Is there a more reliable way of making sure a football team fails to live up to expectations than to label them the 'Golden Generation'?

Okay, maybe that's a little reductive as 'living up to expectations' is of course entirely dependent on context – the Czech Republic's 'Golden Generation' from 1996-2006 finished second and third at two out of three European Championship appearances. While not successful in the literal sense, most would agree it was a commendable achievement.

But for Belgium's plentiful crop, a lot more was expected than what they've achieved. While perhaps less of a disappointment than England's own 'Golden Generation', third place at a World Cup isn't going to be much of a legacy given some of the talent the Red Devils have had.

Roberto Martinez's side fell at the quarter-final hurdle in Euro 2020, with eventual winners Italy emerging 2-1 victors and Belgium left to watch the latter stages of another tournament pass them by.

At the very least, this week does offer them a chance at a first international trophy. They face France in Turin on Thursday in the second of the 2021 Nations League semi-finals.

But down the line when their best talents have retired, would the Nations League – which probably has a limited shelf-life itself if certain people at FIFA get their way over proposals for biennial World Cups – really suffice as the pinnacle of their achievements?

Red Devils awaiting replenishment

Of course, Belgium do still have time – the next World Cup is only 13 months away.

But how many would realistically consider them among the favourites? Concerns over the age of their squad are valid and, while 13 months isn't necessarily a long time, elite football has a tendency to expose and exacerbate even the slightest weakness, of which age can be an example.

Reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final was the closest Belgium have come to winning the biggest prize in football, as they got to the last four before ultimately losing to Thursday's opponents France.

 

Martinez's starting XI in that game was the oldest (28 years, 356 days) of all of Belgium's line-ups during the 2018 World Cup. While that may not necessarily be shockingly old in itself, some might suggest that was evidence of them being at the peak of their powers.

Since Russia 2018, Belgium have only got older. Now, you might be inclined to say, "Yeah, that's how aging works, genius", but football is obviously cyclical. Teams don't just age for eternity, they are refreshed and replenished.

It's difficult to say that's happening on a consistent basis with Belgium, though.

Young Lions setting the example

Gareth Southgate's England got just as far as Belgium in Russia and their squad was already rather young (26.0 years), with only Nigeria (25.9) having a younger group of players at the tournament.

The third-place play-off – when fringe players were given opportunities – aside, England's starting XI's average age only dipped below 26 once, and that was their third group game (also against Belgium) having already secured a spot in the next round.

But there were clear signs of further refreshment to Southgate's team after the tournament, with their first XI's average age not reaching 26 again for more than two years (November 2020).

 

Between the start of the last World Cup and the present day, Belgium have named a starting XI with an average age of 29 years or more nine times – seven of those have been in 2021 alone. Their oldest average age in that time, 30 years and 148, was during the 1-0 win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

Of course, it didn't work out too badly on that occasion, and their collective age isn't necessarily a barrier in a given game, but it does suggest Martinez has to be reliant on his older players because the next generation isn't of the same calibre.

The starting XI selected against Portugal at the Euros was the second-oldest named by any team at the tournament after Slovakia.

While key players such as Romelu Lukaku, Yannick Carrasco, Youri Tielemans and Thibaut Courtois haven't reached 30, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Eden Hazard have.

So, what of the next generation?

Belgium's next hopefuls

Belgium's youngest team of 2021 – and fourth-youngest since the start of the last World Cup – was named last month (26 years, 364 days) in the 1-0 win away to Belarus.

Among the 15 players who featured, only three were 24 or younger: Dodi Lukebakio, Tielemans and Alexis Saelemaekers, who at 22 was the youngest. Zinho Vanheusden (also 22), Yari Verschaeren and Charles De Ketelaere (both 20) were unused substitutes.

Arsenal midfielder Albert Sambi Lokonga (21) had been in the squad, while Jeremy Doku impressed with his pace and trickery at Euro 2020 despite only turning 19 in May. These, for the time being, appear to be Belgium's next biggest hopes.

Lokonga looks set to be an interesting option in midfield. Athletic and a hard worker, his 62.2 per cent duel success was the 15th highest among outfield players in the Belgian Pro League last season, but he's also an assuring presence in possession.

 

Of the Pro League players to attempt at least 30 dribbles last term, Lokonga (41) ranked third in terms of completion percentage (72.1), while no midfielder or winger recorded more ball carries (627) than him. Among the same group, only three – two of whom were wingers – carried the ball further upfield over the course of the campaign than Lokonga (3,356.9 metres).

His former Anderlecht team-mate Verschaeren has been around for a few years now, with this impressively his fourth season in the club's first team. Last term saw him progress as a goal threat, improving from two the season before to six, but early suggestions he could be the 'next Eden Hazard' haven't really been on the money.

While Hazard has always been renowned for his dribbling, Verschaeren is a rather less conventional winger in that sense given he only attempted 1.8 per 90 minutes in 2020-21. Instead, his strength lies in link-up play, with just six players among forwards and midfielders (at least 900 minutes played) bettering his 83.5 per cent pass completion in the attacking half of the pitch.

Although his shot-ending sequence involvement average of 4.1 per 90 minutes was unspectacular, it was above average, whereas his goal-ending sequence involvement of 0.8 each game was bettered only seven.

But where Verschaeren's stock may not have risen as quickly as some expected a couple of years ago, De Ketelaere does appear to be on a good trajectory.

Capable of playing as a striker, winger or No.10, De Ketelaere has often been deemed lightweight despite his height and easily knocked off the ball. His duel success has improved to 54.6 per cent this term from 44.3 – among the worst – last season, a consequence of him bulking up somewhat, and although he continues to lack presence aerially (36.8 per cent aerial success), De Ketelaere can get by because he's a good technician.

He was important as an associative player in attack in 2020-21, as demonstrated by the fact he was involved in shot-ending sequences with a total xG (expected goals) value of 21.8, the seventh-highest in the Pro League, while he's already matched last season's goals output of four.

 

Doku is seemingly the outstanding one of the bunch in terms of flair, at the very least. He attempted (184) and completed (110) the fifth-most dribbles across the top five European leagues last season, encouraging proof of his confidence and technique.

Currently injured, Doku still has plenty to work on in terms of his end product, but the raw minerals are there, and he didn't look out of place at Euro 2020.

Are these youngsters enough to carry the burden of expectation that's been cultivated by Belgium's 'Golden Generation', though? At the moment it's difficult to say the new kids on the block are generally of the same quality on an individual level, because Lukaku, De Bruyne, Hazard et al have just been so good over the years.

While Nations League success may not cut it as a satisfactory legacy for this Belgium team, winning the title in Italy might just give them the nudge their collective mentality needs ahead of what looks likely to be a last realistic tilt at the World Cup for a while.

Anderlecht have announced that Craig Bellamy will leave his role as Vincent Kompany's assistant coach to deal with mental health problems. 

Bellamy, who talked extensively about his long battle with depression last year, had been part of the Anderlecht coaching staff since 2019. 

The 42-year-old has been working as former Manchester City team-mate Kompany's right-hand man since earlier this year, but he will officially step aside on Monday. 

A statement on Anderlecht's website on Sunday read: "Assistant coach Craig Bellamy will leave the coaching staff of RSC Anderlecht on Monday.  

"Bellamy already struggled with mental problems in the past and these have resurfaced again recently.  

"With his departure, the Brit took a very difficult, but absolutely necessary decision concerning his health.  

"Bellamy said goodbye to the players in the dressing room on Sunday afternoon after the 7-2 victory against KV Mechelen." 

Former Wales international Bellamy retired from football in 2014 following a second spell with hometown club Cardiff City. 

He moved into coaching with Cardiff at academy level before departing in January 2019 and taking up a similar position with Anderlecht. 

Following the news of Bellamy's departure, Kompany added: "Craig has long struggled with his mental health. Now the monster is back there.  

"Health is above football. We are obligated to give him the chance to get well." 

Vincent Kompany says he is humbled after Manchester City unveiled a permanent statue of their former captain at the Etihad Stadium.

Kompany and ex team-mate David Silva have been honoured for their remarkable services to the club with large-scale statues on the east side of the stadium.

Created by sculptor Andy Scott, they were constructed using thousands of welded pieces of galvanised steel, and will be specially illuminated with blue-tinted lighting.

After joining from Hamburg in August 2008, Kompany made 320 appearances during 11 years with City, scoring 20 goals.

The Belgian captained the club to four Premier League titles – including their first top-flight success in 44 years in 2012 – as well as four EFL Cups and the 2019 FA Cup.

Kompany, now the Anderlecht boss, is honoured by the recognition he has received.

"I didn't really expect to be recognised by such a great club in that way," he told City's official website.

"My wife is from Manchester, my kids are born in Manchester, and they go back to a place where they can see something that represents what their Dad has achieved and that is something that I can't describe.

"The first time I saw the statue, I couldn't believe how big it was, but then again, I'm a big boy, so fair enough!

"And then especially the pose, for me it means a lot."

He later added on Twitter: "So grateful, humbled and at the same time sad I couldn't be there today. I am dedicating every minute I have to @rscanderlecht.

"I promise I'll be back to visit as soon as I can. Meanwhile, keep the pigeons away from those arms."

Albert Sambi Lokonga's football intelligence can be a huge asset to Arsenal after the Belgium Under-21 international won the admiration of a Premier League great.

Mikel Arteta made Lokonga his second signing of the close season on Monday - the Gunners wrapping up a deal reported to be worth an initial £15million with Anderlecht.

Lokonga was coached by Vincent Kompany at Anderlecht and Arteta, who worked with the ex-Manchester City captain when he was part of Pep Guardiola's staff, did the expected background work on the highly rated midfielder.

"Albert is a very intelligent player who has shown great maturity in his performances during his development," Arteta told his club's official website.

"He has been coached well by Vincent Kompany and his team at Anderlecht. I know Vincent very well and he talks so highly about Albert and the positive impact he had to Anderlecht in recent seasons.

"We're confident Albert's ready for the next stage in his development and we’re looking forward to welcoming a new member to our squad with his quality and presence."

Lokonga made his Belgian Pro League debut in December 2017 and Opta statistics from his performances since then measure up well to those produced by Arsenal players over the same period.

Noted for his ability to play in front of the defence, the 21-year-old made 115 tackles and won 77 in 69 league appearances.

Somewhat predictably, Granit Xhaka is the only Arsenal player to have racked up more – 195 tackles and 114 won – during this time, although the Switzerland star did so over 111 games.

Lucas Torreira, who spent last season on loan at Atletico Madrid, perhaps provides a better point of comparison. In 63 Premier League games for the Gunners, the combative Uruguay international made 98 tackles and won 70.

Of Arsenal outfield players to have featured in 30 or more league games since December 2017, only the now departed Shkodran Mustafi (64.29 per cent) has a better duel success rate than Lokonga (60.7).

Overall, he has won possession 414 times – again a figure only bettered by Xhaka on 746, with Torriera (327) off the pace set by the new signing.

Lokonga is also accomplished in possession, with 86.1 per cent passing accuracy and 67 chances created in the top-flight for Anderlecht suggesting he is not afraid of operating in a progressive manner on the ball.

Xhaka, while continuing to bear in mind his greater game time, has made 94 key passes during the time in question, with attackers Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the only other current Arsenal players to have supplied more.

Manchester City defender Taylor Harwood-Bellis has joined Anderlecht on a season-long loan.

The 19-year-old is linking up with former City captain Vincent Kompany, who is preparing for his second full season in charge as coach at Lotto Park.

Kompany successfully called on his former club for help last term, taking Lukas Nmecha on a temporary deal spanning the 2020-21 campaign.

The German went on to score 18 goals in 37 league appearances over the course of his stay in Belgium.

Now the hope will be that Harwood-Bellis, who spent the back half of last season in the Championship with Blackburn Rovers, can make a similar positive impact.

The teenager, who joined City's academy at the age of six, has made senior appearances for the club so far.

On his arrival, Anderlecht sporting director Peter Verbeke said: "Taylor is a young central defender who already plays with a lot of personality and maturity.

"His training at City, together with experience in the Championship, makes him a player who is good on the ball and who has a lot of aggressivity and audacity."

Manchester City will turn to Harry Kane if they cannot land Erling Haaland.

It is widely expected City will go hard to sign the Norway striker, who is being pursued by numerous big clubs.

Barcelona, Real Madrid and Chelsea are all interested in the Borussia Dortmund man.

 

TOP STORY - KANE IN CITY'S SIGHTS

The Times reports that if City fail to win the race for Haaland's signature they will consider making an offer for Tottenham talisman Kane.

Kane is seven years older than Haaland but has a proven Premier League goal scoring record.

City have already confirmed Sergio Aguero's exit at the end of the season and are in the market to bolster their forward ranks.

 

ROUND-UP

- The Daily Mail is reporting that City's main priorities in the transfer market are to sign Haaland and Aston Villa playmaker Jack Grealish, as they turn to a younger generation of talent. The duo are expected to cost £200 million.

- Football Insider has reported Lionel Messi has requested FC Barcelona sign countryman Aguero as part of his own negotiations to stay with the Catalans. Mundo Deportivo claims Aguero is not a priority signing for Barca, with Memphis Depay, Romelu Lukaku and Haaland top of the list.

- Gianluigi Donnarumma has been linked with a host of big clubs and Sky Sport Italia are reporting that contract talks with AC Milan are at a standstill. Milan are allegedly offering €7million per-year deal but the goalkeeper wants more.

- Voetbalkrant are reporting Southampton are interested in Anderlecht's teenage defender Marco Kana.

- Ex-Borussia Dortmund and Hertha Berlin coach Lucien Favre is interested in becoming Celtic's new coach, according to the Daily Mail.

- Fichajes reports Leeds United's Rodrigo is unhappy in England and wants to return to Spain, with Real Betis and Sevilla in the mix.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.