It hasn’t been the season of Anderlecht following their youth revival behind club legend Vincent Kompany, who left Manchester City after 11 years to return to his home country. ‘Vince the Prince’ runs the show at his former club, trying to copy the success of the Citizens using their offensive minded football while giving huge minutes to home-grown youngsters.
One of them has been Alexis Saelemaekers. The winger made his debut for the 34-time Belgian champions in February 2018, at the tender age of 18. A day earlier, he was called by his jersey number – 56 – by then head coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck because no one knew his name. By the way: it’s pronounced like Salemakers. The two e’s after the a’s don’t really have a function. The middle e is important, so the first part is not like sale. You should pronounce the e.
But who is this 20-year-old, whose role model is Thomas Meunier from PSG? Well, in some way he’s a mystery. The Anderlecht-watcher of the Belgian newspaper I work for – Het Nieuwsblad – said earlier this season the club is freaking out about Saelemaekers. Because one week, he can win you a game with a brilliant performance while losing you one the next week with a stupid mistake. “One moment he is a choir boy, the other an arrogant know-it-all,” they wrote.
That pretty much sums up the sixth Belgian in Milan history and the first one since Eric Gerets (83-84). Saelemaekers was put on the transfer list last summer, but got his chance on gameday six vs Standard de Liege. The Belgian Clasico. And he played brilliantly, scoring the winning goal – his first on the big stage. When celebrating, he pushed away all his teammates and pointed at himself. There he was again, the arrogant one. If things go well, he tends to go into a kind of freestyle mode and forget his assignments. There are times his good moments last a whole game, but there’s a downside to it all.
In this regard, he’s a poor man’s Dennis Praet. The former Sampdoria and current Leicester City player also shined for Anderlecht and they are of similar build: around 180cm with quick feet. Both work hard every game. They run a lot for offensive minded players, while contributing through dribbles and slick passes. But Praet is far more consistent on both ends, while Saelemakers is a flashy player. I saw him live in the away game vs Standard de Liege and he did… nothing. Regularly running into his defender, complaining early, pointing at others.
The chance of playing for a big club like Milan and being able to assist a striker like Zlatan Ibrahimovic made Saelemaekers decide he’s ready for an Italian adventure. He’ll like the Italian lifestyle, for sure. He’ll like the Italian arrogance. He’ll like the Italian fighting spirit. Because after all, he’s a showman.
But he won’t like the tactical schemes, the assignments and defenders harassing him for 90 minutes. He’ll tell Stefano Pioli what’s on his mind even if he’s not asked that question. That’s just how he is.
The good thing: he’ll get the right guidance from a Zlatan, a Jack Bonaventura, an Alessio Romagnoli. And that might be all he needs to blossom. For €3.5m now and €3.5m in the summer, Milan are rolling the dice on the potential of a stubborn Belgian talent. A risk, yet one that could prove to be a good investment for the future. The Rossoneri just need to read the manual first.