21st November 2012. A group stage fixture in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League – RSC Anderlecht vs. AC Milan. If the ages of the players were listed on that fixture’s Starting XIs, 4 names would probably stand out – Massimo Bruno, Dennis Praet (both of Anderlecht) and Mattia De Sciglio, Stephan El Shaarawy (both of Milan).
Much has been said about the Milan duo, particularly the Mohawk-sporting El Shaarawy. The focus is on the youngest of the quartet – 18-year-old Dennis Praet.
Praet was born on the 14th of May, 1994 in Leuven, which is the capital of one of the provinces of the Flemish region in Belgium. Much like Leuven-born Belgian international and PSV Eindhoven star Dries Mertens, Praet has the talent to make it at football’s top level. Like most kids in Europe, Praet showed an interest in football from a young age, joining youth teams in his hometown. Praet’s journey started as a 6-year-old, joining the youth team of the now-defunct Koninklijke Stade Leuven, then proceeding to play for Oud-Heverlee Leuven (the product of a merger between Koninklijke Stade Leuven and 2 other clubs). After 3 years at his hometown club, young 9-year-old Praet probably had no inkling that he’d be playing 1st-team football for the biggest team in the country, RSC Anderlecht, just 9 years later, by the age of 18.
Scouted by K. R. C. Genk at the age of 9, Praet joined Genk’s academy system. Some of Genk’s academy graduates in recent years include the likes of Chelsea-owned duo Kevin de Bruyne & Thibaut Courtois, FC Porto midfielder Steven Defour, Standard Liege goalkeeper Sinan Bolat, Aston Villa star Christian Benteke and Hannover 96 defender Sebastian Pocognoli. All are current Belgian internationals, with the exception of Bolat, who represents Turkey. Needless to say, Genk’s academy system has a certain prestige to it.
Catching the eye while moving through Genk’s youth ranks, Praet was also highly-rated within Belgium’s national set-up. Praet has featured for all of Belgium’s age groups, starting from the U15s. Praet has moved from Belgium’s U15s to U21s within the space of 3 years (2009-2012).
He had many offers from top European clubs, including a trial with Arsenal, but he showed his maturity by looking at the big picture rather than risking his career prospects. ”If I’d opted for money, I would have gone elsewhere”, Praet on his move to Anderlecht in 2011.
Praet’s performances at the 2011 AEGON Future Cup again aroused interest from foreign clubs, with the youngster being named MVP, having led Anderlecht to the trophy. Anderlecht had to overcome some prestigious teams along the way, with tournament participants including Bayern Munich, Ajax, Fluminense and Celtic. Ironically, the tournament was hosted by Ajax, who as aforementioned showed serious interest in Praet just a year prior. In a rather symbolic moment, it was Ajax playmaker Christian Eriksen who handed the MVP award to Praet.
After rightfully being tagged as one of Belgium’s most promising talents, a 1st-team debut was inevitable. In September 2011 he made his 1st-team debut against Lommel United in the 2011/12 Belgian Cup, providing 2 assists, while still only a 17-year-old. He scored his first senior goal in the next round of the Cup, against FC Rupel-Boom. Regular league appearances and Champions League starts have followed since then.
Praet is widely regarded as the biggest talent to emerge from Anderlecht’s youth ranks since the likes of striking prodigy Romelu Lukaku and current Manchester City and Belgium captain Vincent Kompany.
Style, Strengths and Weaknesses
At first glance, what stands out about Praet is his playmaking ability and technical skills. Praet is of a decent size, being bigger than he seems – 179cm tall and weighing 70kg. In terms of his physical attributes, his agility, balance and turn of pace stand out the most. Though not a “speedster”, Praet knows when’s best to accelerate with the ball, which is arguably much more important than having raw pace. In essence, Praet’s physical attributes elevate, his technical skill set.
Praet has the tools that are inherent of most “modern era” playmakers/Number 10s. The starlet has displayed superb vision, good ball control, a confident dribbling ability and most importantly, maturity. While Praet does have some tricks up his sleeve, they involve his close ball control rather than “flashy” tricks a la Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar. One bit of skill I particularly remember was when he played against Spain at U21 level – slightly advanced of the ‘right back area’ in his own half, Praet was caught in between 2 Spaniards. With the sole of his right foot, Praet proceeded to drag the ball back, towards himself and behind the 2 opponents, before producing a quick turn (pirouette) to dart into open space near the touchline. He’d done that in 1 movement; it was a brilliant piece of skill.
His maturity was also evident in that, after that breathtaking bit of skill, he played a simple pass, through the space between 2 opponents who’d reacted quickly to restrict his space. Most youngsters, with the adrenaline rush after such a brilliant bit of skill, would’ve attempted to “showboat” or play a “Hollywood long-range pass” instead of doing as Praet had done – playing the simple pass to an unmarked teammate, hence retaining possession of the ball.
With his eye for a pass, Praet has the ability to unlock opposition defences and create goal scoring opportunities for his teammates. While he can play in central midfield, he is best utilised as a central attacking midfielder. Being placed closer to the goal and receiving the ball between the opposition’s midfield and defence lines, is what makes the most of Praet’s quality and skill set. Considering his attributes, Praet could perhaps feature on either flank. However, deploying him out wide would increase the chances of him being isolated (marked out of the game by the opposition).
Such versatility could be a real option but only in the future, as Praet’s career momentum would be put at risk with a positional move out wide in this crucial developmental stage of his career. An example would be Andres Iniesta, who was played across many positions during his first few years in Barca’s 1st-team. Iniesta has, of course, since gone on to superstardom. However, being played in many positions – even at left back – could’ve caused irreversible long-term damage to Iniesta’s prospects.
“Dennis plays like Iniesta. He’s got good technique; he’s solid, holds onto the ball well, keeps things simple and doesn’t panic. His vision of the game is incredible.” – Anderlecht’s Tom De Sutter on his teammate.
(From my little chat with ‘The Belgian Waffle’ on Twitter) Praet needs to be more aggressive. Physically, Praet’s endurance also needs improvement. After superb form at the closing months of last year, his performances have tailed off hugely since January 2013. While there’s also the small matter of Praet needing to bulk up so as to prepare himself for the rigours of professional football, it is vital that Praet’s bulking up doesn’t come at the expense of his turn of pace.
As an archetypal “modern era” playmaker, defending is naturally not one of the young Belgian’s strengths. Tackling is quite clearly not something Praet excels at. However, Praet is a team-player and puts in his required bit of graft, such as in pressing the opposition from the front. This is in line with his maturity and bodes well for any future move to one of Europe’s giants, with the “high intense pressing” tactics being in vogue at the top level of European Football since the dawn of Barca’s era in 2008/09. Bearing in mind his superb game-reading ability, he could perhaps focus on becoming more adept at that side of the game – interceptions – rather than outright tackling.
Despite his current flaws, Praet has exhibited the will to smooth out the few rough edges of his game. The starlet has shown enough thus far to assert the fact that he has huge potential.
“I’m very down to earth and I’m lucky enough to have good people around me in my family and at the club. I’m staying who I am and, away from football, I spend my time with my childhood friends. They’re not at all involved in football, and that’s what I need. I know I have to get more muscle, but above all it’s important that I retain my qualities, which are speed and acceleration. Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta aren’t exactly big either”. – Dennis Praet on his progression thus far and future
Praet has made 23 league appearances this 2012/13 season, with 1 goal and 5 assists. He also made 5 appearances in the Champions League, starting 4 games.
After his good work at Genk and in Belgium’s age groups, it was inevitable that Praet would attract interest both at home and abroad. Many clubs scouted the starlet and wanted to sign him to their respective youth academies. To name a few, FC Barcelona, Arsenal and AFC Ajax showed serious interest. Praet even had a trial at Arsenal.
Having extended his contract (until 2015) in March 2012, Praet has no reason to leave Anderlecht anytime soon as he has guaranteed regular 1st-team football in Brussels and he will be taking on more and more responsibility at Anderlecht as he continues to develop over the next few years. Furthermore, current Anderlecht Head Coach John van den Brom has been key to the youngster’s development since his appointment in the summer of 2012, with the Dutchman taking the young Belgian under his wing in what can be described as a “paternal tutelage”.
“It’s not easy to break through at Anderlecht, but I’ve been fortunate to have the perfect coach. He believes in the younger players and has given me a lot of confidence.” – Dennis Praet on John van den Brom’s tutelage
“His arrival has clearly changed everything. It’s not always possible to promote youngsters, play attractive football and win games at the same time, but Van Den Brom has managed it and Dennis has benefited from that.” – Ex-Anderlecht Head Coach Johan Boskamp on John van den Brom
“I know that Van den Brom has the right approach. I trust him. I saw him last year at Vitesse Arnhem and he’s not afraid to put his faith in the younger players, while his attacking style is a perfect fit for Dennis to really blossom.” – Lille OSC scout and ex-Anderlecht player Georges Heylens on John van den Brom
Unless there’s a change of Head Coach at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, Praet’s best option is to stay at Anderlecht for at least the next few years. Personally, assuming that Belgium qualify, I strongly believe that Praet should make the inevitable step up from Anderlecht after Euro 2016. If he develops as expected, I believe Praet will have asserted his case for a regular spot in Belgium’s senior starting XI in time to star in Euro 2016. The tournament, held in France, would thus be the perfect stage for Praet to attract one or more of the European giants to formalise their long-standing interest in him with a big offer.
Of course, that would require a further contract extension with Anderlecht. In the summer of 2016, the down-to-earth Praet would be, barring any injury problems, perfectly primed for a big move – aged 22 with good international experience and 4 years of 1st-team experience at Anderlecht under his belt.
All in all, Dennis Praet is mature enough to know when to make his much-anticipated big move abroad. Whenever that is, it’ll be well worth the wait.