“Where do you want your statue Vincent Kompany?!” spluttered Gary Neville from the television gantry. The talismanic Belgian defender had just put Manchester City ahead against Brendan Rodger’s Leicester side with a quite stunning strike.
That iconic moment, on the penultimate match day of the 2018/2019 season, would prove decisive in an utterly captivating two-horse title race between Pep Guardiola’s relentless City and Jurgen Klopp’s scintillating Liverpool.
The following week, the Citizens would weather an early Glenn Murray-shaped storm to pillage Brighton on the south coast and claim their fourth Premier League title of the decade.
Kompany, loved so unconditionally by both the club and the fans ever since his ceremonious arrival from Hamburg in 2008, had provided the blue side of Manchester with the most perfect of parting gifts.
Somewhat poetically, he would leave City in the summer and return to Anderlecht, where his illustrious career had of course begun in earnest at the turn of the century, to take on the role of player-manager.
Last month, I headed across to Belgium to see how he has been faring.
A metro ride, decorated lamp posts and Avenue Theo Verbeeck
The brief metro ride out to Lotto Park from our base at Place Saint-Catherine was, by all accounts, overwhelmingly subdued.
It was hardly the packed tram journey out to the Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux, in the stifling southern French summer heat, to see an Ivan Perisic-inspired Croatia take on Spain at Euro 2016.
Nor was it remotely comparable to the claustrophobic match-day pilgrimage, from the charming centre of Munich out to the impressive Allianz Arena on the outskirts, to watch then manager Carlo Ancelloti’s Bayern side dismantle Augsburg in early 2017.
But there was still, of course, that whole-hearted anticipation which accompanies any first-time visit to a new club and stadium.
The smattering of royal purple scarves and jerseys, along with the fading Anderlecht stickers adorning lamp posts and electricity boxes on Avenue d’Itterbeek, Rue René Henry and, eventually, the iconic Avenue Theo Verbeeck, were a further, welcoming reminder that there was indeed a game on tonight.
The stadium itself, currently named Lotto Park following a sponsorship deal agreed last summer with the country’s national lottery provider, is situated in the residential streets of Anderlecht, a municipality south-west of Belgium’s capital city, and backs onto the picturesque Parc Astrid.
Constructed in 1917, the ground has a capacity of 22,500. Its seats, a radiant purple, add a degree of character to an ostensibly ordinary arena.
As kick-off approached, 21,000 or so individuals populated the stadium and brought it to life with optimistic cheers, adulating chants and, ultimately, deprecating groans.
A diverse squad ravaged by injury
Not unlike the eclectic architecture of Belgium’s capital city, Vincent Kompany’s squad at Anderlecht is a curious juxtaposition of the old, the not-so-old and the new.
Kompany himself is now 33, Samir Nasri is 32 and Nacer Chadli is 30. English forward Kemar Roofe turned 27 last month while exciting attackers Jeremy Doku and Yari Verschaeren are aged just 17 and 18 respectively.
Rather fittingly however, for an individual himself so inconceivably prone to injury throughout his otherwise prosperous spell in Manchester, a number of Kompany’s key players would miss the quasi-derby with Charleroi through bumps, knocks and bruises.
Esteemed youth academy AND A barcelona target
Nevertheless, the starting line-up did include the highly-rated young pairing of Doku and Albert Sambi Lokonga. The promising duo are recent graduates of the esteemed Anderlecht academy which, over the years, has produced talents such as Youri Tielemans, Romelu Lukaku and Dries Mertens. Indeed, players developed by the club’s youth system accounted for 35% of the Belgian squad which lit up the 2018 World Cup in Russia so spectacularly and seemed destined to be crowned champions, only to be cruelly undone by the forehead of Samuel Umtiti in the semi-final.
Lokonga, a powerful and composed holding midfielder to trade, has been linked with moves to Manchester City, Barcelona, Monaco and Inter Milan. He has however noted that he intends to remain at Anderlecht for the next couple of years. In this respect, he has perhaps learned from his elder brother, Jean Paul M’Poku, who struggled to make an impact at Tottenham Hotspur following his move to North London aged just 16.
Understandably, given the speculation and Lokonga’s apparent level-headedness on and off the field, I was particularly keen to see the 20-year-old in action.
The early stages of the game saw little in the way of clear chances for either side. Lokonga was, however, oozing class, an assured presence both on and off the ball. He exuded supernal quality, breaking up attacks with ease, recycling possession sensibly and showing impressive game awareness throughout.
Off the field of play however, Lokonga’s mentor, Vincent Kompany, was notably absent from the dugout.
Kompany’s Pro Licence
Perhaps demonstrative of the haste with which Kompany was ushered in by the Anderlecht board, in a clear attempt to appease and assuage an increasingly restless fanbase and address an alarming slump in both form and European stature, Kompany does not yet have his Uefa Pro Licence.
Due to Belgian FA regulations, he cannot therefore be on the touchline on match days. The club also received a fine for naming Kompany as head coach without the requisite qualifications.
Since Kompany’s appointment, Simon Davies, a former coach at Manchester City’s youth academy and graduate of the infamous class of ’92 at Manchester United, has been drafted in to the coaching set-up along with the more experienced Frank Vercauteren in what has been an altogether erratic process.
This unfortunate situation is, however, only temporary. Kompany has over 50 appearances for the Belgian national team and will be ‘fast tracked’ onto the Uefa Pro Licence course by the Belgian FA as a result.
Belgian coaches in waiting
Indeed, the national body’s eagerness to help prepare its brightest talents for life post-retirement may well see Kompany joined in the world of management one day by Kevin de Bruyne.
The 28-year-old is one of a number of Belgian players understood to be studying for his coaching badges while on international duty with the Red Devils. One player who has not signed up, however, is Eden Hazard.
The insubordinate Eden Hazard
A quite brilliant story told by Hazard’s former Chelsea team-mate Rob Green, in an interview with The Athletic, perhaps explains the winger’s lack of current enthusiasm for a future in coaching.
During his time at Chelsea, Hazard featured in a 4-1 win over Cardiff City in September 2018, while Maurizio Sarri was still in charge. While ten Chelsea players reluctantly implemented the oft-maligned Sarri-ball, Hazard himself completely cold-shouldered the Italian’s meticulous tactical planning and took it up upon himself to do his own, mesmerising, thing with unerring nonchalance. He scored a dazzling hat-trick, picked up the man of the match award and stuck two metaphorical fingers up at Sarri’s managerial knowhow in an act of audacious insubordination.
Chances for Charleroi
At Lotto Park, the first real opening of the game fell to the away side just after the half-hour mark. For once, Lokonga was unable to break up play in the middle of the park and Les Zèbres almost capitalised with a flowing attack.
After some neat passing in the midfield, the ball was worked out wide to Massimo Bruno. The creative midfielder then guided a teasing cross towards the advancing Mamadou Fall, but the Senegalese international’s route to goal was blocked by a superbly timed interception from Dutch defender Derrick Luckassen.
Minutes later, Iranian forward Kaveh Rezaei dropped deep for the visitors and unleashed a fizzing effort on target but Anderlecht goalkeeper Hendrik Van Crombrugge was well-positioned and gathered with relative ease.
Despite the best efforts of Japanese international Ryota Morioka, pulling the strings in midfield with apparent ease, Charleroi were unable to take full advantage of their dominance as half-time approached. Much to the chagrin no doubt of the impressive visiting support, the teams went in at the break all square.
Anderlecht’s attacking intent
A moment of brilliance from Charleroi winger Ali Gholizadeh almost gave the visitors the lead barely five minutes into the second half. The 23-year-old jinxed past a hapless Edo Kayembe before flashing a vicious shot across Van Crombrugge’s goal and narrowly missing the target.
After spending the opening hour or so largely on the back foot, Anderlecht however finally began to show signs of attacking intent.
First, Lokonga drove his side forward with powerful elegance and fed an intricate ball to his left into the path of Francis Amazu. With little time to assess his options, the young winger could only fizz an effort over the bar.
Moments later, the home side would hit the post when Derrick Luckassen, left all on his own at the far side of the box, connected with Alexis Saelemaekers’ corner from the right.
Anderlecht’s best chance of the game, however, would fall to former Leeds United marksman Kemar Roofe. Saelemaekers, another graduate of Anderlecht’s youth academy, weaved inside from the right and, with the outside of his boot, played a sumptuously weighted pass in behind the Charleroi backline for Roofe. The 27-year-old had timed his run to perfection and looked destined to slot Les Mauves in to the lead, only to be denied by the onrushing Nicolas Penneteau.
From Walsall to Flanders
Roofe of course made the switch from the English Championship to the Jupiler League this summer in a move which demonstrated both the Walsall native’s ambition and a commendable willingness to step outside of his comfort zone.
Indeed, few would have blamed Roofe had he turned down the approach from Anderlecht and chosen instead to remain at a rejuvenated Leeds United and the familiarity of Elland Road.
Bielsa and Leeds, Kompany and Anderlecht
Interestingly enough, there are certain parallels to be drawn between the enigmatic Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United and the charismatic Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht.
Firstly, the two clubs are sleeping giants of sorts, albeit at drastically different stages in their respective slumbers: Anderlecht seemingly taking a power nap; Leeds in the deepest of sleeps.
Les Mauves are Belgium’s most decorated club with 34 league titles to their name. However, prior to Kompany’s arrival, they failed to qualify for Europe for the first time in 56 years.
United, who reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2001, have been absent from England’s top flight for over 15 years.
Secondly, both coaches are rather philosophical individuals with close family links to politics. Bielsa’s brother, Rafael Bielsa, served as the Foreign Minister of Argentina from 2003 until 2005. Kompany’s father, Pierre Kompany, having been elected in 2018, is Belgium’s first black mayor.
Thirdly, just as the untimely demise of Leeds United, right on the cusp of a Sky Sports-driven revolution, saw them left ruthlessly behind by their more traditional rivals, so too are Anderlecht at risk now of being cut adrift from the ruling elite. In this respect, plans have been announced to merge the top flights in Belgium and Holland.
The prospect of Ajax, Standard Liège, Feyenoord, Gent, PSV Eindhoven and Club Brugge in the same league, while perhaps not universally popular, is undoubtedly intriguing and could allow for substantial economic growth, at least for those lucky enough to secure a place in the new format.
Ominously for Kompany and his side, reports suggest that there would only be room for 8 Belgian sides in a league of 18. Anderlecht currently sit 9th in the table.
There is, however, one glaring difference between the Chilean and the Belgian. While Bielsa on the one hand is an arch maester of the game boasting an enviable and impressive wealth of managerial experience, Kompany on the other hand is only now embarking on a career of his own in the dugout. Prior to his appointment at Anderlecht, Kompany’s only previous coaching experience had been a handful of training sessions with Manchester City’s women’s team.
The push for a late winner
Roofe’s missed opportunity seemed to galvanise Les Zèbres, albeit ephemerally, as the away came agonisingly close to breaking the deadlock in the closing stages. A swift break forward saw the ball eventually find its way to former Anderlecht midfielder Massimo Bruno.
The 26-year-old met the cross from the left perfectly, and, for a brief moment, the Lotto Park public must have feared the worst.
With the ball headed straight for the bottom corner and Van Crombrugge seemingly rooted to the spot, Marco Kana somehow diverted the ball away from goal with a heroic block to keep his side level.
The final act of the game, in the third minute of stoppage time, saw the introduction of Yari Verschaeren, an 18-year-old who has already made his debut for the Belgian national team and netted his first goal for the Red Devils.
Quite why the creative spark of Verschaeren had not therefore been introduced at an earlier stage both perplexed and incensed the Anderlecht faithful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the late switch was greeted with almost universal disdain.
Vesrcharen had barely forty seconds to make any sort of impact. Naturally, he failed to register more than a handful of touches before the final whistle was blown and the game brought to a close. Much to the frustration/ relief of Kompany, Davies and nigh-on 22,000 others inside Lotto Park, it finished 0-0.
Notwithstanding the final result, Anderlecht’s youngsters had suitably impressed. Lokonga, in particular, played with a maturity well beyond his twenty years. He looked composed and emphatic, the seemingly perfect blend of speed, strength and guile. Doku, aged just 17, was, at times, frighteningly explosive down the wing. Marco Kana, also 17, looked wholly assured in a backline with an average age of just 20.
Vincent Kompany’s first season in charge of Anderlecht has been far from straightforward. Administrative mishaps, changes to the coaching staff and inconsistent form have all hindered progress. And yet, in the face of such adversity, there is cause for optimism. The football at Lotto Park is enjoyable once again and Kompany has demonstrated, with a 1-0 win over Standard Liège earlier in the season, that he is indeed capable of delivering big results when it matters. “Trust the process” insists Kompany with religious regularity. Only time will tell, however, if that fabled process will prevail.