Clueless. Incoherent. Lacking in inspiration. All adjectives that could be justifiably used to describe Anderlecht’s defeat to AEL last night. The manner of the performance was quite shocking and left even those wounded by the scars of previous unsuccessful play-off attempts shocked and stunned. For those who seek to fly the flag for the Pro League and project a more optimistic image, it was quite frankly depressing. The first half could only be described as Anderlecht’s very best effort to plunge depths greater than KAA Gent’s almost farcical ineptitude against Videoton and it didn’t get much better after the resumption.
It’s only thanks to the individual quality of Dieumerci Mbokani, ably aided by an otherwise infuriating Kanu, that Anderlecht remain in the tie. Kanu shook off several men before finding the lone striker, who teed the ball up for himself before volleying superbly past the outstretched right hand of Matias Degra in the Limassol goal. Despite the insipid nature of the display, Anderlecht remain favourites to progress following next week’s second leg in Brussels thanks to Mbokani’s away goal. And yet while a return to the group stages of the world’s premier club competition is to be welcomed, it must not be used as a mere sticking plaster to paper over the cracks that lie underneath.
Many of Anderlecht’s deep-seated problems that have afflicted the club over the past decade came to the surface in Nicosia. And it’s not even with hindsight that one can fairly point out that the first warning signs of an impending horror show came with John van den Brom’s team selection.
I have often made the point in relation to Standard that 4-4-2 is not a panacea and does not solve a team’s ills in an instant. However, while the level of Anderlecht’s league performances has been nothing to write home about, the move to 4-4-2 has allowed the starting eleven to function more effectively. Van den Brom decided to relegate Tom De Sutter to the bench despite a good showing at the weekend against Mons and play an extra midfielder in Sacha Kljestan. There are two aspects to this move, which are troubling.
Firstly, the initial choice to change the system. It sent out a negative message. It sent out the message that AEL Limassol, a previously unheralded team at this level from Cyprus, a league much weaker than Belgium (the exploits of APOEL notwithstanding), were a team to be feared. It sent out the message that Anderlecht had to revert back to type and it was the wrong one to put out.
Secondly, the replacement chosen signified the approach the Belgian champions were going to take. It wasn’t Dennis Praet but the much more workmanlike Sacha Kljestan, whose greatest contribution was criticising Milan Jovanovic after the game for losing the ball in the build up to AEL’s second goal. If the concern was the physical power of AEL and their willingness to interrupt Anderlecht’s game at every turn, Juhász Roland would have been more suited. A veteran of Anderlecht with considerable international experience, he could have facilitated a brief return for Cheikhou Kouyaté to midfield. And as we saw last weekend, Kouyaté is not backwards in going forwards when he spots the right opportunity. That’s not to say there is never a use for Kljestan but last night he was the wrong choice.
Anderlecht should be looking to dominate this calibre of opposition and impose themselves on the game – in both legs. Perhaps it was the pressure coming from on high to ensure there were no more hitting the final hurdle before the bright lights, big games, iconic music and €15m the Champions League proper lays out on the buffet table. On the other hand, it could be put down to van den Brom himself not wanting to be accused of being gung-ho and seeing Anderlecht go out of the tie before they even land back at Zaventem Airport.
The timing was particularly bad for it came after sporting director Herman van Holsbeeck had spoken of a return to the house style, the trademark style of Anderlecht after an Ariël Jacobs era in which the likeable man from Diegem was accused of failing to extract the best from the material he had to work with. Once again we saw the difficulty of trying to create chances without genuine width. Jovanovic is a very intelligent player who works wonderfully infield, starting around 35-40 yards from goal. Gillet can weigh in with goals and can run the legs off himself but he will never be a good enough right-sided attacking midfielder/winger at this level.
One feature of Dutch football (from where van den Brom hails) is the importance they place on opbouwen or build-up play, which starts from the back. Anderlecht do not have the players to carry this out, Kouyaté excepted. And so we come to the club’s decision to bid a derisory €2.1m upfront for AZ captain Niklas Moisander, who was the ideal player to usher in this change the side has been crying out for. He went to Ajax for €3m – a sum well within Anderlecht’s financial framework with the bonus that AZ did not have to sell to their biggest rivals.
In all honesty, Anderlecht are still more than good enough to become champions, even if they are yet to hit the heights this season in their domestic campaign (it is of course very early days yet as Belgium has the longest season of any major league). However, the above problems stem from one thing – the small-time mentality, which is not limited just to the club itself. It’s that, which prevents Belgium from building the stadia its clubs deserve and which sees Anderlecht prevented from adding another tier to the Constant vanden Stock.
This past week we have seen what Belgians can achieve. They are capable of attaining excellence. What Vincent Kompany has is a can-do attitude. He has reached the top. If a country like Ireland, half the size of Belgium, can boast one of the best stadia in Europe in Croke Park as well as qualify for Euro 2012 and Portugal can consistently point to three magnificent arenas and see its clubs and its national team regularly slugging it out with the best, Belgium can do it too – even at club level. No-one is asking them to be a Spain or a Germany just as no-one expects Anderlecht to become a Barcelona or a Bayern München. What is for sure, Belgium’s biggest club should be doing a whole lot better than they have been. Next week against AEL should only be a mere beginning.