In this data analysis, we will look for players who play in central positions of midfield. We are looking for midfielders who are good in both the defending and attacking phases of play. This analysis will provide us with essential pieces of information to find out which players are the most complete defensive and central midfielders in the Belgian Pro League. This analysis contains statistics from players who played more than 600 minutes in the league. After looking at important abilities for this position we will choose three players. These three players should be scouted further to get more insights into their style of play and if they could make a move to a bigger club in the future. 

In January this year, Norwegian Sander Berge broke Sheffield United’s transfer fee record arriving from Genk. The transfer was the fourth most expensive departure from Belgian Pro League, behind Tielemans, Praet, and Dendoncker who all played in the Belgian Pro League not long ago. They are now Belgium internationals and all three play in the EPL. After the latest wave of quality central midfielders from Belgium, every big club is paying attention to the Belgian Pro League and we will search for interesting midfielders as well.

Interceptions and successful defending

We will start with interceptions per 90 and successful defending per 90. Those two statistics will give us insight into the player’s ability to defend.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Looking at the graph above there are many players with pretty good numbers, we will opt for six of them.

Lassana Coulibaly – Cercle Brugge player is at the top of both statistics. The Mali international is great at intercepting and breaking opposition attacks. The 23-year-old is averaging 6.75 interceptions per 90 and 9.31 successful defending actions per 90. 

Renato Neto – Brazilian defensive midfielder playing for Oostende. Experienced 28-year-old is averaging a great number of interceptions 6.61 per 90 and 8.22 successful defending actions per 90.

Joachim Van Damme – A 28-year-old defensive-oriented player who plays for Mechelen. Former youth international is averaging 6.22 interceptions per 90 and 9.25 successful defending actions per 90.

Éder Álvarez Balanta – Columbian international plays for Club Brugge. It is not surprising to find him looking good at this stat. Balanta is a centre-back transformed into defensive midfielder when he came to Club Brugge this season. 9.21 successful defending actions per 90 and 5.98 interceptions per 90 are impressive numbers for this former River Plate player.

Frank Boya – Mouscron midfielder counts 6.43 interceptions per 90 and 8.64 successful defending actions per 90. Two-time Cameroon international shows he can make an impact with his defensive abilities.

Hannes Van der Bruggen – The Kortrijk captain has played his whole career in Belgium. The 27-year-old averages 5.85 interceptions per 90 and 8.7 successful defending actions.

Aster Vranckx – Mechelen 17-year-old teenager is playing his debut season. The Belgian youth international is making an impressive 9.13 successful defending actions per 90 accompanied with 4.3 interceptions per 90. 

Defensive duels

An important ability for defensive and central midfielders is how good they are in defensive duels. The better midfielder is at winning those duels, the less vulnerable his team is in defence.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

This graph shows some common names and some new names worth paying attention to.

Brecht Dejaegere – 28-year-old central midfielder. This Gent player won 69.33% of his defensive duels and he averages 10.1 defensive duels per 90.

Jordi Vanlerberghe – player under contract with Club Brugge playing on loan for Mechelen. This 23-year-old defensive midfielder averages 8.67 defensive duels per 90 with a success rate of 68.03%.

Bryan Heynen – Genk midfielder who is currently recovering from a knee injury. The 23-year-old won 68.57% defensive duels while averaging 6.13 defensive duels per 90.

Renato Neto – The Brazilian shows he is pretty successful with defensive duels winning 67.57%. He is averaging 5.43 defensive duels per 90. 

Gojko Cimirot – This 27-year-old is a Bosnian international with 22 caps. This season he is averaging 8.85 defensive duels per 90 while playing for Standard Liege. He won 65.18% defensive duels.

From the category above one of the common names is Balanta who won 60.49% defensive duels and averages 14.08 defensive duels per 90. Another is Coulibaly who showed great defensive ability again by winning 63.58% defensive duels and averaging 9.44 defensive duels per 90. Vranckx is a notable mention because this youngster is winning 61.45% defensive duels while averaging 11.15 defensive duels per 90. 

Progressive passes and runs

After looking at some defensive metrics, we will now look into how players can make an impact while attacking. Progressive passes and progressive runs are good indicators of a player’s ability to move or pass towards the opponent’s goal. 

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Sven Kums – the 32-year-old veteran is playing for Gent, the Belgian had never settled in clubs outside his home country. Looking at the graph we can see that he is averaging 10.51 progressive passes per 90 and 2.32 progressive runs per 90.

Peter Zulj – this left-footed Austrian is really good at passing the ball. The Anderlecht midfielder averages 11.02 progressive passes per 90 and 1.24 progressive runs per 90. 

Larry Azouni – Tunisian international born in France, he went through youth teams of Olympique Marseille. The 26-year-old now plays for Kortrijk and he is averaging 9.87 progressive passes per 90 and 1.57 progressive runs per 90.

Sulayman Marreh – Kum’s teammate from Gent. Gent signed the Gambian this season and he has shown some good performances. He is averaging 10.12 progressive passes per 90 while making 1.16 progressive runs per 90.

The Bosnian midfielder Cimirot is one of the best players in terms of carrying the ball forward from those involved in this data analysis. Averaging 2.4 progressive runs per 90 and 7.81 progressive passes per 90. Van der Bruggen is good at progressive passes, but second-worst at carrying the ball forward. The Kortrijk captain is averaging 10.14 progressive passes per 90 and 0.25 progressive runs per 90.

Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe – looking at the graph this player is not there. He is not there so we could easier evaluate players who are on a similar level at those metrics. Odjidja-Ofoe is on another level in terms of progression by carrying or passing. 15.03 progressive passes per 90 and 4.08 progressive runs per 90. Below is a full graph including Odjidja-Ofoe. 

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Passing – smart and key passes

We need to look for midfielders who can spread the ball around the field with the ability to find gaps in between opponent’s players. Smart and key passes will help us define who stands out in this category.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

We saw Odjidja-Ofoe was impressive in progressive runs and passes, he is dominant as well in finding teammates in good positions to attack the opponent’s goal. The experienced 31-year-old roaming playmaker is playing for Gent. The Former Hamburg player averages 3.06 smart passes per 90 and 0.87 key passes per 90. 

Ruud Vormer – The Club Brugge skipper has impressive 13 assists on his account this season. The 31-year-old Dutchman is averaging 0.85 key passes per 90 and 1.32 smart passes per 90.

Odjidja-Ofoe’s teammate Sven Kums is averaging 0.55 key passes per 90 and 1.05 smart passes per 90, Gent has the most creative pair in Belgian Pro League compared to other defensive and central midfielders.

From the already mentioned players in this data analysis, Zulj is averaging 0.29 key passes per 90 and 1.71 smart passes per 90. Van der Bruggen counts 0.37 key passes per 90 and 1.44 smart passes per 90. Gojko Cimirot makes 0.36 key passes per 90 and 0.93 smart passes per 90, while Vranckx is averaging 0.4 key and smart passes per 90.

Passing – passing accuracy

Passing accuracy is playing a big part in evaluating a midfielder. We don’t want our midfielders to make wrong decisions and play too many risky passes when building an attack from deep.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Above graph contains a line which represents an average passing accuracy of all players included in this analysis. We will evaluate only those players who can make the final shortlist.

Players with above-average passing accuracy are the ones above 83.8%. Kums and Cimirot are impressive with passing accuracy above 88%, especially with the number of passes they attempt per 90. Peter Zulj attempts most passes per 90 in the league and 86% of his passes find the target. Other above-average players in passing accuracy are Marreh, Vormer, Balanta, Coulibaly, Dejaegere, and Heynen. Vranckx is on the right path with his accuracy of 83.41%, but he needs to be more on the ball and attempt more passes. Van der Bruggen’s and Odjidja-Ofoe’s passing accuracy can be explained by their style of play – they are the ones who attempt the riskiest passes in their teams. Others who are below-average in passing accuracy are Neto, Boya, Azouni, Van Damme, and Vanlerberghe. 

xA and xG per 90

This category is extra just to see how highlighted players affect the game closer to the opponent’s goal.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

As we can see the assist leader in the league is Club Brugge captain Vormer who’s leading the way with 0.5 xA per 90. Behind him are Odjidja-Ofoe with 0.33 xA per 90 and Heynen with 0.24 xA per 90. The Mechelen teenager is a threat from the shadow with 0.29 xG per 90. Behind him is Odjidja-Ofoe with 0.17 xG per 90 and Marreh with 0.14 xG per 90. Others are pretty similar in xA and xG per 90. 

Highlighted players

We will now evaluate everything we analysed before making the final shortlist. We will give a little advantage to younger players. The impressive thing is that Gent has 4 players on this list: Odjidja-Ofoe, Dejaegere, Marreh, and Kums.

Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe – it is clear that he is the best CM in the league. His creativity and passing are on a high level. His real weakness is defending, he is not helping his team much when defending and given his age, we can’t expect from him to become better.

Sven Kums – The 32-year-old midfielder is a crucial part of Gent’s success. His only slight weakness in abilities we analysed are defensive duels. He attempts more passes than Odjidja-Ofoe per 90 and with greater accuracy. If Odjidja-Ofoe is the brain of the team, then Kums is surely an engine of this Gent team.

Dejaegere and Marreh – are useful players in Gent rotation. They played 613 and 770 minutes respectively this season in Belgian Pro League, but their per 90 minutes metrics point that they deserve more minutes. They are capable of playing in both directions. It is hard for them to stand out more when playing with Odjidja-Ofoe and Kums who are dominating the build-up phase of Gent attack.

Lassana Coulibaly – best at defending from players we analysed, but one of the worst in terms of passing forward. At 23 he is still young and can improve his passing abilities, but for now, he is only a ball-winning midfielder.

Joachim Van Damme – when analysing the Mechelen defensive midfielder we noticed that only in progressive runs per 90 he is below-average. That shows his all-around abilities which is impressive for this 28-year-old player.

Éder Álvarez Balanta – retrained centre-back is showing above-average stats when defending and also in transition with his progressive runs and passes. His attacking phase and finding teammates in advanced positions is his weakness, but he could improve given this is his first year as a defensive midfielder.

Hannes Van der Bruggen – Kortrijk skipper shows his all-around qualities when on the field. He can pass and dictate the tempo for his team. While defending his intelligence and anticipation are noteworthy given the amount of interceptions he has. 

Peter Zulj – Austrian international is above-average in every category we analysed. Given his abilities, he can play multiple roles in midfield with satisfying output. Attempts most passes per 90 from all midfielders included in this data analysis.

Aster Vranckx – youngest player we evaluated. One of the best in defending looking at the stats. His progressive stats are not encouraging, but given his age and talent, it is likely he will improve a lot in that category. Passing is over 80% while trying to play some advanced passing which is a great sign. It also can’t go unnoticed that his xG per 90 is best compared to the others.

Bryan Heynen – Genk youth academy product had a really promising season before a season-ending injury. Defending ability is impressive, but to be interesting for clubs in better leagues, his creativity must improve.

Jordi Vanlerberghe – has 17 appearances for Mechelen this season playing as a defensive midfielder. Pretty much everything like Heynen – needs to improve his creativity and passing accuracy.

Gojko Cimirot – Standard Liege midfielder is above-average in everything except interceptions. His lack of anticipation on the defensive end, he replaces with his work rate and aggression. Cimirot is a Bosnia and Herzegovinan first-team player and playing on international stage indicates he is ready for European top clubs.

Larry Azouni – versatile midfielder went through the Marseille youth academy, Kortrijk used him in many positions this season. Good at progressing ball forward, but his creative ability is limited.

Ruud Vormer –  he can find anyone on the field with his creative and precise passes. Has the same weakness like Odjidja-Ofoe as he is not doing much while defending and they both are over 30 with less likeliness to improve.

Final shortlist

It is really hard to decide which three players are ready for a breakthrough to a bigger stage. We saw that Odjidja-Ofoe and Vormer are really good playmakers, but their age limits them for making a move to a bigger club in this stage of their career. It’s worth mentioning that they don’t have much impact while their team defends. Kums is good, but he is 32 years old and given this age, the Belgian Pro League is his limit. Others are similar players, so we decided to go for two most complete defensive midfielders and one central midfielder who has the potential to be a Belgian international. Under every player, we will put their biggest strength compared to other midfielders.

We should scout these three to get more insight into their abilities:

Peter Zulj – Anderlecht defensive midfielder is a reliable passer of the ball. He played a large number of matches in the Austrian Bundesliga before making a transfer to the Belgian Pro League. For the international side, he collected 10 caps. Analysing his stats it is clear that he can make an impact in every phase of the game. Transfermarkt values him 2.4 million euros. A scouting report would help us see his other abilities and which tactic suits him.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Gojko Cimirot – A key player for Standard Liege, he’s only missed two league matches this season. He is an engine in midfield winning large numbers of his duels and then moving forward with the ball to conquer space closer to the opponent’s goal. With 88% passing accuracy he rarely makes mistakes while passing and he attempts to find teammates in advanced positions on the field. Playing for his country allows him to make progress and present himself on a bigger stage. His market value by Transfermarkt is 4.5 million euros. A scouting report is necessary to find out how he can make improvements and which of Europe’s top five leagues is suitable for him.

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Aster Vranckx – talented central midfielder is interesting enough to find himself on the final shortlist. For his age, it is really impressive to see that he won 61.45% defensive duels. That means that he is physically ready for senior football while a big number of youth players have difficulties adapting to playing with big boys. We expect him improving at progressive runs and progressive passes because per 90 metrics shows he is really poor in those stats. Stat for him that needs singling out is xG as he is at the top of all players we analyzed with 0.29 per 90. The Belgium Youth international is worth 4 million euros on Transfermarkt. A detailed scouting report can help us find out what is his potential and how can he fulfil it. 

Finding the best DMs and CMs from Belgian Pro League - data analysis statistics

Conclusion

The Belgian Pro League is full of good midfielders, but there are a small number of those who are good playing in both directions. Zulj, Cimirot, and Vranckx are the trio that is quality and could play in the bigger leagues in future. Based on data, Vranckx looks like one for the future.

Toni Bilandzic
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