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Certainty for De Bruyne, Openda, and Bakayoko soars, Onana and Lukaku struggle: the Red Devils’ season review

The Euro is fast approaching, and coaches are starting to announce their squads for the competition. On the Belgian side, the 26 players chosen by Domenico Tedesco will be announced on May 28. While some key players are assured of making the trip, there may be some surprises. So, let’s take a look back at the season of the Red Devils as the various leagues come to a close.

If the idea is to classify players into categories based on their seasons, there is one position where the analysis is complicated due to the struggles of the teams these Red Devils play for. This position is obviously the goalkeepers. Except for Thibaut Courtois, who immediately reclaimed his place after his injury and shone in the Real Madrid goal. But for someone who is among the best goalkeepers in the world, it’s difficult to see him at the Euros after the numerous tensions with Domenico Tedesco.

So, the number 1 spot is up for grabs, and two men seem to be vying for the position after generally successful seasons in challenging environments: Koen Casteels and Matz Sels.

Koen Casteels completed his last season with Wolfsburg and performed reasonably well in a tough season for the Wolves, who finished 12th. Hindered by a few minor injuries, including a shoulder injury between mid-April and mid-May, Casteels played only 25 out of 34 Bundesliga matches and kept 4 clean sheets while conceding 39 goals.

In the Premier League, Matz Sels immediately established himself as the undisputed starter at Nottingham Forest after his arrival in January. The goalkeeper played all 16 possible Premier League matches and conceded 27 goals with just 1 clean sheet. He was one of the key players in Forest’s Premier League survival, as they finished 17th, just above the relegation zone.

Behind them, Thomas Kaminski (Luton Town) and Arnaud Bodart (Standard) also tried to stand out in teams that often struggled and made few mistakes despite the number of chances conceded.

Major successes

In the standout performances of the season, it’s hard not to mention Loïs Openda, who was transferred to Leipzig for €40 million. Some doubted his ability to adapt immediately to the Bundesliga, but the striker silenced everyone by scoring 24 goals in 34 league matches, while also providing 7 assists. A great total for a first season at a top German club.

In the attacking department, he’s not the only satisfaction. After a very tough season at AC Milan, Charles De Ketelaere regained his form by putting on the blue and black jersey again. On loan at Atalanta, the former Club Brugge player excelled with 10 goals and 6 assists in 33 Serie A appearances and was one of the architects of their Europa League journey that led them to victory.

Titles are something Kevin De Bruyne is very familiar with. The midfielder played less this season due to injuries, but when he was on the pitch, he resumed his role as a maestro in Pep Guardiola’s eleven with 4 goals and 10 assists in 18 Premier League matches. In the Champions League, he was simply extraordinary with 2 goals and 2 assists in 2 matches.

The Premier League has been kind to Belgian attackers as Jeremy Doku had a good first season at Guardiola’s City, where he was sparingly used, making 29 appearances, including 18 starts, scoring 3 goals and providing 9 assists. Leandro Trossard, on the other hand, finished the season in top form. Initially competing with Martinelli at the start of the season, he started in the last 7 Premier League matches as the Gunners were fighting for the title. He was decisive, scoring 4 of his 12 goals during this period.

This season has also been very prolific for Johan Bakayoko, who was one of the main reasons behind PSV’s magnificent season, as they were crowned champions of the Netherlands. With 12 goals and 9 assists in 33 matches, the 21-year-old winger was a real nightmare for defenses.

In terms of satisfaction, we also find Alexis Saelemaekers, who integrated perfectly into Thiago Motta’s Bologna, which surprised the whole of Italy, and Michy Batshuayi, who once again donned the role of super sub by scoring 12 goals for Fenerbahce despite starting only 4 matches out of 27 played. It’s a Turkish league in which Thomas Meunier also regained his form with 1 goal and 5 assists in 13 matches since his arrival in January at Trabzonspor. Wout Faes, although sometimes unconvincing with the Red Devils, was one of the pillars of Leicester’s return to the Premier League.

Challenges for some stalwarts

There are indeed Red Devils in form approaching the Euros, but there are also those for whom the season has been more challenging. One man has notably fallen far short of his standards. On loan to Roma after a long saga last summer, Romelu Lukaku hasn’t rattled the Italian nets as much as he did during his time at Inter. In a Roma side struggling under Mourinho and then sharper under De Rossi, the Belgian striker scored only 13 goals and provided 3 assists in 32 Serie A matches. However, there are positive signs as he scored 3 goals in his last 4 outings.

Very little used at the start of the season, Youri Tielemans eventually managed to shine at times with Aston Villa, although this season is far from his best with 2 goals and 6 assists in 32 Premier League matches. The same applies to other Belgian midfielders. Amadou Onana played only intermittently for Everton this season and had little numerical impact (2 goals). Neither did Orel Mangala, who scored two important goals for Lyon but only started 4 Ligue 1 matches out of the 15 played since his arrival in January.

Highs and lows

While there have been major successes, other Red Devils have had seasons that were slightly less smooth but still commendable.

The Anderlecht central partnership of Vertonghen-Debast was generally in the mix, but not without its flaws. Jan Vertonghen was sometimes put under pressure in behind or against certain strong attackers, such as Tolu from Genk. While his distribution is one of his strengths, Zeno Debast struggled a bit defensively, especially in certain positioning situations, as well as in aerial duels.

Timothy Castagne had a full season at Fulham, playing 34 out of 35 Premier League matches. Like the Toffees, he had an inconsistent season. Like Castagne, Arthur Theate followed the form of his team, and Rennes’ season was far from smooth sailing. An undisputed starter in the Rennes defense, he started 27 times and scored in Ligue 1 but was injured in the second-last matchday.

On his part, Koni De Winter continued his development on loan to Genoa from Juventus. In Genoa, he settled in the central defense and made 26 starts in Serie A and provided an assist in his very first appearance. Initially deployed on the right side, he later moved into the centre when Alberto Gilardino’s Rossoblu switched to a back three.

A season to forget

For some, this season will simply be one to forget. Dodi Lukebakio didn’t have much of a say at Sevilla and ended the season with 5 goals and 1 assist, starting only eleven times. He actually shone more coming off the bench as he was only decisive once when starting.

While Casteels is a mainstay in goal, times have been tough for other Belgians at Wolfsburg. Aster Vranckx and Sebastiaan Bornauw were not undisputed starters, with 12 and 16 starts, respectively. Worse, Vranckx got injured three matchdays before the end of the season.

Hindered by minor injuries, Mandela Keita had a season as challenging as Antwerp’s. A midfield stalwart, he didn’t seem to be at the same level as last season.

For Dennis Praet, it seems like the end is near at Leicester with only six starts in the Championship and a meagre assist in 17 appearances for the Foxes, who managed to regain their place in the top flight.

Missing in action

For some players, it’s almost impossible to assess their season. A starter at the beginning of the season, Ameen Al-Dakhil then completely disappeared from Vincent Kompany’s squad at Burnley before getting injured in February.

Used sparingly at Aston Villa, Leander Dendoncker decided to seek a change in January by joining Napoli on loan, but the adventure turned out to be disastrous as the midfielder played only 21 minutes for the Italians.

For Arthur Vermeeren, leaving in January also proved to be an unwise choice. A key player at Antwerp and a leader at just 19, he succumbed to the allure of Atletico Madrid but played only 102 minutes for the Colchoneros.

Those we didn’t expect but who could benefit from their good form

With uncertainties, some old hands could benefit from the situation. The veterans have indeed decided to resist. The most outstanding of them was undoubtedly Dries Mertens, who at 37 was an ultra-decisive player for Galatasaray. With 9 goals and 18 assists in 35 matches, the former Napoli player showed that he still has plenty to offer.

Defensively, options are not plentiful, and Axel Witsel has settled in Atletico Madrid’s five-man defense, being one of Diego Simeone’s most used players. He only missed three La Liga matchdays and delivered very good performances. A similar situation applies to Toby Alderweireld, who missed only one match for Antwerp this season, although he was less imperious than the previous season.

With Nicky Hayen’s arrival, Bruges has regained its form, and two Red Devils have been very impressive, especially in the playoffs. Hans Vanaken is the linchpin of Bruges’ play, even if the numbers don’t reflect it with only one assist in the playoffs. Behind him, Brandon Mechele held the fort and played in every match for Bruges this season.

Christian Benteke has found pleasure and form again with an excellent start to the season in MLS with DC United. With 11 goals in 12 appearances, Big Ben recalls his best years.

Difficult to assess

Finally, one man is impossible to assess. Having gone into exile in Saudi Arabia, Yannick Carrasco scored 7 goals and provided 5 assists in 22 Saudi Pro League matches, but given the level of the Saudi league, it’s difficult to judge the form of the former Atletico player.

Obviously, selection for a major tournament doesn’t depend solely on current form, and some coaches like to stick with their squad, but some players could still have earned points at the expense of others.

Written by James Oyimb

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