into making errors in possession, leaving Praet in a good position to launch a counter attack.

 

What the future holds

With Anderlecht’s failure to make the Champions League forcing them into the sales of Mitrovic and Mbemba, Praet could follow as his recent signing to the Stellar Group agency- representatives of Gareth Bale and Ashley Cole– suggests the midfielder is trying to get into a position to negotiate a move away. Though having recouped in excess of £20 million through their sales, Anderlecht will be in no rush to relinquish Praet who still has two years to run on his present contract.

Real Sociedad and Zenit St Petersburg can be added to the list of clubs around Europe who are reportedly chasing Praet, but he is rumoured to be intent on a move to the Premier League to follow the many Belgians who have succeeded there.

While the 21 year old definitely has the skill and intelligence to replicate them, he could do with bulking up on his slight frame if he is to hold his own in a physical league.

Furthermore Praet will need to show he can take an individual grip on games and that he can guide them into his own direction, something which he doesn’t manage enough. That is likely to come as the Belgian matures but at the moment, in the currently inflated transfer market, there are far many worse options to spend £10 million on than Belgium’s latest midfield talent.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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