Noa Lang is a sort of commodity who has lit up the league in his stint with the champions of Belgium. He formed dangerous partnerships with the likes of Bas Dost and Charles De Ketelaere and has become unplayable on his day. I think he knew that this season was himself ‘closing the curtain’ on his time in the Belgian Pro League, an utterly underrated first division which has been dominated by Club Brugge in recent years. It was primarily Noa Lang, not the managers — Ivan Leko, Philippe Clement and most recently Alfred Schreuder — who stole the show and made the key interventions on the way to another championship.
Lang moving to Club was an outstanding move for everyone, really. The club gained a star player. The player showed that he could lead a team and everything worked. Lang proved himself as a tricky and tenacious attacker with an eye for goals and assists. It was almost a match made in heaven and his performances in Europe, notably against Paris Saint Germain, helped spark interest in the forward from many clubs in the top-five leagues, potentially including the champions of Italy! And with that, we know the Rossoneri aren’t strangers to the Pro League with Alexis Saelemaekers moving to the San Siro just a couple of seasons ago.
With all of this, who else may come off of this Pro League conveyor belt? Are there other players who have set the league alight with their skill, helping to take his club to another level?
The most obvious name is and should be Charles De Ketelaere. Lang’s teammate wasn’t completely convincing the season before last and still needed “polishing”: When so much was being said about his potential, I still couldn’t see it. However, something seemed to click this season. He was the go-to man for me and for Club Brugge. A player who stepped up and did more than live off of a goal versus Zenit St Petersburg a couple of seasons ago. I always feel that if you’re to make it in a bigger league, you have to be the one who makes the difference every single week and not just now and again. A huge example is Erling Håland who dominated Austria and took that into Europe with them, to then run riot in the Bundesliga. If he was a goal every 3-4 games type of player, does he progress?
The same question applies to Charles. He took charge and won another title, had documentaries made and yet has stayed incredibly humble. Almost the introvert equivalent of Noa Lang, but not as silky. What’s even better is his versatility. He performs well as a front man, and can deputise on either flank or play as a shadow striker. That flexibility is so important if you need to mix things up and must have aided his output of fourteen league goals and seven assists. De Ketalaere has the mentality of a player who helped his club overcome Union St Gilloise this term, which looked impossible some weeks. Belgium’s next forward was so so vital in this title success.
Next, we have a player who for me, is kind of a copy of Noa Lang, one who I expected a lot from after his maiden season: Anouar Ait El Hadj. A player who can jink past you on either side and has an end product. His raw nature when he came into the season was so exciting; He was a reason why you’d watch Anderlecht, and that in a squad with Sambi Lokonga, Francis Amuzu, Hannes Delcroix….Do I continue?
But this season, things haven’t gone his way. Why? Maybe he just fell out of favour or with the inclusion of more experience at Lotto Park, Vincent Kompany felt that he should learn more by watching than falling in and out of consistency? The Belgian is an Incredibly talented footballer, so much so that when I asked Josh Cullen about his toughest opponent, he said that Anouar Ait El Hadj in training is the most difficult player he’s played against. Still only twenty years old, El Hadj most certainly will improve, and now with new manager Felice Mazzu in the dugout, they could get him back in form using the style of play Mazzu had at USG, potentially putting him back on the map of future stars.
The last name I’ll mention is Luca Oyen. The nineteen-year-old, who looks more like a thirteen-year-old in stature, showed immense quality this past season in an incredibly underwhelming Genk team. The Smurfs went from cup winners and runners up, to eighth and out of the Europa League in the group stages, finishing bottom. New manager Wouter Vrancken will be Genk’s sixth during Oyen’s two years in the first team, so to mention Luca shows how well I and many feel about the output he was showing.
I wrote about him during that runners-up season in the hope he’d get more minutes than the last five, coming on for Theo Bongonda or Junya Ito. However, this season he seemed to take the place of the former in some of the matches, and took advantage as well. Looking back at my own comments calling Oyen “electric” and “a breath of fresh air,” he was showing so much in a stagnant Genk team. We shouldn’t be surprised though, with Genk having a history of producing absolute quality in Kevin De Bruyne and Thibaut Courtois. Those two names alone justify mentioning another talent as a possible product from this Genk team.
As I’ve said, small in stature but big in heart, Oyen’s technical ability shines so bright in an incredibly physical league. That he worked his way into a front three who scored a combined forty-seven goals before April in 2021, not to mention Thorstvedt as an attacking midfielder, the teen must be doing something right be even be considered. His output still needs a lot of work and ‘sporadic’ is a bit of an understatement in terms of minutes, but he brings something to the table. And with this season under Vrancken coming up, who is used to having an outstanding youngster under his stewardship in Aster Vranckx at Mechelen, you’d like to think he’d guide him appropriately next season and maybe let him have more minutes. Completing more ninety minute spells will add more to his already improving game.
The difference between these three and Noa Lang is that having Ajax on his CV will help more than simply Club Brugge, Anderlecht and Genk. Looking at the Belgians who have come to the Premier League, for example, have they ever been fully trusted to make an impact? For those who have come directly, like Lukaku and De Bruyne, their spells at smaller clubs like West Brom, Everton, and Wolfsburg helped gain the trust and experience to then kick on. Otherwise, they’ve had to walk on stepping stones before making it in the Prem, like Mignolet, from Sunderland to Liverpool, or Origi from Lille to Liverpool. Compare this to Verthongen and Alderweireld, who came directly from Ajax, and I wonder if there’s a snobbery in that you can’t just go from the Pro League to a top Premier League club and settle. Lokonga is now a perfect example, with his lack of minutes at Arsenal, despite good performances.
That’s not to say quality hasn’t come into the top leagues from Belgium: Arthur Theate (Bologna), Vranckx (Wolfsburg), Hugo Siquet (Freiburg), and Genk goalkeeper Maarten Vandevoordt (RB Leipzig) have all made big steps in recent years. If AC Milan are to succeed in their pursuit of Noa Lang, they are getting one hell of a player who’s now turning it on for De Oranje with his goal against Wales. The Dutchman said “Belgium will miss me when I’m gone…”, but in an environment like Milan, will he kick on and flourish? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. One thing I do know is that Belgium has enough talent to replace Lang, and then some.