The Next Golden Generation?

The future is bright, the future is Belgium. Apparently.

To start off – I hate using that phrase. Golden Generation. Synonymous with English national failure with the FA/English media using it to describe the crop of the last decade when they clearly achieved nothing other than mediocrity. The only real country that deserve to be described as truly having a generation of talented players is of course the World Cup holders Spain, with graduates of La Masia finally fulfilling the promises bestowed upon them.

It is with great trepidation that I write this article proclaiming Belgium to be the nation with a golden generation.

You’ve probably heard of several of their team, with names flooding the transfer gossip pages of every reputable rag (and some less reputable). The usual ‘most-wanted’ suspects of Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard, Steven Defour and Axel Witsel all seem destined for bigger things in the near future. Combine that with a solid core of Premier League talent in Vincent Kompany, Thomas Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini (although the last two are injured at the moment) and highly rated Ajax pair Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld (again injured, you’ll note a theme here) you have the basis of a decent side.

Time is on Belgium’s side too. Of the current squad, only Daniel Van Buyten and Timmy Simons seem set to retire before 2016. The youth policies installed at many Jupiler Pro League sides in the last decade seem to be finally reaping the dividends with several scouts flocking to watch Belgium’s game in Vienna against Austria.

It was a crucial game in Group A of Euro 2012 qualifying, with Belgium needing to win to have any realistic chance of making the play-offs (the group is Germany’s to lose). Manager Georges Leekens sprung a surprise opting to leave Ligue Un’s best player Eden Hazard on the bench, saying pre-match that he felt Hazard’s lack of height in the centre would unbalance the side.

Technically, this seemed a sound defensive reason; after all Austria have a freakishly tall team even with 6’8′ Stefan Maierhofer on the bench, and hadn’t lost at home in qualifying since 2008.

It takes some guts to drop your country’s most creative player and could have spelt the end for Leekens had his side been beaten. His solution was to use the Standard Liege duo of Steven Defour and Axel Witsel as the lifeblood of the team. Both know each other inside out, and without becoming too cliche, Witsel is half as good without Defour alongside him. Think of a much-low grade version of Xavi-Iniesta, with a bit more grit.

Despite missing targetman Romelu Lukaku and goalkeeper Silvio Proto, Belgium started brightly and grabbed an early goal through Witsel capitalising on a deflected cross to head home. The front-four were electric: Twente’s Nacer Chadli and Fulham’s Moussa Dembele worked the flanks effectively, giving the Austrian full-backs trouble as they went out wide repeatedly. Genk’s Marvin Ogunjimi’s was a bit passive up front on his own, but this allowed Witsel to assume the ‘Fellaini’ position – basically box-to-box although much more effectively than Fellaini had in previous internationals.

Austria came back late in the first-half but Leekens’ tactics were holding them at bay. Controlled possession didn’t let them near the ball and at times you wondered who were the home team.

Early in the second half, Witsel picked up his second. A wonderful passing move saw the Red Devils parked in the final third. A sensational cross from Laurent Ciman found Witsel at the back post. Nonchalantly,he chested it down and smashed it home. Not a bad goal to score in-front of Bayern Munich scouts. Previously, Witsel was notorious for breaking Marcin Wasilewski’s leg, but he seems to be letting his skill do the talking and be allowed to concentrate on his game.

Belgium then held out until full-time, with Austria rarely troubling debutant keeper Simon Mignolet. The travelling 2,000 Belgians went home in jovial spirits, but certainly weren’t getting carried away. Belgium beat Russia at the end of 2010, only to draw with Finland in the next friendly. That didn’t stop the Belgian press though. One match report headline literally translating as “A winning team is born”.

The next game was equally important to create momentum against Berti Vogts’ Azerbaijan side. They had endured a pretty torrid qualifying campaign, bar one standout result by beating Turkey. Leekens again left Hazard on the bench and brought in Genk’s fox-in-the-box Jelle Vossen up top.

What followed was another, more-or-less emphatic result. Defour was once again central to everything Belgium did in the game. The most encouraging aspect of the game was the amount of times Belgium tested the Azerbaijan keeper, 25 shots in total. Sure, the opposition wasn’t the most challenging but it’s important to string together results and it has ultimately changed Belgium’s qualifying campaign.

Maximum points this month sets up a potential play-off decider against Guus Hiddink’s Turkey in June at the Roi Baudouin. The signs are encouraging: scoring at will, more fluidity than the disjointed play with Hazard and Fellaini present. Leekens definitely has created a conundrum for himself, but with so many young talented players at his disposal, it’s a position many European managers would be envious of. Leekens didn’t left Kevin De Bruyne and Yassine El Ghanassy in the U21’s, both having great seasons domestically.

So will this team match those of years gone by. Will they emulate the likes of Preud’homme, Scifo, Van Himst, Gerets and Ceulemans, or even go further? I’d said previously that I thought 2012 would come around too soon for this crop. There’s still a long way to go, but I might have to revise that opinion. Let’s not get carried away…

Player Profile – Balazs Dzsudzsak

In what will hopefully be a long running series on 6pointer, Player Profiles intends to highlight some of Europe’s most promising talents, right across from the Faroe Islands to Russia. Freddie Shires looks at PSV and Hungary’s best product for several years, Balazs Dzsudzak.

Since the days of Puskas’ Mighty Magyars, who dominated the international football scene during the early 1950s, I doubt many would contest the argument that Hungarian football has undoubtedly failed to live up to the enormously high standards that this legendary “Golden Team “created. 1986 was the last time we were graced with Hungary’s presence at the World Cup finals, and it has largely been a downward spiral ever since.

Dzsudzsak holds the ball from another hot prospect Adam Johnson, could we see him in the Premier League soon?

Consistently poor performances throughout qualifying tournaments and a constant string of managerial changes have done nothing for the stability of the side and even some promising displays during the 2010 World Cup qualifiers against the likes of Denmark, Sweden, and Portugal, could not save Dutchman Erwin Koeman’s job. Premier League fans will be aware of the likes of Zoltan Gera and Gabor Kiraly, but it is fair to say that this once great footballing nation has failed to come even close to producing a single player capable of establishing themselves as a household name amongst fans of the global game in many a year.

This all could be about to change however with the emergence of PSV winger, Balazs Dzsudzsak. His name may be a bit of a mouthful, but one can guarantee it will not be long before everyone is attempting to master its tricky pronunciation, as Dzsudzsak is quickly establishing himself as one of the most exciting players in the Eredivisie and attracting interest from a number bigger clubs across Europe.

Beginning his career at local club side Debrecen, Dzsudzsak made his first team debut in 2005, at the age of 18, after spending the previous season out on loan at lower league side Letavertes, and quickly became a vital part of a team which would go on to win three straight Hungarian league titles from 2005 to 2007. A stellar season in 2006/2007, which saw him score 7 goals in 23 games, did not go unnoticed, as Dzsudzsak was voted the Hungarian League player of the year and made his senior debut for the national team.

Beginning the 2007/2008 season in similar fashion with a further 5 goals in 13 games, convinced then Dutch league champions PSV to snap up the promising Hungarian prodigy for an undisclosed fee in October 2007, and, after a slow start, Dzsudzsak soon repaid the faith shown in him by the club’s hierarchy. 2008 saw Dzsudzsak burst onto the scene, becoming a regular in the PSV side out on the left wing, exciting crowds with his raw pace, precise dribbling, tenacious attitude, and consistently accurate free kicks and long range shots, which continue to embarrass goalkeepers throughout the league.

Over the calendar year of 2009, Dzsudzsak finished behind only Luis Suarez in league goals, with an impressive 17 from midfield, and created the most assists in the entire Eredivisie, with 15 in 32 games, winning numerous league and club awards and becoming arguably the most indispensible player in a somewhat underachieving PSV side, fuelling speculation that a move to another top European side could soon be on the cards.

Observing him on the ball, one can immediately see Dzsudzsak plays with a perfect blend of supreme technique and pace, reminiscent of a player in the mould of David Ginola or younger Ryan Giggs, terrorizing fullbacks with his ability to glide past them with ease or deliver a killer ball into the box from out on either wing. He too has shown the talent to play the role of a genuine playmaker, capable of shifting inside to a more central role, effectively as a no. 10, where his accurate passing game can cut through the tightest of defences and create numerous goal scoring opportunities for his side’s strikers.

Comfortable using both feet, the Hungarian’s greatest assets however remain his ability from set pieces and powerful shooting from outside the area, both strengths which have hugely contributed to his goal tally and make him a genuine danger to opposition defenders whenever he receives the ball near the box.

 

Dzsudzsak recieves a red card from Mike Dean in last season's Europa League for a push on the official. (Getty Images)

 

Possessing a resolute attitude to the game, his gritty determination to win the ball and dogged playing style is comparable to another player who once stared in the Dutch top flight, Liverpool’s high energy striker-cum-winger Dirk Kuyt, though it too has unsurprisingly landed him in trouble with officials on more than one occasion. He has been well known during his two and a half seasons in Holland to become overly frustrated and loose his cool at times when the rub of the green is going against him and will need to learn to curb his aggression should he wish to progress and grow as a player in the near future.

Ultimately though, there is no questioning Dzsudzsak’s commitment and love for the game, which has endeared him to PSV fans and make them dread the inevitable day when he does eventually move on to pastures new. The likes of Arsenal, Juventus, and even Real Madrid were all reportedly interested in his services this summer and it will surely not be long before we see the 23 year old Hungarian winger plying his trade for a major club in England, Italy, or Spain.

As the old saying goes, one player certainly does not make a team, and as such Dzsudzsak’s emergence has not yet translated into a turnaround in fortunes for the national team, though if the country continues to produce players of his calibre, the return of Hungary to the World stage may not be too far around the corner.

Follow Freddie on Twitter @fshires for informative views on football, cycling and American football.