Andrew Thompson brings you the next edition of this series and talks about the best U-19 players to watch out for in the Jupiler Pro league this season.
It is no mistake that the best national teams in world football have the best youth systems. From top to bottom, the local sides to youth footballing juggernauts in countries like Germany, Brazil and France all work together to provide a veritable assembly line which pumps out young players ready to make their mark at the highest level.
With the relatively new German model leading the way in regards to a unified system being controlled by the FA, with the aim of having clubs of all levels working in unison for the betterment of the national program on the whole, Belgium’s relative rise to prominence on the World and European stage can be attributed to much of the same overhauling that revitalized the German giant.
It was roughly fifteen years ago that Belgium put their youth system under the microscope and began its restructuring. The result of those efforts is the current “Golden Generation” that is littered with players of immense ability who play at the very highest level in Europe. The aim however is to ensure that this is not a flash in the pan, that once the current crop of players begins to regress, that the domestic pipeline can continue to produce players of the requisite ability.
As it stands, there are few nations in Europe with a better youth system than Holland’s noisy little neighbor – with that said, let’s take a look at ten U-19 players who could be primed for big things in the current campaign.
Note: Some players on this list are non-Belgians who have come through the ranks domestically.
Youri Tielemans // RSC Anderlecht // 19 // Central Midfielder
Easily the most well-known U-19 player coming out of Belgium, Youri Tielemans has been tipped for big things since the age of 17. Coming through the Anderlecht youth ranks, Tielemans became an integral piece of the puzzle for the Belgian U-16 side before breaking into the U-21 side two years ago. At Anderlecht, he is viewed as the best and brightest of the next generation, along with the likes of Leander Dendoncker and the now departed Dennis Praet. Already with three goals and two assists in nine appearances domestically and in Europe this season, Tielemans looks primed to have his best season for Paars-wit. Unfortunately for the Belgian giants, his employment status is sure to change as a move to a bigger club in one of Europe’s top leagues is a near guarantee, even as early as next season.
Henry Onyekuru // KAS Eupen // 19 // Winger
The immediate reaction you’re probably having is “Who…? What…?” Under normal circumstances that would likely be the correct course of action, but Henry Onyekuru is certainly one to keep tabs on. Moving from ASPIRE Senegal to minnows KAS Eupen last summer as an eighteen year old, Onyekuru helped Eupen gain promotion last season with six goals and two assists in nineteen appearances. This season he has kicked on well in the Jupiler League, netting twice and adding two assists in five appearances. With Nigeria hardly being short on attacking talent over the years, Onyekuru will look to keep himself on the watchlist to earn a call up to the Super Eagles squad over the next few years. In regards to club level, a strong showing domestically could find him moving to a bigger side, with Eupen surely finding it difficult to turn down a decent amount of money for his services.
Siebe Horemans // KAA Gent // 18 // Centre-Back
Despite him being largely unknown outside of the country, Siebe Horemans made the list not because of a breakout season this term, but one to watch moving forward. Coming through the ranks at KAA Gent, Horemans is still just 18-years of age but has already impressed enough to be regularly included in manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s squad. Though he’s only made two starts this campaign (once in a Europa League qualifier away at FC Viitorul and once in the league against KVC Westerlo), Horemans has been included in the match-day team on every other occasion. With first-team regulars Lasse Nielsen, Rami Gershon and Jeremy Taravel all pushing the age of thirty, Horemans will look to develop during the current season and take his chances when he’s given them, with the view of potentially cracking the XI on a more regular basis next campaign.
Leon Bailey // KRC Genk // 19 // Winger
Though he (like a few others on this list) is not a direct product of the Belgian youth system, he is currently completing his footballing education with a KRC Genk team looking to leapfrog their major rivals on the domestic front. Moving from Slovakian side AS Trencin last summer, Bailey was an immediate success in his first season in Belgium. Seven goals and eleven assists in 42 appearances in all competitions is a very solid return for an 18-year old, and this season Bailey is looking to improve his contributions. He’s currently on four goals and three assists in all competitions. As he matures under manager Peter Maes this season, the young Jamaican winger could easily pop up on the radar of bigger foreign clubs by the time the next summer window rolls around. For the time being however, his immediate concern will be to help Genk improve on their last two seasons where they finished seventh and fifth respectively.
Bryan Heynen // KRC Genk // 19 // Central Midfielder
The second of four KRC Genk players to make the list, Bryan Heynen is a product of the club’s youth academy. Making his debut last season against OH Leuven, Heynen has worked his way up the ladder to become a routine fixture in Maes’ XI. Currently, the young holding midfielder has featured in every Genk fixture this season, making six starts (four of which came in the Jupiler League) and a further five appearances as a substitute. Though Heynen was capped for the U-16’s, he’s yet to press on and crack into the youth sides up the chain, which makes this season vital to his development in the national program. Considering his routine involvement in the Genk first-team, it should only be a matter of time before the U-21’s come calling, whether it be this season or the following.
Onyinye Ndidi // KRC Genk // 19 // Centre-Back/ Defensive Midfielder
Another gifted young Nigerian, Onyinye Ndidi is a near guarantee to have a bright future. Arriving at Genk last summer from Nigerian-side Nath Boys FC, Ndidi made forty-one starts in forty-seven available opportunities, while coming off the bench on two further occasions. Moving forward into the current campaign, he’s already played every single minute of both the domestic and European campaign. Capped for the Nigerian U-20’s, Ndidi has broken into the full national team side, making four appearances – he’s already an established blip on the radar screen for his country, making his reputation on the continent next in line for advancement. Like all the players on this list he is still very young and at a club that will continue to help him mature and develop, but it’s more than feasible to suggest than Ndidi is ahead of the curve and you could expect him to make a move elsewhere in the near future, especially if he has another influential season over the next eight months.
Dries Wouters // KRC Genk // 19 // Centre-Back/ Left-Back
Much like Bryan Heynen, Dries Wouters is also a product of the Genk pipeline. Making his full debut for the club last season in December during the Belgian Cup, he would go on to earn three starts while being included in the match-day squad on numerous occasions. It appears that additional faith is being placed in him this season however, with Wouters already making six starts in all competitions as well as being on the bench in the other five fixtures. With Genk only having four center-backs in the first team, squad rotation is a guarantee, ensuring that Wouters will feature enough to aid in his development on the pitch. Already a stalwart for the Belgian youth sides making a combined thirty-one appearances from U-16 to U-19, his progression should be aimed at being ready to contend for a spot in the squad for Euro 2020. Though he’s third or fourth in the Genk pecking order at the moment, don’t be surprised if he works himself up the ladder as the season progresses.
Landry Dimata // KV Oostende // 19 // Striker
He may not be a product of the Oostende system, but Landry Dimata is certainly one to keep your eye on for club and country. Moving from Jupiler League foe, Standard Liege this summer for a fee of 600k Euro, the former Mons youth player found it difficult to break into the first-team regularly at Liege, failing to make a single appearance during his time at the club. After his summer move, faith has already been placed in him by manager Yves Vanderhaeghe, selecting Dimata for his XI in four out of Oostende’s five league fixtures thus far. Though he’s yet to find the back of the net this season, fans can be encouraged by how prolific he was for the Belgian youth teams. Dimata netted nine times in thirteen appearances for the U-19’s, and a further three times in eight combined appearances for the U-17’s and U-18’s. As he matures as a player, the goals are sure to come – patience will be the key with him.
Iebe Swers // Sint-Truidense // 19 // Winger
Most people’s instincts would be to assume that the relatively unknown Iebe Swers, a product of minnows Sint-Truidense, would hardly be worth mentioning. New manager Ivan Leko, however, would stand to argue the contrary on the matter. As a seventeen year old, Swers made ten appearances for the club in the 2014/15 season that saw them win promotion up to the Jupiler League. Last term he added to that number when he featured on five occasions during the Jupiler League playoff, and he’s clearly impressed Leko enough to earn four starts this season already. The truth of the matter however, is that if Swers plans on developing further, he’s likely to want to seek a move away from his current employers. In short, his performances this season must be viewed as an audition for him in the hopes that he garners interest from bigger clubs.
Ryan Mmaee // Standard Liege // 18 // Striker
Purchased from Gent in 2013 at the age of fifteen for an undisclosed fee, Ryan Mmaee is seemingly on an upward path to success. He made five appearances last season for Standard (two in the league) as a seventeen year old, and has done enough to work himself into manager Aleksandar Jankovic’s thought process. Mmaee has been handed a start three times and made one substitute appearance already this season, bagging an assist in the recent 2-2 draw with Club Brugge. Though capped through the Belgian youth levels (scoring six goals in seventeen total appearances), Mmaee has recently become a full Moroccan international after Herve Renard gave him twelve-minutes off the bench against Albania. His ongoing battle with fellow center-forward Ivan Santini for rights to being the preferred option will be interesting to watch as the season progresses.
Read all our Talent Radar 2016-17 Young Players to Watch across all leagues, here.